In 2013 I took part in the Seattle Public Schools Strategic Planning Stakeholder Taskforce, which was tasked with reestablishing the mission, vision and a set of policy priorities for coming the coming five years for the district. On that taskforce, I had the opportunity to discuss many of our districts’ most pressing education policy issues with many of the prominent education leaders and active stakeholders in the community. Invariably, many of the discussions revolved around the so-called Achievement Gap between students of poverty and those of middle-class or higher backgrounds, or certain groups of students of color as against white students.
The whole idea of the taskforce was to help the school district identify a few priority metrics by which we could judge student academic progress over the next five years, and thus judge the performance of district officials, school administrators and teachers in their use of time and taxpayer resources. At one point at our table a discussion was sparked about how to measure the intangibles, the social-emotional health and the whole child qualities that may not show up on test scores, but everyone knows is vital to a healthy and productive life. As one of my esteemed table-mates put it, “How do we prioritize the ‘Paul Tough Stuff’?”
Paul Tough, of course, is an education journalist, perhaps best known for his first book on education, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America. If you are not familiar, see the controversial documentary Waiting For Superman or google the Harlem Children’s Zone. I read that book in 2010 while teaching English in a community of violently displaced peoples outside of Barranquilla, Colombia. At the time, the book helped to explain some of the struggles I had in the classroom there, although the parallels were few and far between other than blanket poverty.
Last week I began reading Tough’s latest book on education, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. In this blog post I am going to collect my thoughts about the ‘Paul Tough Stuff’ that I find interesting and noteworthy. Hopefully, I will be able to make some connections to my work as a teacher in Colombia, a bilingual instructional assistant in a Title I school in Seattle and my other encounters with poverty and overcoming it. It just so happens that Coursera, the online MOOC platform, is offering a class on teaching character taught by KIPP Academy co-founder, David Levin. I am planning on auditing this class when it starts in mid-December.
Introduction & Chapter I
- Tools of the Mind, is a pre-K teaching method where students are “taught a variety of strategies, tricks, and habits that they can deploy to keep their minds on track.” The three big self-control skills are keeping your focus on the task at hand, managing and regulating emotions and organizing your thoughts. This concept has it roots in the work of the Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, who believed that childhood play is critical in the development of the mental tools that shape a child’s mind. Students make “play plans”, i.e. goal-setting, they use physical ‘mediator’ tools, i.e. visual cues, and they participate in ‘mature dramatic play’, i.e. complex structured play which teaches children how to ‘follow rules and regulate impulses’.
- The Cognitive Hypothesis – That success primarily depends on cognitive skills.
- James Heckman – Nobel Economist at the University of Chicago, GED founding board member and researcher. He found that GED recipients ended up with lives that looked a lot like those of high school drop-outs even though they had the cognitive skills to graduate via a GED program or enroll in a university. Heckman concluded that some psychological traits, non-cognitive skills, significantly helped high school graduates in later life. Traits like persisting through a boring & unrewarding task, delayed gratification, follow through on a plan. GED holders are “‘wise guys’ who lack the ability to think ahead, persist in tasks, or to adapt to their environments” Heckman is quoted.
- The Perry Preschool Project – Detroit area, War on Poverty study on the affects of early childhood interventions on low-income, low-IQ children. Heckman found that nearly two-thirds of the total benefit that Perry gave to its students was due to non-cognitive factors, “such as curiosity, self-control, and social fluidity.”
- The book’s premise: “What can any of us do to steer an individual child–or a whole generation of children–away from failure and toward success?”
- Elizabeth Dozier – Fenger High School Principal, Roseland neighborhood, South-Side of Chicago
- Nadine Burke Harris – Bayview Child Health Center, in Hunters Point, SF.
- Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) – Physical and sexual abuse, physical and emotional neglect, household dysfunction, divorced or separated parents, family members incarcerated, mentally ill family members, addiction problems within the family. All of which affect the long-term mental and physical health of a child.
- Vincent Felitti & Robert Anda – Authors of “The Relationship of Adverse Childhood Experiences to Adult Health: Turning Gold Into Lead.” The first ACE health research done by Kaiser Permanente. “When they looked at patients with a high ACE scores (7 or more) who didn’t smoke, didn’t drink to excess, and weren’t overweight, they found that their risk of ischemic heart disease (the single most common cause of death in the US) was still 360 percent higher than those with an ACE score of 0. The adversity these patients had experienced in childhood was making them sick” despite good habits and behavior as adults.
