Primer on Success

Education Next Issue Cover

Character and knowledge make the difference


Print | NO PDF |

Winter 2013 / VOL. 13, NO. 1

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character
By Paul Tough
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012, $27; 256 pages.

As reviewed by E. D. Hirsch Jr.

Paul Tough follows his excellent book about Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone with one on improving the school achievement and life chances of disadvantaged children. The title is How Children Succeed, and the chapter heads continue the how-to motif of the title: 1. How to Fail (and How Not To). 2. How to Build Character. 3. How to Think. 4. How to Succeed. 5. A Better Path. If the book really delivered on these headings, Tough would deserve immense success. I hope the book does sell well, though perhaps not too well. Its ultimate message is that “non-cognitive” abilities and traits are more important to success than mere academic achievement, and that message, while containing important truths, is overstated.

Tough gathers scientific results and personal observations from a number of estimable sources among researchers and practitioners, all supporting the idea that what really determines success is character and perseverance rather than raw intelligence and book learning. At the same time, he shows that what truly handicaps a child is horrible early upbringing and neglect. The term of art for the permanent psychic damage done is ACE: Adverse Childhood Experiences. This, by now well-attested finding is the best argument for the intrusion of outsiders into the homes of neglectful or cruel caregivers, and it is the best explanation for the observation that poverty accompanies lower achievement all over the world. This poverty argument (it’s not Tough’s) is also oversimplified, since, as the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) reports show, some parts of the world diminish the poverty-achievement correlation far more than the U.S., through better schooling.

What connects the ACE segment of the book (“How to Fail”) with more positive themes is the common “non-cognitive” feature. “How to Build Character” takes off from the successful KIPP schools and their emphasis on good manners and perseverance. The chapter goes on to show that a certain kind of test requiring no academic knowledge, only a willingness to persist in a boring task, is, other things equal, highly predictive of later success. “How to Think” focuses on how middle-school chess players from a low-income school manage consistently to beat advantaged students and even high-school chess teams. Focus and practice are the keys. In other words, perseverance and hard work are “how to think.” And “How to Succeed”? Also perseverance and hard work.

No one would or should dispute the importance of diligence and perseverance. Classic texts on education such as Plato’s Republic and Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education emphasize that character development and virtue are far more important educational goals than mere acquisition of knowledge. At the same time, those writers are quite explicit in setting forth the breadth of knowledge children need to acquire. If Tough had updated that “both/and” tradition with the latest reports from the field, he would have no argument from me. But he takes the view that an emphasis on knowledge acquisition, which he calls “the cognitive hypothesis,” has been tried and it has failed. Here is what he has to say in his introduction:

In the past decade, and especially in the past few years, a disparate congregation of economists, educators, psychologists and neuroscientists have begun to produce evidence that call into question many of the assumptions behind the cognitive hypothesis. What matters most in a child’s development, they say, is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years. What matters instead is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence. Economists refer to these as non-cognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us sometimes think of them as character.

I sympathize with Tough’s judgment that “the cognitive hypothesis” (in his view of it) has failed. During the era of No Child Left Behind very little progress has been made in narrowing the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Yet it is hard to argue from recent reform efforts that the aim has been to increase the “information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years.” On the contrary, “mere information” has been disparaged in favor of how-to strategies and test-taking skills. What Tough calls “the cognitive hypothesis” with regard to academics might better be called the “how-to hypothesis,” paralleling his own how-to approach with regard to character. He does not cite the work of Jerome Kagan and others showing that many fundamental character traits tend to be innate and unchanging.

Moreover, there is strong evidence that increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age six is the single highest correlate with later success. Tough alludes to the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) studies, which show that a young adolescent’s score on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) is the best single predictor of later income. The AFQT is a math and verbal test. It is scored by doubling the verbal component before computing the overall raw score. This verbal component, largely a vocabulary test, is an index to general knowledge. General knowledge is also the best single predictor of later academic achievement among preschoolers and kindergartners, as has been shown by analyses of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey–Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K1992), which has followed the life paths of some 2,700 children over the past decade. After general knowledge, the next best predictor is fine-motor skill, which is correlated with the development of “executive function,” a cognitive ability. In third place come the non-cognitive features that Tough emphasizes in his book.

The critical missing element in Tough’s otherwise informative book is the phrase “other things equal.” He effectively shows that people who have more grit, character, and persistence will succeed better than those who have less, other things equal. Those other things are determined chiefly, though not exclusively, by “how much information we can stuff” into a child’s mind in the early years; a more neutral way of stating it is: “how much general knowledge and vocabulary we can impart in the early years.” The disparaging phrase “stuffing” is tendentious and inaccurate. Knowledge-based schooling is far more interesting to a child than how-to schooling, and far more effective.

There is a moment in Tough’s account when, good reporter that he is, he seems to acknowledge this fundamental qualification of his argument. He describes James, a middle schooler who by grit, brains, expert coaching, and intense focus has turned himself into a national-master chess player at age 12. Yet there’s a twist. James is preparing for an academic test that will determine whether he will be admitted to one of the selective high schools of New York City. He is being tutored intensively, by Ms. Spiegel, his chess coach:

In the middle of July, though, Spiegel told me she was starting to get discouraged. She was working hard with James on the test, and he was applying himself even on hot summer days, but she was daunted by how much he did not know. He couldn’t locate Africa or Asia on a map. He couldn’t name a single European country. When they did reading comprehension drills, he didn’t recognize words like infant, and communal, and beneficial…. “I feel angry on his behalf,” she told me. “He knows basic functions, but he doesn’t know geometry, he doesn’t get the idea of writing an equation. He’s at the level I would have been at in second or third grade.”

Tough ends the account on an upbeat note: “He’s only twelve, after all.” But this optimism is misplaced. Given the “Matthew Effect” (where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer) and the slowness of vocabulary acquisition, James has been disadvantaged permanently, just as if he had been the victim of ACE.

E. D. Hirsch Jr. is founder and chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation and professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia.

Sponsored Results

The Hoover Institution at Stanford University - Ideas Defining a Free Society

Harvard Kennedy School Program on Educational Policy and Governance

Thomas Fordham Institute - Advancing Educational Excellence and Education Reform