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Getting Gritty With Paul Tough

Author Discusses the Missing Link in Education


With his first book, Whatever It Takes, Paul Tough put educational reformer Geoffrey Canada on the map. Canada’s data-driven, cradle-to-career concept focuses not just on schools but on entire neighborhoods, leveraging all the resources necessary to fight the deleterious effects of poverty on children. His Harlem Children’s Zone has provided the model for Santa Barbara County’s THRIVE initiative. And when Santa Barbara Unified Assistant Superintendent Emilio Handall read, Whatever It Takes, he learned about a highly successful parent training program founded in San Antonio, Texas, called AVANCE. Before he knew it, a delegation of Santa Barbarans were in Texas learning about the AVANCE curriculum which is now offered at schools like Harding, McKinley, the Carpinteria’s Children’s Project at Main, and Isla Vista Elementary School.

Paul Tough
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Courtesy UCSB

Paul Tough

While Tough’s work has infiltrated the Santa Barbara educational establishment, the author will visit in person this week to promote his sophomore effort which shows signs of being even more influential than his first book. In How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, the veteran magazine writer and editor argues that “non-cognitive” skills are just as—if not more—important than IQ in determining a child’s success. Armed with a litany of academic research from fields as diverse as economics and psychology along with vivid storytelling, Tough makes a convincing case that before we invest in Baby Einstein products, we might want to focus on teaching our kids how to cope with stress, how to secure healthy relationships, and how to persevere past failure. It’s a message that should be fascinating to parents, educators, and students alike. In the following interview with The Santa Barbara Independent, Tough discusses his new book.

Was there a Eureka! moment when you decided that your next book would address character? When I got to end of Whatever It Takes, I felt like there was still a lot I didn’t know about what was going on in childrens’ lives. Then my wife and I had our own child three years ago. So that made it more immediate for me.

On this idea of noncognitive skills, I had written about the economist James Heckman in my first book, and so I was curious about his ideas. The beginning of my reporting was apprenticing myself to him and trying to understand his work and all of the work he was interested in. The more time I spent with him, the more I followed the various leads that he was also following, the more I became convinced that there was this important groundswell of thinking going on in the field that felt to me like it was convincing.

This is a reductive question, but can you equate the importance of noncognitive skills—grit, curiousity, self-control—to what we call intelligence? I think it’s hard to say which is more important. I think it’s fair to say these character traits have been underemphasized, both by parents and the educational system the last couple of decades at least. That to me is why it’s worth putting a focus on this path. We’re continuing to learn just how predictive those skills can be. And yet it’s just not something we focus on in child-raising.

“Character” sounds like a Victorian theme, especially when you mention terms like “volition” and “motivation.” And you write about psychologist Angela Duckworth who is very influenced by the Victorian father of American psychology, William James. I’ll give you two different answers to that. In terms of Angela and William James, I think the point she makes that is really valid is that if you look at the history of American education, it’s like a pendulum swinging back and forth between character and intelligence. There are periods where we emphasize character and periods where we emphasize intelligence. The last 20 years, for a variety of reasons, has been a shift away from character and towards pure IQ as being the thing that we emphasize. A lot of what she’s trying to do and I’m trying to do is push that pendulum towards the center of things.

The other thing I’ll say about the Victorian question is that it is one of the risks about writing and talking about character. It’s a word that we have these strong associations with—and not always good associations. There’s an association with values and someone else’s values often. When I think of the Victorian era, it’s about people coming up with rules for other people rather than helping them develop strengths that are going to help them do better in life. In some ways, this goes to the question about what the right phrase is to call these things. “Noncognitive skills” is another phrase that I use. But I do think it is important to emphasize that when the people I’m writing about do talk about character, they’re not talking about it in moral value terms. They’re talking about strengths, skills, and abilities that kids can develop.

The other thought I had about the Victorian era is that there was no meritocracy in the way we understand it now. You went to Harvard because you could afford to, not because you had a high SAT score. There wasn’t that focus on quantitative achievement. And a lot of what I think people were supposed to develop in education was the ability to stay in their [socioeconomic] class—whether you were going to stay a rich person and maintain the idea of noblesse-oblige or whether you were going to stay a working class person and not rock the boat. The set of skills we’re talking about here are different.