- The HPA Axis – Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal” axis, “the way that chemical signals cascade through the brain and body in reaction to intense situations.”
- The Firehouse Affect – The HPA Axis is good at blanket responses to stress and intense situations, but it is not surgical. In fact, it gives us stress responses that are not at all helpful in many or most intense situations.
- Executive Functions – Among Burke Harris’ patients with an ACE score of 0, only 3 percent had behavioral problems at school. Those patients with an ACE score of 4 or more, 51 percent of them had behavioral issues.
- The prefrontal cortex is adversely affected by stress. The prefrontal cortex is “critical in self-regulatory activities of all kinds, both emotional and cognitive.” Stress and ACE’s make it harder for children to sit still, concentrate, rebound from disappointments, and to follow directions.
- Executive Function – The ability to deal with confusing and unpredictable situations and information.
- Stroop Exec Function Test – The word red is written in green letters. What color is the word?
- Working Memory – The ability to keep a bunch of facts in your head at the same time.
- David Levin, co-founder of KIPP Academy. Yale grad, TFA grad. Houston area was where the first KIPP school was started, but the South Bronx middle school was their big moment (Michael Feinberg, other co-founder).
- http://www.kipp.org/mobile/video-60-Minutes.cfm (60 Minutes feature, 2000)
- 8 of 38 of the first cohort of South Bronx middle school graduates of KIPP went on to complete a four-year college degree. Nearly all of that cohort enrolled in university, but most did not finish.
- Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman – University of Pennsylvania professor of psychology, argues that optimism is a learnable skill, not an inborn trait.
- 3 P’s of negativity explanations: Permanent, Personal and Pervasive
- 3 explanations of positivity: Specific, Limited and Short-term
- Character Strengths and Virtues: Handbook & Classification, the “mirror image” of the DSM Manual of Mental Disorders (Noble: bravery, citizenship, fairness, wisdom, integrity, Emotional: love, humor, zest, appreciation of beauty, Human Interactions: social intelligence, kindness, gratitude)
- What “I think is great about the character-strength approach is that it is fundamentally devoid of value judgement” – David Levin
- KIPP slogans: Work Hard, Be Nice, There are no shortcuts, One School. One Mission. Two Skills. Academics and Character.,
- Riverdale Country School, elite prep school in the Bronx, headmaster is Dominic Randolph,
- Angela Duckworth – Penn Pyschology professor, “To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.”
- Walter Mischel, Columbia psychology professor, famous for the 1960’s experiment of the “Marshmallow Test”. Children are posed with a choice, eat the marshmallow immediately and they can only have one. Wait until the test proctor returns in 20 minutes and they can have two marshmallows. Seminal in both its assessment of techniques of will-power by children and the long-term effects of the children’s ability to delay gratification.
- The more children were able to distract themselves from the marshmallow at hand or think differently or abstractly about the marshmallow, the longer the children were able to delay eating the marshmallow.
- Self-control techniques are most effective when the student or child know what he or she wants, making less immediate, more intangible long-term goals harder in terms of self-discipline, delayed gratification (motivation).
- Duckworth divides motivation into two achievement dimensions, both are necessary to achieve long-term goals, neither is sufficient by itself:
1) Motivation – Drive, vision, goal-setting, intrinsic or extrinsic reward
2) Volition – willpower, self-control, grit, determination, persistence
- The Big Five human personality dimensions:
- Openness – Creativity, flexibility, linked with a liberal ideology
- Conscientiousness – Doing your best in all situations without a promise of material reward because of an internal motivation to always do your best.
- a) Orderly
- b) Hardworking
- c) Reliable
- d) Respectful of Social Norms
- e) High level of Self-Control is the most important ingredient to
- “People high in conscientiousness get better grades in high school and college; they commit fewer crimes; and they stay married longer. They live longer…and a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease.” Along with improved workplace and material outcomes.
- Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, two Marxist economists, found in their 1976 study of character and schools that students with the highest GPA’s were the ones who scored the lowest on measures of creativity and independence, and highest on the measures of punctuality, delay of gratification, predictability, and dependability. For Bowles and Gintis this indicated corporate America’s desire to create and maintain a docile and dependable workforce, “bland and reliable sheep”, so they created a school system which rewarded conscientiousness.
