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.


  1. Tough’s book is sitting on my kitchen table, but I have to write an article before I can get to it. In the meantime, I appreciate this review for its dissection of “the cognitive hypothesis” and its counterpart, the non-cognitive hypothesis.

    I am puzzled by the recent popularity of the phrase “cognitive and non-cognitive skills.” First of all, they sound terribly dreary. What happened to, say, intellect and culture? (I take that up in a satirical piece.) Second, are they as separable as people assume? As Hirsch points out, Plato and Locke recognized the role of knowledge in character development. Here’s a wonderful passage from book III of the Republic:

    “Aren’t these the reasons, Glaucon, that education in music and poetry is most important? First, because rhythm and harmony permeate the inner part of the soul more than anything else, affecting it most strongly and bringing it grace, so that if someone is properly educated in music and poetry, it makes him graceful, but if not, then the opposite. Second, because anyone who has been properly educated in music and poetry will sense it acutely when something has been omitted from a thing and when it hasn’t been finely crafted or finely made by nature. And since he has the right distastes, he’ll praise fine things, be pleased by them, receive them into his soul, and, being nurtured by them, become fine and good. He’ll rightly object to what is shameful, hating it while he’s still young and unable to grasp the reason, but, having been educated in this way, he will welcome the reason when it comes and recognize it easily because of the kinship with himself.”

    One might question some of Plato’s assertions, but the principle holds: that one does not develop character in a void, and that a musical sense of tuning and timing, if not directly applicable to other spheres, can at least make a person more conscious of precision and proportions overall.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — September 26, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

  2. When I read Paul Tough’s book, what struck me was that he was saying that the congnative hypothesis is not sufficient to understand why poor children are not succeeding. Indeed I think you could make a point that if these precursors causing stress are not addressed, a system like the Core Knowledge system won’t be sufficient because a child’s ability to learn would be constrained.

    The challenge I had with the book was the conflation of studies with anecdote, we know that for what ever reason some kids really do make despite terrible starts, the real question is how to get a greater number to make it and I am not sure I saw that path in the studies he cited, or more importantly, we really don’t know yet because enough time has not passed.

    Comment by DC Parent — September 28, 2012 @ 12:15 pm

  3. I find it relatively hard to believe that cognitive ability doesn’t trump “grit”. Low ability kids with resilience will do better than those without, but the idea that a kid who reads at 8th grade level will do better than one with a college vocabulary because the latter folds up at a challenge? Unlikely.

    Within narrow ranges, of course “non-cognitive” abilities count for a lot.Certainly, IQ isn’t everything. But Tough is trying to argue that urban kids from crappy backgrounds fail because they aren’t resilient, when in fact, they fail because their abilities are incredibly low.

    Comment by Cal — September 28, 2012 @ 11:24 pm

  4. IQ and the Big 5 personality traits are pretty much “set” at an early age. An average or above average IQ, high conscientiousness and low levels of neuroticism would make for a good student.

    See Geoffrey Miller…The Big Five are all normally distributed in a bell curve, statistically independent of each other, genetically heritable, stable across the life-course…They predict a wide range of behavior in school, work, marriage, parenting, crime, economics, and politics.


    Comment by Kev — September 29, 2012 @ 10:35 am

  5. Xavier, early Jesuit teacher, said something to this effect: “Give me a kid for the first seven years of his life. Even if he quits formal schooling then and there, I guarantee he’ll succeed.” My parents front loaded my brain with knowledge prior to first grade and I was ever after a “gifted” kid with high IQ. How can inner city kids would show much higher IQ if they had had similar front loading?

    Comment by Ponderosa — September 29, 2012 @ 11:23 am

  6. Oops That last sentence should read, “How many…” not “How can…”.

    Comment by Ponderosa — September 29, 2012 @ 11:25 am

  7. Agreed, Ponderosa.

    However, other than kids lucky enough to attend Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children Zone, how does this country bring your “front loading” to scale for so many of our poor, urban, minority youngsters? Remember, the HCZ is quite well endowed with private funding.

