On Political Books

September/October 2012 First-Rate Temperaments

Liberals don’t want to admit it, and conservatives don’t want to pay for it, but building character—resilience, optimism, perseverance, focus—may be the best way to help poor students succeed.

By Thomas Toch

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character
by Paul Tough
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pp.

When Barack Obama campaigned for the White House four years ago, Democrats and their allies in education policy circles were embroiled in a fierce debate over how best to improve the educational performance of the millions of K-12 students living in poverty.

One camp, a coalition of researchers and educators formed by the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal Washington think tank, argued in a manifesto called A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education that tackling poverty’s causes and consequences was the way to free disadvantaged students from the grip of educational failure. “Schools can ameliorate some of the impact of social and economic disadvantage on achievement,” the coalition wrote. But, it continued, “[t]here is no evidence that school improvement strategies by themselves can substantially, consistently, and sustainably close these gaps.”

In sharp contrast, a second reform group, led by then school superintendents Joel Klein of New York and Michelle Rhee of Washington, D.C., and others drafted a competing reform manifesto under the auspices of an organization known as the Education Equity Project that stressed tougher accountability for schools and teachers, governance reforms for failing schools, and the expansion of charter schools. They largely refused to acknowledge that poverty rather than school quality was the root cause of the educational problems of disadvantaged kids, for fear that saying so would merely reinforce a long-standing belief among public educators that students unlucky enough to live in poverty shouldn’t be expected to achieve at high levels — and public educators shouldn’t be expected to get them there.

While one of the few reformers with feet in both camps, Chicago schools superintendent Arne Duncan, was named U.S. secretary of education, the Klein cabal won the policy fight. The Obama agenda has focused almost exclusively on systemic school reform to address the achievement deficits of disadvantaged students: standards, testing, teacher evaluations, and a continued, if different, focus on accountability. The administration’s one education-related poverty-fighting program, Duncan’s Promise Neighborhoods initiative, is a rounding error in the Department of Education’s budget.

Duncan was right to align himself early on with both Democratic factions. Good schools can, of course, make a difference in student achievement just by being good. And the inadequate nutrition, housing, language development, and early educational experiences that many impoverished students suffer are real barriers to learning.

But in the last several years a new body of neuroscientific and psychological research has made its way to the surface of public discourse that suggests that the most severe consequences of poverty on learning are psychological and behavioral rather than cognitive. The lack of early exposure to vocabulary and other cognitive deficits that school reformers have stressed are likely no more problematic, the research suggests, than the psychological impact of growing up in poverty. Poverty matters, the new work confirms, but we’ve been trying to address it in the wrong way.

Former New York Times Magazine editor Paul Tough brings this new science of adversity to general audiences in How Students Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, an engaging book that casts the school reform debate in a provocative new light. In his first book, about the antipoverty work of the Harlem Children’s Zone, Tough stressed the importance of early cognitive development in bridging the achievement gap between poor and more affluent students. In How Students Succeed, he introduces us to a wide-ranging cast of characters—economists, psychologists, and neuroscientists among them — whose work yields a compelling new picture of the intersection of poverty and education.

There’s James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, who found in the late 1990s that students who earned high school diplomas through the General Educational Development program, widely known as the GED, had the same future prospects as high school dropouts, a discovery that led him to conclude that there were qualities beyond courses and grades that made a big difference in students’ success. His inclinations were confirmed when he dug into the findings of the famous Perry Preschool Project. In the early days of the federal War on Poverty in the 1960s, researchers provided three- and four-year-olds from impoverished Ypsilanti, Michigan, with enriched preschooling, and then compared their life trajectories over several decades with those of Ypsilanti peers who had not received any early childhood education.

The cognitive advantages of being in the Perry program faded after a couple of years. Test scores between the two groups evened out, and the program was considered something of a failure. But Heckman and others discovered that years later the Perry preschoolers were living much better lives, including earning more and staying out of trouble with the law. And because under the Perry program teachers systematically reported on a range of students’ behavioral and social skills, Heckman was able to learn that students’ success later in life was predicted not by their IQs but by the noncognitive skills like curiosity and self-control that the Perry program had imparted.