At the same time, you write about a character report card at one of the KIPP charter schools in New York. And scientists are trying to figure out how to describe these traits so that they can be discussed in a logical manner. Do you worry that we might create a monster like a character IQ? I don’t worry about it that much. I think the character report card idea is a really interesting one, and I wrote about it because I think it’s fascinating. I tend to think that’s not going to be a big part of any of these interventions going forward. I write about an organization called One Goal that I think is doing as well a job as anybody in helping disadvantaged kids develop these strengths in a positive way. And they don’t have any numbers. They worry about things like college graduation rate, but they don’t worry about how much resilience or how much resourcefulness you have on a scale of 1-10.

If you ask David Levin Of KIPP why he tries to put numbers on this, he does make a persuasive case that in education we pay attention to things we can measure. And if you want to do this on the scale of a school system, one of the reasons we are so focused on cognitive tests is that you can measure them. You can measure in some fairly precise ways how much a kid is advancing in reading and math. It’s a classic dilemma of social science. We tend to emphasize the things that are easiest to measure whether or not they are the things we care about the most. So I think Levin’s got a valid point that the more we can come up with a common vocabulary about these character strengths and talk about them in a more scientific way—rather than just in vague moralistic terms—the greater the likelihood that we’ll be able to start teaching them in an effective way on a system-wide basis. I think his case makes enough sense that I’m intrigued to see where it takes him, but I’m still not totally sure that it’s ever going to be possible to put real numbers on these things.

Your larger point is that we should put resources into parents to help their children form healthy attachments or to children to help them overcome the challenges they face. There’s a bit of a political argument underneath that that you gesture to towards the end of your book. Have you received any negative feedback? The politics of education are so weird that the traditional left and right categories can get totally confounded. The people who think about how we can help poor kids do better tend to be liberals. But when you get into the politics of charter schools, there are a lot of liberals, especially those with ties to the teachers’ unions, who get very anxious. A lot of liberals are very concerned about standardized tests.

David Brooks, who is considered a conservative and Nicholas Kristoff who is a liberal have both written about the book on the New York Times op-ed page. So there’s been good feedback on both sides. I feel like there has been some criticism from people who dislike KIPP to such an extent that no matter what you write about it, if you are not saying it’s the end of the world and they are horrible profiteers, they will criticize you.

[Literary critic] E.D. Hirsch is very concerned about “knowledge” and the thing we keep overlooking in education is literally getting education into kids’ heads which is kind of tangential from my argument, but certainly not what I’m saying. He reviewed the book in a somewhat critical way. Again, that’s not a helpful left-right divide. He is actually a conservative, but I don’t think he’s making a particularly conservative case against it. In other words, it’s kind of all over the map.

One of the things I liked about your book is that the national conversation about educations tends to be very polar and it focuses on hot-button topics like unions or charter schools, and you actually take the conversation beyond those political debates and talk about ideas that might actually affect people. Was that part of your motivation in writing? Yes, I’ve been writing about this stuff for a while, and I’ve found myself in the last few years getting increasingly frustrated with that debate—the basic Ed. Reform vs. Union, Waiting for Superman, charter school kind of debate. It just seems beside the point, and less and less focused on what’s going to really change things for lots kids, especially disadvantaged kids that need help. In lots of ways, I feel like this book was trying to sidestep that debate or change that debate or get people on both sides of that debate to have a different vocabulary, a different set of ideas that might help get us past what feels to be like a very narrow focus on a few divisive issues.