    An abundance of books in the home, parents talking with their children regularly/often, well educated (2) parents, a stable home environment, frequent visits to museums and libraries, reading to the child every night; we all agree, these would be very desirable for our neediest students. So how do we make these available?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — September 29, 2012 @ 3:42 pm

  8. I read the book with some interest as a parent, as an educator, a concerned citizen. I thought the definition of success was narrow – a well-paying steady job (not many have that these days), a stable family (have you seen the divorce rates?). Surely success is more of an internal measure – one needs to succeed in one’s own eyes by meeting the challenges life throws at you. You do not know which challenges will come your way, but you may be pretty sure that some will. It is this uncertainty that is best answered by preparation with a good, strong character. You will still need knowledge and ability to do your job, and character to know the right thing to do.

    The discussion on education begs the question: ‘What is Education For?’ There is an interesting discussion on this at:


    Comment by Sujata Krishna — September 29, 2012 @ 5:55 pm

  9. Sujata,

    My article “The Cult of Success” addresses your concerns directly. It’s an excerpt from the seventh chapter of my book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture.


    I agree with you that our culture has embraced a narrow definition of success–not the kind that you find in, say, The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy or The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy. Success today is money, prestige, social status. It was always that way, to some degree, but there has been a countercurrent, or at least a current of questioning. I find that current relatively weak now.

    The irony is that in our grasping for the more visible and approved forms of success, we shortchange ourselves. Many of the most important accomplishments go unseen and uncelebrated or else take a long time to come to fruition. In our insistence on quick results, we shortchange the results themselves.

    I thought Tough’s book would challenge this state of things, but I gather it doesn’t. That said, I’m eager to read it and expect to find many good things in it. It’s just a few piles away….

    Comment by Diana Senechal — September 29, 2012 @ 9:05 pm

  10. What struck me about Tough’s most recent book and even his previous book is the question of how much is predetermined, can any type of intervention really work to change the trajectory of so many children’s lives. It is that determinism that Tough is seeking to challenge, that maybe there are interventions and supports that would consign fewer children to on-going cycles of poverty. Honestly, if those 7 years of frontloading is all that matters, then what is the point of any policy that attempts to help the poor? Frankly, I know that for some conservatives that has always been the point, but for the majority of this country, most of us want to believe that we do have choices and opportunities and mobility. I do have issues with some of Tough’s thesis and interpretation of the science, but I think he is more willing to explore in depth causes and issues affecting educational opportunity than many are willing to acknowledge. I had my children in a fairly high poverty school with the hope that the enrichment at the school would make up for those issues, it does not. Too many of these kids are coming in truly traumatized and that issue has to be addressed even before you can open up a book.

    Comment by DC Parent — September 29, 2012 @ 10:37 pm

  11. Diana,

    Thank you for your response. I am going to read your book. It sounds very interesting and I completely agree with your comment regarding how we shortchange ourselves on success. Not the way to go.

    Tough’s book is a fairly quick read, I hope you can get to it soon.

    Best wishes,

    Comment by Sujata Krishna — September 30, 2012 @ 1:54 pm

  12. I appreciate that Dr. Hirsch has weighed in on this, especially addressing the ‘both-and’ piece that we educators so often have trouble with (see Willingham’s ‘edupolicy adversaries’ blog piece, published 10/2).

    Even so, I wish Dr. Hirsch would’ve gone a step further and fully intertwined content and character. Almost as though anticipating the release of Tough’s book, similar ideas came up on this blog about two months ago in response to the provocative ‘Is Algebra Necessary’ op-ed in the NYT (http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2012/07/30/when-barbie-drops-algebra/). In a comment to Robert’s original post, I made a point that content–algebra, in that instance–is an ideal way to strengthen character (this is Tough’s term–I prefer ‘institutional capacities’, as it’s not so morally loaded), which is reason enough to justify its retention.

    Accordingly, more complex content (which requires greater foundational knowledge to access–hats off to CK) then exercises one’s institutional capacities more rigorously or demands that one learn and strengthen as-yet-unused institutional capacities, leading to still more acquired knowledge, snowballing on and on, over and over.