Tough presents striking research from neuroendocrinology and other fields revealing that childhood psychological traumas — from physical and sexual abuse to physical and emotional neglect, divorce, parental incarceration, and addiction, things found more often (though by no means exclusively) in impoverished families — overwhelm developing bodies’ and minds’ ability to manage the stress of events, resulting in “all kinds of serious and long-lasting negative effects, physical, psychological, and neurological.”

There’s a direct link between the volume of such trauma and rates of heart disease, cancer, alcoholism, smoking, drug use, attempted suicide — and schooling problems. As Tough writes, Children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointment, and harder to follow directions. And that has a direct effect on their yearperformance in school. When you’re overwhelmed by uncontrollable impulses [caused in part by disrupted brain chemistry] and distracted by negative feelings, it’s hard to learn the alphabet.

In particular, such stressors compromise the higher order thinking skills that allow students to sort out complex and seemingly contradictory information such as when the letter C is pronounced like K (what psychologists call “executive functioning”), and their ability to keep a lot of information in their heads at once, a skill known as “working memory” that’s crucial to success in school, college, and work.

The good news, Tough reports, is that studies reveal that the destructive stressors of poverty can be countered. Close, nurturing relationships with parents or other caregivers, he writes, have been shown to engender resilience in children that insulates them from many of the worst effects of a harsh early environment. “This message can sound a bit warm and fuzzy,” Tough says, “but it is rooted in [the] cold, hard science” of neurological and behavioral research, though such nurturing is often in short supply in broken, impoverished homes (and even in many intact households and communities).

As important, Tough contends, is research demonstrating that resilience, optimism, perseverance, focus, and the other noncognitive skills that Heckman and others have found to be so important to success in school and beyond are malleable—they can be taught, practiced, learned, and improved, even into adulthood. Tough points to the work of Martin Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist and author of Learned Optimism, and Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, whose research has demonstrated that students taught to believe that people can grow intellectually earn higher grades than those who sense that intelligence is fixed. This commitment to the possibility of improvement, Seligman, Dweck, and others contend, invests students with the ability to persevere, rebound from setbacks, and overcome fears.

Psychologist Angela Duckworth, a protégé of Seligman’s, has done a range of studies—on college students with low SAT scores, West Point plebes, and national spelling bee contestants, among others—and has found that a determined response to setbacks, an ability to focus on a task, and other noncognitive character strengths are highly predictive of success, much more so than IQ scores.

That’s why some of the schools in the highly regarded KIPP charter school network have added the teaching of such skills to their curricula. And they’ve coupled their traditional academic report cards with ”character report cards” developed by KIPP cofounder Dave Levin, Duckworth, and others. Concerned about their students’ inability to make it through high school and college even though they’re prepared academically, they grade students on self-control, gratitude, optimism, curiosity, grit, zest, and social intelligence. Other experts add conscientiousness, perseverance, work habits, time management, and an ability to seek out help to the list of key nonacademic ingredients of success in school and beyond. Students from impoverished backgrounds need such skills in larger doses, Tough argues, because they often lack the support systems available to more affluent students.

To Tough, the logic of the importance of noncognitive qualities to students’ futures is clear: we need to rethink our solutions to the academic plight of impoverished students. The studies of Dweck, Duckworth, and others support conservative claims that individual character should be an important part of policy discussions about poverty. “There is no anti-poverty tool that we can provide for disadvantaged young people that will be more valuable that character strengths,” Tough writes, a claim that won’t be easy for liberals to stomach.

But, Tough adds, the contributions of character traits to students’ success goes a long way toward refuting conservative “cognitive determinists” like Charles Murray, who claim that success is mainly a function of IQ and that education is largely about sorting people and giving the brightest the chance to take full advantage of their potential.

