How Children Succeed: Q&A With Paul Tough

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character cover

Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

In How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, journalist Paul Tough argues that the qualities that matter most for success have less to do with IQ and more to do with character. He was kind enough to answer a few questions from our Research team, which is working on identifying quantifiable measures of successful social and emotional learning. Here, he suggests it’s a bad idea to include standardized measures of character strength in school accountability systems. Read the Q & A that follows and let us know what you think.

Q: There’s so much variability between and within school districts.  Do you think character education can scale up to a national model?

Paul Tough Headshot

Paul Tough, photo by Mary McIlvaine Photography

Tough: I don’t think character education should ever follow a one-size-fits-all model. But I think there are elements in what we’re learning about teaching character strengths (or non-cognitive skills, as economists call them) that are relevant in every district and every neighborhood.

Q: Should schools choose which character strengths to work on? Should kids be allowed to choose, just as older students pick their own classes?

Tough: I don’t think the specific character strengths that KIPP and Riverdale have chosen are necessarily the right ones. In fact, I don’t think we’ll ever have an authoritative list of essential character strengths. And I do think that for any young person, part of the process of growing up is coming to understand your own character. But I think there is some strong evidence emerging about how effective certain character strengths are in helping guide young people toward successful outcomes. For me, that list includes grit, conscientiousness, optimism, self-control and perseverance. That’s not a prescriptive checklist, but it’s a useful guide for anyone, young or old.

Q: Is there then a tension between teaching conscientious and encouraging creativity?

Tough: One of the things I try to do in the book is give space to both sides of the divide in the psychological literature around conscientiousness. There’s some real backlash against it out there – and yet there’s also some pretty clear research that conscientiousness, on average, leads to positive outcomes in life. That said, I think it’s important to note that conscientiousness isn’t the only important character strength, and that some key character strengths are often in tension with conscientiousness. It’s one of the things that I like about the KIPP character report card: It’s not just about good behavior and following the rules. It includes qualities like zest and curiosity and grit that involve the kind of engaged, creative entrepreneurial skills and passions that I think are likely to be particularly useful in the working world that these adolescents will enter.

Q: In the majority of state education accountability systems today, standardized test scores are used as a measure of academic progress. Could you imagine using a standardized measure of progress in character development?

Tough: I don’t think it’s a good idea to develop standardized measures of character strengths and include them in an accountability system. Character strengths just don’t lend themselves to that kind of precise measurement and regimentation. I think we need to find other ways to motivate teachers and school systems to develop these skills in students. I can imagine a way that schools would want to use biological measures of, say, allostatic load to help them understand and better deal with the outside stresses that their students are bringing into the classroom. But I don’t think it makes sense to use biological indicators as outcome measures in schools.

3 thoughts on “How Children Succeed: Q&A With Paul Tough

  1. I enjoyed reading this article and Tough’s view on measurement of character strengths. I’d love to ask him in follow up — if we’re not measuring character strengths or social-emotional outcomes in a standardized way, how does he recommend that we steer the school accountability conversation away from standardized academic assessments only to a more well-rounded picture of a student’s development?

  2. Thank you, Paul, for your continued emphasis on what we can do to give ALL students the best chance for success and happiness in life. And thanks to TASC for its continued commitment to that too, and for facilitating this excellent interview with you. My question follows up on Brenda’s: From my perspective, the most glaring example of the achievement gap (and the opportunity gap) is that less than 10 percent of low-income students nationally are currently completing college by age 25. Thus, I’ve been glad to see districts like New York City beginning to include college enrollment/persistence as part of the accountability measures for its high schools, as well as charter networks like KIPP undertaking and publicly reporting similar college-going data of KIPP alumni. And the U.S. DOE is, beginning this year, requiring states that accepted stimulus funds to report college enrollment rates and first year credit accumulation for their respective students. So my question follow up on Brenda’s: If we now know fairly definitively that it is in fact the mix of academic/cognitive and non-cognitive factors that is best predictive of student success through high school and to and through college, shouldn’t we then find ways to include a framework for those non-cognitive measures in the K-12 accountability system within the K-12 system rather than only using college-going and college persistence as the measure for whether a school/system was successful in preparing its students for college success? Ideally, we would be able to include both the immediate measures by grade to assess students’ college/career “readiness” and also the long-term (college “success”).

  3. Thanks, Brenda and Mike for such thoughtful questions! They are similar to ones we’re asking here at TASC. We reached back out to Paul, who is on an “insane” book tour. It seems to me that you shouldn’t try to standardize these measures by removing the subjectivity. But, if we can strengthen the links between these important subjective measures and long-term objective measures (graduation, college acceptance, college degree attainment), we might better understand the value of, and demonstrate the need for, subjective measurement in accountability systems. At TASC, we’re also developing profiles of students that incorporate academic performance, behavior and attendance, offering a more complete picture of how a student is doing now and our predictions for long-term success. I think you could add in character and grit into these types of profiles to predict long-term outcomes. And if these profile scores are more predictive of success than straight, standardized measures, I’d hope that would provide the proof point for moving accountability systems in that direction as well.

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