Paul Tough Is Way Off-Base. And Stop Saying “Grit”.

Over the past few weeks author and journalist Paul Tough and his new book How Children Succeed:  Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character have been making a splash in the world of education reform.  The book has been highlighted in the New York Times, on NPR, and on various other news outlets.

And then there was Education Nation.  Brian Williams seems to have a major crush on all things Tough.  And as always, the charter school franchise KIPP is mentioned in nearly every segment as a school “beating the odds”. This year, all the hype was about KIPP’s character education program.  Williams later went on the do a Rock Central segment called “True Grit: Teaching Character in the Classroom“.

Tough’s book centers on the idea that critical non-cognitive skills, which he calls “character”, can be hindered due to poor parenting and the stresses of poverty.  He argues that these skills are more important than the fixed idea of IQ and that schools should focus on developing skills like “grit (perseverance), self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, zest (enthusiasm), and curiosity.”  He also points to research that shows attachment to parents and shielding young children from stress during the first years of life can also influence these characteristics later in life.

“GRIT” is a piece of perspective art made by Doyle Partners in conjunction with the New York Times. The actual piece itself is located in the KIPP Infinity Middle School in Manhattan.(From: )

How is This New?

I am not clear on what all the hype is about regarding Tough’s book.  I teach on a child/adolescent inpatient unit at a psychiatric hospital in Chicago.  We teach very similar types of social skills (I refuse to call it “character” which adds an implicit deficit understanding of children’s behavior.)   In the mental health field, clinicians and mental health workers have been teaching these skills for decades.  This research is nothing new. As a trained special education teacher, I spent a large part of my education graduate program learning the direct instruction of social skills.  Schools have emphasized social/emotional learning for as long as I have been a teacher.

To me, the biggest difference in what KIPP does and what happens at my hospital is that we teach these skills in a therapeutic context.  That is, children spend the whole day discussing their personal lives, including abuse, trauma, neglect, violence, and home lives.  We teach them ways to overcome frustration in the moment, so it does not blow up into aggression or self-harm.  We connect their depression (lack of “optimism”), their feelings of hopelessness (lack of “grit”), and their anger (lack of “zest” or “self-control”) with their lives and then teach them ways to cope.  We are always clear that these types of coping skills are intended as a momentary fix to get kids through difficult situations, but the real healing happens through the long process of directly dealing with the trauma by trained professionals.

KIPP’s Character Education and Social Justice

KIPP’s approach to character education is eerily divorced from the reality of inner city children’s lives.  They teach, reinforce through praise, grading, or punishment, traits like “grit, self-control, or optimism”.  They even give out report cards to measure the unmeasurable “character” of children.  A majority of KIPP schools are middle schools, a time of development when children are first beginning to question the world around them, and some will undoubtedly rebel.  And yet, KIPP’s curriculum is not based in social justice, in teaching students about oppression, racism, or class structures.  Too often for inner city youth, as they begin to question the gross inequalities of their lives, when they begin to realize something is off about the treatment of their communities by those in power, many react in anger.  KIPP’s answer is lock-down.  Tell young people to exhibit “self-control” or “grit”, and to “work, hard, be nice.” There is no conversation about WHY the children (often rightfully so) are feeling the way they are.  There is no talk about historical oppression or institutional racism.  At KIPP, if you do not exhibit the correct “character” it is YOUR fault, and YOUR fault alone.  And if you cannot just get over whatever it is that angers you, if you cannot or will not just “be nice”, well then there is the door.  The “no excuses” ideology drops hundreds of years of injustice in the lap of children.

To a social justice educator, KIPP’s approach is crude behaviorism that will never address the broader needs of children and communities.  Look at what happened during the Chicago Teachers Strike.  Among the children who participated on the picket lines, at the rallies and the marches, something magical happened. Students did not need to be told to sit still and have “self-control”, but exhibited it naturally through the empowerment of fighting for justice.  “Optimism” was authentic as students felt the excitement of finally having voice.   What is the value in teaching children, almost like training a dog, to be able to sit for hours, to have the “grit” to finish that tedious task or long test?  Why not create curriculum that is so engaging and relevant that children discover a joy in learning?  No instruction on “grit” is needed when students are empowered and engaged.  “No excuses” pedagogy is rooted in obedience and submission, in breaking children’s spirit, while social justice pedagogy empowers and uplifts using that spirit as an asset.

