I cannot recommend Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed highly enough. It contains fascinating literature reviews on cognitive psychology and the impact of early childhood adversity on adolescents and adults, incredible stories to illustrate these points, and a lot of useful tips for teachers who are skeptical of whether or not mastery of a set of skills is enough to ensure success down the line. What’s amazing about the book is that it is already beloved by all in the political spectrum, libertarians, charter school advocates, and those who are more skeptical of the power of policy to overcome poverty. How is this possible? Because Tough cuts through the stupid debates that divide educators and focuses on illustrating the nuanced and critical truths that few involved in education can deny. Namely:
A profoundly negative childhood environment, for biological and chemical reasons, can all but preclude children from being successful no matter how much money is invested in their schools and communities. To articulate this point he discusses the well-intentioned but costly and failed attempts to improve schools in the Roseland neighborhood by reformers through Duncan. But the “but” in “all but preclude” is a huge, critical, but (please pardon worst sentence ever written). Efforts to directly overcome these specific psychological vulnerabilities in low-income youth show an incredible amount of promise. Tough discusses KIPP’s effort to teach character traits as a way of improving their college graduation rate (say what you will about KIPP but I think we are lucky that this charter network is, in this case, so open about their failings and willing to respond to their disappointing data in innovative ways…it certainly exemplifies the optimism of pro-choice reformers), as well as other organizations that choose the most in-need students in Chicago and equip them with leadership training and support throughout their college experience, with much success.
In a pretty good interview on one of my favorite podcasts, Econtalk (hosted by a staunch but open-minded and intellectually honest libertarian), Tough admits to an optimism that if these organizations are given the funding to replicate (he is referring also to Promise Neighborhoods, replications of Harlem Children’s Zone, that have a similar philosophy–fixing schools is not enough, poverty needs to be attacked at all angles–health care, parenting, character, career training, etc.) then we can make significant progress towards preventing poverty from becoming destiny. Charter schools, though not a panacea, are at times using their autonomy to make some astounding realizations about their own limitations in the face of poverty, and responding accordingly. The only way some of these organizations can do this is because of their wealth of funding (from the “conspiring” bourgeoisie). Paul Tough draws the right conclusion that I am flabbergasted is not repeated more by those skeptical of the current reform movement: the well-funded, at times very successful experimentation of HCZ and KIPP are evidence of the fact that poverty will only stop being destiny when we come up with a way to implement and finance these kinds of holistic, character-driven, approaches to increasing achievement on a mass scale. Let’s use the success stories heralded by the right and reformers to make the more persuasive case that much, much more is needed.