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Q&A with Paul Tough: Missed Opportunity in Nation’s Education Agenda

Paul Tough is a former editor at The New York Times Magazine.Paul Tough is a former editor at The New York Times Magazine.

What if much of what we think we know about success is wrong? What if the metrics we use in college admissions, for example, aren’t capturing the qualities of character and mind that we should actually care most about?

And what if the content of one’s character truly does matter more than anything else?

Paul Tough, a former editor at The New York Times Magazine and the author of Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America (2008), has written a new book about these very questions.

In How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Tough looks at character traits integral to success — curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, perseverance and self-control, among them — and considers their relation to raising children and running schools.

The Hechinger Report spoke with Tough last week to get his take on college admissions, education reform, poverty and the Obama administration’s education agenda.

Q: To what extent does it seem like U.S. colleges are using the wrong metrics in admissions?

A: From a general point of view, I think there’s a real case to be made that at a lot different points in the education system, we are being too narrow in what we measure — that all of the measurements that we use, especially standardized tests like the SAT and ACT, are narrowly focused on cognitive skills, and what we’re finding out from a lot of different places is that non-cognitive skills — character strengths — are just as important, if not more important, in terms of kids’ success in college and beyond. But we don’t really have a good way to measure them, and so it’s that classic problem of social science that you pay attention to what is easy to measure. And it’s really easy to measure reading and math skills, and it’s much harder to measure grit and persistence and these other things.

I think there are some people who are starting to look at college admissions specifically and ways to be more creative about what colleges are considering. To get more specific, there is this research that I find really fascinating, mostly by Melissa Roderick at the University of Chicago, about how non-cognitive skills are particularly predictive, not necessarily of freshman GPA in college, but of college persistence.

Q. So how do you change a system where so many colleges are obsessed with rankings?

A. I think it’s difficult. I think it really does have to be systemic change. To me, one thing that’s important — and I think this shift is really just starting to happen, in terms of public policy, or in terms of any given school — is looking at college graduation rather than college enrollment. In the education reform world, I think for many years we’ve really focused on getting kids to college with this understanding, or faith, that they were going to somehow graduate afterward.

And we’ve been funding them [institutions] that way, too?

Right. And it’s not true: There are lots of kids who get to college and don’t graduate. And it’s especially a problem for first-generation college students and kids from low-income neighborhoods. And that causes all sorts of problems: not only do they not end up with a B.A., but that’s when they get into real financial problems.

You can make the case that going into a lot of debt to get a college education is worth it if you end up with a B.A. — there are statistics that demonstrate that — but if you go to college for two years and don’t get a B.A., it doesn’t really pay off much in terms of future earnings and you have this huge debt. So the question is whether colleges actually care about this, and in a narrow sense — in terms of their immediate self-interest — maybe they don’t.

Q. Is part of the problem in higher-education and K–12 policy circles that we’re myopic — and that it takes longer than we’re willing to wait to determine if something is working?

A. In general, yes. I think any time you’re talking about child development and public policy, there’s that problem, which is that any intervention is going to take a long time. There’s a good case to be made that the most effective interventions are early interventions, and quite literally you’re not going to see the payoff for years and years — and our political system is not set up to fund those sorts of things.

I do feel like this particular question of moving from a college-access mentality to a college-graduation mentality — that does feel more do-able to me. … I’ve been writing about education for 10 years or so, and just literally in that time, I feel like a lot of the people I’ve been writing about have just kind of woken up to this fact, that college access is not enough. When I started writing about KIPP, when I started writing about the Harlem Children’s Zone, they were both very focused on getting kids to college. And that was just their rhetoric: “Once we get kids to college, we’re done.” And I write about it in the book in terms of Dave Levin at KIPP, that literally it was that first class when they got to college, he thought they were set. They weren’t. They started dropping out. And that really made him retool his whole system. Most specifically, the division of KIPP called KIPP to College changed its name to KIPP Through College.

