'There's lots that can be done'

In 2008, Paul Tough’s first book, “Whatever It Takes,” told the story of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a massive effort to leverage a pre-birth-through-high-school system of education services to change the trajectory of 10,000 children in one 97-block area. In his new best-seeling book, “How Children Succeed” — recently praised by commentators ranging from conservative David Brooks to liberal Nicholas Kristof — Mr. Tough examines the lifelong impacts of stress during childhood and the noncognitive skills, like grit and curiosity, that could help mitigate early learning deficits. Mr. Tough will speak at three free events in Baltimore on Monday and Tuesday (details: www.paultough.com). I discussed these issues with him by phone and email ahead of the Baltimore leg of his book tour.

Can you tell us about the state of efforts to bring the Harlem Children’s Zone model to other areas?

The [United States Department of Education] Promise Neighborhoods program is something I’ve been following more or less since Obama proposed it back in 2007. And I’ve visited a number of replication attempts that have federal funding and some that don’t.

Part of the reason I thought the program was so promising as Obama originally proposed it is because it was going to help out on the money end. The problem is that not every city has the combination of wealth and poverty that New York does. There’s definitely lots of wealth [in New York]. [Harlem Children's Zone founder] Geoffrey Canada is very skilled at tapping into it and getting a lot of wealthy donors on his board. That’s why he has the budget that he has. But there are lots of cities that don’t have those kinds of resources. So I think that, if the federal government had come through or if they in the future come through in the way Obama proposed, that really would level the playing field, and other cities could have a better shot at having something the size and scope of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

That said, I do think that there’s lots that can be done with less money. I don’t think it can be done for nothing, but I think there are lots of cities, including Baltimore, that have the kind of philanthropic community where, if everyone was on the same page and donating to the same thing, and there was better coordination between those efforts, a lot of positive stuff could happen.

Lots of cities talk about the same things. I think they’re mostly feeling optimistic, but they talk about the fact that it’s hard to get people who are used to being siloed in their own organizations with their own accountability to [join forces] and hold each other accountable in a way that you need to, I think, in order to make a project like this work. But I also hear from people that they’re really excited about the prospect of trying, that for the longest time people just didn’t talk to each other. You had the pre-K that was feeding into the local school just down the block, and people who were running each just weren’t talking to each other. People who were running the daycare center and people who were running the after-school program, they were all just taking these kids and not communicating with each other. So I think there are lots of cities where, especially when city hall gets involved and the education bureaucracy gets involved, at the very least some promising conversations are going on. I think that will enable cities to do it for a lot less money than the Harlem Children’s Zone is spending. ...

One of the things I learned by writing about Geoffrey Canada is that philanthropy can play a really important role in the development of new ideas in education or policy, period. I think if we had just waited for the federal government to fund something like the Harlem Children’s Zone, it never would have happened. The model that Geoff has in mind and Obama had in mind when he talked about it in 2007, a real partnership between philanthropists and the government, is a really good one. Each can provide different things and together they can, potentially at least, create a really lasting model for interventions.

Are there any noticeable differences in how various cities are trying to implement the Harlem Children’s Zone model?

I tend to feel most hopeful in midsized cities. I was just in Athens, Georgia and New Haven, Connecticut. Those cities are kind of similar in that they’re not [predominantly] poor cities. They’re not like Youngstown, Ohio. But they have some significant poverty. They also both, coincidentally, have a very wealthy educational institution in the University of Georgia and Yale University, respectively, as well as lots of committed, interesting people, good nonprofits, and people who want to improve their community in a broad sort of way. So there are lots of resources in both of these places. It’s cities like these where I feel most optimistic about a Promise Neighborhood-type intervention. It just feels solvable in a way that being on the South Side of Chicago feels less solvable. Not that I don’t think there’s a solution down the road, but taking one neighborhood in the middle of the South Side and trying to solve it is really hard because there’s a dozen other really poor neighborhoods all around you. In some cities, there really are just 80 blocks where there’s a lot of poverty. That’s a lot of blocks, but it also just feels like there are actual borders to work with. It gives you something very specific to target.

