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Reading, Math and Grit

Sat, 09/08/2012
The New York Times
By Joe Nocera

Early in his acceptance speech Thursday night, President Obama gave a nod to his administration's backing of education reform. "Some of the worst schools in the country have made real gains in math and reading," he said, calling on the country to add 100,000 math and science teachers in the next decade. Then he moved on to other topics, like foreign policy and Medicare, that he clearly views as more vital to the campaign as it enters the home stretch.

It is hardly a surprise that education isn't a heated subject in the presidential race. Not when the economy is still sluggish, and the fight over the role of government so central. Besides, Republicans and Democrats alike have tried to fix education: George W. Bush with "No Child Left Behind," and Obama with his administration's "Race to the Top." Those "real gains" notwithstanding, progress remains fitful and frustrating. Too many disadvantaged children remain poorly educated. Too many high school graduates don't attend — or drop out — of college, which has become the prerequisite for a middle-class existence.

Which is why the publication of a new book, entitled "How Children Succeed," written by Paul Tough, a former editor of the Times Magazine, is such a timely reminder that education remains the country's most critical issue. In "How Children Succeed," Tough argues that simply teaching math and reading — the so-called cognitive skills — isn't nearly enough, especially for children who have grown up enduring the stresses of poverty. In fact, it might not even be the most important thing.

Rather, tapping into a great deal of recent research, Tough writes that the most important things to develop in students are "noncognitive skills," which Tough labels as "character." Many of the people who have done the research or are running the programs that Tough admires have different ways of expressing those skills. But they are essentially character traits that are necessary to succeed not just in school, but in life. Jeff Nelson, who runs a program in partnership with 23 Chicago high schools called OneGoal, which works to improve student achievement and helps students get into college, describes these traits as "resilience, integrity, resourcefullness, professionalism and ambition." "They are the linchpin of what we do," Nelson told me. Nelson calls them "leadership skills." Tough uses the word "grit" a lot.

On some level, these are traits we all try to instill in our children. (Indeed, Tough devotes a section of his book to the anxiety of many upper-middle-class parents that they are failing in this regard.) But poor children too often don't have parents who can serve that role. They develop habits that impede their ability to learn. Often they can't even see what the point of learning is. They act indifferently or hostile in school, though that often masks feelings of hopelessness and anxiety.

What was most surprising to me was Tough's insistence, bolstered by his reporting, that character is not something you have to learn as a small child, or are born with, but can be instilled even in teenagers who have had extraordinarily difficult lives and had no previous grounding in these traits. We get to meet a number of children who, with the help of a program or a mentor who stresses character, have turned their lives around remarkably. We meet Dave Levin, the founder of KIPP, perhaps the best charter school chain in the country, whose earliest graduates run into problems when they get to college — only 21 percent of them had graduated after six years, according to Tough — and then begins stressing character traits to turn things around.

And we also meet Nelson, the founder of OneGoal, which takes disadvantaged students when they are juniors in high school — most of whom believe that college is an unattainable goal — and transforms them into responsible young adults who can succeed in good universities. OneGoal has a "persistence rate," as Nelson calls it, of 85 percent, meaning that that's the percentage of students from OneGoal who are making their way through college. (The program hasn't been around long enough to have a graduation rate.) By comparison, nationally, around only 8 percent of the poorest students ever graduate from college. Nelson told me that OneGoal is expanding to Houston next year, and it hopes to be in five cities by 2017.

I hope it happens. Tough's book is utterly convincing that if disadvantaged students can learn the noncognitive skills that will allow them to persist in the face of difficulties — to reach for a goal even though it may off in the distance, to strive for something — they can achieve a better life.

It is easy to get discouraged about the state of education in America. Maybe that's why the presidential candidates aren't stressing it. Which is the other thing about "How Children Succeed." It's a source of optimism.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on September 8, 2012, on page A21 of the New York Times.