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Hugh Hewitt Book Club

Paul Tough On How Children Succeed

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HH: So pleased to introduce you to Paul Tough. If you don’t already know who he is, he’s the author most recently of the book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity And The Hidden Power Of Character, which by the way, Paul, has one of the best covers I have ever seen, and it’s got great content as well. Welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show, great to have you on.

PT: Thanks, great to be here.

HH: The original book you wrote, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest To Change Harlem And America, a bestseller. Everyone knows about it. And then you follow up with How Children Succeed. I blew through this last night and today flying over to Phoenix, and thanks for coming to my California studio, even though I’m not there. How’s the reception to this, because this is some tough medicine, some tough love for a lot of schools that will not want to hear what you’ve got to say?

PT: I’ve been surprised at how positive the reaction has been. So I thought the same thing that you thought, that this was going to challenge a lot of what’s out there in terms of educational doctrine, and I think it does. But I think there was really a hunger out there, you know, among parents, among teachers, among policymakers, even, to say that we’re doing things wrong. We need to think differently about what kids really need.

HH: We’ll get into the specifics of that now through the end of the hour. But since the book it titled How Children Succeed, I want to begin with your meta-definition. What do you, Paul Tough, think is genuine success?

PT: So you know, most of the people that I started, when I first started reporting this book, I was mostly hanging out with economists. And economists define success in a pretty narrow way. They define it as making money and graduating from, what kind of educational attainment you got. And I think that certainly matters. You know, how much salary someone makes, how many degrees they have matters. But I also think that there’s a more robust definition of success out there, that it matters if you’re happy and fulfilled and productive in other sorts of ways. But I tend to think when we’re looking at policy that those measures, you know, measuring how much people are making, and how many degrees they have, those actually aren’t bad measures, that those things actually correlate pretty well with those other more nuanced definitions of success.

HH: One of the most interesting characters in How Children Succeed is Jeff Nelson, the CEO of One Goal, and he’s a Teach For America alum. And so I made some notes as I was writing this to talk to you about Teach For America. A lot of idealistic kids…I met one this weekend. I went to my 35th Harvard reunion in Cambridge this weekend and met a young Teach For America enrollee who just graduated from Hobart and William Smith College is in route to work in either Bed-Stuy or Roxbury in Boston, I can’t remember, and I thought to myself, all these people think of their success after college as starting at Teach For America, but they don’t last long. Jeff Nelson did. Do you think he defines genuine success as money and credentials?

PT: No, I think he’s pretty idealistic.

HH: Yup.

PT: So you know, I mean, he’s going to business school right now, and so he certainly doesn’t discount that stuff. But he is clearly a man with a mission, so he came out of Teach For America really believing that there was this deep problem in the education system, especially the education of kids like the ones that he was teaching on the south side of Chicago. And he wanted to, you know, he’s a real entrepreneur. He’s a social entrepreneur, but he’s an entrepreneur. He wanted to try to solve this problem and create an organization that could help solve that. And so he came up with this group called One Goal that is a really revolutionary program. Right now, it’s just in Chicago and expanding into Houston, in 25 high schools in Chicago, a three year program that takes kids who are not at all headed to college, who are, you know, have no one in their family who’s gone to college, and through junior and senior year of high school, and freshman year of college, give them this whole sort of attitude shift about college, teach them both sort of the nuts and bolts of how you apply to college, how you get financial aid, how you deal with a roommate, how you deal with professors, but also try to develop these non-cognitive skills, these characters strengths that matter so much in terms of graduating from college. And what they believe is that you know, it’s not that hard to get kids to college if they don’t have a lot of college in their families, but it is really hard to get them to stay in college, to graduate, to make it through those four years. So in developing these sorts of character strengths in these kids, I think, anyway, the data so far suggests they’re going to do a great job of really improving that college persistence rate among the kids who enroll in their program.

HH: And here is the most interesting insight. There are a lot of interesting insights in How Children Succeed, but one of the is that freshman year in college, according to Jeff Nelson, and I think you buy into it, is the magical time to close achievement gaps, because kids who come out of intact, middle, upper-middle, and upper class families arrive at their college, and they spend their first year having fun.

PT: Right.

HH: Drinking too much, rushing fraternities, going to football games, whereas kids who achieve, who are stressed out kids, who come out of adversity, and we’ll talk more about that as well, they have a year in which it’s like the other ones aren’t running the race.

