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Interview With Paul Tough

His new book promotes noncognitive skills as key to academic success. 

Four years ago, Paul Tough came out with Whatever It Takes, a book about Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone, a neighborhood-focused comprehensive-services program that tries to provide everything from prenatal care to quality education.

While expectations for replicating Canada's model in other communities have diminished, Tough is back with a new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, suggesting that "noncognitive" skills like empathy, grit, and resilience are just as important to academic success as reading and literacy-and that schools need to broaden their focus to have any real chance of widespread success, regardless of the community that they are serving.

Of course, schools have tried to teach hard-to-measure but desirable traits like resilience before-usually with mixed results. Tough's book takes a look at a variety of schools trying to teach kids these attributes, and measure their impact, including low-income schools and schools that mostly work with advanced students. It's character education-with a twist.

Q What's the most fleshed-out example of a district or school system trying to incorporate noncognitive skills?

A The KIPP schools in New York City are implementing the character report card [now called the character growth card]. So far, that's the closest thing to a system-wide approach that I've heard of.

Q What are some of the immediate considerations district leaders should keep in mind before implementing a program to incorporate noncognitive skills?

A There's strong evidence that finding better strategies to improve students' noncognitive skills will improve their outcomes. But there's not yet a clear road map on exactly how to do that. So district administrators need to know they're testing the waters.

Q Can a K–12 district do this on its own, or does it need to partner with other agencies?

A We know that the neurological basis for these skills is developed in the first few years of life. So if districts are able to partner with early-childhood and home-visiting programs, they're likely to have more success in the classroom. After-school and mentoring programs seem to have positive impacts on these skills, so ideally, a district-wide program would incorporate those programs.

Q How long would it take for a program focused on grit and resilience to show results in any measurable way?
A The impact of noncognitive skill development will tend to show up in longer-term academic achievements, like college-persistence rates, though these programs may help with short-term gains as well. One of the big reforms I hope districts will embrace is to push the incentives for teachers and principals away from those short-term results and toward longer-term outcomes. I admit I don't have any great answers for how to do this-it's hard, practically speaking, to evaluate a third-grade teacher on the college-graduation rate of her students. But I do think it's possible to move toward more long-term thinking in the system as a whole.

Q To what extent did the Harlem Children's Zone incorporate or exclude the noncognitive skills that you focus
on in How Children Succeed?

A Many of the interventions there are having a positive impact on the noncognitive skills of children. Baby College is improving the attachment relationships between parents and children, which leads to improvements in children's noncognitive skills. The health clinic, family counseling, after-school programs, one-on-one tutoring, and mentoring-they are all likely improving noncognitive skills, even if that's not their explicit goal.

When I was reporting on the Zone's charter schools, the focus was on standardized scores, which measure a narrow range of cognitive skills. When teachers' incentives are tied to test scores, it's hard for them to prioritize interventions that might help with noncognitive skills.
Q How have your beliefs about education changed since your first book came out?

A When I finished my reporting for Whatever It Takes, I was a believer in what I call in the [new] book the "cognitive hypothesis." But I was persuaded by the research I read and the interventions I observed that noncognitive skills, or character strengths, are a much more important factor in student success than we've realized.

Q Is it appropriate to read your new book as a rebuke to the education reform movement?

A I wouldn't call it a rebuke. I'm critiquing some of the rhetorical excesses of the reform movement, but it's a friendly critique. My main concern is that the solutions emphasized by reformers-merit pay, charter schools, test-based accountability-aren't enough to overcome the obstacles faced by students in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty like Roseland, the South Side Chicago neighborhood where I did a lot of my reporting. Those students need a more comprehensive suite of interventions, both in the classroom and outside, to achieve the kind of success they're capable of.

Q What has the response been so far from reformers, educators, and administrators? Are they considering your ideas?
A Happily, I've heard mostly positive overall responses to this critique from those in the ed reform world, even when they object to specific things that I write. That's especially heartening because I think that people in the education reform community are going to be absolutely crucial in the shift I'm talking about. Many of the reformers I talk to are taking very seriously the growing evidence that our current approach isn't working well enough, especially for kids in deep disadvantage, and they recognize that we need a change.

—Late Fall 2012—

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