In all of these cases we’re talking about universities, but I think that in some cities, like in Omaha, Nebraska and in Tulsa, Oklahoma—I think in both of those cities there are Buffetts. I think [billionaire businessman] Warren [Buffett] is in Omaha and one of his kids is in Tulsa. I think in a lot of cities there’s one foundation that has just a ton of money. That’s another place where you feel hopeful. These guys could say, “OK. We’re putting $20 million per year into this one thing instead of spreading our money all over town.” That could make a huge difference.

How did you get started on “How Children Suceed?”

It came out of the aftermath of the first book. I started hearing various things, reading, and questioning various things that related to the first book. For example, I started hearing about some of the struggles that some of the students from the high-performing charter schools were having as they moved on to high school and into higher education. I was intrigued by that. Part of it was very specifically [economics professor] James Heckman of the University of Chicago. [When I interviewed him for the first book] he mentioned this idea of noncognitive skills, but I didn’t really go too deeply into it. I met up with him again after the first book came out, and he was getting more and more interested in this research [on noncognitive skills], and that got me more and more intrigued. [Eventually] I just had that feeling, that nice feeling you get sometimes as  a writer, where little pieces of the puzzle were coming together in an intriguing way. That started to make me feel there was something going on here that could maybe become a book.

I think most people accept the idea that poverty is often a major roadblock to children’s intellectual development. “How Children Succeed” points to the potential for noncognitive skills that are less dependent on, say, family income, to help close the gap.  But do you worry that some people might instead point to a lack of noncognitive skills as yet another way of blaming poor people for the fact that they’re poor?

Sure. It’s definitely crossed my mind. It relates to this bigger question about how to talk about poverty and family that goes back to the Moynihan Report [of the 1960s]. From a political point of view, I definitely understand that anxiety and why it’s touchy to talk about things in this way. And maybe this is just a luxury I have as a journalist, but for me the right thing to do is to be as accurate and clear as possible about what the real impacts are on kids. In the end, I think the message I’m trying to give in the book is that family environments are incredibly important in kids’ success. But that in no way means we don’t have a role to play. That’s not the end of the story. It’s the beginning of the story, because it just doesn’t make sense to say that, “OK, if you’re coming from a bad family environment, that’s your problem.” That’s just not right. We can’t possibly hold kids responsible for the family environment they grow up in. It’s nonsensical. That’s a slightly more complex argument than saying, “Everyone needs to pull themselves up by their bootstraps” or, ”People in these neighborhoods are just victims.” But I think it’s not that complicated, and I think my job is just to be as clear as I can in saying that. I really do believe that, if we can get beyond that sort of simplistic political divide into a somewhat more complex and, I think, accurate vision of what’s really going on for kids in poor neighborhoods, we will come up with better solutions. That may be naïve. I may be overly hopeful about that, but I tend to think that it’s true. It’s worth it to have that conversation even if it’s uncomfortable at times.

One of the things that’s different about this [second] book is that it’s not just about kids in low-income communities. It mostly is, but I think I’m trying to [incorporate] my own experiences and [those of] private school kids and affluent kids. My hope is that it gives people a way to see these issues as not just an  isolated question for someone else’s kids over there. This was part of my sense of how people read “Whatever It Takes,” that people cared about it but that people who weren’t in Harlem or in other low-income communities, they were looking at it as something that was distant. So part of what I was trying to do in “How Children Succeed” was just show what was quite literally true for me—how this research and reporting I was doing, including with kids in poverty, was very relevant to what I thought about my own son. I think there’s a powerful message there, that it’s very clear from the science that every kid needs the same thing and that some kids are getting that help and some kids aren’t. There’s something, I think, about that idea that pushes us in other directions as we think about policy. 

Is there any reason to think that children who have had experience dealing with conflict and struggle might find it a little easier to develop the types of noncognitive skills you highlight in the book? Few people would welcome difficulty. And we certainly don't wish it upon children. But I wonder if the ideas you present offer a way for kids who have grown up under very trying circumstances to leverage what they've already survived so that they can move forward.

Yes, I think that’s true, to a great extent. I do think we need to be very cautious, when talking about notions like “grit” and “resilience,” not to suggest or imply that there’s something automatically character-building about growing up in deep disadvantage. For most kids, growing up in the midst of violence or instability or chaos is a profoundly negative experience, one that often causes damage that can last a lifetime. But there’s evidence in the psychological literature (and in the biographies of many great leaders) that experiencing moderate amounts of hardship growing up can help build character strengths, or noncognitive skills, especially when the child has a close, supportive relationship with a parent or other caregiver to help guide him or her through that hardship.

