E.D. Hirsch on Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed

by Robert Pondiscio
September 26th, 2012

Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s has a review of Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed, in the upcoming issue of Education Next. It is reprinted here with their permission.

Primer on Success
Character and knowledge make the difference
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.


David Coleman: “I’m Scared of Rewarding BS”

by Robert Pondiscio
September 21st, 2012

Dana Goldstein’s profile of Common Core State Standards architect David Coleman is up at The Atlantic, and it’s a must-read.   For better or for worse, she writes, his ideas are transforming American education as we know it.  The money quote:  “I’m scared of rewarding bullshit,” Coleman tells Goldstein. “I don’t think it’s costless at all.”

“By bullshit, Coleman means the sort of watered-down curriculum that has become the norm in many American classrooms. For nearly two centuries, the United States resisted the idea, generally accepted abroad, that all students should share a certain body of knowledge and develop a specific set of skills. The ethos of local control is so ingrained in the American school system—and rifts over culture-war land mines such as teaching evolutionary theory are so deep—that even when the country began to slip in international academic rankings, in the 1980s, Congress could not agree on national curriculum standards.”

It’s a very strong piece, full of insights on what makes Coleman tick.  Read Dana’s piece and then head over to Fordham for Checker Finn’s take.  The profile is “mostly on-target,” he writes, but he chastises Goldstein (rightly, I think) for failing to appreciate the distinction between standards and curriculum.

“She implies that David doesn’t see that distinction, either. But he does. And it’s profound. It’s one thing to give Ohio and Oregon a common target to shoot for—if they want to—and a common metric by which to gauge and compare their students’ performance (again, if  they want to). It’s quite another to prescribe—especially from Washington—what Dayton’s Ms. Jones and Portland’s Ms. Smith should teach their fifth-grade classes on October 3. David is pressing for the former, not the latter. Me too.”

Checker’s other criticism – whether or not Rhodes Scholar and classics enthusiast Coleman favors “college for all” concerns me less.  Make no mistake, it’s an important issue and worthy of debate.  But my enthusiasm for Common Core lies not at the end of the K-12 pipeline but at the start.  By championing from the first days of school a curriculum “intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades” — even without specifying that body of knowledge – CCSS is a strikes a hammer blow for an indispensable, content-rich vision of literacy instruction.  Implemented thoughtfully and rigorously, that will get kids out the other end with a lot more opportunities and options that they have at present.

The Coleman profile is part of a terrific package of education pieces at The Atlantic.  While you’re there, don’t miss Peg Tyre’s outstanding piece about a New York City high school that pulled itself out of a steep decline with an aggressive and rigorous writing curriculum. More on that to come.

The 57 Most Important Words in Education Reform. Ever.

by Robert Pondiscio
September 20th, 2012

The following is a version of remarks presented Wednesday at panel hosted by the Pioneer Institute in Boston, titled “Why Huck Finn Matters: Classic Literature in Schooling.” At the event, Sandra Stotsky and Mark Bauerlein presented a new paper, How Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness at Risk.  I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel with Professors Stotsky and Bauerlein, and moderated by David Steiner, Dean of the Hunter College School of Education, to discuss the paper, which describes “deficiencies in Common Core’s literature standards and its misplaced stress on literary nonfiction or informational reading.

Those who know me will tell you I’m a fairly mild-mannered guy.   In the rough and tumble of education reform arguments, I don’t call people names.  I don’t yell, scream or grandstand.  I have an instinct toward the middle.   But I understand why I’m on this panel today.  Because I’m the guy who likes Common Core State Standards, which are supposed to be the death knell for literature in schools.   If this were a professional wrestling match, I’d be the heavy.

My role is to break a chair over the hero’s head and sneer at the audience.  But you know in the end the good guys will win.  Professor Bauerlein will eventually pin me to the mat. And Professor Stotsky will leap from the top rope and finish me off with a somersault leg drop.  If I don’t tap out, Jim Stergios will stand over my body and count to ten.