You focus on poor kids, but you also write a bit about kids from affluent backgrounds as well. One of the things that stuck out to me was a quote from Dominic Randolph, headmaster of an elite private school, that they had never educated a “world-changer.” Is it possible to make a world-changer in primary or secondary school?Every world-changer was at some point in primary or secondary school. I do think there is something about that part of every child’s education that is a big part of where they end up. I’m not trying to say that Riverdale can’t possibly educate kids who will go on to become world changers. [Educator] David Levin was a Riverdale student and he is arguably becoming a world changer, so certainly it’s possible. The point I was trying to make, though, is that I do think what Dominic is up against is that he is somebody who doesn’t entirely fit the school he is in, and they chose him because they wanted to do things differently. He wants to push students to take some risks and to challenge things and invite the possibility of failure. The more I looked at the mentality of private schools, the more it felt to me what that culture was about was protection from failure. I think that’s what a lot of parents in that culture want for their kids. They want safety. They want their kids not to fall out of the comfortable situation they were born into. When you create a school around those ideas, it’s very much about not taking risks and not pushing the envelope and not giving kids enough challenges. I think Dominic is arguing—and I think he’s probably right—that that deprives these kids of some really important opportunities.

One of the ironies you point out is that parents are now more involved in their kids’ lives than ever, but at the same time more emotionally detached. You are talking about the research that Columbia economist Suniya Luthar. That combination that a lot of wealthy parents have of an intense focus on achievement but also not a lot of emotional closeness with their kids—psychologically, that can be really toxic. I think [the research] rings true.

You write about being in the odd place of thinking about these issues and having a child of your own. After about a decade researching this world, what lessons have you learned about parenting. My child is only three. I’m happy to answer the question with the caveat that I might change my mind when he shows up in kindergarten. For now, I feel much more focused than I would have been on his character development as much as if not more so than his cognitive development. I used to be somebody who was very anxious—like a lot of parents—about his cognitive development, about this idea that he has to learn to read on time and learn his numbers very quickly. I think I’m much more laid back about that than I would have been. But I also think on the flip side, that I think much more than I would have about his psychological-emotional-character development. I think a lot about how the emotional experiences he’s having now—the stress he’s under, his connections to me and his mother—are shaping him. I believe what this research tells us—especially at his age—is huge. That development that he’s going through is really the most important part of his development. It’s going to affect his happiness, his success, his ability to negotiate the world.

You write about Hungarian psychologist Laszlo Polgar who deliberately raised three chess prodigies. I sometimes think that I could raise a prodigy if I put enough energy into it. I think of Andre Agassi’s father who built a tennis-ball gun and shot 1,000 balls at his son every day. It ruined their relationship, but it worked at making Agassi one of the best tennis players in history. I actually read Agassi’s memoir for this book. I didn’t end up quoting it, but it felt like there were some real connections between Agassi and Polgar.

Have you ever thought about experimenting with your son? I have, but I think I’ve restrained myself. It is amazing. You read those stories and it is simply true. If kids start getting better — certainly Andre Agassi had some innate tennis talent or the right genes or the right body — early enough and you enact enough psychological warfare on them to get them to do that thing over and over and over again, they’re going to get better at it. And if you are the best tennis player at age three, you’ll probably be the best tennis player by age 6 because you’ll play more tennis. Any parent can do this, but I think any parent shouldn’t do this. For many of those examples, it doesn’t seem like a positive thing for kids.

I talk in the book about a running debate I had with Elizabeth Spiegel the chess coach about whether or not it’s good for kids to be intently focused on one thing. I kind of left that unresolved. For reasons cultural and psychological, I don’t want my kid to be focused on one thing, but I think she makes a really good point, that maybe a little bit shy of the Agassi or Polgar level, there’s something really great about being really good at something — for kids for adults — whether it’s dance, chess, or math, or anything. There’s something great about just mastering something. I feel like I have tendencies in one direction, but I certainly don’t dismiss her point of view.

I wouldn’t know myself, but there must be something intoxicating about engaging in an activity at the highest possible level. Meeting [one of Spiegel’s prize students] James Black and spending time with him convinced me of that as well. He’s a great kid and playing chess has absolutely enriched his life and made him happier and more confident, and it’s going to set him in good shape no matter what he does with the rest of his life.

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On Tuesday, November 20 at 8:00 p.m., Tough will speak at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Earlier in the day, at 3:45 p.m., he will present in the more intimate setting of Marymount School. The event is free, courtesy of UCSB Arts and Lectures and the Orfalea Foundation, but seating is limited.

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