How Children Succeed

The third book on my spring 2013 reading plan, How Children Succeed by Paul Tough. I added it right after its release in September 2012, because I had read a NYT Magazine article that discussed character and KIPP, the subject of my last review. I wondered if the KIPP program could become sustainable, providing positive effect for all. Mr. Tough calls KIPP a “reliable, replicable model for inner-city-school success.” Would this book clearly answer my question?


Oh well.

While Mr. Tough’s book includes some description of KIPP character building, it doesn’t focus on the group. More pages describe poor Brooklyn school Intermediate School 318 and its chess team. I linked to the obligatory feel-good documentary about poor inner-city schools triumphing over rich schools, like the Mighty Ducks with pawns. I don’t mind the story, but it has only tangential meaning for mathematics education. I took only one note during chapter 3.
The other chapters had more appeal. KIPP makes an appearance in chapter 2, on school development of character. The NYT magazine article provides most of those details, so I didn’t write more on that. I highly recommend reading the article, by the way. Rich Riverdale decided to focus more on moral character, dealing with others. Poor KIPP Infinity chose to focus on personal character, aspects of one’s self. KIPP character strengths number seven: zest, grit, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity. We don’t know the long term effects of this orientation, since KIPP started less than 20 years ago.
Chapter 2 concludes with a section on followup, KIPP through college. Chapter 4 spends more time on a remarkable college prep program, OneGoal in Chicago. OneGoal combines ACT tutoring during Grade 11, college counseling and college skill development during Grade 12, and first year college support to try to reduce the graduation gap. Part of the support comes from Crossing the Finish Line, a quantitative study about college completion. Two results startled me. First, high school GPA had higher correlation with college completion than SAT/ACT scores. I was surprised because when I taught at Bellarmine, I found high school GPA of little use when predicting mathematics performance. Mr. Tough argues that high school GPA comes from character traits, not intelligence. He might be right. Many anecdotes nowadays state that high schools grade primarily on effort, which is related to character traits like grit and self-control. I don’t know enough to contest this assumption. Neither do I know the data behind surprising result 2, that undermatching hurts students. Undermatching refers to when a student attends a college where the average student has lower grades and scores. One might think that standing at the top of the table makes success more likely. Apparently, that’s not true, as the opposite occurs. A potentially higher achieving student gets dragged down to a lower level. That opens a very interesting discussion about peer effects, also part of KIPP, for some other time.

This time, I need to move to Chapter 1 about early childhood development, the most fascinating part of the book. Late in the book, on page 193, Mr. Tough states that “No one has found a reliable way to help deeply disadvantage children, in fact.” This surprised me, because Chapter 1 contained evidence to the contrary. Young children need secure attachment to at least one parent, preferably two. High quality mothering (and fathering) provides a buffer against stressors that affect youth. Stressors in childhood, summarized in the ACE Study from Kaiser Permanente, have a massive effect on adult health and well-being, even things like blood pressure. A child with lots of allostatic stress-reaction load will carry those high reactions into adulthood. I scored 2 out of 10, worse than the median. (33% of people scored 0, 26% 1, 15% 2, 10% 3, 6% 4, and 10% 5 or more.) There is substantial evidence that promoting stress reduction during childhood, while also teaching techniques that improve parental attachment, can help young children develop. This chapter changed my thinking, an impressive feat. I don’t have children, I’m not married, I don’t even have a girlfriend, and every day that passes increases the chance that I’ll never need to consider this evidence. Nevertheless, if I am so fortunate, I will reconsider attachment and stress.

Overall, this book earns a mixed review, getting weaker as it progresses. The first two chapters on early stress development and character building are outstanding, full of useful quantitative research. The chess chapter brings that to a halt, instead substituting a feel-good tale. Chapter 4 on college completion contains some tangible research, but again relies heavily on anecdote. I like the stories, including Kewauna and her belief in business power. From page 166, “I always wanted to be one of those business ladies walking downtown with my briefcase, everybody saying, ‘Hi, Miss Lerna!'” And the ending … well, it gets very postmodern, all about Paul, his life as a college dropout, and his family. Despite trying to act as a objectivist, in the end the subjectivists triumph. Though after two chapters this book had a 4 rating, overall this book earns a 2, for average, out of 5. For someone interested in the subject, I would recommend examining the ACE study, reading the NYT magazine article, and reading about OneGoal.

Even though I’m giving the book an average rating, I want to commend Mr. Tough for cracking the window open to politically neutral policy. Near the end, he noted that his conclusions frustrate both American conservatives and liberals. Conservatives often repeat that internal character matters, and it does. Liberals often repeat that society can assist in development, and it can. As one relatively negative review wrote, Mr. Tough has to walk a perilous tightrope, because pushing too far would lead to backlash from either pundit group. For instance, he dares to cite from The Bell Curve by Herrnstein and Murray, even though he makes sure to state that he considers the conclusion flawed before saying the positive point. Perhaps this book couldn’t be more than what it is, and I’m just wishing for more. That might be true. While I’m at it, maybe I should wish for funding for my dissertation project. And a girlfriend. And a unicorn.

Yes, I still need to write about KIPP sustainability. And I’d also like to consider OneGoal and other programs in Chicago, as part of the definition of social justice to tie in the fall books. I’ll try to write that after finals in May, though my reading list deadline might push things to June.

About Adam

My quest is a world where calling someone "virtuous like a fairy tale hero" is routine, not fantastic or ironic. My vocation is the teaching and learning of statistics. My dream is a long happy life with a wonderful wife and kids. Who knows if any will become true? More information is at my homepage on the twelvefruits network:
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