Fenger High School, in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood, fits to a T the worst-case scenario story we’ve all heard: It’s in an impoverished neighborhood, it has faced insane amounts of gang violence, and its test scores fall so far below the state average that viewing them as a graph is like looking at archeological strata. And yet, one can’t argue that Chicago Public Schools hasn’t made an effort to pull the school out of the bottom bracket. Former schools CEOs Arne Duncan and Paul Vallas tried several initiatives, including hiring an outside contractor to coach teachers, creating a freshman academy and building a math-and-science academy replete with a $525,000 NASA-sponsored science lab. The school continued to face the same challenges.
The answer to Fenger’s and urban education’s ills—or as close as there can be to an answer—may be found in the latest book by New York Times writer Paul Tough, How Children Succeed (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27). It begins with the work of University of Chicago economist James Heckman, who studied the GED and discovered that earners of that degree were no more likely to achieve success than the average person who didn’t finish high school. That has led to numerous other studies, many of which are all pointing to the same thing: Achievement is less dependent upon early mastery of certain skills (e.g. reading, math) and more the product of noncognitive skills, what Tough calls “grit” and “character.”
While these terms are vague enough to produce eye-rolling, Tough nimbly sifts through study after study that pin down what these words mean in practical terms, as well as identifying various interventions that may help develop them in kids. Psychological studies of children show that a child who has been taught by her parents from a young age how to control her emotions will, on balance, fare better in school. That self-control—one of the “executive functions” necessary for success—will allow the student to repeat unexciting tasks, a process otherwise known as “doing homework.”
Tough’s first book about education, Whatever It Takes, profiled Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, who has made waves in urban education by trying to address the needs of a child holistically, including coaching parents. His work with Canada introduced him to Heckman, which took him to Chicago, where a large amount of Tough’s research was conducted.
“ I think there’s just a lot of interesting thinking and experimentation going on in Chicago,” says Tough, who spent time with the city’s Youth Advocate Programs and OneGoal initiative. “There’s great research going on, including the Consortium on Chicago School Research—there’s nothing like that in New York or anywhere else in the country.”
What’s surprising about the book is that it’s essentially advocating what conservatives have often repeated over the years when discussing education (aside from pleading for vouchers)—that kids need to be taught self-control, grit, etc. The paths may be different—Tough notes that “attachment parenting” can often lead to improved executive functions, which would probably be a hard sell to the bootstrap-pullers at the Heritage Foundation—but the goal is the same.
“I do think there’s potentially a lot of common ground,” Tough says. “It’s absolutely true that families have a big role to play. The problem with the conservative point of view is that they feel like that’s the end of the story. We’ve identified that these parents should be doing a better job, but they have no clue how to get from there to something more positive. We have a responsibility to help them and to figure out how we can help those families.”
Tough chats with Alex Kotlowitz at the Harold Washington Library Center on Monday 10.