And unfortunately, KIPP teachers model this obedience and submission by gladly letting their labor be exploited.  Just as the children are taught to be submissive-to silence dissent and give up their childhoods in the mission of college and financial success, KIPP teachers are taught to be submissive to oppressive work loads and hours in the mission of closing the achievement gap.  Instead of contributing to the struggle that creates better work environments for all workers, which would ultimately benefit their students and communities, they become an example of the compliant exploited worker who never questions authority.  And without union protections or tenure, the teachers who do speak out are silenced quickly.  KIPP has that robotic feel of a dystopian future where people walk around with false smiles while purposefully ignoring the messy, or should I say gritty, stuff of life.

Poverty Matters, but Poverty Doesn’t Matter?

Tough does talk about a few semi-promising programs in Chicago such as An Ounce of Prevention-a program aimed at supporting teen mothers, One Goal-a program designed to get students into and through college, and Youth Advocate Programs, or YAP-a group which gives intensive mentorship to the most at-risk children.   These programs, especially an Ounce of Prevention, are fundamentally anti-poverty programs.  This type of intervention can be powerful, but they are band-aids, and often very expensive band-aids.  Giving mentors to youth involved with gangs, drugs, and violence is a positive step, but it does not change the underlying structures of racism, segregation, and oppression which led neighborhoods to fall prey to those social ills in the first place.

During a recent talk in Chicago, Alex Kotlowitz (author of books like There are No Children Here and the director of the documentary The Interrupters) asks Tough about these structural problems:

Kotlowitz:  “So I read this book, and one of my fears, in some ways, is that people will read this book and think…all kids need is some ‘pluck’, some ‘grit,’ and they can get themselves out of there [poverty].  Does it in turn ignore/neglect, those larger structural issues that are clearly so important to these communities…?”

Tough:  Yes, those kinds of neighborhoods could use all kinds of structural change…But I also really believe that education, maybe not the education we have right now, but education can reverse things very quickly.  That if a kid grows up in that neighborhood and gets the right kind of support, the right kind of intervention, they can end poverty for themselves, um, right away, and it doesn’t have to take a huge change for the whole neighborhood. [emphasis mine]

Tough ends by saying, “Talking about giving kids the skills they need to succeed is the right conversation to be having.”

Tough echoes the arguments of the corporate education reform movement.  You can hear the whisper of “poverty is not destiny” so often on the lips of Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, Joel Klein, Geoffrey Canada, and of course embedded in the KIPP philosophy.  He gives the elite and powerful the ultimate excuse to do nothing about structural problems of poverty.  No need to invest in desegregation programs, jobs programs, to increase worker rights, or end the criminalization of our nation’s Black and Latino youth.  We do not need to address the savage inequalities in school funding.  Nor is there any discussion about where the massive amounts of funds for these intervention programs will come from, especially in light of most state’s cuts to mental health and education services. 

Who Controls the Conversation about Character?

It needs to be pointed out that Tough, a well-to-do white male, is having this conversation with another well-to-do white male discussing interventions developed by other well-to-do people and implemented in programs sponsored by well-to-do board of directors and schools founded and run by majority well-to-do white people.  And so, unsurprisingly, they all use the language of oppression, of blaming the child for their lack of character, and their families for not giving the support to develop that character.  Notice how structural concerns are acknowledged and then callously brushed aside.

Tough begins his book talking about how poverty creates obstacles in children’s lives, but never allows himself to say that we should combat that poverty directly.  He toys around the edges, citing programs that do the work of anti-poverty programs, but then still ends on teaching “grit” in no-excuses charters as the ultimate answer.  