These are serious people and important scholars.  I’m an enormous admirer of each and every one, especially Professor Stotsky.  But if I am to play the heavy, I will play my role to the hilt.  I will go down swinging.

In my opinion, the single most important piece of data in American education is the National Assessment of Educational Progress in Reading for 17-year-olds in the United States.  It is the de facto final report card on American K-12 education.   Educational Progress?   What progress?  Forty years.  No progress.   I can’t look at NAEP scores without thinking of the EKG of someone who has gone into cardiac arrest.  Flatline.  Just like 12th grade NAEP.

When the heart stops beating, several nasty things happen in short order.  The lack of blood flow to the brain causes loss of consciousness.  Left untreated for even five minutes, permanent brain injury is unavoidable.  The patient’s only chance of survival and neurological recovery is immediate and decisive treatment.

American education has been suffering a lack of oxygen to its collective brain not just for five minutes, but for five or more decades.   Brain damage is setting in.  Call a Code Blue!  Stat!  Who’s got  shock paddles?

David Coleman??

Coleman, as you know, is the primary author of the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts.  Or as I like to think of them, the defibrillator.  The reason I see CCSS as the defibrillator – our last chance to shock American education back to life – boils down to 57 words.   These 57 words:

“By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

E.D. Hirsch, as you surely know, is the founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, and a frequent guest at Pioneer events like this. If you were to boil down his career to a single paragraph, these 57 words would come close.   In fact, I would go as far as saying these 57 words are the most important words in education reform since A Nation at Risk told us in 1983 that “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

If time permitted I would explain the importance of these 57 words you.  I’d describe how broad general knowledge is indispensable to vocabulary growth and reading comprehension.  I would demonstrate how reading comprehension is not a skill at all, and how reading tests are basically tests of background knowledge.   And I would detail for you how this has been almost completely lost upon American education.

Until Common Core State Standards.

If time permitted, I would also describe for you the tedious, content-free reading instruction I inflicted for years upon my 5th graders in the South Bronx.   How the “best practices” I served up to Viviana, Rebecca, Francesca, Gabriel and Roberto was—I now understand–fundamentally flawed.  How I and others inadvertently denied those children the rich, broad knowledge of the world that we take for granted and that they need to become proficient in English and productive, self-sustaining citizens.

Wait.  Did I say need?  Sorry, not need. Needed.  Past tense.  It’s too late now.

Viviana dropped out in 9th grade and had a baby.  Francesca, too.  Rebecca dropped out and has two babies.  Gabriel and Roberto are in jail.  Our tax dollars support them all.

Huck Finn?  Are you serious?  You expect students like mine to make sense of Huck Finn with no foundational knowledge of 19th century America.  Of slavery?  Of riverboats?  Or rivers.  They don’t know where the Mississippi River is or whether it flows north or south.  They probably don’t even know which way is north.  They left elementary school without the most rudimentary knowledge they need to make sense of the even the most basic texts.

But no Common Core Standards?  Illegal, you say?  Coercive?  They de-emphasize literature and besides, your own Massachusetts states standards are superior.  All of that may be true.  I’ll concede those points.  In an as yet unpublished op-ed piece, E.D. Hirsch writes,

“It is not overstating the case to say that the most secure way to predict whether an educational policy is likely to help restore the middle class is to focus laser-like on the question: ‘Is this school policy likely to eventuate in a large increase in the vocabulary sizes of 12th graders?’”

He’s exactly right.

Implemented not just by the letter, but in its spirit, Common Core State Standards, by emphasizing the coherent, intentional accumulation of knowledge, will increase vocabulary and language proficiency.  You want to throw out the whole thing.  Fine.  Throw it out.  But keep those 57 words.  If we get that right in the early years, a lot of other problems melt away.  Lose those 57 words, and the rest probably isn’t going to matter anyway.

If opposition to Common Core gives us another forty years of flatlining, of intellectual brain death, we are not doing the country a service.  We will have another of Mark Bauerlein’s Dumbest Generations.  And another.  And another.  And another.

