Education writer says the hidden power of character allows schoolchildren to succeed

CL: One of the first people you profile in your book, Elizabeth Dozier at Fenger High School, said that when she began working as a school teacher, "I discounted questions like 'What families do kids come from?' and 'What effect does poverty have on children?' But since I started working at Fenger, my thinking has evolved."

I feel that impulse in educators and in a lot of people who believe in the educational reform movement is a really good one. I think it's right that for a long time a lot of educators did use, or legislators did use, poverty as an excuse to explain why certain kids couldn't be educated, and I think that is and was a really bad idea. But the pendulum swung too far in the other direction, so that even trying to figure out in the life of a child who is growing up in poverty and disadvantaged is considered somehow making an excuse, and I think that's what Elizabeth Dozier found.

She was someone who was very much a part of that ideology and that thinking, and I think it's important to have that type of thinking to a certain degree if you're going to work at a place like Fenger High school because it's hard to be hopeful and optimistic. But I think she found when she got there that the problems that her students were facing were so intense and so many had to do with their families and their neighborhood — and the stress and the trauma that they were facing on a day to day basis — that she realized that if she wanted to help them succeed in school, she had to think more about what was going on with them outside of school. So what I'm hoping is that these ideas don't provide another excuse, just provide another strategy if you get to the same goal of educating every child to a high level of success.

CL: You also spoke to a lot of young people, to learn about what they're going through ... There's a lot of stress in their lives.

Yeah, absolutely. Stress is always a word I used to use, like 'I'm so stressed out, or stress is something you feel sometimes,' when work or school or family is getting to you. But I wasn't aware until I did this reporting of the scientific research around stress, and it is really daunting when you look into it. Especially what doctors call "toxic stress," this idea that kids who are growing up with stress that isn't just mild and occasional but it's intense and chronic, and can literally reshape their developing brains. It affects the way that they think, that they react to provocations, and neuroscientists can actually trace how that happens chemically, how excessive uses of cortisol in the brain early in childhood can then create problems dealing with cortisol later on, which means they are more likely, when the stress comes, to react inappropriately, and that plays out in all sorts of ways. I didn't know this until I started reporting, but ... you can see how it affects their physical health, you can see how it affects their mental health, and we can see how it can affect the sort of skills that matter a lot in school. Without recognizing it, it's hard to understand how best to help kids who are growing up in a lot of adversity.

CL: You write that most of us define "character" as something innate and unchanging, but that other education experts say that character could be a set of abilities or strengths that are very changeable.

I like to use the word character in this context, partly because I think it's a better, more evocative term than non-cognitive skills, which is a term that economists tend to use for the skills that we're talking about. But there's a risk to use the word character, which is that we do have a lot of associations with that word and I think most of us think about it as something that's very much about values and morals and ethics, but second I think a lot of us think of it as something that's just innate and that can make us fatalistic or complacent. We just sort of think oh, if it just comes down to character, good luck, these kids better improve their character or they're not going to get anywhere and it kind of give us an excuse to just wash our hands of the situation. But in fact, what's so important in this research is that the opposite is true ... the data shows that these character strengths form in the environment that they grow up, and they can be changed with positive interventions as well. To me, that puts the responsibility back on the public at large, that if we want to help kids do well in these skills that matter, at least as much as the cognitive skills they're learning in schools, we need to do two things. One, figure out ways to improve their environment, so they're not living with the kind of trauma and stress that makes it hard to develop those skills, and secondly, we have to invest more in interventions that are going to help them develop and leverage those strengths.

CL: At the end of the book you get around to the education-reform movement, which perhaps shouldn't be controversial, but is. I'm talking about parent-trigger laws, an emphasis on charter schools ... What do you predict will come out of all this?

I wonder how often how it's going to turn out. I feel I started my reporting being sympathetic toward education reform, that movement, and certainly the idea of no excuses, the idea of helping especially disadvantaged children succeed, having high expectations for them — I still believe in all those ideas. But I believe the tools that educational reforms have used are not the right ones. They've been very focused on teachers, on the idea that the real problem for these kids in these schools is that they have bad teachers and if that we somehow changed the structure of the teacher profession to get rid of these bad teachers, that's all you need to do. And the only way to figure out who's good and who's bad is to figure out how their students do on standardized tests.

So I think that has at best been a distraction, and at worse I thinks it has changed the incentive system, for they are increasingly focused on nothing but test scores, at exactly the same time when research has shown that test scores are not the best predictor of which kids are going to succeed. So I do think there's been some significant mistakes, and I think in terms of what might happen, I think the tide is moving against them in someways. On the legislative level, so called education reform is still a really a powerful force ... So I think on the top level they're having a lot of success, but on a grassroots level, the opposite is happening. At all different levels along the income spectrum and along the political spectrum, there's a real revolt against a lot of this sort of thinking, in terms of people protesting school closings. Upper classes and middle class parents protesting their kids getting so much testing ... and I just think they haven't really built much of a grassroots movement for a lot of these ideas.

  • Education writer Paul Tough will be in Tampa

In his 2012 New York Times best-seller, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, author Paul Tough writes that it's not about how much information a child can accumulate, and it's not high SAT scores, but skills like curiosity and optimism that truly matter in determining whether a child succeeds or fails in school.

Tough will be in Tampa this Wednesday night, April 24, at 6:30 p.m. at Jefferson High School (4401 Cypress St.) to discuss his book in an event for the Hillsborough Education Foundation's Teaching Excellence Lecture Series.

On Monday afternoon, I spoke with Tough about his book. Here are some selected excerpts from our interview:

CL: You write that cognitive hypothesis — the belief that success today depends primarily on cognitive skills — has been the dominant idea in education reform, but that's changing now.

Paul Tough: I do feel that the cognitive hypothesis, the idea that the one quality that matters the most in a child's success is his IQ, I think that's still predominant and ... we put so much emphasis on standardized tests, because those tests really measure cognitive ability. And yet when I was beginning to start reporting on this book a few years ago, what I found in a lot of different and unexpected places is increasing sentiments that are not as reliable as we always thought and the reason for that is a different set of skills. People call them non-cognitive skills, you can call them character strengths that seem to make a big difference, in terms of which children succeed and which children don't. I think that a lot of educators were intuiting for a long time and different researchers from economic psychology were finding that evidence in different places, and I'm hoping that research is coming together and will change policies.

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