And he never acknowledges the many beautiful, powerful character traits low-income children already possess like loyalty, passion, a strong sense of justice, quick reactions in times of difficulty, and the ability to fight for what is right.  And sometimes that “bad attitude” is a justifiable distrust of authority, especially white authority.  Sometimes that lack of “zest” is appropriate given the mental health state of the student.  I would rather have a community-based, social-justice curriculum, which instead of ignoring oppression and trauma, confronts it directly.  KIPP’s standardized curricula do not allow for the beauty and range of human possibility.  As this author writes, focusing only on the specific character traits of KIPP “effectively exclude[s] autistics, introverts, pessimists, authority-questioners, union organizers, and other neurodivergent ‘undesirables.'”  No wonder KIPP has such high rates of attrition, especially in exceptional student populations.  I get the feeling that the future Einsteins and Picassos of our world would do poorly in the compliance-focused KIPPs. 

But on one thing, Tough is correct.  He speaks about the need for character education in affluent communities.  I do not think they need “more adversity”, as he argues, but rather they need to be taught empathy, justice, and solidarity in order to go out and refuse to participate in a social system which concentrates all the wealth in the hands of an elite few.  They should be taught of privilege, oppression, and the legacy of racism. They need to fight against a system which allows racism and segregation to continue uncontested.  They should be inspired to humbly join the communities in our inner-cities in their fight for social justice. 

The struggle for equality? Now THAT’s the kind of character education I’m interested in discussing… 


  1. why not create a curriculum that is engaging and relevant…. easy to say… Lets do it. Everyone is talking but nothing is getting said. There is so much talk about why but no one is writing a curriculum that is engaging and relevant. Let’s do it.


  2. I read that many comments here are reflecting on socially disadvantaged children having a deficit of character. I would remove the social aspect of this argument and move it into the realm of everyday children and adults. I agree with Mr Tough. I see these key attributes of success being universal and often lacking in many people I work with and try to lead and motivate. I am talking about educated professionals too. People who hide behind degrees often cannot deliver on commitments and take ownership of plans. I look for these traits in new leaders. I have had to let Mensa members go because they lacked self-control and social intelligence and “grit”

    My comments on these traits:
    self-confidence – critical to stand behind your vision
    grit (perseverance/persistence) – we live in a tough world – i see too much giving up
    self-control – gives you credibility with our peers and clients
    optimism – makes your leadership inspirational and contagious
    gratitude – makes your peers feel important – I see more self pity than humility and service
    social intelligence / conscientiousness – teams are built on empathy – creating win/wins
    zest (enthusiasm) – I see self pity kill this one too
    curiosity – I just do what I am assigned – our culture thrives when boundaries are questioned and explored.

    I feel Mr. Tough’s comments are being seen incorrectly by the author as condemning disadvantages children. I see these ideas as having belief in everyone and setting the compass towards success and self esteem.


  3. I’m not sure you read the entire book. He does talk about KIPP schools, but he also spends a lot of time discussing the character skills taught and reinforced by a chess teacher in a poor New York community. I believe he was using KIPP as an example of a program that is focusing on helping youth to overcome their own character deficiencies that commonly prevent people from being successful. As a teacher of low income students for twelve years at the middle school level, I can assure you that kids with positive attitudes about life, a strong support system at home, and the “grit” to force themselves to complete tasks even when they’re boring ARE the students who succeed. From the book, the big take away for me was the idea that if a community can help support underprivileged mothers of children 0 – 3 years, we can make huge strides in overcoming the gap. Maybe the author wasn’t talking about policy reform because his audience was not the political community. Don’t the policy writers and big education reformers already have access to this information? Maybe he was trying to start a movement of regular people from all walks of life who care enough about our children to want to do something to make a difference in their lives. I don’t think the author was suggesting that charter schools were the definitive answer, and I think he didn’t talk about the government’s role and responsibility because we seem to have very little control over that. I really think he was trying to start a conversation.


