Minnesota Educator — January 2013
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Science and Practice Reroute Students Toward Success

The first thing for educators to know about Paul Tough’s book on innovative perspectives is its hopeful nature. “How Children Succeed” gathers the quests of teachers, school administrators, personality psychologists, medical experts and a renowned economist to observe, quantify, reshape and practice their disciplines in service of child and youth development that builds strong adults with bright futures.

The book has not a whiff of teacher scapegoating or current research - thin education “reform” narratives. It explores the traits, innate and malleable, that carry children forward more effectively than just trying to insist more cognitive capacity into kids.

“At its core,” Tough writes in introduction to a gracefully crafted, intense journey with innovators and struggling young people, “this book is about an ambitious and farreaching campaign to solve some of the most pervasive mysteries of life: Who succeeds and who fails? Why do some children thrive while others lose their way? And what can any of us do to steer an individual child—or a whole generation of children—away from failure and toward success?”

Each chapter weaves science with compelling stories about what works. The reader meets Elizabeth Dozier, who evolved as principal of a chaotic Chicago high school into a creative advocate for reducing the stress students bring with them as requisite to student success.

The reader meets Elizabeth Spiegel, a New York teacher of chess who develops middle school students into champions at the game, not as the conventional wisdom would dictate with brainy talent but by teaching them new ways to think.

That includes a theme throughout the book’s examples: How to learn from one’s failures. A sharp contrast in the book comes from the effects of not failing, but perhaps being afraid to among graduates of the elite private Riverdale Country School. Its grads tend to pursue safe professions expected of people in their economic class. But for the most part, Tough concentrates on young people from adverse circumstances and what lifts them up.

Tough is a vigorous critic of the status quo reliance on test performance as a predictor of success. He is especially pointed about the lack of correlation between ACT and SAT scores and what actually happens for college students. The reader will meet Jeff Nelson, the CEO of OneGoal, a teacher of at-risk students who transitioned his passion into a nonprofit that delivers effective preparation for African-American boys to make it to college and to graduate.

The people in Tough’s narrative animate what could otherwise read like an impressive but dry survey of the science about transforming an obsession with cognitive learning into one that celebrates and nurtures such character values as curiosity, self-control, zest, social intelligence, optimism, gratitude and grit. The result is an accessible book for busy practitioners who work with children as well as high-level policymakers and researchers.

His summary arguments are compelling for what would be genuine reform of child development and education that help children overcome the pernicious effects of poverty. They resonate with Jonathan Kozol’s sense of urgency. But Tough’s books also build on a journalist’s skills of balanced observation.
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