- Other personality pyschologists also consider too much conscientiousness to be a negative, an indicator of excessive restraint, difficulty making decisions, unnecessarily delay gratification or deny themselves pleasure, “classic squares: they’re compulsive, anxious and repressed.”
- Grit: “a passionate commitment to a single mission and an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission.”
- The KIPP and Riverdale 7 Important Character Strengths:
- Zest – Indicator: a student raises her hand to answer every question.
- Social Intelligence
- Optimism – Indicator: a student believes that effort will improve their future.
- Curiosity – Indicator: a student is eager to explore new things.
- CPA – Character Point Average, grades based on an assessment of student character strengths
- Moral Character – Ethical values such as fairness, generosity, integrity
- Performance Character – Effort, diligence and perseverance
- Madeline Levine, Marin County pyschologist, who says that children of affluent parents now exhibit “unexpectedly high rates of emotional problems beginning in junior high school” because affluent parents are more likely to be “emotionally distant from their children while at the same time insisting on high levels of achievement.” Levine is featured in the Race To Nowhere documentary.
- For Riverdale students, character and the necessity of character building takes on a different meaning. As the Riverdale counselor, Fierst, puts it, “We are letting you in on the secret of what successful people are like” at KIPP, with impoverished students. While Riverdale’s students are not dependent on their teachers for such information and examples. And yet, Fierst also says, “Our kids (at Riverdale) don’t put up with a lot of suffering. They don’t have a threshold for it. They’re protected against it quite a bit. And when they do get uncomfortable, we hear from their parents.”
→ On both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, “If your premise is that your students are lacking in deep traits like grit and gratitude and self-control, you’re implicitly criticizing the parenting they’ve received.
→ Riverdale creates a high floor, not a high ceiling for its students. It a risk-management strategy for the parents so as to make it very hard for their children to “fall out of the upper class”. See this Vox.com interview with Peter Thiel for more on this issue.
- Randolph says, “The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure…And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything”…because there is a high floor, so not a large chance of ‘original success’ or failure, i.e. no real stakes at play. See the Peter Thiel interview for more on this also, he says he is not a believer in failure, but instead of building successes.
- Is it possible that children of different socioeconomic groups need different character building challenges, maybe affluent students need real stakes and a risk of failure in an endeavor in order to build grit, while students of poverty already have grit, but instead need to build conscientiousness and self-control?
- SLANT – Sit up, Listen, Ask questions, Nod, and Track the speaker
- Code-switching – The ability to recognize and accurately perform the behaviors appropriate to each different cultural setting. The problem with code-switching is that “the kids who are actually part of the dominant culture don’t necessarily act like it at school.” Anti-conformist behavior at Riverdale is the dominant culture’s behavior, while at KIPP everyone has to conform in order to succeed.
Note: This is controversial ground, where race, culture and socioeconomic power come into full focus in the book, yet Tough seems to avoid the deeper implications of this code-switching issue. Are there problems with a school serving low-income students of color and enforcing the expectations of a dominant white culture of affluence which does not even need to follow its own social norms? Why do these students of color need to adhere to these proscribed cultural expectations in that case? Why do they have to diligently code-switch if society has been set up to see their social norms as less desirable, and thus set-up to make success harder for these students of color? Why do they have to worker harder at this, or at all, if they can compete with the Riverdale students on the same level academically? Or, is there just something fundamental about grit and self-control which make them keys to success across cultures, and so we’ve got to teach them in appropriate ways differentiated for each classroom culture?
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) – “Using the conscious mind to recognize negative or self-destructive thoughts or interpretations and to talk yourself into a better perspective.”
- Metacognition – Thinking about thinking
- Thinking about character and about evaluating character are both metacognitive processes
- Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions (MCII) 2-step process –
- Mental Contrasting is “Concentrating on a positive outcome and simultaneously concentrating on the obstacles in the way.” This creates “a strong association between future and reality that signals the need to overcome the obstacles in order to attain the desired future” say Gabrielle Oettingen and Duckworth.
- Implementation Intentions are “specific plans in the form of if/then statements that link the obstacles with ways to overcome them, such as ‘If I get distracted by TV after school, then I will wait to watch TV until after I finish my homework.’”
