When Barack Obama campaigned for the White House four years ago, Democrats and their allies in education policy circles were embroiled in a fierce debate over how best to improve the educational performance of the millions of K-12 students living in poverty.

One camp, a coalition of researchers and educators formed by the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal Washington think tank, argued in a manifesto called A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education that tackling poverty’s causes and consequences was the way to free disadvantaged students from the grip of educational failure. “Schools can ameliorate some of the impact of social and economic disadvantage on achievement,” the coalition wrote. But, it continued, “[t]here is no evidence that school improvement strategies by themselves can substantially, consistently, and sustainably close these gaps.”

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

by Paul Tough
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pp.

In sharp contrast, a second reform group, led by then school superintendents Joel Klein of New York and Michelle Rhee of Washington, D.C., and others drafted a competing reform manifesto under the auspices of an organization known as the Education Equity Project that stressed tougher accountability for schools and teachers, governance reforms for failing schools, and the expansion of charter schools. They largely refused to acknowledge that poverty rather than school quality was the root cause of the educational problems of disadvantaged kids, for fear that saying so would merely reinforce a long-standing belief among public educators that students unlucky enough to live in poverty shouldn’t be expected to achieve at high levels — and public educators shouldn’t be expected to get them there.

While one of the few reformers with feet in both camps, Chicago schools superintendent Arne Duncan, was named U.S. secretary of education, the Klein cabal won the policy fight. The Obama agenda has focused almost exclusively on systemic school reform to address the achievement deficits of disadvantaged students: standards, testing, teacher evaluations, and a continued, if different, focus on accountability. The administration’s one education-related poverty-fighting program, Duncan’s Promise Neighborhoods initiative, is a rounding error in the Department of Education’s budget.

Duncan was right to align himself early on with both Democratic factions. Good schools can, of course, make a difference in student achievement just by being good. And the inadequate nutrition, housing, language development, and early educational experiences that many impoverished students suffer are real barriers to learning.

But in the last several years a new body of neuroscientific and psychological research has made its way to the surface of public discourse that suggests that the most severe consequences of poverty on learning are psychological and behavioral rather than cognitive. The lack of early exposure to vocabulary and other cognitive deficits that school reformers have stressed are likely no more problematic, the research suggests, than the psychological impact of growing up in poverty. Poverty matters, the new work confirms, but we’ve been trying to address it in the wrong way.

Former New York Times Magazine editor Paul Tough brings this new science of adversity to general audiences in How Students Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, an engaging book that casts the school reform debate in a provocative new light. In his first book, about the antipoverty work of the Harlem Children’s Zone, Tough stressed the importance of early cognitive development in bridging the achievement gap between poor and more affluent students. In How Students Succeed, he introduces us to a wide-ranging cast of characters—economists, psychologists, and neuroscientists among them — whose work yields a compelling new picture of the intersection of poverty and education.

There’s James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, who found in the late 1990s that students who earned high school diplomas through the General Educational Development program, widely known as the GED, had the same future prospects as high school dropouts, a discovery that led him to conclude that there were qualities beyond courses and grades that made a big difference in students’ success. His inclinations were confirmed when he dug into the findings of the famous Perry Preschool Project. In the early days of the federal War on Poverty in the 1960s, researchers provided three- and four-year-olds from impoverished Ypsilanti, Michigan, with enriched preschooling, and then compared their life trajectories over several decades with those of Ypsilanti peers who had not received any early childhood education.

The cognitive advantages of being in the Perry program faded after a couple of years. Test scores between the two groups evened out, and the program was considered something of a failure. But Heckman and others discovered that years later the Perry preschoolers were living much better lives, including earning more and staying out of trouble with the law. And because under the Perry program teachers systematically reported on a range of students’ behavioral and social skills, Heckman was able to learn that students’ success later in life was predicted not by their IQs but by the noncognitive skills like curiosity and self-control that the Perry program had imparted.

Tough presents striking research from neuroendocrinology and other fields revealing that childhood psychological traumas — from physical and sexual abuse to physical and emotional neglect, divorce, parental incarceration, and addiction, things found more often (though by no means exclusively) in impoverished families — overwhelm developing bodies’ and minds’ ability to manage the stress of events, resulting in “all kinds of serious and long-lasting negative effects, physical, psychological, and neurological.”