    In the end, I believe what Tough does: content-knowledge-acquired is not the most crucial determinant of success, and strong institutional capacities can be relied on to take many more people much further. Again, teachers, think of your school’s calculus or even algebra 2 students: though you’d all agree they have the stuff to succeed after seeing them work, you know they’ll probably do so without ever having to show anyone they’ve mastered the content of those classes, right? The opportunity to practice such capacities, however, in the relatively low-risk ‘lab’ setting of the classroom, is the ideal place to figure such out, having one set of masteries unlock opportunities to practice the next on up the ladder.

    Comment by Eric Kalenze — October 3, 2012 @ 1:36 pm

  13. Paul Tough, an economist, cites some very interesting anecdotes and scientific experiments. Nevertheless I think he has far too restrictive a definition of “cognitive” learning.

    Learning to get along with and consider the feelings of others, to do things in sequence, to take turns, are also forms of cognition. What Mr. Tough considers “cognitive”, I would call “academic”. Child development specialists have always known that a solid background in non-academic, informal knowledge is a prerequisite for successful acquisition of academic knowledge.

    They understand this in Finland, where they place a great premium on informal learning in early childhood. According to child development specialist Anneli Niikko, “Finnish early childhood education emphasizes respect for each child’s individuality and the chance for each child to develop as a unique person. Finnish early educators also guide children in the development of social and interactive skills, encouraging them to pay attention to other people’s needs and interests, to care about others, and to have a positive attitude toward other people, other cultures, and different environments. The purpose of gradually providing opportunities for increased independence is to enable all children to take care of themselves as ‘becoming adults,’ to be capable of making responsible decisions, to participate productively in society as an active citizen, and to take care of other people who will need his [or her] help.”

    Non-academic knowledge continues to be stressed in Finnish kindergarten (the equivalent of our first grade) where the informal curriculum emphasizes nature and the seasons rather than formal lessons in reading and writing. It is a mistake to think that conversation, singing, cooking, and movement games are not connected with later success in academic or what Mr. Tough, misguidedly, in my opinion, calls “cognitive” learning.

    Comment by Harold — October 5, 2012 @ 3:11 pm

  14. Back to the basics of cognition:
    “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.” — Emily Post

    Comment by Harold — October 5, 2012 @ 3:37 pm

  15. Harold, I agree with you. The term “non-cognitive skills” is a misnomer. Many of these skills involve a great deal of knowledge and are in fact cognitive. By the same token, what people call “cognitive” should really be called “academic” or “intellectual.”

    You might enjoy my recent satirical piece “College Bans Words ‘Intellect’ and ‘Culture.’”


    Comment by Diana Senechal — October 6, 2012 @ 6:34 pm

  16. [...] the education theorist E. D. Hirsch recently wrote in a review of Paul Tough’s new book, “How Children Succeed,” there is strong evidence that [...]

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  17. [...] of future success and largely developed prior to formal education. As the education theorist E. D. Hirsch recently wrote in a review of Paul Tough’s new book, “How Children Succeed,” there is strong [...]

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  23. I came to this blog post via a New York Times article on how children from less affluent homes have a far smaller vocabulary that students from higher socio-economic backgrounds. Dr. Hirsch’s argument reinforces for me that the way to improve opportunity for students students in schools that are overwhelmed by the effects of poverty is to augment the education programs in these schools efforts to reach into communities and begin to address the discrepancies that make it so difficult for these students to succeed.

    Parents of all backgrounds love their children and want them to succeed. They are, however, differentially prepared to offer their children the kinds of support that will maximize their chances of success in school, including overall vocabulary development, frequent exposure to books, familiarity with the world of school, and all of the other factors that have been shown by research to have an impact.

    If we truly believe as a society that equality of opportunity is fundamental to the American ideal, then we must be willing to fund programs that address the achievement gap that begins before kids ever get to school. Increasing access to quality pre-school is part of the solution, but so is increasing the outreach to parents to help them learn the skills that will help their kids be prepared to achieve.


    Comment by Marshall Doris — October 9, 2012 @ 12:21 pm

  24. [...] In E.D. Hirsch’s review of Tough’s Book in Education Next, Hirsch emphasizes that Tough has only part of the story.  He says that vocabulary—and also basic information (such as if a student can locate Africa on the map)—is the major determinant of a student’s outcomes. [...]

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