‘Is Our Children Learning?’

Reading Between the Lines
Can success be measured through IQ tests, vocabulary quizzes, the SATs?
Can success be measured through IQ tests, vocabulary quizzes, the SATs? // Karen Tian

In what will likely become one of his most enduring rhetorical legacies, George W. Bush ’68 asked a crowd of South Carolinians in 2000: “Is [sic] our children learning?”

Fortunately for us, many brighter thinkers have spent years asking questions similar to the one posed by that sincere, if ineloquent, Texas oilman: Why do our children seem not to learn? Why do some children do better than others? How do some children break the cycle of poverty?

In “How Children Succeed,” freelance journalist Paul Tough addresses all these questions. Tough powerfully urges his readers to reject what he calls the “cognitive hypothesis,” or the idea that success can be measured through cognitive skills (i.e., IQ tests, vocabulary quizzes, the SATs), while challenging the notion that “the best way to develop these skills is to practice them as much as possible, beginning as early as possible.” In other words, he rejects the foundation upon which nearly all of us built our applications to Yale.

Tough hopes parents, teachers and reformers will replace the focus on cognitive skills with a focus on what he calls “character.” The word character is a politically charged one, but Tough uses it to mean grit, stick-to-it-iveness and self-control. Marshaling a vast array of psychological and anecdotal evidence, he claims that character is what causes some children to succeed and others to fail. Through these character strengths, public schoolers can triumph over prep schoolers, or poor kids can outperform rich kids.

Tough begins by discussing the psychological research that underlies his theses. He focuses on studies that discuss the importance of character strengths, as well as research into how stress (usually in poor homes) makes success that much harder. Through character strengths, Tough suggests, kids can overcome stress. To help them do that, schools can integrate character values into their curricula. Tough writes at length about the character programs at the KIPP School of New York (a celebrated charter middle school for lower-income kids) and the Riverdale Country Day School (an elite private school for New York’s upper crust). Both schools not only emphasize, but also grade character — a controversial move that he supports.

Moving to a micro level, Tough writes about the truly stunning story of I.S. 318 in Brooklyn, a poor urban public school that just happens to have the best middle school chess program in the nation. Tough ascribes this success to a remarkable teacher who, he tells us, instills resilience and grit in her kids. Providing another example, he then considers programs in Chicago that are helping low-income, often low-performing, high school students make it to college, and, more importantly, gain the skills to survive once they get there. By teaching these kids character strengths, not just how to do well on their ACTs, certain programs are achieving extraordinary levels of success.

I liked “How Children Succeed.” I really did. It has received deservedly glowing reviews across the board. It forces its readers to re-evaluate many of their assumptions about how and why children attain success. However, I was troubled by many aspects of Tough’s approach. Much like Malcolm Gladwell, Tough may focus too heavily on anecdotal evidence. He tends to rely on individual scientific researchers or individual outstanding kids, even though such cases can obscure larger trends. I would be more open to Tough’s assertions if he had some grand statistical evidence to back them up, not just some neat research and some great stories.

But I accept that this evidence does not exist. The programs Tough is discussing are necessarily outliers — their notability goes hand in hand with rarity. They have to have huge amounts of money (KIPP is amazingly well-funded) and the ability to cherry-pick kids who already have the foundation for character strengths that aid success. Their model can’t help everyone.

My larger problem with “How Children Succeed” is that its narrow anecdotal focus seems to ignore the effects parental wealth, parental education and parental involvement have on success. To be sure, Tough acknowledges all of these things, but he overstates the importance of character at the expense of other crucial factors.

Upper-class kids have the advantage when it comes to living in a stress-free environment or a pro-education environment, which means they also have the advantage when it comes to possessing character strengths. I reject Tough’s repeated claim that having too deep a safety net is as damaging as having no safety net at all. Character strengths may well be more important than cognitive skills, but they are a result, not the source, of the education gap between the rich and the poor, the children of the educated and the uneducated.

So, yes, “How Children Succeed” does get at an important and underappreciated factor in our education system — but its focus on micro-level character ignores the importance of how society is structured at the macro level.

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