Monday, March 18, 2013

Education: Success, Failure, and Character

Paul Tough has written a book that should cause all those arguing the rights and wrongs of school reform to stop and reconsider. The focus of most advocates of reform has been on the development and measurement of cognitive skills that are quantifiable, such as reading comprehension and mathematics. The goal seems to be to take children as early as possible and begin drilling them on these topics. It is assumed that with good teachers, students will have a satisfactory learning experience. However, Tough reminds us that teachers can only teach. It is the students who must learn, and we cannot assume they are blank slates just waiting to be written upon.

Paul Tough’s book is titled How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. He discusses a growing body of evidence that suggests the path to educational attainment is much more complex a process than merely cramming facts and figures into developing young minds.

" the past decade, and especially in the past few years, a disparate congregation of economists, educators, psychologists, and neuroscientists have begun to produce evidence....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 noncognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us sometimes think of them as character."

Tough argues that learning is a difficult process for all children, no matter how fundamentally intelligent they might be. If they are to perform up to their potential, it will be necessary that they possess the characteristics he has listed above.

He makes his point in a number of ways. For example, he points out that the SAT and ACT tests were devised in order to allow colleges to assess the probability of student success no matter where the student was educated. Prior to these standardized tests being available, the only data generally available on students were GPA (grade point average) and teacher recommendations. The colleges worried that they would be unable to compare students from affluent urban areas with those from poor rural areas, for example. The SAT and ACT tests measured cognitive qualities: intelligence and prior education. Presumably, they do a good job of that. But do these tests determine who is best suited to perform well in college?

Tough reports on a study described in Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities by William G. Bowen, Michael S. McPherson, and Matthew Chingos.

"The authors....discovered that the most accurate predictor of whether a student would successfully complete college was not his or her score on the SAT or the ACT, the two standardized college admissions tests. In fact, it turned out that, except at the most highly selective public universities, ACT scores revealed very little about whether or not a student would graduate from college. The far better predictor of college completion was a student’s high school GPA."

The conclusion to be drawn is that it is easy for a bright student to score well on an isolated test, but in order to generate a high GPA, he/she must be willing and able to apply themselves diligently over a long period of time while negotiating the depressing setbacks, delightful distractions, and complex social interactions of adolescence. In order to attain a lofty GPA a student must exhibit the attributes that Tough refers to as character. And that seems to be quite important in college performance.

Tough also delves into the experiences of the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools in trying to produce students who are able to perform well on standardized tests and also able to succeed in later life after they have left the KIPP environment. The KIPP charter schools accept middle school students from disadvantaged backgrounds via a lottery system. The purpose of the lottery is to avoid selecting only the most promising of the potential students. The KIPP approach was very successful at producing children that performed well academically.

"....[KIPP’s] formula seemed to have worked, and remarkably quickly: in the eighth-grade citywide achievement test in 1999, the students of KIPP academy earned the highest scores of any school in the Bronx and the fifth highest in all of New York City. Those scores—unheard of at the time for an open-admission school in a poor neighborhood....."

What the KIPP leaders learned over time is that the academic lessons and training they were providing their students was insufficient to enable them to attain their academic potential. The students who excelled in graduating to high school were referred to as the Class of 2003 for the year they would be entering college.

"Almost every member of the Class of 2003 did make it through high school, and most of them enrolled in college. But then the mountain grew steeper. Six years after their high school graduation, just 21 percent of the cohort....had completed a four-year college degree."

This performance was unacceptable, and inconsistent with the early achievements of the students. After much soul searching, the KIPP people concluded that the students they were training were being sent out into the world with only a fraction of the tools they would need to succeed. They had been focusing on cognitive results, but the results indicated that once the students left the KIPP support system they did not necessarily possess the noncognitive tools they needed to succeed.

The traits that KIPP believed it needed to focus on were:

social intelligence

The schools and the teachers set out in enhance these characteristics in their students. They went so far as to begin issuing two report cards to students: one for academics, and one for "character."

KIPP has a goal of a six-year graduation rate of 75%. Since this new focus was established the college graduation number has improved.

"....the six-year graduation rate had gone up from 21 percent for the Class of 46 percent for the class of 2005."

The personality traits that KIPP is trying to generate are usually developed in early childhood. Research indicates that the quality of that experience for the child is important in determining the characteristics of the child. In particular, it appears to be critical that the child grow up in a relatively stress-free environment where it can feel secure and have at least one person to which it can form a strong and comforting attachment. This is precisely the type of environment that is difficult to attain for children who emerge from endemic poverty. Perversely, it seems that this type environment might also be difficult to attain for the children of the very affluent.

KIPP, and others who have come to the same realization, seem to be on the right track now. Sadly, decades have been wasted following the wrong approaches. The most important thing to take from this discussion is that these traits that are necessary for success can be developed and improved even into adolescence.

Teachers can only teach; students must do the learning. Let us focus on helping the students directly and stop blaming everything on the teachers.

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