by Paul Tough
Investigating successful kids and programs at low-income schools and high-achieving prep schools, as well as interviewing psychologists and neuroscientists, Tough challenges some conventional wisdom on causes of failure (poverty, teacher quality) and contends that nurturing character in children and young adults is the key to success. He argues that the gap between poorer and wealthier kids’ success levels is caused not mostly through lack of cognitive stimulation, but through a chaotic environment where mothering attachment is lacking and childhood traumas are plentiful. Evidence for this abounds: there is a drop-off in performance among elite prep school kids who have had no lessons in determination and failure management; the ACE score, a measurement of childhood trauma, is a reliable indicator of future performance; and a student’s GPA is a better indicator of college completion than standardized tests, regardless of the quality of the school (which makes sense: a kid in a chaotic environment with a high GPA obviously had high determination, while a kid in the richest prep school with tutoring and enrichment opportunities abounding, with an average GPA, is clearly not working as hard as he could be. The good news is that according to some of his interview subjects, mothering skills can be taught and non-cognitive skills such as curiosity and grit are malleable traits and can be developed fairly late in life.
I found this book to be inspiring and important. Written in an easy, engaging style, with great ideas and surprising revelations bursting forth from nearly every page. The broad studies and character interviews are extremely valuable, while a surprisingly long discursus on chess isn’t so much – and why Tough gives any page time to the “bell curve” idea, which is basically giving a little air time to Hitler, is beyond me. Of course, in a way it’s a depressing book, because it makes clear how totally the system has failed low-income kids, giving the most needy the least instruction – though Tough notes that some programs, such as the Knowledge Is Power Program, are trying to make a difference. In the end, Tough diplomatically addresses what few dare to, though I have advocated for years: we don’t need teacher reform or school reform quite as much as we need family reform. It’s a delicate thing for a well-off white person to criticize the parenting skills of poorer minority parents, but the fact is that with a few simple lessons to new parents after a child’s birth, many costly problems would be avoided before they began. They do it in Germany – it’s too bad so many policymakers in America are so short-sighted when it comes to helping others.