Tagged: paul tough

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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

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The confusing new terrain of grit

gritfavicon OK, now I’m totally confused.

I used to think I understood the concept of grit and its importance in education. It’s the non-cognitive skill (or character trait) studied by Angela Duckworth, psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and made popular by writer Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed.

I thought I understood grit so much that I wrote about it a few times and even taught it to my AP English students two years ago. When they faltered during Fall semester on their essays, I reminded my students of their strength, and I explained that long-term success came from long-term determination. Grit became a buzzword in our class — and occasionally a joke, particularly in our morning classes when my students were hungry and wanted the plural form for breakfast.

Now, two years later, National Public Radio this morning put out not one but two reports on grit, and I’m thoroughly confused. (The reporters call grit “the new thing in education.”) Both are around seven minutes long and worth listening to.

Here’s the first one:

This first report solidified my hunch that grit has been claimed (and possibly co-opted) by conservative educators. Perhaps the shift began when Dave Levin of KIPP became interested in the non-cognitive skill. KIPP schools now teach and assess students on grit, and Mr. Levin teaches a Coursera course on building character in students. As Alfie Kohn argues in the piece, grit is becoming a “virtue” that conservatives like William Bennett would say that “good” students have and “bad” students lack. To Mr. Kohn, grit is an ingredient of a “bootstraps” mentality.

If the first NPR report made me queasy, the second one totally confounded me. Here it is:

Yes, I understand that “smart” is a dirty word. But grit is the outcome of growth mindset? Interesting. Sure, I suppose that makes sense, but I’d never heard the two terms in the same sentence. Certainly Stanford professor Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, wouldn’t want to fraternize with the new grit folks, would she? Now I’m not so sure. The lines are being blurred!

And maybe that’s a good thing. I’ve always disliked the dichotomy in educational discourse. The truth is, There’s nothing wrong with grit and growth mindset existing together. We can all like them! Who wouldn’t want their children to be resilient and see challenges as opportunities for growth?

Unfortunately, nothing in education is that simple. The people who make policy have the power and the resources to shape how we understand and use concepts like grit and growth mindset. It’s all about metaphor. A good word in educational reform today may be a bad word tomorrow, and vice-versa.

Confused yet? (I am.) By the way: Thank you, Michele, for letting me know about the first NPR piece this morning! My loyal Iserotope readers are also great reporters! favicon

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I recommend How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough

favicon If you’re a teacher in an underfunded urban high school, it’s sometimes difficult to keep hope alive. No matter how hard you work, failure is all around you. And it’s menacing. And there’s a lot of it.

Even worse, failure is often predictable. The statistics are strong, and the patterns are unwieldy. You see students drop out. And even those students who succeed do so haltingly. You wonder if they’ll make it in college.

But then, if you’re lucky, you read a book like How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough, and all is well again.

I highly recommend that you read this book.

Mr. Tough’s argument is that the greatest determiner of success in school is not academic skill. Rather, it is character. Qualities like grit, self-control, social intelligence, and zest separate students who succeed from those who don’t.

(For many of you, these character traits seem foreign. Grit? Zest? What about integrity and compassion? you ask. I thought the same thing. In the book, Mr. Tough divides aspects of moral character from those of performance character. For poor kids of color, who have experienced severe stress in their childhoods, performance character skills like grit are what matters most.)

Leaning heavily on the research of Angela Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Mr. Tough emphasizes that character is malleable and can be taught. A ninth grader may enter high school with significant academic skill gaps, but if that student builds her performance character, she will have the resilience necessary to meet her long-term goal.

Although the last chapter left me wanting more how-to specifics, the rest of this short book is filled with bright and hardworking folks dedicated to the growth of young people.

And it got me thinking about my journey last year as an AP English teacher. A few weeks into the class, several students approached me and wanted to drop the course. It was too hard, they said. I was grading too harshly. There was no way they could do the work. At first, I was shocked by their low stamina and their willingness to quit. But then I read Mr. Tough’s article in The New York Times Magazine, and I realized that I needed to teach grit as much as I taught analytical reading of obscure and challenging texts.

So one day, as I passed back another set of mediocre essays, I introduced the notion of grit to my students. For several months, the word — which is funny to say, is similar to grits, and is evocative of dirt — became a little joke in our class. But the students soldiered on, bounced back from struggle, and kept going. I suppose I was teaching character.

Too bad my students did so poorly on the AP test. After all, this story would’ve had a better ending if they all passed with 5s. But that’s not reality, and that’s not what happened. I am hopeful, however, that my students, even though they did not reach that marker of success, will this year demonstrate the grit necessary to persist in college.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of my students tonight wrote the following on Facebook: “Life doesn’t get easier. You just get stronger.” favicon

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This American Life 474: “Back to School”

talfavicon I’m not always a big fan of This American Life. But Ira Glass nailed last Sunday’s episode, “Back to School,” and I recommend that you listen to its entirety.

It’s about pretty much every important topic concerning education today. It’s about teaching and testing, about the effects of poverty and whether we can do anything about it, and about the importance of teaching character to build resilience.

Plus, the episode introduced me to Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed, and to Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, who works in the Bayview here in San Francisco.  They’re both inspirational.

Please listen to the episode, and if you do, let me know what you think in the comments! favicon

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A successful student: Grit over intellect

 I was never the smartest student. But my parents always told me to try my best. So I did, maniacally so. From school to baseball to piano, I made sure to work hard and dedicate myself. I (think I) turned out all right.

A recent article in The New York Times suggests that grit and other performance character traits matter more than intellect in predicting academic success. Writer Paul Tough cites research by Angela Duckworth, who finds that outstanding achievement emerges from students who combine “a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take.”

This kind of character is rare. Our fast-paced, judgmental society discourages us from persevering. It’s much easier to give up on something or to avoid it than to stick it out.

So far this year in my English class, my students are working extremely hard. But several of them, frustrated that their skills have not yet significantly improved, have begun to question their ability and now wonder whether they can achieve.

This is very normal. After all, they’ve been good students for a long time. They’re used to success. They’re used to working hard and getting rewarded. It’s no fun to work hard for no reward. Besides, their teachers have long praised them, sometimes for above-average skills. It’s no wonder that my students are experiencing dissonance.

What to do?

My typical response is to stay positive, do some cheerleading, and note students’ specific growth. This works over time but requires calm and rational thought. There’s no calm when you get your fourth F in a row on an essay you stayed up past midnight to perfect.

So my next step is to incorporate into my class some of the character education Tough writes about in his piece. My belief is that if students trust in themselves, in each other, and in me, they’ll trust the process, and they’ll practice the grit necessary to accomplish something extraordinary.