PT: Right, exactly.

HH: And they get a year to catch up. I think that is just an extraordinary insight. It had never occurred to me, because you’re absolutely right about that freshman year.

PT: Right, and I think it’s brilliant. And I mean, the reality is that most of those low income kids are not succeeding in that freshman year of college. That’s when a lot of them drop out, because they are so overwhelmed by how difficult college is for them. But if they get there with the sort of character, the motivation, just the belief that they’re going to make it through college, it is this amazing opportunity that while the rich kids are goofing off, they have this opportunity to catch up, and that’s what’s happening with so many of these kids in One Goal.

HH: Now Paul Tough, before we go further on How Children Succeed, I want every parent out there with a wayward college kid to hear this. You dropped out of college as a freshman at Columbia. I love that story, and I wish I could read your eight page letter. Was that a letter home to mom and dad why you were doing this?

PT: You know, it was actually sort of a letter to myself. I never actually sent it to anybody, but I think I wrote it so that I could look back decades later and try and figure out what the heck I was doing. But yeah, I know, it’s a little strange that someone who is saying that college graduation is this really important goal for us to have for individual kids, and for society as a whole, that I am actually a college dropout. I actually dropped out twice. I was very persistent in my dropping out. But you know, it is true, and I have lots of regrets about the fact that I dropped out. I think what it tells me is you know, some kids don’t need college. Some kids are able to succeed in life without going through college. You know, there’s all the Mark Zuckerbergs and Steve Jobs out there who are able to make it. But for most kids, especially at this moment in this economy, a college degree matters a whole lot. And so if we want to make some big changes in improving the college persistence and college graduation rate, especially among low income kids, is a really important policy goal.

HH: Yeah, I can just imagine a parent getting a letter saying I’m going to bicycle from Atlanta to Halifax, don’t worry, I’m dropping out of Columbia, and just being a little bit upset. But now, in terms of your parents, where did you come from, because you don’t talk, you don’t give us much autobiography. Maybe they’re in your earlier books, but other than that situation at Columbia and what you did afterwards, what do you come out of?

PT: So I’m Canadian. I grew up in Toronto, and I’m really from a family of educators. My mom was a kindergarten teacher, my father was a professor of adult education, both my grandfathers were teachers as well. And so it was a very school-oriented family. And so I think that had something to do with why I am not an education writer, basically, why I spend so much time in schools. But it also might have something to do with why I dropped out of school, and why at that stage in my rebellious teenage years, I felt like I needed to find myself, some kind of identity that was outside of a school context.

HH: All right, so now we’ve got all these movies and books about education reform. Jay Mathews, frequent guest on the program, we once spent three hours talking about Work Hard, Be Nice on this show.

PT: You’re great.

HH: And all this stuff is devoted to it. Do you see, we’ve got a minute to the break, do you see the National Education Teacher Associations changing to embrace reform?

PT: Well, I mean, so I’ve got some kind of complicated ideas about education reform. I think there are some great ideas behind the education reform movement, and I write about KIPP in this book and in my first book. But I think there are lots of ways that the education reform movement has been too narrowly focused on a couple of very specific solutions to this very big problem, you know, that it’s all about, like, teacher evaluations, it’s all about test scores. And so I think we need a bigger conversation about how to reform our schools, and it has to start with this question of what skills are we really teaching the kids.

— – –

HH: You really have to read this if you at all care about how children do succeed, if you’re a teacher or a parent or an educator or a legislator. It’s linked over at, and you’ll just love the latest social science research. It’s kind of the next book in the David Brooks-Jay Mathews line of books that I’ve explored here about what happens to kids when they’re young, and why we do not turn them into successful students more often than not in America. Paul, you’ve been asked to come out to California, and you’re going to spend part of your time talking to the commission on which I’ve served for fifteen years, the Orange County Children And Families Commission. And every year, we get between $30 and $40 million dollars, the nine of us, to spend on children 0-5, to get them healthy and ready to learn by the time they enter kindergarten. $30-$40 million dollars a year we’ve been spending for fifteen years, and we do a lot of good things, and we do a lot of stupid things, because we’re a government agency. But we try really hard. If you were the king of the forest, not queen, not duke, not earl, and someone gave you $30-$40 million dollars a year to spend on the children of Orange County, 0-5, to get them ready to learn, what would you do?

