February 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Does Character Matter?


In How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (Houghton Mifflin, 2012), Paul Tough challenges the generally accepted notion that academic achievement rests primarily on the types of cognitive skills measured by IQ tests. Could it be that success is, in fact, more dependent upon non-cognitive skills or character traits such as grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity? And if so, what does it mean for well-intentioned but perhaps flawed educational reform designed to lift children out of poverty by focusing on improving student performance on high-stakes math and reading tests?

Tough walks readers through research that falls squarely on the side of teaching kids to persevere, especially kids whose poor economic circumstances contribute to off-the-charts levels of stress, uncertainty, and disadvantage. (Just consider this statistic: “more than seven million American children [are] growing up in a family earning less than $11,000 a year.”) Along the way, the author introduces the administrators of the affluent Riverdale Country School, an independent day school in Riverdale, NY, and the KIPP Infinity Charter School,which serves kids in West Harlem. Both are using the research Tough so effectively summarizes to encourage growth in student achievement and behavior, albeit with different approaches. Readers also meet Elizabeth Spiegel, a chess teacher whose urban, public middle-school chess team has won national acclaim, and whose teaching methods get adolescent kids to think before they act, an important lesson for success in chess and in life.

Thanks to Paul Tough’s reporting, the research presented in How Children Succeed is finding its way to administrators, teachers, and parents, and the author graciously agreed to answer some questions about his book for SLJ’s Curriculum Connections.

A fundamental question has to do with how we define success. What are the most important indicators? 

I don’t attempt to give one single definition of success in this book. I want my own child to have a happy, meaningful, fulfilling, productive life, and that’s what I want for other children as well. That inevitably involves some markers of material success, like educational attainment and income, but it also involves more nuanced indicators of success, like satisfaction and fulfillment.

The most important fact about the definition of success used by the educators and scientists that I wrote about in How Children Succeed is that it is long-term. What these researchers are finding is that short-term academic success—high scores on standardized tests—often don’t correlate with long-term academic success, like college graduation.

If we want to improve outcomes, whether for individual kids or for the whole educational system, we need to focus more on long-term success and on the skills and traits and experiences that will help more students get there.

Schools have lots of experience measuring cognitive skills—which seems fairly simple when compared to measuring character strengths, such as grit and zest. Aren’t these skills open to subjective observation and interpretation? 

Yes, that’s a big challenge for anyone hoping to create a system to help develop these skills in children. There are some reliable tests, like Angela Duckworth’s grit test and traditional psychological measures of self-regulation. But when it comes to qualities like zest and curiosity, we mostly have subjective, observational ways to measure those qualities. The KIPP schools are trying to get more scientific about it, and they’re providing rubrics to help teachers identify and cultivate these character strengths. So far, though, that’s a work in progress.

That said, I think teachers (and parents) are pretty good at knowing which kids have more or less zest and curiosity, even if their opinions are necessarily subjective. KIPP uses a “character report card” while the Riverdale approach is more subtle.

Why are they using different methods and do you expect they’ll be equally effective?

I think they’re using different methods because of their different school cultures. KIPP schools have always been pretty experimental places, where administrators are constantly trying new ideas and strategies. So it was relatively easy for KIPP’s leaders to introduce the character report card (though it still took them a few years to develop it). The Riverdale community values tradition and stability, and so it may be more difficult for them to make big changes, even when the school leadership is behind them.

It’s hard to say which school’s methods will be more effective. I tend to think that KIPP’s approach will be more likely to contribute to KIPP’s ultimate goal, which is 75 percent college-graduation rates for their middle-school students—but that’s partly because KIPP’s ultimate goal for the program is clearer at this point than Riverdale’s.

I don’t think experienced teachers will have many “aha moments” when they read about the positive impact of strong parent/child relationships in early childhood. However, the idea that character traits are malleable in adolescence should be welcome news for middle-school teachers.

I agree. I had thought before I started my reporting that I would mostly be writing about early education, and I was surprised by how many of the programs I wound up reporting on were in middle and high school. But it’s striking how often these programs—most notably OneGoal—are able to help students make profound changes in their trajectories even late in high school. I think there’s some solid support for this idea in neuroscience. The prefrontal cortex, which controls many of the mental skills that we often describe as character strengths, remains malleable later in life than almost any other part of the brain, well into adolescence and even early adulthood.

If research confirms that present efforts to raise kids out of poverty by emphasizing cognitive skills are misguided, how can schools (and parents) move in a new direction, especially when the government is spending millions of dollars on new performance assessments, promised to be up and running for the 2014-15 school year?

I think it will take both a legislative shift and a cultural shift for us to put more emphasis on non-cognitive skills or character strengths in education. The emphasis on standardized tests in Race to the Top and in many state laws gives teachers and principals and school systems incentives to focus on the narrow band of cognitive skills that those tests measure, and to ignore other skills that are at least as important for long-term success. So we need to reform those laws in order to encourage teachers to teach all the skills that kids need to succeed.

But I don’t think this is simply a matter of legislative change. While we’re waiting for those reforms, I think individual teachers and parents and school leaders can do a lot to steer their children and their classrooms toward developing the character strengths they need to succeed.

A chapter of your book follows Elizabeth Spiegel who teaches and coaches the winning chess team at IS 318, a school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with a majority of kids from low-income families. What makes those kids champions?

More than anything, I think it’s their hard work. They are an incredibly dedicated and determined group of young people, and they work harder to achieve their goals than any other group of middle-school students I’ve encountered. I think their dedication is rooted in the teaching strategies of Elizabeth Spiegel. She has found a powerful way to help them look honestly and straightforwardly at their own mistakes and failings and to learn from those mistakes. In the process, I think not only is she teaching them valuable chess knowledge, she is also helping them develop their character strengths. It’s the combination that makes the team so successful at chess tournaments.

Throughout the book, you report on specific young people who cope despite grueling poverty and seemingly unbeatable odds. And you write about a few who are hanging on by a thread. What’s the most important lesson we can learn from kids like Monisha, Mush, Keitha, and Kewauna?

I think their examples tell us two things. The first is that the environment that kids grow up in matters a tremendous amount in their outcomes. No children in this country should have to grow up with the kind of deprivation and stress and trauma that those four kids experienced in their early years. More than anything, we need to develop a better social-support system in this country for disadvantaged children and families, one that focuses on the early years but continues through adolescence.

The second is that young people can succeed even when they do grow up in very difficult circumstances. But they can’t do it alone. They need help from a committed adult, whether that’s a family member, a teacher, a mentor, or a coach. I think about the kind of dedicated, compassionate, focused support that Keitha got from her mentor, Lanita Reed. That was what made a difference for her.

Right now we have interventions in high-poverty neighborhoods that reach some of those kids some of the time. But that’s not nearly enough; we need a much more comprehensive program to help kids growing up in deep poverty, one that gives every child the tools and support they need to succeed.


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  1. Bob Zaslow says:


    I am really excited about a book I just published that I hope will begin to turn on middle- and high-school students to William Shakespeare! It’s called, “Rap-Notes- Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits, Vol.1.” And I am hoping that if you teach English or know any young person who might enjoy my book, please go to amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com.

    As a student, I was intimidated by many of the difficult words I found in Shakespeare. This book is my attempt to assist kids like me. I’ve told the entire story of Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, King Lear, Macbeth, and A Midsummer’s Night Dream…in rap and rhyme.
    Before I was an elementary school art teacher, I worked as a creative supervisor in a New York advertising agency. And today, I’ve written many one-act comedies as well as the book to a musical that performed at the Bleecker Street Theatre in 2011.
    Anyway, I hope you check out the book. Thanks.