  4. Tough is right on target. We call these “keys to success” instead of character skills. It’s true that there’s nothing new about non-cognitive skills, but 50, 60, 70 years age kids came to school with these skills. Why didn’t they succeed? Teachers taught curriculum instead of individual students, and drop-outs were OK. Teachers have a much better skill set today, but not enough kids are willing to put in the work to get the job done.


  5. Have you been to a KIPP school? No one is saying this is a new idea, only the news because the news only cares about the ratings, but the point that is missing is our current education system is sustaining the status quo. The socio-economic divid continues to prove our children’s success – read Michael Parenti’s Democracy for the Few. I teach in a title 1 school in Colorado, I grew up in a title 1 school system in LA – and my conclusion is that we make a lot of our choices based on emotion and how our parents or people of influence in our lives make choices. There is no one answer or solution, so to get upset about a current spike in “Grit” talk and research is to get upset at the wind not blowing in your direction. I think grit and character are determining factors in success, along with family status, a moral compass, being an outlier- which is a series of coincidences (Malcolm Gladwell) and genes.

    We can only do with what we have and if we don’t have it we either invent it or find another way, while others sit in their place. We all can’t be Rockefellers (nor should we, someone has to work for them too), in fact most of us have to be ok with just being ourselves, which makes up the average. Our education system is a reflection of our society – but there are always a few who love to point out how weak it is, when in reality they’re only pointing the finger at how weak our society is – we are a military nation, proud of power and strength, not self discipline and progress and high test scores.

    Why are teachers given the burden of teaching character rather than content anyway? Schools nowadays have replaced the responsibility of the parent – why is that. We feed them, we clothe them, we teach them to grow up…oh yeah, we also teach them about science and art too. When is a teacher’s job done and when do we get paid for all this work we do?


  6. I agree pretty strongly with Tough’s ideas, but I found this post and the following comments very interesting and thought-provoking. I particularly resonated with skeptic’s comment that these “character” (that term is a big problem — non-cognitive? mindset?) traits are a good moderate position between the liberal paralysis of waiting for a revolution and the conservative paralysis of the fixed mindset. As citizens, we can vote, donate our time and money, and live our lives in a way that can work to end poverty and racism. But as educators, our hands are tied regarding poverty; we have to focus on what we CAN change, on malleable factors like the ones Tough talks about. The research (i.e., Dweck) is clear that students with a growth mindset, who believe that they can change their intelligence and their lot in life through their effort and the choices they make, are more successful in school and in life.

    I didn’t view Tough’s off-the-cuff comment on children ending their own poverty as racist or classist — rather, I saw it as educators empowering students to take control of their futures and change what they can. If we didn’t believe even a little bit that we could help end poverty through education, I don’t think there would be so many devoted educators out there. Regarding KIPP, educators and students alike have to focus on what we can change now — and if that’s teaching inner-city kids to play the game that privileged kids grow up learning from their parents, it might be the best solution we have in the short term, until the revolution comes along to make the change we really want to see.


  7. I think this is mostly right. The real test is whether any school for mostly poor kids can make a serious improvement in student achievement and life success. So far, the evidence is not promising; both KIPP and HCZ are spending a lot of money and getting barely better results. I would like to be shown that school can help kids overcome poverty and trauma, but until a school actually does it, I won’t believe it’s possible.


  8. I just don’t see that Tough is enthralled with KIPP, Riverdale, or any of the other private institutions he cites in his book. He seems to engage in journalism, and in a state of curiosity. I don’t believe he signs off on the KIPP model as being anything other than another way. As a practitioner of liberation theater, a collaborator with youth, and teaching artist in public schools, I say anything that encourages one to understand that everyone is atypical is healthy, and this experience happens for me one student at a time. Ms. K’s critique is in some ways as chilling to me as the entitled wash she sees in Mr. Tough’s work. I appreciate that he has talked about a few individuals, with whom we became familiar, and who had very particular ways of adjusting to enormous and profoundly depressing obstacles. Regardless of the societal origins of their trauma, they found ways to collaborate on their own growth and development.
    I do believe that he cops to being a white, entitled guy in the book more than once, and also cops to never having finished college, in recognition that college is not perhaps the only measure of success. He also talks about good parenting not necessarily “shielding” children from stress, but being present and available, which I believe he says has nothing to do with poverty, race or class. Yes, oppression, yes institutionalized racism; but also, agency, self-control, and ability to wait for satisfaction and completion. I think that this is how anybody succeeds. In my sixties, I am still struggling to be successful in those ways.