- MCII is engaging the prefrontal cortex, which again is instrumental in self-regulatory processes, because we are making structured rules for ourselves that can create a willful determination that turns into an automatic response, or habit.
- William James, American philosopher, “Habit and character are essentially the same thing.”
- It is a powerful and easily understood thing to tell a child that some people have good habits and others have bad habits. Habits can be hard to change, but certainly not impossible, while character sounds a bit more daunting. Again, see the definition of conscientiousness, it is when people are in the habit of doing the ‘right’ or ‘good’ thing, “meaning the more socially acceptable or long-term-benefit-enhancing option.”
- KIPP has a strong group identity. See South Korea as a national example of strong group identity with a mostly positive result as well. This group identity can have a strong impact on achievement.
- Stereotype Threat – The theory that when a group of people are worried about confirming a stereotype about your group, you get anxious, and as a result you create a worse outcome.
- Carol Dweck – Growth Mindset, “Regardless of the facts on malleability of intelligence, students do much better academically if they believe intelligence is malleable.”
- Tell students, “Intelligence is not a finite endowment, but rather an expandable capacity that increases with mental work” and the growth-mindset message may improve academic outcomes for your students.
- So at KIPP, “Levin wanted math teachers to use the character strengths in word problems, he explained that history teachers could use them in classes about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad.” And discussions about literary characters and their personality traits in light of growth-mindset, the 7 character strengths, and MCII.
- “If you don’t have that kind of social safety net (that Riverdale students enjoy) – and children in low-income families almost by definition do not – you need to compensate in another way. To succeed, you need more grit, more social intelligence, more self-control than wealthier kids.”
- And here Tough gets back to the code-switching reality. I think his above statement is undoubtedly true and undoubtedly unfair to children of poverty and especially children of color. As teachers, we need to recognize this, and work with parents to assess the character strengths and areas of growth in our students no matter their background, but especially in the students Tough is talking about.
Chapter 3 –
- Elizabeth Spiegel, Chess Teacher at IS 318 in Brooklyn, a Title I school and the best Chess public middle school in the country, or just the best.
- Elo ~ (10 x IQ) + 1000, meaning a chess player’s tournament rating, your IQ score multiplied by ten and add 1000 and you get what your maximum chess player rating could approximately be (~). This proposes that there is an IQ dependent cap on a person’s chess ability.
- Executive functions of chess at IS 318:
- Cognitive flexibility – The ability to see alternative solutions to problems, to think outside the box, to negotiate unfamiliar situations.
- Cognitive self-control – The ability to inhibit an instinctive or habitual response and substitute a more effective, less obvious one.
- Spiegel says that, “Teaching chess is really about teaching the habits that go along with thinking.” This should sound familiar, it rhymes with the notion that character and habits are really the same thing. “Like how to understand your mistakes and how to be more aware of your thought processes.” Teaching chess for Spiegel is like ‘psychotherapy’ for most people, you go over habitual mistakes and try to understand why you make them.
- Spiegel, “I try to teach my students that losing (or failing) is something you do, not something you are.”
- Chess-in-the-schools, NYC – http://www.chessintheschools.org/
- Spiegel, “I definitely have a warm relationship with a lot of the kids. But I think my job as a teacher is to be more like a mirror, to talk about what they did on the chessboard and help them think about it.” No condescension! Take the students seriously, believe in their abilities and challenge them to improve themselves.
- The Marshall Chess Club, Greenwich Village, NYC
- Laszlo (psychologist) and Klara Polgar, raised three genius daughters, Judit Polgar is considered the best chess player of all time.
- Grit and Flow reinforce each other, they are both represent a “dedicated pursuit of a goal” and require strong self-discipline.
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist collaborator with Martin Seligman, created the idea of optimal experiences or FLOW, when a person is totally engaged by a pursuit, in the moment, free of distractions. “Intense concentration”
- Falsification: the only way to test the validity of a theory is to prove it wrong. This was coined by the Austrian philosopher Sir Karl Popper. People do not look for contradictory evidence, instead they automatically look for data that proves them right, “confirmation bias”. If a chess player becomes adept at being more pessimistic about a certain move or series of moves, they can more easily falsify their move theory and discover the optimal choice for their next move. You still need optimism in order to be confident and decisive and relentless in your pursuit of success on the chessboard.
