Helping Children Succeed (Will Require Doing Pretty Much the Opposite of Just About Everything We’re Doing Now)

I talk to Paul Tough about his new book, which you should really read even if the whole *grit* thing drives you bonkers….

9780544935280_lres.gif (600×906)EduShyster
: Your new book is subtitled *What Works and Why.* But if I may, I’d like to suggest a different subtitle: *Just About Everything We’re Doing to Low-Income Kids in School is Wrong and Here’s the Neuro-Biological Research to Explain Why.* Was it just me or does the research you write about upend some pretty fundamental assumptions?

Paul Tough: I was struck by that too. Some of the basic principles we have, in terms of discipline, in terms of pedagogy and how we run our schools are not advantageous to kids who are growing up in adversity. This research on just how boring school is really resonated with me, especially the research about how when you’re growing up in a low-income community, school is more likely to be repetitive, boring and unmotivating. I hadn’t really picked up on that as being a significant problem before doing this reporting, but this research was really persuasive to me, not only that it’s true for a lot of kids but that it really matters in terms of their motivation. I think I was also more attuned to what happens in American schools and in classrooms because my older son is now in school.

EduShyster: Do the curiosity worksheets your son is filling out indicate that he’s going to be curious? And note that I didn’t take this opportunity to make a crack about predictive *grit* measurement. 

Crazy scientist. Young boy performing experimentsTough: He’s not filling out curiosity worksheets. He’s in first grade so there’s still a lot of play and interesting stuff but it’s this glimpse of what public school is like for so many kids, and how different it is from the way that he actually learns things—by doing experiments, by getting interested in something and staying interested in it for a week or even a month. The expeditionary learning model is how he naturally thinks, and I think it’s the way most kids naturally think. You get interested in something and you ask questions, and if you have a parent or a teacher or a tutor who can help expand your interest rather than quash it, you can have a great experience with learning. But very few kids in school today get to have that experience and the ones who do are more likely to be well off.

The expeditionary learning model is how he naturally thinks, and I think it’s the way most kids naturally think. You get interested in something and you ask questions, and if you have a parent or a teacher or a tutor who can help expand your interest rather than quash it, you can have a great experience with learning. But very few kids in school today get to have that experience and the ones who do are more likely to be well off.

EduShyster: Your new book is quite short and, in my experience at least, doesn’t require much perseverance to complete. But on the assumption that not everyone who starts it will finish it, could you highlight a particularly disadvantageous education policy or approach?

Tough: There is a lot about the way we punish and discipline kids that the research increasingly shows just doesn’t work, especially for non-violent offenses. The idea that all kids need is no excuses schools and strong discipline to succeed is clearly not supported in the research. The other is the general disconnect between early childhood and K-12 schooling. My first book was about the Harlem Children’s Zone, and part of what I was drawn to more than a decade ago when I first reporting on it was that Geoffrey Canada thought that we needed a pipeline that started with kids and parents at birth and continued on through early childhood, pre-k-, kindergarten and onto school. But what he did and his thinking hasn’t been replicated. All the way from the federal government down to local school boards, there are very few places where we think about a continuum of schooling, where the kindergarten teachers are thinking about what’s happening when kids are one or two or three. At the same time, science is pushing us towards understanding how important those early years are. To me that’s a long overdue conversation.

great schoolsEduShyster: I want to pick up on that because I live in a state, Massachusetts, where there is a heated debate about the future of urban schools in particular, and yet you almost never hear mention of what happens before kids get to school. The idea seems to be that if we can just get the kids into the high-performing seats, then we can make up for their early adversity without ever having to do anything about the adversity itself.

Tough: You’re right. There are moments that it feels kind of daunting and like we’re not even close to having that conversation. Part of that, by the way, is our reluctance to spend money on low-income kids. There’s more universal Pre-K now than there was five years ago, which is important. But where I’m trying to push people in this book is to think beyond Pre-K. Pre-K is great, but so much of the development of kids’ brains, minds and psyches happens in the first three years. If we want kids to be able to persevere through difficulties and deal well with criticism and complications and be able to concentrate on things for a long period of time—all of these things that are really hard to measure on tests of kindergarten readiness but turn out to be really important in terms of kids overall success, it’s those first three years that are so important. But because we’re so focused on reading and math skills, that helps to push us towards Pre-K and kindergarten as the right place to start. There are some good programs that are intervening to support families in those early years, but those are really rare and underfunded.

educare-omaha-kellom.jpg (395×241)EduShyster: Let’s talk about money. One of my takeaways from the book is that supporting kids before they ever get to school costs a lot more than just scaling up the high-performing seats. The Educare program, which I’m going to check out in Omaha this summer, costs more than $20,000 per kid per year. Is this a problem?

Tough: I do talk about interventions that are less complex than, say, Educare, but I think part of the answer is that if we are really serious about leveling the playing field for kids who are growing up in serious adversity, it is going to be complicated and expensive, and it is going to take a serious investment, not just of money but of time and attention. But because the stuff that seems clearly to work is so expensive and arduous, you’ll hear people make the argument that *obviously we can’t do that stuff so what’s the easier version?*

EduShysterThen there are the programs you’re drawn to that defy what I think of as *saleability,* meaning that there’s no clear way to make money off of them. How do you cash in on the Becoming a Man workshops, for example, where kids sit around and talk about their experiences? 

Tough: I don’t think we’re going to get a lot of help from the corporations that are involved in education because, you’re right, the Becoming a Man workshops don’t have an app or a textbook. There’s nothing except for human interaction, which kids need more of. It’s a very low-tech solution, and in a lot of ways it’s fighting against a lot of the trends in education right now. My hope is that, like a lot of what I’m arguing for, the success of programs like Becoming a Man turn out to be based on science and that that pushes enough people towards a kind of rethinking that the fact that there’s not a big profit opportunity becomes less important.