The research that Tough explores also undercuts claims by Klein, Rhee, and other signers of the Education Equity Project manifesto that we can get impoverished students where they need to be educationally through higher standards, stronger teachers, and other academic reforms alone.

What we need to add to the reform equation, Tough argues, is a system of supports for children struggling with the effects of the trauma and stress of poverty. He urges the creation of pediatric wellness centers and classes that help impoverished parents build the emotional bonds with their young children that are so important to the development of children’s neurological and psychological defenses against poverty’s ravages. He supports KIPP’s efforts to engender resilience, persistence, and other character strengths in its students, both in school and then beyond through support programs like KIPP Through College. Work by David Yeager of the University of Texas at Austin and others have shown that even modest interventions, like teachers writing encouraging notes on student’ essays, motivate children to persevere academically.

Above all, Tough makes a compelling case for giving poverty greater prominence in the education policy debate. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has talked mostly about school choice and states’ rights in education, playing to conservatives and Catholics, as every GOP candidate since Ronald Reagan has done. But the new science of adversity could be the basis of a compelling reform agenda in a second Obama term—one that merges the competing progressive agendas of the last presidential election cycle.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.

Thomas Toch is the director of the Washington office of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, an independent research and policy organization.


  • Elaine Weiss on September 04, 2012 3:40 PM:

    There is much to like in this review, particularly the focus on providing support for low-income and other at-risk children to attain the skills -- cognitive and, in particular, social, emotional, and behavioral -- that they need to succeed in school and thrive in life.

    That said, Toch's assertions that liberals don't believe that building character is important and, in the same vein, that advocates of a Broader Bolder Approach to Education have failed to focus on these non-cognitive skills, misstate reality. Indeed, the BBA mission statement emphasizes that the combination of school improvement, early childhood education, access to mental and physical health care, and afterschool and summer enrichment not only improves test scores, but also "physical health, character, social development and non-academic skills. It prizes traits needed for effective citizenship, creativity, and the ability to work in diverse environments."

    We, like James Heckman (an original BBA signatory), have long recognized these critical, harder-to-measure outcomes and sought to help at-risk students acquire more of them, and we are eager to work with Toch, Tough, and anyone else seeking to do so.

    Elaine Weiss is the national coordinator of the Broader Bolder Approach to Education

  • Maggie Childs on September 11, 2012 10:13 AM:

    Re: the value of character: Why does Toch say "Liberals don't want to admit it" (sub-headline, p. 93) and liberals will find it hard to stomach (p. 95)? I'm a liberal and I think Paul Tough's argument is pretty convincing. I would support investing in programs that help teach resilience. I find Toch's characterization of liberals insulting.

  • Anonymous on September 26, 2012 10:28 AM:

    "Liberals don't want to admit it"?

    Names & actual quotes from real people, please.

  • James E. Powell on September 26, 2012 12:06 PM:

    As a few others have pointed out, Toch must not know many liberals and certainly none who teach the students who are the subject of the book reviewed.

    All of us who teach these students observe that they (generally) come to the classroom without some habits, beliefs, and supports that students from the middle-class and up have (generally).

    The question is, can these things be provided by a school? In a classroom? With 35 or more other students?

    It is an important question that no one discusses and everyone is afraid to answer other than with 'yes, we can." We want to say yes because that's why almost all of us went into the profession in the first place.

  • zandru on September 26, 2012 1:50 PM:

    C'mon, folks. That's just the obligatory librul-bashing. It's required in every article published, so as to prove the "seriousness" of the writer.

    If the truth were to be told, nobody alive today knows what a "librul" is and has, to their knowledge, never met one. Librulz have gone the way of the Communists, and are now semi-mythical monsters who must be trotted out regularly to scare the chillun.

    Liberalism is dead. Its former practitioners remain shy, retiring creatures who are never seen by daylight (or any other light), and now call themselves "progressives".

