The grit factor: hard to measure, hard to succeed without
October 11, 2012 | By John Fensterwald | 4 Comments
Much of the debate over how to reform public schools has fixated on improving student achievement by focusing almost exclusively on strengthening academics and students’ cognitive skills. Paying disproportionate attention to standardized tests, teacher quality, per-student spending, technology, extra learning time and adequate facilities is like putting the heaviest boys on one end of a schoolyard see-saw.
In his important new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, New York Times Magazine contributing writer Paul Tough examines the largely neglected side that hasn’t been given enough weight: character. Based on dozens of interviews and studies, he concludes that intangible elements like grit, curiosity, persistence and resilience are just as important as academic learning in determining which students succeed in school and beyond.
Those character traits form early in life. “One of the most powerful understandings of neuroscience is the close connection between brain chemistry and adult psychology. It begins to happen in infancy,” Tough said recently on a stop in Menlo Park during his book tour.
This new body of research challenges the notion of reformers that great schools and great teachers are sufficient to overcome the rest of a disadvantaged student’s world. Tough’s reporting found some students need much more in order to concentrate on academics, to care about education, to trust the adults and their classmates in school.
Growing up in urban poverty, living chaotic lives, surrounded by violence, children face a double whammy: the trauma of deprivation and the effect of stress on the capacity to learn. Summing up the research on animals and long-term studies on children, Tough writes, “The part of the brain most affected by early stress is the prefrontal cortex, which is critical in self-regulatory activities of all kinds, both emotional and cognitive. As a result, children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments and harder to follow directions. And that has a direct effect on their performance in school.
“… when kindergarten teachers are surveyed about their students,” he continues, “they say the biggest problem they face is not children who don’t know their letters and numbers; it is kids who don’t know how to manage their tempers or calm themselves down after a provocation.”
Parental attachment can moderate stress; kids growing up without a stable relationship have no such buffer, which is why early intervention – teaching parents attachment skills – is important, according to Tough. There aren’t many good models, he says, though one he writes about is the Child Health Center in Bayview-Hunters Point, run by a Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, who grew up in Palo Alto.
But the brain is a flexible, adaptable organ, and chemistry is not destiny. Good character, however one defines valuable habits of the mind, fortunately is learnable in adolescence. Teaching it right, so that students welcome and incorporate character changes in their actions and goals and stick to them, is anything but automatic, whether it’s done through tutoring, modeling behavior or mentoring, classroom discussion, or character grades.
Good teachers model and develop good character. They frame it in the conversations and interactions they have with students. Two schools in the Bronx that are partners in systematically taking up the challenge figure prominently in the book: KIPP Academy and Riverdale Country School. The former is a charter middle school, cofounded by David Levin, serving low-income minority kids; the latter, which happens to be Levin’s alma mater, is an expensive private school for the children of New York’s elite.
The challenges are clearly different. What distinguishes them is an adversity gap. Many Riverdale students, protected from adversity, cannot be strengthened by it. Many KIPP students, faced with obstacles and hardship, struggle not to be overwhelmed by them. Yet both Levin and Dominic Randolph, Riverdale’s headmaster, wrestle over finding the balance and the school climate in which grit and optimism thrive.
One day last month, co-writer Kathy Baron and I interviewed Tough during his Bay Area book tour. We talked about KIPP and Riverdale, the implications of neuroscience on learning and the experiences of teachers and visionaries working with students facing enormous odds. We discussed the implications of his book on state and national policies for children.
Transcript of Paul Tough interview
That follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. I started by asking him to lay out the premise for How Children Succeed.
EdSource: The book describes the factors that matter most in education, and the shorthand for that is character. Would you define what you’re talking about here?
Paul Tough: What I’m writing about in the book is a set of skills that different fields talk about in different ways. So economists tend to call them “non-cognitive skills.” Neuroscientists talk about “executive functions.” Some educators talk about “character strengths.” And there’s not a perfect overlap between each of these categories, but it felt useful to me to look for the parallels and the connections between those things, and character in lots of ways seemed like a more useful term that describes it. But I think we’re talking about more or less the same things.
EDSOURCE: Could you distinguish between moral character – integrity, honesty – and the character traits for purposes of education achievement?
TOUGH: So there’s this distinction that I talk about that comes from this organization called the Character Education Partnership where they divide character education into moral character and performance character. The people that I’m writing about are more interested in performance character than moral character.
