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Paul Tough’s “Who Gets to Graduate?” offers hope that we can make a difference

220px-Paul_tough_2012favicon Paul Tough knows how to write. He writes so well, if he wrote about marmalade, I’d read it, no problem. Barnacles, too. Give Mr. Tough a topic, any topic, and he’ll churn out a must-read.

His latest piece, “Who Gets to Graduate?” in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, is an article that every urban educator should read. Thanks to loyal Iserotope reader Michele for recommending it!

I don’t want to give too much of it away, or else you won’t read it, but Mr. Tough makes three major claims: (1) Poor students are less likely to graduate from college than rich students, (2) One key reason for this is that poor students don’t feel like they belong and then freak out in college when they experience setback, (3) There are easy ways for schools to intervene so that poor students feel like they belong and remain resilient through challenge.

All right, now just a little bit more on a couple points. First up, the college graduation gap. Please take a look:


My eye goes to two numbers: the 52% on the top quartile line and the 44% on the bottom quartile line. If I’m reading this graph correctly, if you score really high on the SAT but are poor, your likelihood of graduating is less than someone who scores really low on the SAT but is rich. In other words: Your class background matters more for college graduation than your reading and Math skills.

This looks overwhelming, right? It makes you want to act like Diane Ravitch and say that poverty trumps all, that nothing can happen to close the achievement gap until our country solves poverty, right?

But wait. Mr. Tough offers tons of hope. The answer is what David Yeager and his colleagues are doing at the University of Texas at Austin. Mr. Yeager comes from a long line of Stanford professors, including Carol Dweck and Claude Steele, who believe that the mindsets of young adults matter. When students feel they belong, and when they feel like obstacles do not compromise their academic ability, they persist and succeed.

Here’s what Prof. Yeager believes:

Ultimately a person has within themselves some kind of capital, some kind of asset, like knowledge or confidence. And if we can help bring that out, they then carry that asset with them to the next difficulty in life.

To test those beliefs, Prof. Yeager conducted a large-scale experiment on incoming freshmen at UT Austin. Students in the experimental group completed a 25- to 45-minute online module that involved a short reading and writing exercise. The results were stunning. More poor students than ever before did well in school their first semester, passing more classes, completing more units, and starting off strong toward graduation.

Getting these excellent results after a fairly quick intervention is bringing out doubt from Prof. Yeager’s colleagues. Is this really possible? It seems so easy! Apparently, according to several similar studies, it is.

And that’s what makes me hopeful. The most crucial step, Mr. Tough suggests, is to message loud and clear to students that they belong and that they are valued. Too often, teachers — grizzled and jaded from too many years of struggle — present a deficit model to their students. If that occurs, then the gap will continue.

But if we send a positive message, and interrupt deficit mindsets, change is possible. There’s no simple answer, of course, but not everything has to be difficult.

Now, your homework: Please go read this article (it’s also on Iserotope Extras!) and let me know what you think. For example: Do you believe that it’s OK to tell students the truth, or do you agree with “the first rule of the Dashboard?” Thank you! favicon


  1. Sarah (from Logan)

    I want to implement a “high school” version of the intervention for incoming 9th graders. I want to implement a “middle school” version for incoming 6th graders. Where will he tell us exactly what he wrote in the intervention? How amazing would it be if we could cut the high school drop out rate in half? One essay is supposed to be about “belonging” and one essay should debunk the entity theory of intelligence. He says that it is important exactly the way each essay is worded and I have no doubt that it is true…so I am interested in more information.

    • Mark Isero

      Sarah, I also want to do a version for ninth graders. I’m going to look for the studies Prof. Yeager and his colleagues have done, and I’ll get back to you!

  2. Laura Hawkins

    This is a fantastic and inspiring article. I’m teaching ninth graders and I’m starting again with the ninth grade advising team this year! I’m considering email blasting our rising seniors and recent graduates to see if I can get some testimonials from them along the “I didn’t think I belonged … ” and “I didn’t think I was smart enough …” themes to foist on our 9th graders.

    Thank you once again Iserotope!

    • Mark Isero

      Thanks, Laura! Yep, you have a great opportunity with the ninth graders to take them, get to know them, shake them, and get them not just to tell their stories but also to participate in their lives in real time! (Sorry for being confusing.) Please let me know how it goes. 🙂

Please share your brilliant insights!