Filed Under:  Education

New book outlines steps for child education success

18th March 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Michael Patrick Welch
Contributing Writer

On Tuesday March 11, author, journalist and education reform theorist Paul Tough spoke at Tulane University about why the American approach to education over the last several decades has failed. Tough’s latest book, How Children Succeed, attempts to show the importance of non-cognitive learning (which Tough refers to as “character”) in children’s success, and how a new set of experimental interventions in the area of character are helping improve outcomes for children, especially disadvantaged children.

As a result, How Children Succeed serves as a sort of counterpoint to the many education reform groups that stress cognitive development and standardized test results. Tough represents the belief that character traits such as grit, curiosity, conscientiousness and self-control are equally as important as IQ, and yet cannot be as easily measured. In the end, many intelligent children “fail” because their real strengths are not tested or documented. He believes these character traits should be focused on as much or more than teaching children how to take tests.

“How Children Succeed” uses statistics and also real-life stories to back up its ideas. In one of the book’s more fascinating sections, Tough follows the best middle-school chess program in the United States at Intermediate School 318 in Brooklyn, New York. IS 318 fell under the federal education department’s Title I program, meaning over 60 percent of its students come from low-income families. Tough explains, the IS318 students, “had beaten wealthy kids from private schools and magnet schools… The students at IS318 didn’t win in just one grade; they won in every grade the school was allowed to enter.” Tough highlights the IS 318 chess teacher Elizabeth Spiegel as a great teacher whose success lies in helping her students develop their non-cognitive skills (such as how they deal with failure) to levels that breed success in life.

The book also posits that non-cognitive character skills can be hindered due to poor parenting and other stresses prevalent in low-income communities — factors often ignored by the American educational system, which instead hires, pays, and fires teachers based almost exclusively on their students’ test scores. Education lobbying reform groups often repeat the mantra, “poverty is not destiny,” insisting that students can be educated despite stressful communities and home lives. “I can’t create better parents, but I can create better schools,” responded StudentsFirst’s VP of National Policy Eric Lerum in a recent interview with The Louisiana Weekly. “We can change the educational outcome, and that’s what we as an organization focus on.”

Tough disagrees. “A lot of what we think we know about the effect of poverty in a child’s development is just plain wrong,” he says. “It’s indisputable that growing up in poverty is really hard on children. But the conventional wisdom is that the big problem for low-income kids is that they don’t get enough cognitive stimulation early on. In fact, what seems to have more of an effect is the chaotic environments that many low-income kids grow up in and the often stressful relationships they have with the adults around them. That makes a huge difference in how children’s brains develop, and scientists are now able to trace a direct route from those early negative experiences to later problems in school, health and behavior.”

Tough believes American educational success lies in making sure this research is reflected not only in our education system, but also in our social safety net, which he believes exists mostly to sustain existence and not to uplift people out of poverty. Because his theories recognize the large role poverty plays in education, Tough has taken a special interest in New Orleans; his 2008 New York Times magazine story detailed the plight of the post-Katrina state of the city’s education.

While Tough doesn’t pretend to posses easy answers to this dilemma, his book and lecture highlighted examples of methods and organizations that take character into account as heavily as IQ. Much is made in the book of KIPP Charter Schools’ “character report card” system, which attempts to measure non-cognitive skills alongside traditional grades. At the lecture, Tough recalled communication between parents and teachers at a report card night at one KIPP school: “The conversations being had between parents and students were not typical of report card night.” Tough was impressed at how the parents and teacher, in comparing their students’ scholastic grades to their character grades, “spoke in the language of possibility, and growth, and change.”

This article originally published in the March 18, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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