Student Well-Being Opinion

Paul Tough on What (Besides Tests) Should Count

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — December 10, 2014 9 min read
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Paul Tough has written movingly about the lives of children and the intersection of parenting, politics, and education. We met recently at the Education Equals Partnership meeting in Santa Monica, where he spoke about some of the lessons from his most recent book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. His ideas should serve as food for thought for California educators as they work to create a new accountability system.

An edited version of our conversation:

Economists call these abilities non-cognitive skills, and a lot of educators call them character strengths. The ones I wrote about in How Children Succeed include grit, persistence, conscientiousness, curiosity, self-control, and optimism.

One of the reasons we haven’t put as much emphasis on those skills in our education system is that they are harder to measure and define than traditional cognitive skills, and it isn’t as clear how to help young people develop them. Given that we are working in an education system that tends to pay attention only to those things it can measure easily, we have—especially over the last 15 years or so—become increasingly focused on cognitive skills on standardized tests.

California is in the process of changing its accountability system. It is moving from a system that was almost entirely focused on standardized tests to one that has a much broader range. What does your research suggest that schools ought to count and how schools should operate assessment systems?

There have been some attempts to put numbers on these character strengths, and some are easier to measure than others: psychologists have a reliable scale to measure conscientiousness, for example. Angela Duckworth has developed her grit scale, which you can self-administer and get a sense of how gritty you are compared to others. The KIPP schools have a character report card.

I think those efforts are worthwhile and interesting, but I think that they are probably not the right approach in an accountability system. These assessments seem to work best under low-stakes conditions, and any kind of accountability system is, by definition, high-stakes. It is quite easy to game these evaluations, if you want to.

What my research inclines me toward instead is the idea that we need to rethink our notion of accountability altogether. We can’t define accountability only through those short-term measures where we can sit everybody down with a No. 2 pencil.

So, what do you value as evidence?

I’m drawn to educational models like Expeditionary Learning, which emphasize long-term, project-based learning and use assessments in which students are much more involved - for example, student-led conferences where students themselves help to assess how they’ve done. I think that is not only a more effective way to measure the skills that I am interested in; it also tends to develop those skills.

The kind of teaching that maximizes performance on our current standardized tests can actually be counterproductive. By definition, teaching students to do well on those tests emphasizes memorization and often involves covering only the material that is measured on those tests. It doesn’t necessarily involve deep understanding of topics.

To me, the kind of teaching and learning that happens in Expeditionary Learning schools is much more likely to produce the graduates we want: young people who are able to function in contemporary society, who are able to hold down 21st-century jobs. That’s what we need to focus on as a society and as an education system.

But somehow we also have to deal with the fact that we don’t have great interim measures of student success that go along with that style of teaching and learning. And so I think we need to invent them. What we need to do is not just look for another kind of standardized test that might include a few extra skills. Instead, we need to look for deeper, broader ways of assessing learning.

In the book, you said that talking about the influence of families on student success is hard for both the political right and left. How do you get beyond “blaming the victim” on the one hand and notions of “unwanted, rude and inappropriate” discussions about some else’s parenting?

I’m pretty optimistic about our ability to get past these anxieties. When you actually have conversations with parents, regardless of whether they are high-income or low-, I find that everyone recognizes that parenting is hard and that parents need help.

In my first book, Whatever it Takes, I wrote a lot about Baby College, a nine-week parenting program that the Harlem Children’s Zone has been running for more than a decade. It is a great program. I did that reporting before I was a parent, and subsequently I found that when I became a parent, what I had learned at Baby College was extremely useful to me.

There was no sense at Baby College that parents were being talked down to or that the program was an indictment of their natural parenting skills. They were made to feel that they were good parents for showing up at Baby College but that they had a lot to learn, like every other parent. When support for parents is conveyed that way, it is much more effective. And it can really make a huge difference in what kind of environment parents build for their children to succeed.

In How Children Succeed you wrote movingly about Fenger High School and the Roseland community in Chicago, near where lived when I was young. What needs to happen in the community to be able to empower the students with the kind of grit and character that you want them to have?