EduShyster: It probably won’t surprise you that I’ve already got a subtitle in mind for your next book about kids growing up disadvantaged. I’m thinking along the lines of something like *A Scathing Indictment of Capitalism.* In other words, at some point, might we have to do something about disadvantage itself beyond just helping kids triumph over it?

At some point, might we have to do something about disadvantage itself beyond just helping kids triumph over it?

Tough: Thanks for that suggestion. As I say at the end of the book, when you look at the situations that are contributing to the experiences that kids growing up in poverty have, there are ways that you can look at the kinds of interventions I’m talking about and say: *This is just Capitalism.jpg (640×340)window dressing. This isn’t enough.* I understand that feeling and there are moments when I share it. But the reason that I’m drawn to educational interventions with kids is that they have the potential to be the fastest, most effective and efficient way of improving opportunity and mobility in our country, without having to do grand social re-engineering. I’m open to other ways to level the playing field but I also feel like I haven’t seen lots of evidence that there’s hunger for that in the country or that those interventions are working. The forces that are driving inequality at the top end are pretty powerful right now. So to me, this seems like the best lever to use. We can make things much more equal and create much more opportunity. And those are values that in the abstract at least, a majority of Americans are in favor of. My hope is that by providing more examples and the conceptual infrastructure for how that might work, for what kind of help kids need in order to succeed, we’ll see more of a push towards that. But I hear you on the larger critique of capitalism.

EduShyster: I’ll put you down as a *maybe*…

Paul Tough’s new book is called Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why


  1. Great interview, Jennifer. I agree we need to “widen the divide that seems to be opening up between various reform camps.” However, we also need to keep working at puncturing the divisive, constraining assumption that not much fundamental can be done about poverty, so the best we can do is to tinker around the edges to give some a leg up. I call this the Audacity of Small Hopes. See:

    1. Totes agree, Arthur. Part of why I’m spending so much time talking to students these days vs the adult interests is that they have a much less constrained vision of what’s possible then their grown up counterparts. btw: one of my next interviews will be with the author of a new book about the Silicon Valley ethos of “hacking” our way out of big social problems – like poverty. A not-so-distant cousin of the audacity of small hopes, I’d argue. ps: great to finally meet you in person!

  2. Do we take children away from poor parents at birth and place them in “word-rich, nurturing environments” that foster innovation and exploration? And, how about the kids who grow up in horrendous circumstances and succeed? Neuroscience, she is an infinitely complex field of study.

    1. She is a complex field indeed. I had the same reaction, btw, when reading about some of these programs. Educare, for example, seems premised on the same “take the kids out of their environment” philosophy that I’m so critical of when it comes to charter schools. I’m going to go check it out this summer and will share what I find…

  3. Maybe we also underestimate the intelligence, knowledge and intellectual curiosity and liveliness of poor 4 and 5 years old because it takes a different mind set and different questions than we usually ask to make their strengths visible. We do our best to judge children by a set of norms that by their nature elicit dumb responses. And more and more of this which I’ve observed over 45 years of teaching in which I think we’ve demonstrated how great the potential is when you start from a different set of assumptions
    Thanks fir the dialogue.

    1. Deborah, You’re so right. Most kids are smart. They’re naturally smart. The difficulty lies in getting them to be smart in a high bourgeois sort of way. The customary way to do that is to have intensive one-on-one tutoring by a high bourgeois adult (i.e. a mom or dad). The Hart-Risley study shows that bourgie kids hear 35 million more words at home by the age of FOUR than welfare kids. These 35 million words constitute a giant intellectual trust fund that accrues compound interest. Is there any way we can even come close to equalizing the situation? I’m pessimistic. Especially since the trend in schools is not to endow kids with core knowledge, but to give brain workouts a la Lumosity, the popular but recently discredited brain-training software. Brain workouts are precisely what welfare kids DON’T need –their brains are nimble and quick already. What they’re lacking is vocabulary and the knowledge schema that allow one to pick up and hold on to new information, and thereby read, talk, think and write like the New York Times class.

  4. In order to push past the “maybe,” perhaps one key is to say that rather than ‘leveling the playing field’ we should decide that basic human needs are not something people should have to complete for, but should be met simply on the basis of our common humanity.

  5. David, brace yourself for the Libertarian rain of socialist charges. You are right, and those nations with a higher overall standard of living and lower poverty rates than us do that very thing. As Dr. King said, and I paraphrase, education may not be the solution to poverty. We may have to abolish poverty to allow education to help children reach their potential. You are correct, education is impeded by poverty and the field is not level. You can not begin to look at Bloom’s taxonomy until you have met the needs in Maslow’s hierarchy.

  6. I wonder whether it would be useful to drop the language of “intervention” (which people like because it sounds scientific and medical, but it also tends to pathologize poverty and poor children), and talk more simply about social programs that would address both the problems of impoverished adults and the needs of their children. I’m thinking of free day care, with nutritious food and engaged adult caregivers. The goals would be children’s safety, health, happiness, and socialization as they interacted with caring, knowledgeable adults. A stable and reliable source of child care would help many parents get and keep steady work, and/or go to school so that they could improve their job prospects. In the end, that could mean improved stability and life circumstances for their children. Instead of going to great lengths to design expensive programs perfectly calibrated to whatever early literacy skills “pre-pre-K” might inculcate, could we not just meet basic needs for safety, health, and good child care while parents are at work?

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