Posts Tagged grit

Best Beach Reading, ‘How Children Succeed’ by Paul Tough

Published by — At last!  Someone with celebrity cred is looking at the conditions that allow kids to learn.

Finally, an “up” book about education. I smiled broadly as I read through Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed. Granted, the book is not an “up” because of the happy stories it tells of how beautifully we’re handling our kids. It does not. But it is sheer joy to have a smart, research-driven path laid out clearly, one that will actually help get kids educated.

Tough was a New York Times journalist, so it’s an easy read. He’s a terrific story-teller who weaves storylines in and through his narrative, as he makes subjects like brain chemistry seem like no big deal. And, truth to tell, I felt full-on vindicated by his taste in research, given that he gravitated to many of my favorites, including the licking rat moms.

Finally, someone with celebrity cred is looking at the conditions that allow kids to learn. He unmasks the so-called “cognitive hypothesis,” which is the widespread belief that if you just jam enough academics into a kid’s life — including inanities like Baby Einstein videos and pushing reading on two-year-olds — test scores and graduation rates will improve.

And if you don’t think you’re interested in kids or education, this is still your book. Yes, it speaks to the education industry, which isn’t really getting anywhere, despite the bellowing about teacher evaluation, accountability, testing, and the rest of it. But it also addresses parents, and those of us freaking out about the sad state of parenting, from neglectful parents to those raising fragile, hot-house flowers who’ve never suffered a dodge-ball hit, never mind a well-deserved “F.” Most inclusively, the book should appeal to any and all taxpayers who wish that at all levels, government would spend their hard-earned bucks more wisely and effectively.

The subtitle is Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. These are qualities that can be nurtured, if not taught by direct instruction. Certain personal characteristics help a kid yearn to read, open her heart to algebra, or persist through the fall of the Roman Empire.

The word “grit” was reinvigorated by the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP.  Among many stories, Tough illustrates key points by recounting a turning point in the 20-year saga of KIPP’s network of 125 charter schools. In 1994, two Teach For America veterans opened their first KIPP school, grades 5 – 8 in Houston, Texas. The motto is: “Work hard, be nice.” Days are long; discipline is strict and unforgiving. Since charter-school families chose to send their kids to these schools, an informal selection process weeds out those who could not tolerate demands that some consider to be academic browbeating.

However, when it comes to test scores, KIPP is king. Early on, their kids were headline news; funders swooned. In an age when test scores are all-important, KIPP became widely imitated. Its flaw, to my mind, was that KIPP schools teach low-income and minority kids obedience and compliance, not creative problem-solving. What happens to their academics when no one’s threatening or barking them into meeting expectations? Tough tells that story.

It turns out that as KIPP students got older, they did graduate high school in significantly greater proportions than their regular district-school peers. It was in college where they fell apart. After bouncing in and out of different colleges, one KIPP graduate said, “There’s no one checking in if you did your homework. We had to deal with all the stuff that everybody goes through in high school, just growing up. And none of us were really prepared for that.” Ah, there’s more to success than test scores.

To their credit, the KIPP leaders flipped out as news of college drop-outs came back to them. Rather than hide the problem — a rampant educational temptation — they explored it.

Tough reports, “The students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP. Instead they seemed to be the ones who possessed certain other gifts, skills like optimism and resilience and social agility. They were the students who were able to recover from bad grades and resolve to do better next time; who could bounce back from unhappy breakups or fights with their parents; who could persuade professors to give them extra help after class; who could resist the urge to go out to the movies and instead stay home and study.”

KIPP has since changed much of its practice to incorporate the teaching of these “soft” skills. Authoritarian, punitive techniques are giving way to more social and personal support.

In general, How Children Succeed discusses in detail how we can care for our kids in ways that build their resilience. It starts with making sure every child is loved and attached to at least one parent, preferably two, and an extended family to boot. But he also understands that kids need “discipline, rules, limits; someone to say no.”

Balancing discipline and love is the big challenge for anyone who cares for children whether at home or in institutions like schools. Our kids need far more loving care than they’re getting, largely because so many people act as though the kids are someone else’s problem. They’re not.

Terrific book.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.


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If Parents Want Graduates, Raise Resilient Kids

Published by — If we want to see graduation rates improve, parents are going to have to introduce their kids to adulthood before sending them to college.