Every teacher in elementary school in the land must understand that without imparting a coherent, knowledge-rich, language-rich ELA curriculum – which Common Core cannot even mandate but strongly recommends – most of our children will not meet any meaningful standard.  I will give you text complexity, evidence-based writing, a 50-50 mix of fiction and non-fiction in the upper grades.  Hundreds of pages of standards and publishers criteria and exemplars and assessments and I will not fight you on any of them.

But I will not give up these 57 words.  The foundation on which American education rests must be intentional and coherent.  It must be not just literature rich but knowledge rich and language rich.

That is the hill on which I’m prepared to die.

If we overthrow Common Core–if we fail to rigorously, intentionally, coherently implement those 57 words, that is also the hill on which competence, educational attainment, upward mobility, and informed, engaged citizenship also dies.

 

 

Is Grit Enough?

by Robert Pondiscio
September 5th, 2012

I highly recommend Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed.  Tough’s premise – that IQ and cognitive ability matter, but character traits like tenacity, curiosity and optimism matter more—is a strong challenge to my long-held notion that when students struggle, in high school or college, much of that is attributable to a lack of academic preparedness.  How Children Succeed largely argues otherwise, but there is a brief but fascinating passage late in the book that suggests we shouldn’t be too quick to worship at the altar of grit alone.

The first half of Tough’s book unpacks clinical research that demonstrates the importance of parents protecting children from adversity in the first years of life.  But it is the ability to persist in difficult tasks that ultimately seems to lead to success.  Tough’s book, broadly speaking, makes the case that to the degree to which there is a formula for success in life, it starts with a child’s need for protective, nurturing parenting, followed by independence and challenge to develop resiliency and “grit.”

A chapter entitled “How to Think” discusses at great length and thrillingly, the remarkable success of the chess team at IS 318 in Brooklyn, New York and the uncompromising approach of teacher Elizabeth Spiegel, whose unconventional methods involve “spending most of her time telling her students how they were messing up” in chess tournaments. “Spiegel often defied my stereotype of how a good teacher, especially a good inner city teacher, should interact with her students,” Tough writes.  “She does not hug.  She clearly is devoted to her students and cares about them deeply, but when a student gets upset after a loss, Spiegel is rarely one to go over and offer comfort.”

At the end of the chapter, Spiegel takes on the challenge of preparing James Black, one of her star chess players, for New York City’s specialized high school test, the entrance exam for Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and other elite public schools.  Under Spiegel’s tutelage, James, an African-American boy from Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, became a national chess champion and achieved “master” status in chess, one of only three African American masters under age 13.

“John Galvin, the vice principal, told her that she had given herself an impossible mission, that there was no way a student who consistently scored below average on statewide standardized tests could ace the specialized-school exam.  But Spiegel had seen James absorb chess knowledge astonishingly quickly and she had faith in her own teaching ability.  As she put it to me in an e-mail message in April, ‘I figure with six months, if he’s into it and will do the work, I can teach a smart kid anything, right?’”

Wrong.  By mid-July, Tough writes, Spiegel was getting frustrated.

“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 didn’t 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. By September, they were working together after school and on weekends for hours at a time, and she was starting to despair, trying to keep James’s spirits up while her own were sinking.  When James would get downhearted, and say that he just wasn’t any good at analogies or trigonometry, Spiegel would reply cheerfully that it was just like chess: a few years earlier, he had been no good at chess, and then he got specialized training and worked hard and mastered it.”

Is school just like chess?  Perhaps not.  UVA cognitive scientist Dan Willingham points out there are several differences between becoming a chess master and a earning a high score on a school’s entrance exam.  For starters, the relationship between chess and intelligence is not unambiguous.  “Though it’s considered an intellectual game, you don’t see straightforward connections between chess ability and intelligence,” he says.  

