How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

  • Paul Tough
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • 256 pp.

This recipe for educating kids turns to time-tested ideas about the importance of instilling virtues that drive personal achievement.

Reviewed by Natalie Wexler

Every few months, it seems, some new idea comes along to roil the already turbulent waters of this country’s debate over education reform. Teachers and school administrators may feel skeptical when, once again, they’re told that this new idea is the key to solving all their problems.

But Paul Tough’s new idea may be different. In fact, it isn’t even all that new. Essentially, it’s this: Kids won’t succeed unless, along with the 3R’s and all the other cognitive skills that schools are charged with inculcating, they also learn noncognitive skills like focusing, persevering and delaying gratification. These skills aren’t necessarily measured by test scores, but they can be far more important in determining who gets ahead not only in school but in life.

Tough starts with some scientific data showing that high levels of stress — the kind associated with living in extreme poverty — cause physiological changes in children, changes that lead to greater difficulty focusing and exercising self-control. The good news is that children can overcome these deficits if their parents are sufficiently attentive and responsive.

But parents who are themselves stressed by extreme poverty often find it difficult to provide the kind of nurturing such children need. So the even better news is that the damage inflicted by stress can be reversed later on in childhood, even during adolescence. And, says Tough, it may be easier to improve a teenager’s ability to manage her emotions and handle stress than it is to improve her IQ.

When it comes to older children, Tough shifts his focus from the role of parents to that of schools and mentors. And it’s no longer a question of simple nurturing. Older kids need a tougher form of love, one that pushes them to keep going when a task is hard, to ask for help when they need it, and to learn from their mistakes.

Tough surveys a range of programs that are attempting to implement some version of this program. At some KIPP schools, part of a nationwide network of high-performing charter schools founded in 1994, students now receive a “character report card” on which they’re graded on 24  indicators, such as “Is polite to adults and peers” and “Pays attention and resists distraction.” (The acronym KIPP stands for Knowledge Is Power Program.) The KIPP effort was sparked when one of the network’s founders, David Levin, noticed that many KIPP graduates were dropping out of college. He also saw that the ones who managed to stick it out weren’t always the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP, but rather the ones who possessed skills like optimism and resilience. We may think of optimism and resilience as character traits rather than skills, but the whole idea here is that these things can be learned. One of Levin’s advisers was the psychologist Martin Seligman, author of a book called Learned Optimism.

Tough also visits a chess teacher at a high-poverty middle school in Brooklyn who elicits extraordinary results by using the antithesis of the everybody-gets-a-trophy approach: She bluntly berates her kids when they mess up, but also convinces them they can learn from their mistakes. And he examines a program in Chicago called OneGoal, which not only preps low-income high school students for the ACT but also teaches the noncognitive skills they’ll need once they get to college: resourcefulness, resilience, ambition, professionalism and integrity.

As in his previous book, Whatever It Takes — a profile of Geoffrey Canada and his brainchild, the Harlem Children’s Zone — Tough charts a middle way between two intensely partisan camps: those who insist that teachers can raise student achievement, as measured by test scores, no matter how impoverished their students; and those who insist, just as vehemently, that teachers can’t raise test scores until the problem of poverty is addressed first — and that test scores are, in any event, inadequate measures of student achievement. If the two camps could lower the volume of their arguments, as some are beginning to do, they might see that there’s a measure of truth on each side.

Still, it’s not obvious from this book exactly what teachers and school systems should do to implement Tough’s findings. It’s clearly not enough to festoon the halls with slogans like “Work Hard” and “Be Nice.” KIPP schools were already doing that before they instituted character report cards. And it’s still too early to know whether character report cards will do the trick either. Some of the programs that Tough examines seem to rely on one extraordinary person, like the Brooklyn chess teacher, or a mentor who maintains a close relationship with a student for years. Can these programs be replicated on a large scale with limited funds?

If Tough doesn’t provide all the answers, he’s at least raised important questions — questions that may well change the education-reform conversation. And as Tough acknowledges, that conversation will encompass some touchy political issues. Those who blame poverty for the difficulties poor children face in school often shy away from focusing on poor families, as he has done. And an emphasis on “character” smacks of a world view drawn straight from the pages of Horatio Alger.

But, in eminently readable prose, Tough makes a convincing case that we have no choice but to focus on problems within poor families, because that’s where we have the chance to counteract the effects of poverty. And if parents alone aren’t able to transmit the skills that are crucial for the success of their children — whether you want to call those skills “character” or use some less loaded term like “grit” — then it’s up to society as a whole to step into the breach. Giving kids an education that doesn’t equip them to succeed in life not only makes no sense, it just isn’t fair.

Natalie Wexler is the author of two novels and serves on the board of D.C. Scholars, a charter school that opened in Washington this fall.

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