Paul Tough on how children succeed. Hint: It’s not academics

New cutting-edge research says personality traits and social skills play a crucial role

How children succeed

Photograph by Edwin Tse

In the last 25 years or so, the politically potent American education reform movement, a heterogeneous lot united by little else than a belief that the nation’s schools are in crisis, has moved from cause to cause, from standardized testing to charter schools, like a hyperactive child off his Ritalin. There’s good cause for this restlessness. For all the money poured into state and local school-board elections, for all the parent trigger laws that have resulted—like the one that allows Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis’s characters to rally their fellow parents to take over their local school in the hotly anticipated film Won’t Back Down—results have been stubbornly slow to come, and the target ever-evolving.

In the 1980s and ’90s, reformers concentrated on what they considered insufficient cognitive training, especially among disadvantaged kids. The divergence in outcomes between rich and poor children lay in the number of words they heard by age three—at the extremes, 30 million for the offspring of professionals and 10 million for those whose parents were on welfare. The latter could never catch up in school, the experts concluded, not without hours of language-intensive instruction. More recently, the focus has been on teacher quality. Those opposed to teacher tenure on pedagogical grounds (because tenure makes it harder to fire underperformers) have made successful common cause in an age of austerity (experienced instructors are paid more). Only half of New York City’s teachers, the city announced last month, now have tenure, compared to 80 per cent just three years ago.

The jury is still out on the gains to be reaped from wholesale changes in the way teachers are hired, fired and paid, not to mention whether any structural change can block the virtually inevitable tendency for the most underperforming teachers to end up in charge of the most underperforming students in the most wretched public schools. (Enthusiasts may wish to temper their enthusiasm: the academic research that shifted reformers’ focus to teacher quality concluded that better instructors were responsible for less than 10 per cent of the gap between high- and low-performing students.) As for the rest of the reforms, in a country with the second-highest college dropout rate in the 34-nation Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, there has been little to show for years of effort and expense, especially for the seven million kids whose families make less than $11,000 a year. No matter what happens in schools, the chaos and the stress of their domestic lives obliviate it.

Perhaps reformers have simply been looking in the wrong place. They’ve certainly not been focusing on the cutting-edge neurological and psychological research that Toronto-born journalist Paul Tough surveys in his remarkable—and remarkably hopeful—book How Children Succeed. Non-cognitive skills, as social scientists call them (the rest of us call them personality traits)—persistence, grit, curiosity, self-control, delayed gratification, conscientiousness—play a crucial role in life’s outcomes. And there are effective interventions that can make a difference. For all children, and particularly the most vulnerable, it’s not the learning, stupid, it’s the character-building that matters.

“I think education reform has probably hurt the very poor,” says Tough in an interview from his Long Island home, “because the better-off portion of low-income kids are more likely to find alternatives [like charter schools]. That leaves the original schools more concentrated in their disadvantage, and thus even worse learning environments.” His book lists the crippling obstacles to educational success—well beyond a basic inability to buy school supplies (or food or clothes, for that matter)—that the poorest children face: at an annual income of less than $11,000, no adult in the family has a full-time job, possibly because unemployment is high but just as likely because of some other barrier to work (disability, depression, substance abuse); there is violence and threat all around, if not in the family, then in the neighbourhood; there are frequent moves and other family upheavals; and statistically, there is a high probability the children are being raised primarily by an uneducated single mother, and there’s a good chance a caregiver has been reported for abuse or neglect.

The result is a sky-high level of ACEs—adverse childhood experiences—everything from physical and emotional neglect to living with an addicted family member. While ACEs cut across class lines (family breakup is a significant one), they unsurprisingly correlate strongly with extreme poverty and its causes and effects. And cumulative ACEs, as studies have shown, lead not just to self-destructive adult behaviour—score four or more and your chances of alcoholism are seven times the average person’s—but also to poor adult health outcomes even when the bad behaviour is avoided. In a way, that makes redundant the endless nature versus nurture debate because nurture (the environment) actually alters nature—a young child’s reactions to constant stress changes their very brain chemistry, making them depressed, anxious and, at times, traumatized.

The effects of stress on children can be countered. McGill University neuroscientist Michael Meaney’s famous experiments on rats—whose brain architecture is similar to our own—show how so-called HG (high-grooming) rat mothers, who rush to lick and groom pups anxious after being handled by researchers, raised offspring that were bolder, smarter, more curious and longer-lived. (Of all the neurological research Tough encountered, it was the implications of the rat studies that most occupied his mind when his son, now three, was a baby. “No, I didn’t lick him,” Tough says, quickly answering a hanging question before it can be asked.) And just as there is poor parenting among the affluent, there is also good parenting—attentiveness and simple touch go a long way—among the extremely disadvantaged. It’s just much harder for parents in that situation to deliver it. When they don’t, their ACE-high children arrive in the classroom marked by an inability to handle stressful situations (aggression or panic attacks being common responses), with poor concentration, disjointed social skills and a simple inability to sit still. Fix that with a lunch subsidy or a charter school.

But it can be fixed, or at least materially improved. That’s the lesson of the Perry Preschool Project, long famous among social scientists as a failure and now seen as an intervention that, in Tough’s words, “succeeded in spite of itself.” In the 1960s, during the most optimistic period in President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, child psychologists and education reformers descended upon Ypsilanti, Michigan, to sign up the children of low-income, low-IQ parents in the black neighbourhoods of the industrial town. Half were randomly assigned to a control group and left to fend for themselves; the other half were enrolled in a high-quality, two-year pre-kindergarten program. Both groups were tracked not just during their preschool years but ever since, in a longitudinal study set to follow them for their entire lifespans. At first, the results among the treatment group were thrilling: the children did much better on cognitive tests during preschool and for some time after. But by the time they reached Grade 3, their IQ test results were no better than those of the control group. It was only when James Heckman—a Nobel Prize-winning economist whom Tough considers the intellectual godfather of those researching children’s pathways to success—and other social scientists began looking at the Perry adult data that the disappointment faded.