It’s not that they don’t care about moral character, or don’t think those are valuable skills; I think they think they’re a less-good fit with schools. Things like integrity and honesty and prudence are things that are important for kids to learn, but it’s difficult for schools to talk about those skills, because they aren’t always a perfect fit with the purposes of school, right?
EDSOURCE: The KIPP traits, the seven identified in your book – grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, curiosity – do you think those are good sorts of traits to use?
TOUGH: I think it’s a good list. I don’t think I’d necessarily choose that exact same list; and in some ways I find the specifics of the list less crucial. What I like about it in terms of KIPP is I sort of see their evolution. I think the evolution of that generation of charter schools is that they started in this mode where character was very much about self-control and behavior and conduct.
When I first went to a KIPP school in 2006, everyone was sitting up, listening, asking questions, tracking the speaker with their eyes. It really did feel about behavior modification and keeping kids doing the same thing. You can make a case that there are kids who are growing up in certain neighborhoods that don’t have those skills; but it also feels like an incomplete vision of what the character of a successful college student looks like.
And so I like the fact that they are including in this list of seven some things that are actually in tension with self-control, like zest, for instance. If you’re a middle-school teacher, having a class full of zest-filled kids is a challenge, but it’s a challenge in a good way. What I like about the list of seven is that they do seem oriented toward college success, which, I think, certainly for KIPP kids and for lots of kids in low-income neighborhoods, is the right place to be.
Underneath what we think of as “character,” there are actually chemical reactions going on in kids’ brains, and you can see how those are influenced by the environment, both in terms of the home and the community.
EDSOURCE: In your book, you’ve walked all the way back to infancy. So talk about the relationship between experiences as an infant, and if you can draw forward any connections with school performance. It seems tangential, so tell us the connection.
TOUGH: When I started doing this reporting, those two conversations were totally separate. So there’s this really interesting big conversation going on about childhood adversity, neuroscience, brain development, and it’s totally separate from the education-reform discussion.
And yet both of these groups are really talking about adversity, about kids who grew up in poverty, or difficult home circumstances, and how they do in life. And I find the neuroscience research really compelling, that they’re drawing these close connections between infant brain chemistry and adult or adolescent and adult psychology – that, underneath what we think of as “character,” there are actually chemical reactions going on in kids’ brains, and you can see how those are influenced by the environment, both in terms of the home and the community. We know a lot about how growing up in a stressful or traumatic environment affects kids. It affects their physical health. We know it affects their mental health; but we also know that it affects their executive functions; and executive functions and character are not exactly the same thing, but there are certainly a lot of parallels, especially when it comes to self-control. We know that it’s affected by having a stressful infancy.
And then you get to kindergarten, or eighth grade, and [poor] self-control looks like behavior that gets you sent to the office, or not budgeting your time right to study for a test. When you get to college, those skills are really useful. A lot of what I’m trying to argue for in the book is that we should be looking more carefully at the connections between these different fields.
EDSOURCE: I think you’re saying it’s a much more complicated equation because of the science behind it. It’s not just simply that a child lacks determination or a parent who taught him how to persevere.
TOUGH: Right. It’s arguably the dangerous thing about using the word “character” the way I am. We have certain associations with the word “character.” Partly, I think, we do tend to think of it in terms of values and ethics; but the other is, we tend to think of it as something that’s fixed in place.
So in the book, Dominic Randolph and Dave Levin, who are doing this character experiment, I’d call it, at KIPP and Riverdale, draw on this book by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues, and that book is really about performance character. … KIPP and Riverdale are arguing that kids can change their own character strengths, and that they, as educators, can help kids develop these strengths, which are very much malleable in a school context.
EDSOURCE: Riverdale’s important, right? Because we’re not just talking about poor kids, right?
TOUGH: Right. Riverdale Country School is one of the most exclusive private schools in New York City. Tuition just passed $40,000 a year. And somewhat coincidentally, Dominic Randolph, the headmaster at Riverdale, and Dave Levin, the head of the New York City KIPP schools and one of the co-founders of KIPP, both found themselves interested in the work of Martin Seligman, this psychology professor and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania; and they found themselves in his office on the same day, and realized they had similar issues. There was also this coincidence that Dave Levin actually went to Riverdale as a student. I think they’re really like kindred spirits in lots of ways, even though they’re dealing with a very different school population.