Congratulations high school grads!  In the Fall, many of you will go off to college, with all its adult freedom and delights.

But do you have the grit, the resiliency to complete a degree?  Beware.  You have lower odds than you think.

The sad graduation rate of U.S. high schools has finally climbed over 70 percent.  But a dirty secret of higher ed is that, on average, their graduation rates are even lower.  Obstacles abound to finishing a degree these days – money being the biggest.

But frankly, second to money, just leaving the comfortable nest at home has never been so hard.

To explore this issue, I talked with David Lux, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island.

Bryant has particularly acute problems with home-attached students because its mission, and claim to fame, is that it gets its graduates prepared to work confidently in the global economy.  Bryant is known for its business programs, and business is increasingly international.

Bryant requires students to travel abroad, with exceptions, of course.  Its long-standing president, Ronald Machtley, declared ten years ago that 100 percent of its grads would have passports – only 30 percent of all Americans do.  He’s since settled for 80 percent.  Bryant is in the top 20 colleges and universities to give students international experience.

So Bryant students leave not just home, but also country.  More grit required.

Lux says that his colleagues across the country notice the same three problems with keeping students on track.

First is “the overwhelming experience of being away from home for the first time.”

Lux explains, “When I talk to parents, I ask how many of you give your son or daughter a wake up call in the morning, that shout upstairs?  About 80 percent do.  I say, stop that.  Our kind of students are primarily middle class, so they’ve been the focus of helicopter parents.  I ask how many kids have their own room and have never shared a room?  Because they’re about to be jerked out of their comfort zones.”

The inevitable second problem is the culture shock of mingling with peers from all kinds of backgrounds, with different levels of academic preparation.

Lux speaks for them, “Either I’m smarter than everyone, and I already did this.  Or I was at the top of my class in high school, and here I’m the dumbest person in the school.”

Mind you, Lux and I exchanged our own experiences of leaving home and going to college, so the challenge of this transition is not new.  As a fun-loving West-Coast girl, I thought competitive Easterners behaved like walking resumes.  But then, my parents were far from helicopter helpers; it was exclusively my job to deal with competition.

Third, and by far the newest and culturally oddest problem, kids don’t have what Lux calls “college street smarts.”  They don’t know how to hook into what works for them.  And the problems are always someone else’s fault.  The professor is at fault for going too fast or slow.  Students don’t actively use their friends and advisors to find the professors that work best for them.  Their success is not really their responsibility.

Bryant students are generally from homes where small business is important, often the source of the family income.  Such homes give lip service to the idea of self-reliance but don’t get their kids to practice it.  Mom and Dad have been doing for that kid for so long, he or she is calling home daily for guidance on the littlest things.

“Parents call me to complain about what’s happening with Johnny or Suzy – there’s a roommate problem, or grades.  I ask them to send the kid himself to see me.  If kids want counseling services, I hand them a card and have them make the phone call.  Get kids to advocate for themselves.”

So Bryant created lots of strategies to connect students to the college community.  Research shows that more than anything, engagement in campus activities, the extra-curriculars, best improves student retention and academic success.

But developing grit and academic street smarts should start much earlier.  Lux adds that “the world of K-12 education also has set itself against brain executive function.  Parents and schools supervise the whole life experience of a kid.  They debilitate the students from learning any kind of self-efficacy.  There are those who say that K-12 students have fewer civil rights than any group in the country.”

Parents and schools in this Land of the Brave have become stunningly risk averse.  Parents and schools both obsess about safety and control, working compulsively to prevent kids from under-performing on tests or taking risks that might jeopardize getting into the best college.  Schools, zoos and public agencies of all kinds are terrified of liability.  So many kids today grow up in a bubble of protective over-supervision.

Then they leave for college.  No more bubble.

Lux says that Bryant wants to teach students to trust that they can figure it out themselves.  A Bryant student or grad should be able to arrive in an airport anywhere in the world, where they do not speak the language, and negotiate their way to their destination.

Adventure is intrinsically risky.  So are adulthood, business and freedom.  Live with it.

Lux concludes, “Getting out of your comfort zone and learning to deal – that’s what education is all about.”

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and GoLocalWorcester.  She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island.  She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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