The Key to ‘How Children Succeed’: Hint...It’s Not Standardized Tests

Paul Tough’s new book explores how grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character can propel children to excel in school.

How Children Succeed, Paul Tough
Paul Tough's book 'How Children Succeed' offers insight into how stress affects children at a young age. (Photo: Mary McIlvaine Photography)
Jenny Inglee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the Education Editor at TakePart.

Standardized tests and IQ scores are often used to predict if a child will succeed. The qualities that matter most instead, author Paul Tough argues, have to do with character—skills like perseverance, curiosity, optimism, and self-control. Tough shares these ideas in his new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.

With the help of many researchers and educators, Tough provides readers with new insights into how to propel all children, especially those living in high-poverty, to excel.

TakePart recently spoke with the author about his new book:

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TakePart: Why did you choose to write about the importance of character in determining if a child will succeed?

Tough: I was struck by the research that was finding positive skills on their own were not fully explaining what makes kids successful. For a long time, we thought IQ was the one determinant of a child’s success. Different places—economics, neuroscience, psychology—were pointing to this very different set of skills. The other reason [for writing the book] I think is more personal. A little more than three years ago, my wife and I had my son and he came along just as I was starting to dive into this research. I found myself wanting to help children succeed in a very personal way.

TakePart: Did your research for the book influence how you went about parenting your son those first few years?

Tough: It made me calm down a little bit. Like a lot of parents, when he was first born I thought I had to do everything exactly right at exactly the right time—break out the Mozart CDs in the maternity ward, give him all the right flashcards at the right time. This research suggested that early childhood really wasn’t a race and what was most important for his development the first couple years of his life was his relationship with me and his mother. Developing that warm, close relationship was going to do more to help him succeed than anything I could do with flashcards.

TakePart: Much of your book focuses on children living in high poverty who also experience stress at home. What are these kids up against when they get to school?

Tough: They’re up against some huge obstacles. We’ve always known that kids who grow up in adverse environments have trouble in school. What’s useful to me about this research is that it lets us trace the connections and really see what’s going on. It’s not like “these are bad kids” or “they can’t learn” or “they’re growing up in the wrong culture.” It’s much more scientific than that.

We can see how growing up in chaotic or stressful environments affects the development of the prefrontal cortex and how that affects executive function. Skills like being able to focus your thoughts, sit still, concentrate, and follow directions. If you talk to any tutor or teacher in a high-stress neighborhood, they know that there are lots of kids who struggle with that. Being able to see that neurochemical connection really makes it easier to look for solutions.

TakePart: How can schools do a better job at teaching moral and performance character?

Tough: We don’t know yet what the right curricula are. I found myself struck by these interventions that were working on performance character (characteristics like effort, diligence, perseverance) rather than moral character (characteristics like fairness, generosity, integrity). This is not to say that I don’t think moral character is important to these kids, but I do think there are a lot of challenges to try to teach it in a school environment. You really have to ask, whose values are we teaching? I think you can talk about values, but when it comes to teaching these performance character skills, schools are a much stronger ground, and I think there are more clear answers to what you can do to teach them.

I do think [about not only] making it part of the conversation in discipline moments, but also just in the classroom on a regular basis. One thing especially in affluent schools, you can develop these important performance character strengths by giving kids some adversity. Not overwhelming adversity, but an opportunity to overcome a challenge and prove to themselves they can do it. It is clear this helps develop things like grit and self-control.

I do think that something has gotten really warped about the way we deal with tests. We’ve created a system where that’s all that matters.

TakePart: What are you thoughts on standardized testing?

Tough: I do feel conflicted about it. There’s absolutely something good about accountability...and the test scores are too low in low-income areas. I do think that something has gotten really warped about the way we deal with tests. We’ve created a system where that’s all that matters. As we increase accountability measures for teachers and schools, we’ve sent the message to them that not only does this stuff matter, but it’s the only thing that matters, and this is what your salary is based on. Once you do that, it’s hard for a teacher to focus on anything else. It leads to a narrowing of what gets taught and it leads to less of the kind of teaching and education opportunities that develop these character strengths.

TakePart: As you were doing your research, what surprised you the most?

Tough: What surprised me was how effective learning character strength and non-cognitive skills can be in propelling kids through college. I had thought, and many people do, that college is purely an intellectual pursuit. It’s not. There is a lot of clear evidence that the skills that matter most in college persistence have a lot to do with non-cognitive skills and character strength.

TakePart: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

Tough: A sense of optimism about what we can do for all kids, especially kids growing up in real adversity. We need to really rethink a lot about what we’re doing in the education system, both for poor kids and affluent kids. I think that if we do that, we can have a much higher educational success rate than we do right now.

Jenny is the Education Editor at TakePart. She has been writing for TakePart since 2009 and previously worked in film and television development. She has taught English in Vietnam and tutors homeless children in Los Angeles. Email Jenny | @jennyinglee | TakePart.com

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