PT: Well, I think I would try to work, and pretty intensively, with their families. So there’s been a whole movement, you know, in Orange County and well beyond, to try and improve outcomes for kids in those early years. And I think a lot of it has been really positive. A lot of good things have happened. We’ve been working on how to get kids reading earlier, on how to improve their other cognitive skills early on. But I think there has been a lack of balance between cognitive skills and non-cognitive skills, especially in those early years. And a lot of what my book is about is these character strengths, or non-cognitive skills, things like grit and perseverance, and conscientiousness, and self-control, these matter a whole lot when you get to college and beyond, and before as well. But one of the most remarkable things, I think, in the neuroscience and the psychology research that’s coming out is that those skills, the basis of those skills, is formed in early childhood. And right now, we’re not focusing on that stuff very much when we think about 0-3. We think about how do we get them ready to ready, ready to learn. But we don’t think about how do we get them ready to exercise self-control, to be conscientious. And so much of that, it turns out, comes from the family. And so for the most part, when we think about policy, we think, you know, it’s hard to influence families. Families have got to do what they do, and we’ll do something else in schools or in daycare centers, or in preschools. But the programs and the interventions that I find most promising are ones that work more directly with families, and especially families with a lot of needs, families where there isn’t a lot of cohesion, where there is a lot of instability. That’s terrible for kids. That’s is a really difficult way for kids to grow up, and it’s an especially difficult place for them to learn these sorts of important character strengths. So if we can work more with families to try to build more stable environments for kids, I think we can have a huge impact.

HH: Well, let’s go where that, this is what I was thinking about when I read about rats. There’s a lot about rats in Paul’s new book, How Children Succeed. High licking and grooming mom rats and low licking and grooming mom rats. And so just take the floor and explain this research. It is fascinating stuff.

PT: I agree. I love this study. So this is done by a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal named Michael Meaney. And what he found is that when he looked at these mother rats raising their pups in his lab that some of them would do a whole lot of this nurturing behavior called licking and grooming when their pups got stressed out, and others would not. And he wanted to find out what the long term effect of that is. So he divided these rates into two categories, the high LG and the low LG mother rats. And the ones who did a whole lot of licking and grooming, their kids did better in all sorts of ways. They were braver, they were more curious, they did better at mazes, they lived longer. And so it turns out that this, you know, these small nurturing behaviors that parents do, and there’s a lot of indications that this is true for human parents and human kids as well, they make a difference in the long term. And so what I think this means for humans is that when you grow up in what, with what psychologists call secure attachment, with a close attuned relationship with a parent or another caregiver, especially in the first 12 or 18 months of life, you do better. There’s one study out of the University of Minnesota that found that you could predict with 77% accuracy which kids were going to graduate from high school based on what their relationship was with their parents just in the first few weeks of life. So those early relationships matter a whole lot, and mostly, we don’t think that we can do much about that, that we don’t think we can affect it. But some of the interventions that I’m most struck by suggest that we can, that we can help parents become better lickers and groomers.

HH: You know, on Page 31, that part of the genome that gets turned on is the one that allows for secure attachment. I think people, if they read that, they’ll start thinking about the young moms in their life, and start talking to them about it. But it is a massively difficult thing to do on the social services side. I mean, it maybe, it’s impossible to do with a methamphetamine addict, right?

PT: It’s pretty difficult, but there are a couple of experiments, one out in Oregon and one in Delaware that’s been working with parents who are not quite methamphetamine addicts, but are in real trouble, and they’ve been able to change their parenting behavior in a really significant way. So I think there’s some hope.

— – – –

HH: Paul, there’s one thing I’ve got to argue with you with. Page 195, where the typical conservative argument on poverty falls short is that it often stops right there. Character matters, and that’s it. There’s not much society can do until poor people shape up and somehow develop better character. In the meantime, the rest of us are off the hook. We can lecture poor people, we can punish them if they don’t behave the way we tell them to. But that’s where our responsibility ends. I simply have never heard a conservative say that in my life, and I’m a conservative’s conservative. So I just think that might be what they say in Manhattan, but most of us actually lay awake at night worrying about this, and trying to…it’s just, it’s so intractable. And I think the intractability is best demonstrated, the stories you told of the Chicago attempts at reform, serial attempts at reform, by people like Arne Duncan, people who knew what they were trying to do, they all failed miserably when it came to Mush. Tell people about Mush.