  9. Also, most of what I’ve read about “grit” and its role on education/achievement, hasn’t much to do with strong stuff as “traumas”. But it’s more the propensity or behavior to persevere, even after/while facing difficulties. That’s contrasted with the notion that an innate talent or intelligence is more important. Psychological research shows that if you praise people/children on “talent”, on “being good” at something, they get somewhat spoiled, they will avoid more challenging stuff (even in the area where they’ve been told they’re good), whereas children/people praised for working hard will actually seek more challenging stuff, continuous self-improvement, and will be less affected when facing difficulties.

    I think that if we were to take this in consideration in the broader debate of politics, we can see a potential danger both in the left and in the right wing discourses of things depending mostly on external/distant factors, or immutable/nearly immutable factors. Those discourses give a sense of learned helplessness I guess. Both discourses sort of have an implied assertion (or possible interpretation) that people aren’t capable of achieving more by their own efforts.

    I think that the ideal discourse/strategy has to stress both that often more can be done with less/with the resources at hand, but also point to injustices that must be corrected. We can’t see these things as dichotomies, or as rival propositions. And perhaps more importantly, the latter can’t obfuscate the former, as it’s probably something that will bring more immediate improvements than anything else.

    An historical example is somewhat famously known as a case of “positive deviations”, how they’ve managed to solve a problem of children malnourishment in Vietnam, without solving more fundamental problems of development and poverty. Specialists were wasting time debating/studying minutiae of how poverty is structured and how it leads to many things like children malnourishment, and the only conclusion was that it was all true, but useless. No one was able to provoke some grandiose change that would make every Vietnamese less poor. What changed things significantly was when some people had the idea of finding poor people who managed to have well nourished children even against the odds. What they’ve found was that they have different dietary practices that weren’t drastically different from the traditional costumes of everyone else. Only that they ate some foods that used to be considered only appropriate for adults, and that they ate a similar amount of food, but spread in more meals, rather than in less voluminous meals. These differences were promoted and so more and more Vietnamese children became well nourished.

    If they had focused only on big structural issues, nothing would have changed. Or at least, not so fast, it would have depended on more radical, and long-term political/economic changes, which isn’t something we can really rely on to improve things, even though it must certainly be a long-term pursuit.


  10. ” He gives the elite and powerful the ultimate excuse to do nothing about structural problems of poverty.

    But “denying”/not taking into consideration this sort of finding is also the ultimate excuse for not trying hard enough until finally comes the day when the powerful and the elites solve all the structural problems of poverty, and everybody live happy ever after.

    The structural problems of poverty/people’s situations can be dealt, at least partly, without depending on the elites and the powerful doing something different.

    I think I’ve read something on NPR or somewhere else that this view of things, of grit and cheap/costless behavioral change is a sort of middle-ground between the extremes of left and right wings, one that may actually work. It said that in the right-wing, at least on the extremes, there’s the notion that nothing can be done about, and the social situation is essentially permanent, written in everyone’s genes. And the left wing has also the somewhat hopeless notion that nothing can be achieved without a “revolution”, without some unlikely, dramatic and often vaguely defined change of politics/economy, everything depending on the elites and the powerful. The middle ground is both more realistic than the fatalistic view of the extreme right, and more hopeful, practical, than the view of the left.