There’s a direct link between the volume of such trauma and rates of heart disease, cancer, alcoholism, smoking, drug use, attempted suicide — and schooling problems. As Tough writes, Children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointment, and harder to follow directions. And that has a direct effect on their yearperformance in school. When you’re overwhelmed by uncontrollable impulses [caused in part by disrupted brain chemistry] and distracted by negative feelings, it’s hard to learn the alphabet.

In particular, such stressors compromise the higher order thinking skills that allow students to sort out complex and seemingly contradictory information such as when the letter C is pronounced like K (what psychologists call “executive functioning”), and their ability to keep a lot of information in their heads at once, a skill known as “working memory” that’s crucial to success in school, college, and work.

The good news, Tough reports, is that studies reveal that the destructive stressors of poverty can be countered. Close, nurturing relationships with parents or other caregivers, he writes, have been shown to engender resilience in children that insulates them from many of the worst effects of a harsh early environment. “This message can sound a bit warm and fuzzy,” Tough says, “but it is rooted in [the] cold, hard science” of neurological and behavioral research, though such nurturing is often in short supply in broken, impoverished homes (and even in many intact households and communities).

As important, Tough contends, is research demonstrating that resilience, optimism, perseverance, focus, and the other noncognitive skills that Heckman and others have found to be so important to success in school and beyond are malleable—they can be taught, practiced, learned, and improved, even into adulthood. Tough points to the work of Martin Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist and author of Learned Optimism, and Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, whose research has demonstrated that students taught to believe that people can grow intellectually earn higher grades than those who sense that intelligence is fixed. This commitment to the possibility of improvement, Seligman, Dweck, and others contend, invests students with the ability to persevere, rebound from setbacks, and overcome fears.

Psychologist Angela Duckworth, a protégé of Seligman’s, has done a range of studies—on college students with low SAT scores, West Point plebes, and national spelling bee contestants, among others—and has found that a determined response to setbacks, an ability to focus on a task, and other noncognitive character strengths are highly predictive of success, much more so than IQ scores.

That’s why some of the schools in the highly regarded KIPP charter school network have added the teaching of such skills to their curricula. And they’ve coupled their traditional academic report cards with ”character report cards” developed by KIPP cofounder Dave Levin, Duckworth, and others. Concerned about their students’ inability to make it through high school and college even though they’re prepared academically, they grade students on self-control, gratitude, optimism, curiosity, grit, zest, and social intelligence. Other experts add conscientiousness, perseverance, work habits, time management, and an ability to seek out help to the list of key nonacademic ingredients of success in school and beyond. Students from impoverished backgrounds need such skills in larger doses, Tough argues, because they often lack the support systems available to more affluent students.

To Tough, the logic of the importance of noncognitive qualities to students’ futures is clear: we need to rethink our solutions to the academic plight of impoverished students. The studies of Dweck, Duckworth, and others support conservative claims that individual character should be an important part of policy discussions about poverty. “There is no anti-poverty tool that we can provide for disadvantaged young people that will be more valuable that character strengths,” Tough writes, a claim that won’t be easy for liberals to stomach.

But, Tough adds, the contributions of character traits to students’ success goes a long way toward refuting conservative “cognitive determinists” like Charles Murray, who claim that success is mainly a function of IQ and that education is largely about sorting people and giving the brightest the chance to take full advantage of their potential.

The research that Tough explores also undercuts claims by Klein, Rhee, and other signers of the Education Equity Project manifesto that we can get impoverished students where they need to be educationally through higher standards, stronger teachers, and other academic reforms alone.

What we need to add to the reform equation, Tough argues, is a system of supports for children struggling with the effects of the trauma and stress of poverty. He urges the creation of pediatric wellness centers and classes that help impoverished parents build the emotional bonds with their young children that are so important to the development of children’s neurological and psychological defenses against poverty’s ravages. He supports KIPP’s efforts to engender resilience, persistence, and other character strengths in its students, both in school and then beyond through support programs like KIPP Through College. Work by David Yeager of the University of Texas at Austin and others have shown that even modest interventions, like teachers writing encouraging notes on student’ essays, motivate children to persevere academically.

Above all, Tough makes a compelling case for giving poverty greater prominence in the education policy debate. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has talked mostly about school choice and states’ rights in education, playing to conservatives and Catholics, as every GOP candidate since Ronald Reagan has done. But the new science of adversity could be the basis of a compelling reform agenda in a second Obama term—one that merges the competing progressive agendas of the last presidential election cycle.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Follow Thomas on Twitter @thomas_toch. Thomas Toch is director of FutureEd, an independent think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.