  • Rich on September 26, 2012 3:29 PM:

    The intro is misleading. This is about learning self-regulatory skills, not "character". There's tons of research on this including classroom-based interventions like the contingency management-driven good behavior game (GBG) (which has decades of follow-up and effects on a wide range of behavior) and Walter Mischel's delay of gratification work. GBG is basically a classroom management technique done by teachers. there are countless other interventions like the Srattle Social Development (family & classroom), David Olds' Family Check-Up (a prenatal, early childhood program that has been widely disseminated in diluted form), and Life Skills Training. As for Perry, it was one of the ancestors of Head Start which has some similar long-term outcomes. It doesn't say much for Carnegie that they have a program director who either misrepresents the research or doesn't really show evidence of knowing it.

    Education reform has neglected much of this work, perhaps because it doesn't fit the faddishness that has pervaded "reform" for decades.

  • Josh R. on September 26, 2012 4:21 PM:

    "Liberals don�t want to admit it"

    And yet no actual liberals appear to have been quoted or cited not admitting it. What a weird frame for a story.

  • Mitch on September 26, 2012 7:22 PM:

    I'll join in with the chorus complaining about your statement that "liberals don't want to admit it", which is utterly baseless and frankly low.

    It is extremely disappointing to see something on the WaMo website that plays directly to modern media's false equivalency. Guess what, you do not need to say someting bad about liberals every time you say something bad about conservatives. Buying into the conservative argument that liberals are all about giving people free handouts and ignoring the benefits of hard work and "character" does active and real harm to the nation.

    Are you unaware that your quotes can easily be taken out of context? Are you unaware that conservatives specialize in doing so?

    I can hear them now, "Look, even the Washington Monthly, a bastion of the left, will tell you that 'liberals don't want to admit' that character and effort matter."

    If you are going to make a statement like that, then you need to source it. Period. No exception.

    Because the truth of it is, as Benen often says, "Reality has a liberal bias."

    Conservative believe that liberals are all lazy moochers, or the soft-hearted and soft-brained people who would support them. If you honestly believe that, then I pity you.

    Reminds me of a coworker who said, during a conversation about business, "Wow, you don't sound like a Democrat! I thought all of you hated capitalism and cared more about helping out lazy people than running a business."

    My response was, "Tell that to Warren Buffett, and stop watching Fox News."

    The concepts that you are describing are obvious and legitimate, and I know of no liberals who would disagree with them. Liberals, in general, believe in helping people to better themselves and those who are incapable of helping themselves (particularly the disabled and elderly); not in coddling those who could better themselves but choose not to.

    Your unwarranted swipes at liberals keeps this article from being "first-rate" and has no basis in fact.

  • urban legend on September 27, 2012 1:36 AM:

    My wife the teacher was writing encouraging notes on kids' papers, hugging them, encouraging them to form a kind of family in the classroom looking out for each other, paying special attention to needier kids, and writing long notes to parents 45 years ago -- and for 40 years thereafter. . . and she is very, very, very liberal. What a crock -- but otherwise, a good report on what looks like an excellent book.

    There is, however, one anti-poverty tool more valuable than trying to build character under existing circumstances: full employment policies reaching deep into cities and rural areas that would allow parents to lead the way in building that character -- if for no other reason than being able to say credibly that school matters.

  • kenny on October 02, 2012 3:39 PM:

    I see that all the liberals are upset at being called out as believing charachter development is not important to them but actions like lowering standards for certain groups be they students or fire fighters belie all the protestations. Hailing Bill Clinton is another. If his charachter is something to be applauded then you really don't know anything abour charachter.

  • Patience on October 10, 2012 9:25 AM:

    As of early September Bill Clinton had a personal approval rating of 69%. If that is equivalent to the percentage of liberals in the United States then I'm amazed President Obama isn't beating Mitt Romney in a landslide. In other words, Kenny, your post is a silly failure of logic.