  11. Katie, Your generalizations about KIPP in the article are astounding. I’ll focus on your argument that KIPP’s curriculum is not based in social justice. For one, KIPP does not have a scripted nation-wide curriculum. So unless you’ve been to every KIPP school, we’d have to agree that such a generalization is misleading for readers (who may truat that you have analyzed every KIPP schools’ curriculum) as well as at odds with your responsibility as a journalist to provide sources and evidence. Then again, it’s easier in today’s lie-laden media to generalize, embolden your reader, and keep the specifics to minimum. I teach 7th Grade history at a KIPP school in Harlem, so yes, I too am biased. But I try as honestly as possible to avoid generalizations. If you took the time to visit (and learned to analyze specific schools instead of painting broad strokes) you’d feel morally obligated to revise your claims re KIPP and social justice. But it seems that, for the sake of your argument, you’d rather bad-talk and pigeonhole schools you know little about. Is it because knowing on-the-ground facts would throw you into a spell of cognitive dissonance that would undermine parts, if not all, of your argument?


  12. With all due respect, Katie, you are the one who is way off base. There are far more examples to validate Mr. Tough’s conclusions than the polarizing, often controversial KIPP philosophy. As the co-founder of the first after-school music program in Georgia based on the globally heralded “El Sistema” music program, I can state unequivocally that Mr. Tough’s book reinforces everything that we see on the ground in the most underserved communities in Metro Atlanta.

    Your counter-argument falls short, mainly because you use one extreme, controversial example rather than building a fact base of tons of other datapoints. There is also extensive research on the importance of social and emotional learning on academic learning.

    I strongly recommend you go back and do some additional homework on this matter, and then perhaps we can have a mutually rewarding, intellectual debate on Mr. Tough’s assertions.

    Al Meyers
    ReinventED Solutions


    1. I can always tell a comment is about to fall off a cliff when it begins “with all due respect.” Katie is not talking about social and emotional learning. She’s talking about the concept specifically called “grit,” which has been for the past year or so become a new word of choice for character obsessed poverty deniers. Mr. Tough’s assertions deal specifically with the term GRIT, of which Katie is critical, NOT the entire research literature on social and emotional learning. Have you read Tough’s book? Are you aware of the research behind Grit? Do some homework yourself, sir.


      1. Why is “Chalk Face” responding for “Katie”? As soon as someone addresses someone else as “sir” we can tell that they’ve already fallen off a cliff of their own, and decided to put on their snarky. I’ve read the book by the way.


        1. As a former LISP/Scheme programmer, I love recursion. Barbie June, why are you responding on behalf of reactionary Al Meyers with the question ‘Why is “Chalk Face” responding for “Katie”?’ Barbie is sort of like Michele Bachmann to Al Meyer’s Michelle Malkin defending Michelle Rhee style politics. Good show!


  13. So glad to see Katie’s critique, which is consistent with the concerns I have been expressing about Tough’s notions. He is yet another example of how, when non-educators tell educators what to do, they have virtually no insight on what previously came before them.

    Tough should have done more homework. He could have readily located information regarding where we have already been, including Early Childhood Education’s long-standing focus on social-emotional development in addressng the whole child. Research on the effects of stress, including tissue damage due to cortisol and the buffering effects of a nurturing, authoritative adult mentor for promoting resilience, were certainly a major focus of my training, and that’s been in the training I provide to future teachers as well, but no one asks real educators about children and education anymore.

    Where’s the acknowledgment of the emphasis on conduct, deportment and citizenship in Elementary and Middle School Education, which were ever present in my public schools in the 50s and 60s?

    What about the interventions targeting appropriate self-expression and the development of prosocial skills for internalizers and externalizers in Special Education?

    Where was Tough when educators learned to address Emotional Intelligence and Multiple Intelligences with students of virtually all ages?

    Is there any mention of the controversies educators previously encountered around providing character education vs moral education? This was a HUGE issue in the 90s.

    Holding up KIPP as a model program turns the clock back further and ignores their own students’ characterization of KIPP as the Kids in Prison Program. Even Skinner treated animals with more dignity than is demonstrated in the manipulation of low-income inner city children of color at KIPP charter schools today.

    Enough already with all these imposters cashing in on “free market” education with their “new” ideas. Been there, done that.

    Instead, let’s emulate for inner city kids what veteran educators provide in schools with less than 10% poverty which rank number 1 in the world on PISA, while simultaneously addressng poverty and the inequities which reinforce that in our society.