Q. Many so-called “education reformers” say that poverty should not be an excuse for low achievement. Do you think that has given short shrift to poverty and also at the same time provided cover for politicians not to do anything about poverty?

A. I find the education reform debate in general frustrating on both sides. … I think they’re starting from this very good and accurate perspective that for a long time a lot of educators did use poverty as an excuse to say, “We can’t help these kids.” But the reaction is just as one-sided, to say that poverty isn’t going to be a factor in terms of whether these kids succeed or not.

I think that one problem this has created is it has forced us to ignore the differences in different types of poverty homes. I think education reformers have actually done a great job of creating solutions for kids on the high end of the disadvantaged population, and that’s not nothing. We have these interventions — including a lot of charter schools — that work really well with motivated kids from poor households with parents who are willing to help and support them. And that’s huge.

I don’t think, though, that these interventions work for all poor kids. And I think it would help everybody if we could admit that. Because, on the one hand, it would let us say that we do know that these interventions do work for some people. I think the anti-reform crowd just looks to say that if it doesn’t work for every kid, it doesn’t work for any kid.

But actually it does work for some kids — and for kids who don’t have other solutions, and for kids who weren’t well served before this, millions and millions of them. So this is kind of like the truce I’m hoping we can declare in the education reform fight — that if we can accept that we’ve got these interventions that work well for those kids, let’s try to expand those, replicate those, as much as possible.

But then let’s also get those same minds — instead of arguing about [whether] these work for everybody — to say, “Okay, so what does work for kids who can’t hack it in a KIPP school?”, which I think is a lot of kids, and it tends to be the kids who are in deep poverty, who are in the most chaotic families.

Right now, for almost political reasons, people like Michelle Rhee and Dave Levin and lots of other educational reformers aren’t willing to say, “We don’t have the solutions for those kids at the very bottom, but we’re going to create them.” And I think that would be a great conversation to start having because, actually, I do think those people are some of the smartest, most determined people in the education world — but I think for political reasons, it is difficult for them to say, to admit, that we’ve got the solution for some but not all.

And I think once you start putting that mindset to “Okay, how do we deal with that kid in that totally chaotic home on the South Side of Chicago?”, you start to say we need a different kind of model to educate those kids. And it can be based on the KIPP model, or other models that work, but it has to be bigger, it has to be broader, it has to be more holistic than what exists right now.

Q. Do Harlem Children’s Zone and KIPP schools show that poverty doesn’t matter?

A. No, I think they show that kids who grow up in poverty can achieve great things—and that’s a big deal, that they’ve shown that. But I think they definitely don’t show that poverty doesn’t matter.

Q.The “Promise Neighborhoods ” idea was at one point going to have lots of money attached — Obama spoke of “billions” per year at the outset. It was ultimately cut back to $100 million over four years. But the Obama administration did invest billions in certain things like Race to the Top. Was that a misguided investment? Would that $4.3 billion have been better off going to something like Promise Neighborhoods?

A. I think so, yes. To me, I think Promise Neighborhoods is the big missed opportunity for this administration. And, absolutely, they faced a lot of obstacles — maybe it would have been impossible to get it through Congress — but I think they didn’t really try very hard to create a program like Obama described in Anacostia [a neighborhood in Washington, D.C.] in 2007.

And I think Promise Neighborhoods as he described it would have been important for all kinds of reasons. One is I think it would have actually been helping kids who would have been served directly by those programs. But I think it would also have opened up the conversation in a different way. I think Race to the Top pushed the conversation in one particular way, mostly toward teacher quality and toward how states should change their laws to evaluate teachers — not an unimportant debate, it’s a good one to have, maybe some of these reforms are heading in the right direction, but I wouldn’t say it’s the major issue in education right now in terms of what problems we’ve got in the education system.

If Promise Neighborhoods had been at the center of the administration’s education policy, I think we’d be having a conversation about what do we need beyond schools, and how do we integrate that within schools.

This interview appeared originally in The Hechinger Report.

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