I wrote an article in 2012 in the New York Times Magazine about Roseland, where Fenger is located, connecting the school’s situation to President Obama’s policies as president and his past as a community organizer in that neighborhood. What I think he understood back then and what the current community organizers I talked to in Roseland understand today, is that the real solution to Fenger as an underperforming school necessarily goes beyond whatever tools education bureaucrats might have to “fix” Fenger. What Roseland needs, and what the children in Roseland need, is a much broader, more comprehensive system of supports.

Promise Neighborhoods, as they were originally proposed by Senator Obama, are potentially a great solution for neighborhoods like Roseland. Back in 2007, when Obama was first talking about Promise Neighborhoods, I think he was motivated by Roseland and his work in Chicago in the 1980s. Those neighborhoods have only become more challenged in the last few decades as the population that remains has become more isolated from the rest of Chicago.

Kids in disadvantage need all kinds of support, and that’s what Promise Neighborhoods was meant to facilitate. In reality, the Promise Neighborhoods program never achieved the kind of momentum it needed, and it never reached the size it needed to. In neighborhoods like Roseland today, there are lots of well-meaning and mostly small programs for children, run by non-profits and government agencies. All help out in small ways, but no one is taking ultimate responsibility for the fate of all the children in the neighborhood. As a result, in a neighborhood with an intense concentration of deep disadvantage, like Roseland, it is next to impossible for large numbers of children to get the kind of help they need to make it out of there and to make it to a really successful adulthood.

So, the advice for parents is ‘move out of town’?

No, I think that individual parents can make it work in a neighborhood like Roseland. But the reality in neighborhoods like that is when parents get it together and have enough money to leave, they usually do. That only makes things worse in the neighborhood, though it’s a totally understandable choice for any individual family. I think that there is a way to positively transform those neighborhoods and to make them more attractive for people to stay and to return. But it’s going to take a lot of work.

Given that the Harlem Children’s Zone spends approximately $20,000 a kid and many school districts are lucky to have half that, what’s the political way forward?

I’ll challenge your premise a little bit. With the students in the Promise Academy, that number may be correct, but most of the Harlem Children’s Zone’s programs are much less expensive. I think they spend something like $3,000 or $4,000, on average, for each student in the Harlem Children’s Zone.

And the reality is that we are already spending a lot of money in neighborhoods like Roseland. We’re just not spending it in very intelligent or productive ways. During the years I was reporting at Fenger, the school was receiving a lot of extra services and supports, and I would not be surprised if they were spending more than $20,000 a student there. The alternative schools, where students who have trouble at Fenger were sent, spend more that that. A lot of those students end up in the juvenile justice system, which spends even more. So, although it is certainly true that we should be spending more money on children in disadvantaged neighborhoods, the primary problem is that what we are already spending gets spent in really unhelpful ways, haphazard ways: different programs, different agencies, different levels of government.

And those expensive programs often feel very punitive to the families and children living in those neighborhoods. A lot of the money is spent on incarceration, police, on government agencies that are not particularly inviting or well-run. But we could look differently at the way we spend money in those neighborhoods. We could take those same resources and spend them very differently.

I’ve long thought that the Harlem Children’s Zone could and should exist on a much larger scale. I accept that it hasn’t happened, and it isn’t going to happen, under President Obama, and it may be even less likely to happen under another president.

But I do think that there are ways short of that we can help kids that are growing up in deep disadvantage. We can work more with families, work more with early education, tie those efforts together better with the work we’re doing in schools. The early years are tremendously important in a child’s development, and right now the way we deal with the education of children in those years is very low-impact, to the point of being non-existent, in many places.

We could do a much better job spending money early on, spending it more intelligently, and creating a comprehensive system that would improve our outcomes in the K-12 system and beyond.

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A speaker and author, Paul Tough is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine. His articles have also appeared in the New Yorker, Slate, GQ, Esquire, and Geist, and on the op-ed page of the New York Times. He is at work on a book about higher education. (Paul Tough photo by Mary McIlvaine Photography.)

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.