And so they have continued to collaborate, and I think there’s an important message in the fact that they are working together. When we do think about school problems of kids growing up in poverty, we tend to think of “Poverty” as a sort of capital P issue that we don’t quite know how to solve. And so to say these are skills that everybody needs [does not take into account that] there are different challenges in environments of affluence and environments of poverty that make it hard for kids to develop them. There are strategies we can use to help kids get better at them. Potentially, at least, that gives us a different way of looking at the problems of poor kids in schools.
EDSOURCE: In your book, you say chemistry isn’t destiny. Particularly in adolescence, when kids are still malleable, for lack of a better word. But describe the importance then, even if you have these problems in childhood, what can be done, and what are the policy implications for education, moving into middle school?
TOUGH: After writing about the Harlem Children’s Zone, and reading all of the research that I wrote about in that book (Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America), most of which was more concerned with cognitive skills than non-cognitive, I was very focused on early childhood education; I mean there is very persuasive evidence that starting early makes a big difference, and that that’s the time you can most effectively improve kids’ skills.
But, to my surprise, I’m doing a lot of my reporting in middle school and high school, and I think it’s because there is this second window of opportunity for educators, and for kids to change their trajectory and to use non-cognitive skills to do it.
The term that made a lot of sense to me was by Martin Seligman, and he talks about “meta-cognition.” The reason that middle school is a good time to intervene is because that is the time kids first become meta-cognitive, where they can reflect on their own thinking, their own processes, the patterns that they’re experiencing. And you can influence them to start to change those. The different educators I talked to use different terms for this. The chess teacher versus the mentors on the south side of Chicago, compared to the educators at KIPP, I think they’ll all doing something similar – taking kids who are at the stage where they’re ready to reflect on their own processes and giving them both the tools to change themselves, and sort of a push to change themselves as well.
EDSOURCE: So what are the alternatives, then, if you don’t have a parent in your house providing that attachment that’s necessary to get through stress and other situations? What are the implications that you see for policy, perhaps?
TOUGH: A few different things. I was very influenced by the research on attachment, particularly one study from the University of Minnesota that followed kids over 20 years and found how early attachment, relationships with parents, connected to things like high-school graduation rates, which I had never understood before, and which, I think, is supported by a lot of the neuroscience, about what happens in that first year or two of life.
So I think two things in terms of policy, that some of the interventions that I’m most excited by – I only write about them for a couple pages in my book because they’re all still pretty experimental – are the interventions that try to help parents who are struggling in some form or another to form better attachment relationships with their kids.
I write about one program that I visited on the South Side of Chicago run by the Ounce of Prevention Foundation. I wrote about Alicia Lieberman at UCSF who has this child-parent psychotherapy that she’s doing in coordination with Nadine Burke Harris, a doctor in Bayview-Hunters Point. And then a couple of other interventions where I just write about the results (I didn’t go see them – one in Delaware, one in Oregon) that are working with parents on attachment, and are showing changes in the parents, but also changes in the kids, not just in terms of their behavior, but also in terms of their chemistry: their cortisol response changes when their parents get this intervention.
That seems enormously promising, but also it makes sense, given what else we know about early childhood development and attachment. Another thing I like about these interventions is they’re getting cheaper. Alicia Lieberman’s intervention, I think, is great – sort of the gold standard – but it’s pretty expensive, and any time you want to talk about public policy, it’s always great to get those things cheaper and cheaper, without actually watering them down too much. I feel if that could be expanded and extended in on a statewide level, that would be a fantastic intervention.
EDSOURCE: One thing that’s not cheap is adults in school. In California there are fewer principals and teachers per student, and yet you go on in your book, at great length, about a chess coach doing the remarkable achievements, the connections that she had with her students. There was this mentoring relationship. Is it essential that, in schools, you have an adult to connect with?
We know that to succeed, they need a different kind of education. And so, yeah, I think this research sort of points us away from the more simplistic versions of accountability that seem to be particularly popular right now.
TOUGH: I don’t know about “essential,” but I certainly think it’s important. We’re still learning about what kind of interventions best help kids develop non-cognitive skills or character strength; but I think there is certainly suggestive evidence that it is mostly formed in relationships with adults. In a pretty replicable way, you can really change kids’ non-cognitive skills.
