Paul Tough’s New Book—Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why

Paul Tough’s new book, Helping Children Succeed, is important in a number of ways.  I recommend that you read it, but before I tell you why, I want to offer a couple of cautions. In the first place, Tough’s way of addressing the challenges for poor children is excessively clinical—defined almost medically as the “toxic stress” that results from a childhood in a poor family or neighborhood.  He then prescribes the cure.

Second, and probably more bothersome, Tough is a technocrat.  His interest is in fixing things, and he imagines a toolbox: “For educators, this framework suggests that there are two toolboxes that are most effective to turn to when you’re trying to create an environment conducive to positive student mindsets.  The first toolbox has to do with relationships: how you treat students, how you talk to them, how you reward and discipline them.  The second has to do with pedagogy: what you teach, how you teach it, and how you assess whether your students have learned it.”  If Tough were a teacher, he might think a little differently about working with children, finding a way to connect with them and a way to be supportive, particularly to be kind and gentle with children who may have been damaged.  And Tough might affirm that teachers are taught about ways to work with children as part of their training.  He would recognize that one can look for some of this wisdom inside the schools and the expertise of the people who work there; one doesn’t have to rely exclusively on special model programs being invented here or there, though some of these model programs are, of course, helpful.

Having named those reservations, however, I think this is an important book, as it is evidence that Paul Tough has undergone a transformation in the way he thinks about what needs to happen to improve schooling in America. Tough acknowledges that growing and intensifying poverty are primary problems for too many of America’s children and explains that children living in poverty now make up more than half of the children in our public schools: “Helping poor kids succeed is now, by definition, the central mission of American public schools and, by extension, a central responsibility of the American public.  It is a responsibility we are failing to meet.”  Disparities in achievement between privileged and poor children, “are growing despite the fact that over the past two decades, closing the test-score gaps between affluent and poor children has been a central aim of national education policy as embodied in President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law and President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program… (T)hey have led to little or no improvement in the performance of low-income children as a whole.” (pp. 1-2)

Tough explains that the development of grit—perseverance, conscientiousness, self-control, and optimism—was the subject of his previous and immensely popular book, How Children Succeed.  Tough believes that helping children overcome adversity must be one of the accomplishments of their schooling, but in his new book, through an exhaustive report on the literature of educational psychology and on neurological brain development among infants and toddlers, he shows that the schools that serve our society’s poorest children are doing exactly the wrong things to support these children.

Zero tolerance discipline does not toughen children as its adherents insist, but instead further damages trust and confidence among the students who are likely to feel isolated and alienated: “Most American schools today operate according to a philosophy of discipline… (based) on a belief that schools would be safer and more effective if they allowed for ‘zero tolerance’ of violence, drug use, and other misbehavior….  In 2010, more than a tenth of all public high school students nationwide were suspended at least once.”  In the context of the neuro-biological research Tough describes, “it’s hard to argue that an out-of school suspension will do much to improve that student’s ability to self-regulate.  What it will do, research suggests, is make it more likely that the student will struggle academically.” (pp. 54-55)

Tough thoroughly explains that research conclusively demonstrates the failure of behaviorist rewards and punishments—whether incentivizing good teachers with bonuses or frightening them by publishing their VAM ratings—whether presenting gifts to high achieving students or punishing them for poor behavior or academic achievement.  Incentives and punishments are poor motivators.  “(W)e are mostly motivated not by the material consequences of our actions, but by the inherent enjoyment and meaning that those actions bring us….”  Teachers can motivate children to learn by meeting three basic human needs—for competence, for autonomy, and for relatedness.”  (p. 63)  Instead, in the context of high-stakes testing and accountability, here is how most schools in the poorest communities are forced to operate: “When children run into trouble in school, either academically or in the realm of behavior, most schools respond by imposing more control on them, not less, further diminishing their fragile sense of autonomy.  As students fall behind their peers academically… they feel less and less competent.  And when their relationship with their teacher is wary or even contentious, they are less likiely to experience the kind of relatedness that… powerfully motivate(s) young people.” (p. 64)

What about identifying and evaluating teachers according to their students’ standardized test scores?  Tough cites researcher Kirabo Jackson: “What he found was that some teachers were reliably able to raise their students’ standardized-test scores year after year…But Jackson also found that there was another distinct cohort of teachers who were reliably able to raise their students’ performance on his non-cognitive measure.  If you were assigned to the class of a teacher in this cohort, you were more likely to show up to school, more likely to avoid suspension, more likely to move on to the next grade… Jackson found that these two groups of successful teachers did not necessarily overlap much….” (pp. 69-70)

Sometimes Tough’s adherence to reporting the research seems a little extraneous, when human instinct and compassion would reach the same conclusion, but maybe in these times when school “reform” has gone so far astray, one must prove the obvious.  He concludes a section on motivation this way: “When kids feel a sense of belonging at school, when they receive the right kind of messages from an adult who believes they can succeed and who is attending to them with some degree of compassion and respect, they are then more likely to show up to class, to persevere longer at difficult tasks, and to deal more resiliently with the countless small-scale setbacks and frustrations that make up the typical student’s school day.” (p. 73)  In the book’s last chapters, Tough profiles programs that help students with anger management and self control and that support teachers with particular techniques for de-escalating conflicts, helping students develop autonomy and control over their own learning, creating activities that strengthen relationships through discussion and group activities, and providing students opportunities to experience competence while doing challenging work—practices many of us remember from our best teachers.

Given Tough’s reach as a writer, his argument is absolutely essential for challenging widespread political support for test-based accountability and the strict and punitive environments where many of our society’s most vulnerable children drill the basic material that will appear on their standardized tests.  Tough argues for a philosophy of public education that would help all children develop a sense of belonging and purpose.

My main bone to pick with Tough, however, is his focus on “fixing” individual children at school rather than demanding that our society address the mass of challenges in the lives of the children he describes.  In a recent interview, Tough told Jennifer Berkshire: “(T)he reason that I’m drawn to educational interventions with kids is that they have the potential to be the fastest, most effective and efficient way of improving opportunity and mobility in our country, without having to do grand social re-engineering.”  I believe that lets the rest of us off the hook for pretending we live in a good society when the lives of many children are dominated by injustice.

In the 2014 revision of his classic, Why School?, the education professor and writer Mike Rose added an extra chapter, “Being Careful About Character,” in response to Paul Tough’s previous book, How Children Succeed.  Rose warns: “When the emphasis on character is focused on the individual attributes of poor children as the reason for their subpar academic performance, it can remove broader policies to address poverty and educational inequality from public discussion… (W)e have to be very careful, given the political tenor of our time, not to assume that we have the long-awaited key to helping the poor overcome the assaults of poverty.  My worry is that we will embrace these essentially individual and technocratic fixes—mental conditioning for the poor—and abandon broader social policy aimed at poverty itself…(C)an you imagine the outcry if, let’s say, an old toxic dump were discovered near Scarsdale or Beverly Hills, and the National Institutes of Health undertook a program  to teach kids strategies to lessen the effects of the toxins but didn’t do anything to address the dump itself?” (Why School?,  2014 Revised Edition, pp. 112-115)