PT: Yeah, so a lot of my reporting in Chicago was done at one high school that is, was particularly troubled, and yes, for 20 years, all of these amazing superintendents and amazing educators in Chicago had tried to improve this school, and it just hadn’t worked. And Mush was this kid who when I met him, he had just gotten out of boot camp for carjacking. He was a really troubled kid, and he’d had a very difficult childhood. You know, I could understand like where that licking and grooming hadn’t happened early on, and how it had helped to make him the person that he was. And he was involved in this pretty good program, youth advocate program, that was giving him this intense sort of mentorship, this pretty tough, you know, African-American males. He was a black kid himself, and these tough African-American male role models in his life trying to improve him. And you know, in some ways, he was making some steps, and there were other kids who were enrolled in this program that were making some huge steps. But it’s a big problem. It’s really difficult to change outcomes for kids who have had that much difficulty by the time they’re, you know, 14, 15, 16.

HH: And so the lesson of that is what, that not to try, or that YAP, or the youth advocate program, YAP, I’m not calling it that. It’s called that in the book.

PT: Yeah.

HH: But YAP is not the place to invest money? Because ultimately, someone like me who spends money from a board has to make choices. And you are in a position to advise them on where to make those choices. And so if those programs don’t succeed, should efforts continue to drain resources into them? Or should they simply close schools, I guess it’s Fenger, is the name of that school.

PT: Right.

HH: And start over, because you can’t change the dysfunction. It’s just too deep in that neighborhood.

PT: No, I think you can change it, but I think you have…if you start as late as YAP was starting, and you know, at late as anyone was starting with Mush, the reality is you’re not going to have a perfect success rate. You can’t take a hundred 15 year old juvenile delinquents and turn all of their lives around. But you can turn the lives of some of them around, and that is enough of a difference, especially in terms of what it’s going to cost us down the road. You know, there’s this one young woman named Keitha, who was the biggest fighter in her school, Fenger, and turned into this, you know, kid who was enrolled in community college thanks to a great YAP advocate who had really turned her life around. And her life is going to be so much more productive, and so much less of a drain on the public purse than it would have been otherwise, that that intervention, that investment, is absolutely worth it. But so I think part of the answer is that we’ve got to try lots of different things when it comes to those kids, but part of the answer is we’ve got to start earlier. We have to do what you’re doing in Orange County, and what people should be doing and are doing to a certain extent in Chicago and other places. We can’t wait until kids go as far off the rails as Mush has to try to intervene in their lives and help them.

HH: One of the things you note in How Children Succeed is that college success depends upon these non-cognitive skills you mentioned – study skills, work habits, time management, help-seeking behavior, self-discipline. These are things that coaches often put in, and there’s not a lot about sports and coaching in How Children Succeed. And I’ve been one of those voices in our world of saying we need to pay a lot more attention to this, because coaches can put in what the missing dads used to put in. What do you think about that?

PT: I think it’s really true. I think sports can be really important for kids. You know, there is a great coach in my book, but she is not a football coach.

HH: Chess coach?

PT: Chess coach.

HH: I’m coming to it.

PT: Right, but I think, I feel like I learned from her a lot about sports coaching. And certainly, I’ve heard from lots of people since the book came out that you know, when people look back on who the one person was that gave them those character strengths that helped them develop those character strengths in youth, sometimes it’s a family member, sometimes it’s a teacher. But a whole lot of times, it’s a coach. Sometimes, you know, it’s a music teacher, a chess coach, a football coach, someone who’s in that intense sort of relationship with you. And I think mentors can do it as well. But I do think there’s something about that coaching relationship that you get right in the face of a kid. You’re also helping them deal with failure. I think a big part of the problem for so many kids is they freak out about failure. That’s true for rich kids, it’s true for poor kids. And when you’re playing sports or music or chess, failure is just part of the game. You know, what you’re learning is how to deal with failure and how to learn from failure. You’re losing, you’re losing, you’re learning things each time, and then finally, you win. That not only helps you be the better football player or chess player, it also helps you be a better person. The character strengths you’re developing as a result are things that are going to help ou the rest of your life.