So what that means for policy? That means the solutions might not be all that cheap. I don’t think it necessarily means the kind of mentoring that those YAP [Youth Advocate Programs, Inc.] mentors were doing on the South Side of Chicago, where they’re spending 16 hours a week with kids; but I also think it means putting kids who are having difficulty in a room with a bunch of computers and giving them quizzes is not helping them with the skills they need.
EDSOURCE: Perhaps your book is happening at a good time, to change the balance of our discussion, where the focus has been on school accountability and teacher accountability that is missing the mark?
TOUGH: There’s a lot about accountability that I agree with. The basic premise of accountability is really important, and I feel like I believe in the “no-excuses” idea in lots of ways; but I do think that the practical reality of how we’re measuring teachers, and the idea of pushing more strongly linking the connection between cognitive test scores and incentives for teachers, is problematic, given what we know.
My objection is not theoretical. It’s practical. In practice, it really doesn’t seem to work, and I think that it tends to push teachers and principals and school systems toward emphasizing sitting those kids in classrooms with computers and drilling them on those cognitive skills. And we know that to succeed, they need a different kind of education. And so, yeah, I think this research sort of points us away from the more simplistic versions of accountability that seem to be particularly popular right now.
EDSOURCE: And yet you talk in your book about discomfort for both liberals and conservatives, for different reasons. Talk a little bit about the conservative notion of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and accountability, the liberal notion of “it’s all poverty” in the abstract and not about dysfunctional homes. That this book somehow gets beyond that or you hope that readers would look at it that way?
TOUGH: That’s my hope. I think the challenge for liberals is just the idea that character matters. I feel like character discussions, especially when you’re talking about low-income kids, make a lot of liberals uncomfortable, because it feels like preaching, and because a lot of the “character” language has been taken over by conservatives in the past couple of decades.
The idea of sort of intervening in homes, I think, makes both liberals and conservatives anxious, for different reasons. [Conservatives] are right when they say deep character traits really matter; but I think they’re wrong when they say that we can’t change them, there’s nothing to do about it. Until people, until families improve, and kids improve their character, we can’t do anything.
Once you look at the science, you see the direct connection between what’s going on in the home when the kid is six months old and what kind of character strengths that child has as an adolescent, you start thinking, “Well, actually, intervention can make a huge difference.”
EDSOURCE: As soon as you bring up “character,” somehow it leads quickly to blame. It’s one of the dangers in discussing it.
EDSOURCE: Perhaps science is one way to steer that away?
TOUGH: Right. Because the science does not point to blame. You can see the cause and effect. You can get upset with a parent for not being better at attachment behavior, but it doesn’t seem all that useful.
I’m not arguing for a kind of moral relativism – no one is to blame for what poor kids do. But, at the same time, I think that when you look at the science, you can see cause and effect in a way that enables us to look at the problems differently, as something actually solvable, not just something to point towards.
EDSOURCE: It’s a problem with overindulgence as well, and teaching a kid to fail is part of what a parent needs to do.
EDSOURCE: And then teaching the kids the skills as far as what parents need to do. So what do you think of grading character, like KIPP does? Is one of the worries is that everybody is going to start doing this grading system, and it’s going to create problems in itself?
TOUGH: Yeah. I think the character report card – they changed the name to the character growth card, partly because of concerns like that – is an interesting experiment. It does seem a little difficult to me, to put numbers on things like zest and curiosity; but I think it’s a worthwhile experiment.
KIPP is really pushing a lot further, trying to figure out how to teach this stuff; and Riverdale’s been going much more slowly. Part of that is because their character report card, there’s something about that process that kind of focuses the mind. Whether or not the numbers make sense, there is something very valuable about having an actual document that a teacher, a student, and a parent can sit down with and talk about in a way that’s not about blame, not about failure, not about you’ve got terrible grit. But it is about, “Here’s what your teachers think you could really work on. Here’s how we could change that.” If a kid goes from a three to a four in curiosity, that sends a message to them: The people around you think you’re improving.
EDSOURCE: But as far as techniques of teaching character? Did you see some really good ways to integrate this into your curriculum, or bring it up that you can actually work with students and children to develop their character?
TOUGH: There are some things that individual teachers and parents are certainly doing, and are able to do. But I think, absolutely, we do not have a curriculum, or a set of methods that are on the shelf right now that can be applied in any school. I feel like we’re really kind of at the beginning stages of this conversation.
