How Children Succeed by Paul Tough

On the plane out to California I read Paul Tough’s latest book: How Children Succeed – Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. It’s a must read for all Hyde folks.

While I found my interest fading in and out during the first chapter, things kicked in for me when he got to the parts about character, the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter schools, and their collaborative work with Riverdale Country School (NYC).  Suffice it to say that it is very interesting to watch the progression that KIPP is going through, having gone from the darling of the charter school world (a status they still enjoy) due to their exemplary test scores, on to their difficult (but brutally honest) acceptance of the fact that their graduates are not faring as well as had been hoped in college due to perceived character weaknesses (specifically, a lack of grit) that are not revealed in test scores.

KIPP’s collaboration with Riverdale is fascinating. While the genesis undoubtedly began due to the fact that KIPP founder David Levin, a truly dynamic education leader, is an alum, it is also clear that the Riverdale head of school is very concerned about character.  He even criticizes schools in the ilk of Riverdale as providing a service to affluent families by offering “a high probability of non-failure.”  Of our nation’s “top” schools and colleges, he freely observes, “In most highly academic environments in the US, no one fails… anything.”  Characteristic of the book’s honesty, Tough himself notes that Riverdale has turned out a number of fairly successful people but has failed to graduate any “world changers.” (He accompanies that observation with apologies to alum Chevy Chase.)

Upon finishing Tough’s book, I saw an opportunity for those of us at Hyde.  The one thing about the book that left me cold was my feeling that the notion of character seems to be depicted as a 21st century take on the Gospel of Success – i.e., capture grit and you too will get ahead.  Some of it seemed to be a call for a sort of Dale Carnegie course for the new millennium.  True or not, I found the book to be a bit light on the importance of virtue for its own sake.  To invoke educator Thomas Lickona, the book seems to be all about Performance Character, perhaps at the expense of Moral Character.  Nothing wrong with that…seriously… but to parrot the Gauld Family mantra for Summer 2012: “…..just sayin’.”

In the end, I have big hopes for this book.  Specifically, I’d love to see it give rise to the national discussion and debate we desperately need.  While the so-called experts have been going at it for years now, here’s to hoping that everyday folks and families will now have a go at it.  Thanks, Paul Tough, for setting the stage.

Onward,  Malcolm