by Julia Steiny
Finally, an “up” book about education. I smiled broadly as I read through Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed. Granted, the book is not an “up” because of the happy stories it tells of how beautifully we’re handling our kids. It does not. But it is sheer joy to have a smart, research-driven path laid out clearly, one that will actually help get kids educated.
Tough was a New York Times journalist, so it’s an easy read. He’s a terrific story-teller who weaves storylines in and through his narrative, as he makes subjects like brain chemistry seem like no big deal. And, truth to tell, I felt full-on vindicated by his taste in research, given that he gravitated to many of my favorites, including the licking rat moms.
Finally, someone with celebrity cred is looking at the conditions that allow kids to learn. He unmasks the so-called “cognitive hypothesis,” which is the widespread belief that if you just jam enough academics into a kid’s life — including inanities like Baby Einstein videos and pushing reading on two-year-olds — test scores and graduation rates will improve.
And if you don’t think you’re interested in kids or education, this is still your book. Yes, it speaks to the education industry, which isn’t really getting anywhere, despite the bellowing about teacher evaluation, accountability, testing, and the rest of it. But it also addresses parents, and those of us freaking out about the sad state of parenting, from neglectful parents to those raising fragile, hot-house flowers who’ve never suffered a dodge-ball hit, never mind a well-deserved “F.” Most inclusively, the book should appeal to any and all taxpayers who wish that at all levels, government would spend their hard-earned bucks more wisely and effectively.
The subtitle is Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. These are qualities that can be nurtured, if not taught by direct instruction. Certain personal characteristics help a kid yearn to read, open her heart to algebra, or persist through the fall of the Roman Empire.
The word “grit” was reinvigorated by the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP. Tough illustrates key points by recounting a turning point in the 20-year saga of KIPP’s network of 125 charter schools. In 1994, two Teach For America veterans opened their first KIPP school, grades 5 – 8 in Houston, Texas. The motto is: “Work hard, be nice.” Days are long; discipline is strict and unforgiving. Since charter-school families chose to send their kids to these schools, an informal selection process weeds out those who could not tolerate demands that some consider to be academic browbeating.
However, when it comes to test scores, KIPP is king. Early on, their kids were headline news; funders swooned. In an age when test scores are all-important, KIPP became widely imitated. Its flaw, to my mind, was that KIPP schools teach low-income and minority kids obedience and compliance, not creative problem-solving. What happens to their academics when no one’s threatening or barking them into meeting expectations? Tough tells that story.
It turns out that as KIPP students got older, they did graduate high school in significantly greater proportions than their regular district-school peers. It was in college where they fell apart. After bouncing in and out of different colleges, one KIPP graduate said, “There’s no one checking in if you did your homework. We had to deal with all the stuff that everybody goes through in high school, just growing up. And none of us were really prepared for that.” Ah, there’s more to success than test scores.
To their credit, the KIPP leaders flipped out as news of college drop-outs came back to them. Rather than hide the problem — a rampant educational temptation — they explored it.
Tough reports, “The students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP. Instead they seemed to be the ones who possessed certain other gifts, skills like optimism and resilience and social agility. They were the students who were able to recover from bad grades and resolve to do better next time; who could bounce back from unhappy breakups or fights with their parents; who could persuade professors to give them extra help after class; who could resist the urge to go out to the movies and instead stay home and study.”
KIPP has since changed much of its practice to incorporate the teaching of these “soft” skills. Authoritarian, punitive techniques are giving way to more social and personal support.
In general, How Children Succeed discusses in detail how we can care for our kids in ways that build their resilience. It starts with making sure every child is loved and attached to at least one parent, preferably two, and an extended family to boot. But he also understands that kids need “discipline, rules, limits; someone to say no.”
Balancing discipline and love is the big challenge for anyone who cares for children whether at home or in institutions like schools. Our kids need far more loving care than they’re getting, largely because so many people act as though the kids are someone else’s problem. They’re not.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.