I do think it’s possible to help young people leverage their character strengths in the way you describe. In fact, that is one of the central strategies used by OneGoal, the nonprofit organization I profiled in the book that is working to increase college-persistence rates among disadvantaged high school students in Chicago. They have a list of five “leadership principles” – character strengths they want their students to develop and hone as a way to make it through college, including resilience, resourcefulness, and ambition. But rather than suggest that the students are lacking in these skills, OneGoal’s teachers send the message that the students already possess more than their fair share of the skills, because of the difficulties they’ve already overcome. And then the teachers work with the students to help them figure out how to direct those abilities in a focused way to achieve their central goal: a four-year college degree.

In your new book, you describe a partnership between charter schools, a private school and scholars to translate research into education tools that work in the field, so to speak. Could you tell us that story?

To give a shorthand version of the KIPP/Riverdale story: For the past few years, the KIPP charter schools in New York City and Riverdale Country School, a New York City private school, have been working with psychologists from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan to develop a list of character strengths that they have concluded are predictive of long-term success and especially valuable in school. They have come up with a list of seven: grit, zest, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity. At the KIPP schools in New York City, they’ve turned these character strengths into a character report card (now called a character growth card) that is given to students a few times a year, along with their regular academic report card.

I think the character project at KIPP and Riverdale is fascinating and important, but I don’t think that those schools have found all the answers to the important question you raise: how to translate the research around noncognitive skills into a strategy that works in the field. You’re right that this is a challenge -- a big one. There are some organizations and tools that I write about in the book that I think should be expanded and implemented more broadly. But for the most part, I think what we need now is more experimentation, more research, more people trying more approaches to helping children in this noncognitive/character/psychological dimension, especially kids who are growing up in deep disadvantage.

I know that’s not the answer that most grass-roots organizations want to hear – they’ve got enough on their plates already, and they want solutions that are ready to go. But I think that’s the stage we’re at: We know a lot more than we used to, but we don’t have all the answers yet.

In “How Children Succeed,” you draw lessons from extremely poor as well as extremely wealthy families. Where would you place your own upbringing along that spectrum?

I grew up in Toronto, Canada, and I had one sister. My parents are both educators. My dad actually was a professor of education, and my mom was a first grade teacher. My parents got divorced when I was young.

Like everyone, I think I was middle class. After my parents got divorced and my mom was a first-grade teacher, we were probably a little below the middle of the middle-class level, and before that we were probably above the middle of the middle-class level, but I think one of the things that’s different about Canada and the United States is that in Canada there really is a middle class. There are a lot of people who are making about the same amount of money, which you really don’t feel in a lot of American cities.

At the end of “How Children Succeed,” you’re much more outspoken about the policy implications of what you’ve reported than you were in the final chapter of “Whatever It Takes.” Was that intentional?

Yes. One of the responses that I got to the first book was, “So is [The Harlem Chiildren’s Zone] good or bad?” As a reporter, I came out of that New York Times tradition of “just the facts.” You’re not supposed to say what you think all that much. But I think it would have helped for me to have been a little more present in explaining what I thought, what I felt about the Harlem Children’s Zone. So I felt in this case it was useful to give readers more of a guide to how I feel about all this. It was partly also the effect of having written about [education] for eight or nine years and actually feeling like I’ve got some ideas and opinions that I feel strongly about and wanting to push toward those.

Any idea what’s next? I’m not sure that’s even fair to ask while you’re still on your book tour.

It’s fair, certainly. I should have a plan at this point, but I don’t. I still can’t quite see beyond the end of the book tour, which goes till Thanksgiving. And then I want to spend some time with my family, in particular my son, whom I’ve been ignoring for a couple of months after writing a book about how children need close bonds with their parents. So I need to hang out with him. I’m sure I’m going to write something else, but I’m not quite sure what it is.

Lionel Foster is a freelance writer from Baltimore. His column appears Fridays. Email: lionel@lionelfoster.com. Twitter: @LionelBMD.

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