  14. “I am not clear on what all the hype is about regarding Tough’s book. I teach on a child/adolescent inpatient unit at a psychiatric hospital in Chicago. We teach very similar types of social skills (I refuse to call it “character” which adds an implicit deficit understanding of children’s behavior.) In the mental health field, clinicians and mental health workers have been teaching these skills for decades.”

    How does a student become so lucky as to be admitted to your “child/adolescent inpatient unit at a psychiatric hospital” so that he or she may the opportunity to learn these social skills?

    Isn’t that the real point? If you want to get all PC about the word “grit”, have at it. But one thing is clear: poverty and injustice are not going away any time soon, and if giving young kids the tools to cope better with the everyday traumas of growing up poor is embraced by elites after reading Tough’s book, maybe fewer would wind up in your psychiatric unit.

    I find Tough’s focus on Kipp unfortunate, and I hope he has come to regret it. But he’s barking up the right tree, even if some of the examples he points to are not.


  15. II enjoyed this critique, and think it is spot on. I know I will be forwarding to others who have read the book.

    But I don’t think Tough’s book should be dismissed.

    I have just finished Tough’s book, and while I cringe at the idea of non-cognitive skills being co-opted by the reform movement, and what that would entail — test prep for zest, character report cards, character tutoring, etc — I see the bulk of Tough’s message serving as a rallying cry for progressive educators.

    A lot of what the book discusses has been debated in early childhood circles for decades. Should an early childhood classroom prioritize social and emotional development, or should it prioritize academic skills and school readiness? The politicians tend to be on one side, and the experts the other. Progressive early childhood programs hold tight to the idea that social and emotional development should not be ignored, while other programs — often the those that are government funded, have moved too far to the side of school readiness at the expense of social and emotional development.

    With the Race to the Top program reaching Pre-K, it has only gotten worse. Education Week has a story this week about the misguided focus of public school Pre-K programs in Florida, and how VPK programs are now going to be rated based on how their “graduates” do on a Kindergarten readiness test. This is going to be mean programs are not going to enthusiastic welcome students on IEPs, ELL students, or students in poverty. And the ones that do — the ones that have to close a wider gap in just one year — are going to be doing a pre-K version of drill-and-kill test prep.

    We need some common sense brought back to the discussion. We need to move away from this idea of racing toward academic success. We need to recognize that our obsession with data and testing is not the answer. The purpose of school was never to produce a good test taker. But you wouldn’t know that if you looked in classrooms across the country. We are losing independent and creative thinkers throughout this process.

    That’s why I think we need Tough’s book to be part of a discussion. There is more to success than just scoring well on a test. Progressive schools and early childhood teachers recognize this. With Tough’s book, perhaps others will begin to recognize this as well.

    I do think that Tough just doesn’t get it when it comes to KIPP though. Levin wanted to know why their students dropped out of college, and he came back with the idea that they lacked grit, determination, and other traits of character.

    If I was examining that question, I think I would come back with two reasons, both of which you touch on. The first one being societal and cultural, in part because I refuse to believe that the middle/upper class students who stay in college have more grit and character than the KIPP students who drop out. The second reason would be in how KIPP prepares their students. They spend their days reciting mantras. They are expected to obey at all times. The role of the teacher is to fill them with knowledge and “correct” their upbringing. If they can’t handle that, they don’t continue at KIPP. This is not a recipe for adult success, or even college success. Students need to be able to think critically and independently. In a top-down, authoritarian school, do they really have opportunities to do just that?

    I wish Tough would have been able to recognize just how different the Tools of the Mind Kindergarten he visited valued students, their experiences and their ideas compared to the KIPP schools he visited. If we harp on the KIPP chapter, the book becomes problematic. If we focus on the research, especially as it relates to how we view teaching, children and achievement, I think there is a lot in this book to advocate bringing our schools back to normalcy.