Chapter 4 – College Success
- The US is 8 out of 34 OECD countries in terms of college enrollment, but ranks second to last in terms of the percentage of college freshmen who go on to graduate.
- “An American with a BA can now expect to earn 83 percent more than an American with only a high school diploma.”
- William G Bowen, former president of Princeton University, Michael S McPherson, former president of Macalester College in Minnesota, and their 2009 book, Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities.
- a) Undermatching was a big problem among teenagers of poverty, meaning they
were disproportionately attending schools below their academic achievement
level. Undermatching did not mean students more easily graduated from college,
quite the opposite effect, actually.
- b) The best predictor of college completion was a student’s high school GPA, no matter where the students attended high school, nor the caliber of the university they entered
- c) Angela Duckworth used the same data and found that standardized test scores were correlated to pure IQ test scores, while GPA was best predicted by test scores of self-control, ie non-cognitive, pre-frontal, executive function, character stuff!!!!
- Jeff Nelson, former TFA teacher, CEO of OneGoal
- Asking students from poverty to spend 16 years delaying gratification for a chance at ‘success’ and stability is like a grand, real-life marshmallow test, except instead of a known reward, it is an unknown and exotic reward that anyone would be hard-pressed to imagine.
Chapter 5 – A Better Path
“The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure. And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.” – Dominic Randolph
- Steve Jobs 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech on failure, “the lightness of being a beginner again” and more: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF8uR6Z6KLc
- High LG Parenting (licking and grooming) –
- “First, as much as possible, you protect him from serious trauma and chronic stress;
- then, even more important, you provide him with a secure, nurturing relationship with at least one parent and ideally two.”
- Then, you teach your child how to manage stress by repeatedly providing LG “when their pups were stressed out.”
- Last, “some child-size adversity, a chance to fall down and get back up on his own, without help.” How to manage failure.
- Ivy League Insurance Policies, see Peter Thiel Vox interview also, before the Great Recession of 2008, three-quarters of all Princeton grads went into one of two finance careers. Ivy League students, according to James Kwak, are motivated by two main decision rules, “close down as few options as possible; and only do things that increase the possibility of future overachievement.”
- Tough’s education reform and poverty syllogism:
- Scores on achievement tests in school correlate strongly with life outcomes, no matter a student’s racial or socioeconomic background
- Children in low-income homes did much worse on achievement tests than children in middle-income and high-income homes.
- Certain schools, using a very different model than traditional public schools, were able to substantially raise the achievement-test scores of low-income children.
- Conclusion: if we replicate and scale to a national level the accomplishments of those schools (KIPP academy, etc.) we could make a huge dent in poverty’s impact on children’s success.
→ Eric Hanushek, Thomas Kane, William Sanders, the economists and statisticians that first made the claim that through ‘value-added models’ we could identify effective teachers and ineffective teachers.
→ The “original papers, the ones by Hanushek and others that are now cited by reform advocates, concluded that variations in teacher quality probably accounted for less than 10 percent of the gap between high- and low-performing students.
- Gates Foundation Measures of Effective Teaching (MET Project)
- 7 million American children are growing up in a family earning less than $11,000 a year, making more likely the effects of ACE on long-term health, among many other disadvantages
- While some charters and public schools have found a way to intervene successfully in the lives of “better-off” low-income children, those making $41,000 a year in their family of four, NO ONE HAS FOUND A SUCCESSFUL INTERVENTION METHOD FOR THE “DEEPLY DISADVANTAGE CHILDREN”.
- Orgs that are trying to find systems of support and intervention for the poorest of the poor in America:
- Center for Youth Wellness – Bayview Hunters Point, Nadine Burke Harris
- Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up (ABC Program)
- Tools of the Mind
- Turnaround for Children – Character-building and Cognitive behavioral therapy
- KIPP Through College
The crux of the problem of poverty and education achievement gaps according to Paul Tough:
- The root causes are:
- A home and community that create high levels of stress
- The absence of a secure relationship with a caregiver
- The learned behavior of managing stress appropriately
- The barriers to conversation and intervention of poverty:
- The science of ACE’s is not well known and is dense
- If you are not low-income and not a person of color, it feels very ‘uneasy’ talking about the dysfunction in a certain community’s homes.
- It challenges political truths on the left and right. That character matters and it can be cultivated by environment of a child, challenge long held notions in red and blue states.