HH: You know, I’ve got to ask you, one of my favorite television shows, Friday Night Lights, and I always talk about Coach Taylor on this show, and stuff that happens, did you watch that?

PT: I didn’t. No, I’ve never seen it.

HH: At some point, you have to.

PT: I should.

HH: …because the kind of teachers and administrators you talk about are modeled. That’s why I think it was so successful. Now tell people about this chess program, because I think it’s like a squash program I heard about. Inner city kids learning to play squash does amazing things to them. But your chess coach here did the same thing.

PT: Yeah, so this is Intermediate School 318, just a regular, traditional public school in Central Brooklyn with a mostly low income, mostly minority population, and for the past five years or so, they’ve been the best middle school chess team in the country. They just keep winning all of the championships. And that’s rare. Mostly, it’s the well-off schools that are winning these things. And I think the reason is because of their coach, this teacher named Elizabeth Spiegel. And what she does, I think more than anything else, I mean, she’s a great chess player, but what she really does is helps these kids learn how to manage failure, how to deal with failure. And when you play chess, you fail all the time. But when, for many of them, there’s this temptation to freak out, to either laugh off a failure or to dwell on those failures. But she gets them to look really honestly and straightforwardly at each failure to sort of say look what you did wrong. This was a mistake, it was totally in your power to do the right thing, but you did the wrong thing, but next time you can do something different. And I think there aren’t a lot of teachers or coaches that are willing to be that honest and kind of harsh with kids about you blew it this time. This was yours to win and you lost, but then are able to say you know, but there’s another game tomorrow, and you can do a whole lot better if you learn that. And I think in the process, she’s not only teaching them these great chess skills, she’s also teaching them these character strengths that are going to serve them the rest of their lives.

HH: If for no other reason, people need to read How Children Succeed to read about how James the chess player approached the big match, because it’s sort of applicable to everything, and I’ll let you get How Children Succeed to read it.

— – –

HH: So now I want to conclude by this. There is a new science of adversity out there, and this science of adversity goes to when people get these stresses in their lives, they have to learn how to cope with them. And there’s an entirely, a need for an entirely different system for children who deal with a lot of adversity at home. And people can think of what that is, and it can be the obvious crystal meth, or the less obvious alcohol, or the very obvious I’m not getting enough to eat and I don’t have enough food, or just a whole bunch of things. You might have a special needs brother or sister. So this science of adversity is telling us, and take the floor for two minutes, Paul Tough. What is it telling a teacher who is driving right now home from a long day, and Pete Bowen sent me an email, saw that you were going to be on the show. He’s the president of Servite High School in Anaheim, loves your book, loves this work. What do you say to them who are tuned in right now about what the science of adversity is telling them about how to run their schools and their classrooms?

PT: Well, you know, in lots of ways, I feel like that part of the message is to a lot of people beyond teachers…

HH: Sure.

PT: Because the message for teachers is you know, you’ve got a tough job. And I don’t say that to say don’t worry about it, or you’re off the hook, or it’s not your responsibility to solve. But the reality is if you are teaching kids who are growing up with a lot of what psychologist and neuroscientists call toxic stress, it is having a huge effect on their brains, on the development of their brains, and certainly on the development of these important character strengths, beginning almost at birth. And so I feel like it’s useful to teachers to know that, to be aware of what’s going on with kids, and to be aware of how toxic stress expresses itself. You know, it makes it harder to deal with confrontations. It makes it harder to sit still. It makes it harder to focus, all things which any, you know, inner city middle school teacher is very aware of. So that doesn’t mean you don’t have to try with these kids, that you can’t succeed with these kids. But it means they need a whole lot of extra help. They need a whole lot of extra work. And I think the message goes, though, beyond teachers to say if we want to help kids succeed, we can’t just put that all on the shoulders of teachers. We have to figure out ways early on in life to limit toxic stress, to work with families to change environments for kids who are growing up in adversity so that they don’t have these negative effects on their brain that comes from living in those intensely stressful situations.

HH: Paul Tough, congratulations. How Children Succeed is a marvelous book. I look forward to meeting you in person tomorrow. Thanks for coming to the studio even though I’m in Phoenix today, and we’ll talk tomorrow.

PT: Thanks so much.

HH: How Children Succeed is available in bookstores everywhere. It’s linked over at

End of interview.


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