IQ may remain stubbornly unmovable after about age 8, but something else, something perhaps even more positive, happened to the treatment group. Their teachers had rated and directed their “personal behaviour” (swearing, lying, cheating, absences) and “social development” (relationships with classmates, levels of curiosity). The adults who’d enrolled in the program as kids were more likely than the control group to finish high school, to be employed at age 27 and to be earning more. And they were less likely to have been arrested and less likely to have been on welfare. The Perry reformers hadn’t increased cognitive skills, but they had ramped up non-cognitive skills to the long-term benefit of their subjects. And for those who look at proposed education interventions with a flinty eye to the cost-benefit ratio, Tough helpfully notes Heckman’s calculation: the Perry project generated $7 to $12 in economic productivity, and it decreased taxpayer costs (health care, police, welfare), for every dollar put into it.

The Perry lesson was reinforced, albeit from the opposite angle, by outcomes among what Tough calls “the most famous eighth-grade class in the history of American public education,” the 38 young teens who graduated from KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Academy in the South Bronx in 1999. All black or Hispanic and almost all poor, they had been recruited from their Grade 4 classes by an enthusiastic young white Yale grad named David Levin, who convinced their parents that his mix of high-intensity teaching and profound behaviour modification would take them to college. And so it did. Along the way, Levin shepherded them to the fifth-highest class score on city-wide Grade 8 tests. That feat, unheard of for a poor Bronx public school, made the front page of the New York Times and convinced Doris and David Fisher, the philanthropic owners of the Gap, to pour millions into turning KIPP into a nationwide program. There are now more than 100 KIPP schools.

But a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to college degrees. Most of the KIPP grads made it through high school and into college, but there the graduation rate for the original cohort fell to an abysmal 21 per cent. The roots of the students’ struggles at college are tangled. In part, it’s because all high-school grads drop off the radar: as Tough puts it, the prevailing assumption is that the problem lies in getting kids to post-secondary institutions. Once there, surely they would be prepared to take care of themselves—an idea reinforced, Tough adds, by a certain weariness among educators and the public at large: “Where do all these interventions end?” The lack of focus on college has also obscured a problem shared across the income spectrum: a high school system designed at its root to turn out first-rate workers for assembly lines does not do a uniformly good job of preparing students for modern post-secondary education.

All kinds of young people find the transition extremely challenging, but the KIPPers and others of their socio-economic background found it hardest. Levin grew deeply frustrated as the second and third KIPP cohorts fared no better than the first, and he began to notice that the minority who persevered through college were not necessarily the most academically gifted. Instead they were the ones with grit and resilience, the ones who could accept a bad grade and resolve to do better, the ones who sought extra help, who did the work to master boring but necessary steps along the road. Although one of KIPP’s many slogans was “One Mission. Two Skills: Academics and Character,” only a few had the character strengths to see them through.

The search for how to inculcate that second skill set sent Levin and, in his wake, Tough to research in the field—including the well-known M&M tests in which apparently low-IQ five- to seven-year-olds dramatically increased their IQ scores when given a candy for each right answer—and to the mirror-like world of American “values” education.

“I came into this interested in the problems of poor kids,” says Tough, “but whenever I talked about ‘character’ education to people from well-off schools, they’d say, ‘Oh, we’ve had that for decades.’ ” Except it turned out to be two different types of character, which some of the educators to whom Tough spoke called moral character and performance character. The engine of success in the poor schools was performance-based character, but at the private Riverdale Country School, which is located in a very different kind of Bronx than the part that houses KIPP Academy, where the pre-kindergarten tuition is $38,500, character is moral. “When I think of good character,” says the school guidance counsellor, “I think, ‘Are you fair? Are you honest?’—not so much ‘Are you tenacious? Are you a hard worker?’ ”

When Tough visited classes there, he found that teachers focused on values related to inclusion and tolerance, on not shunning peers on Facebook. Such moral-character emphasis makes perfect sense for the children of the elite, whose expensive educations have always had a finishing school component and whose greatest socio-economic need is to fit in. A determined KIPP student can buy into the idea that performance character is the key to beating the odds, like no other family member before them, and come into adulthood with a B.A. For Riverdale students unwilling to rock the social boat, and surrounded from birth by people with degrees from elite universities, it’s a harder sell.

A similar fear of failure haunts both ends of the American educational spectrum—of not escaping the poverty trap or of not seamlessly slotting into place in the national upper class, although the former shadows students and the latter preoccupies parents. Eerily similar parenting issues—the often drug-fuelled indifference of the poorest parents facing off against the achievement-demanding but emotionally distant helicoptering parenting that bedevils elite schools—lead to similar problems in the teen years. Some studies have found affluent suburban teen girls use drugs and alcohol more than their poor inner-city peers.

But there’s one profound difference: the Riverdale kids know in their bones that, at $40,000-plus a year, they won’t be allowed to fall and pick themselves up. Yet failure and character, as seen in and formed by the response to failure, are intimately linked. And they have proven to be a road some underprivileged children have taken to the top of the mountain, a road increasingly blocked to their wealthy counterparts. “It’s enough,” Tough says ironically, “to make you feel sorry for the rich kids.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.