At an elite level, chess becomes in part an exercise in memory, Willingham points out.  You and I look at a chess board and have to painstakingly evaluate endless permutations of attacks and counter attacks.  James and other masters see patterns.  “Even if they see a chess board in the middle of a game it feels familiar to them because they’ve played so many games,” he notes.  Elite players have as many as 50,000 board positions stored in their long-term memory.   Plus anytime kids try something new, some of them really seem to take to it rapidly. That’s especially notable with skills like music, math. . . and chess.  “For some kids their learning curve is rapid.  They get good quickly in ways that most people do not,” says Willingham.

But broad general knowledge is different.  Willingham notes. “Academic knowledge and skills are wide ranging and accumulate over a very long time.”  It is nearly impossible to “get good quickly.”  Spiegel’s principal might have been exactly right.

Tough writes that James “represented for me (and for Spiegel, I suspect), a challenging puzzle.  Here was a young man clearly possessed of a keen intelligence. (Whatever intelligence means, you can’t beat Ukrainian grand masters without plenty of it.) And he seemed to be a case study in grit.”  Yet despite his own and his teacher’s clear and obvious effort, James failed to win entry into Stuyvesant, New York’s best high school, whose best chess players, Tough ruefully notes, James “will no doubt crush.”  Why?

“When Spiegel talked with me that fall about studying for the test with James, she sometimes sounded shocked at how little non-chess information he had been taught thus far in life. “I feel angry on his behalf, she told me. “He knows basic fractions, 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.  It feels like he should have learned more.”

“The specialized high-school exam is, by design, difficult to cram for,” Tough writes.  “Like the SAT, it reflects the knowledge and skills that a student has accrued over the years, most of which is absorbed invisibly throughout childhood from one’s family and culture” [emphasis added]

Tough is undoubtedly correct that much essential knowledge is indeed family driven.  There are clear benefits to growing up in a home filled with books, college-educated parents who engage their children in rich dinner table conversation, museum visits, travel, and other enriching cultural experiences. But even without knowing a thing about James’s schooling, it’s not hard to surmise that Spiegel is precisely right.  James should have learned more and it’s his failure to accrue a lifetime’s worth of academic content, background knowledge and vocabulary—not his grit or raw intellectual talents—that likely doomed his effort to get into Stuyvesant.

Family background matters.  But it doesn’t follow that schools cannot or should not make a concerted effort from the very first days of school to provide as much rich content knowledge across the curriculum that kids need to be successful—especially for “school dependent” learners who are less likely to be exposed to it, like second-hand smoke, through their daily lives, contact with educated adults, or via what Annette Laureau termed “concerted cultivation.” Tough hints at this when he observes, “It might not have been possible to turn him into an elite student in six months, as Spiegel had hoped.  But how about in four years?  For a student with his prodigious gifts, anything seems possible—as long as there’s a teacher out there who can make succeeding in school as attractive a prospect as succeeding on the chessboard.”

Right.

Long-time readers of this blog know it is a misconception to think of knowledge as mere grist for the mill—content to exercise critical thinking skills or other cognitive processes upon.   “A reading of the research literature from cognitive science shows that knowledge does much more than just help students hone their thinking skills,” Willingham wrote in an important 2006 article in The American Educator titled, “How Knowledge Helps.”

“It actually makes learning easier. Knowledge is not only cumulative, it grows exponentially. Those with a rich base of factual knowledge find it easier to learn more — the rich get richer. In addition, factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning. The richer the knowledge base, the more smoothly and effectively these cognitive processes — the very ones that teachers target — operate. So, the more knowledge students accumulate the smarter they become.”

Paul Tough has written an outstanding book, and one that will no doubt be deeply influential on parents and educators, and deservedly so.   But I fear the takeaway—through no fault of Tough’s—will be “it’s all about character” or “grit trumps cognitive ability.”  Not quite right.  As James’ experience shows, grit matters a lot, but it’s not sufficient to compensate for a lack of knowledge if we expect kids to clear the high academic bars we place in front of them.

The suggested takeaway for educators:  Kids need grit.  But schools need to be very smart and strategic from the very first days of school about the knowledge and skills we ask kids to be gritty about.