KIPP is certainly experimenting with some particular methods. They have this idea of dual-purpose instruction, where teachers in everything from math class to English class to history class are talking about these strengths in class, and that seems in keeping with KIPP’s idea of multiple messaging. It probably had had some positive influence on these kids.
Where KIPP has the most effective use of these strengths is in discipline conversations, and I think that makes sense. That’s when a child is particularly susceptible in a positive way to this kind of talk, right? And it goes back to what the chess teacher found, right? Part of the reason, I think, she’s so effective at helping these kids improve themselves is that they come in a pretty controlled way; in a chess game, they’re constantly failing, and she’s saying, “Here’s what you did wrong. Here’s where you could do better, right?” I think it’s the same for a good music teacher, or a great football coach; you have kids in this moment where they want to improve for a reason, because they want to play music better, or win a football game or a chess game. And that’s harder to do in English class.
But I think that, in discipline conversations, here’s a kid who has just made a mistake. And whether or not they agree that they should be in trouble, they usually know that they’ve made a mistake, right? And being able to talk to them in this language that’s not about “this or that person has done a terrible thing.” I feel it’s a particularly powerful moment.
There’s a program in Chicago, OneGoal, which seems to me like probably the most promising character-oriented intervention that I saw. It is pretty intensive. It takes the one teacher who does it, and it’s a full class, and it’s a three-year commitment, and it’s not something that you can just sort of say, “Okay, we’re going to have a couple of assemblies and talk about this stuff.”
But, at the same time, it’s $1,400 per year per student, so it’s a manageable expense, especially when you consider that what you’re getting out of it is kids with BAs. They have a very clear, measurable goal. It’s not to make kids somehow better people, or nicer. It’s to get kids BAs who would definitely never get a BA otherwise. So for that, $1,400 over three years is a pretty good investment.
EDSOURCE: Once students get to college, even those who have many of those traits, a whole bunch of different circumstances are thrown at them that they weren’t used to in high school. What are the implications perhaps for that? It’s not necessarily a character flaw, right? I mean it is inundating with new challenges.
TOUGH: What’s going on in colleges is definitely the most interesting next question, and so the two interventions that extend into college that I wrote about are OneGoal and KIPP Through College, which is KIPP’s extension program.
And one of the interesting distinctions between them is that One Goal ends after freshman year, and KIPP Through College continues through senior year. So definitely it would be good if you could have an intervention that could end after freshman year, and I kind of like the fact that they think that One Goal thinks, “We can give the character strengths. We don’t have to keep holding their hands and giving them guidance.” At some point, what you want is for these kids to get the strengths that they need to make it through all of these obstacles, right? So I hope that they’re right. Their numbers of kids going back for their sophomore year of college, which is what they’re doing this fall, are very high. And if a year from now their number of kids going back to junior year are very low, that’s going to be really disappointing, and I think it might make them retool things.
The other place that all of this stuff pushes is what colleges could do differently, right? Most colleges don’t feel like it’s their responsibility; they aren’t very focused on college persistence, on making sure kids from first-generation-college homes graduate, and those kids graduate at lower rates than other kids.
But colleges could do things very differently. The Posse Foundation brings a bunch of kids from a low-income neighborhood together at a particular college to give each other moral support. That seems like a great idea; but I think there are lots of other ideas out there that colleges just don’t feel like it’s their responsibility to try to deal with. But I hope anyway that they’re starting to push themselves in that direction.
EDSOURCE: One last question. If you had one piece of advice to give to Arne Duncan, what would it be?
TOUGH: It’s a great question, and I feel like I’ve got so many things to say to Arne Duncan. I wrote an article in the Times magazine about a month ago that talked about poverty, about Obama administration poverty policy, and it talked specifically about Promise Neighborhoods. And so in terms of what Arne Duncan’s got already there in his department, the fact that Promise Neighborhoods exists; I think it’s a really promising program, but it feels way too small.
So I’d expand Promise Neighborhoods and make it a more central part of our approach to education in high-poverty communities; but it’s the idea behind Promise Neighborhoods as much as Promise Neighborhoods itself that is important, which is to say that if you want to dramatically improve educational outcomes for kids in high-poverty neighborhoods, you need to do more than just work in classrooms. Arne Duncan and Barack Obama know that classroom interventions alone are not the answer. I feel there could be a very different conversation.