  16. i don’t agree with most of the points or the self-righteous emotional framework of this “progressive” educator. i thought this quote offered several tells – “We are always clear that these types of coping skills are intended as a momentary fix to get kids through difficult situations, but the real healing happens through the long process of directly dealing with the trauma by trained professionals.” it’s good to know that the healing happens when the trained professionals directly deal with the trauma – perhaps we could arrange that via drive-through eventually? weird how the author echoes the brooks column there – that social traumas are best left up to the experts. but perhaps a more generous interpretation is that the author just miswrote that line and we should leave freud out of this.

    i agree that tough’s strategic decision not to directly link his analysis to a call for social democratic program-building should be questioned (and i did when i spoke to him) but i also think that attacking this choice without consideration of the situation is dumb.

    i also agree that the quote from the interview – in which he’s quoted as saying that kids can end poverty for themselves – seems nutso along the typical line of the ed deformers. thank you for calling that out.

    but could the critique of KIPP be cruder than mislabeling it as behoviorism and offering an alternative in which all students learn for the simple joy of learning because of the beautiful curriculum we (again the pros) construct? can the author really make such stupid claims, despite the ubiquity of wikipedia, about how einsteins should be educated with so little curiosity or awareness of actual historical models of german education? has the blog author actually visited kipp schools? should we really be so quick to disrespect the people who have devoted their lives to improving educational success of poor children and the families who made the decision to send their children to those schools?

    does the goal of claiming the identity of “authentic and radical representative of the good people who truly support the poor and not in a white-well-to-do-male way” trump solidarity with a social democrat who has devoted a significant chunk of his life to raising actionable consciousness of the problems of poor people (including serious time spent with poor people) and those who have devoted their insights and life to working for social justice? making pompous cartoons of ourselves does nothing for the people who have it worst. (trying to remember that myself as i write this response – that whole jesus and sticks and eye quote).

    where is any mention in this review of tough’s work with mentoring programs in chicago? of his observation of actual schools and interviews with real students? of his work with the harlem children’s zone? of his demands (dumb ones, but i’d think the blog author would approve) that obama emphasize fighting poverty in the re-election campaign?


    1. I don’t see any other way to label tracking the speaker and nodding your head like a trained pigeon than as behaviorism. Look, this is one person’s vision of what it means to be successful. KIPP clearly promotes a certain vision or ideology of success and this does not at all square with diverse or multicultural visions of success. How does KIPP address different definitions of success or achievement? How does GRIT at all deal with diverse and pluralistic conceptions of achievement? It doesn’t. It is a rather unsophisticated measure that fits in with some WASP’s wet dream of success within an American Dream mentality that is no longer applicable.


  17. I work at the Duckworth lab at the University of Pennsylvania and I joined her after more than 37 years in the Philadelphia public schools. She is probably best associated with the use of grit as a strength to describe student persistence. I agree with much that is said here but disagree that the pursuit of non-cognitive skills or interpersonal skills is necessarily racist or classist which the author implies. In fact the empowerment of young people and the encouragement of a growth mindset is what we’re all about. Ultimately when we better understand the components of grit we will know better how to include it in instruction and school culture.


    1. With a lot of ideas that may have begun as well-intentioned I think is being sincerely misinterpreted and will ultimately be misused by folks with the implicit intent to “civilize” the “savages” in our inner cities.


    2. Thanks for the comment. I teach coping skills (non-cognitive skills) for a living. I’m certainly not saying that discussion doesn’t have a place. However, within the conversation of “overcoming poverty” I absolutely take issue with the way the direct instruction of “character” is presented as a way for kids to “get themselves out of poverty”. That mindset, which Tough rather accidentally admits, is absolutely racist because it implies that kids just need to be taught to act right-that it was THEIR DEFICIENCY which held them back from success–not hundreds of years of oppression, racism, disenfranchisement, segregation, etc.

      And KIPP’s use of that type of “character education” within a “no excuses” discipline policy is absolutely off-base. I work with far too many kids coming from the “no excuses” charters (and those getting kicked out of them) who tell me horror stories. They may eventually become compliant, but it is superficial. They tell me they learn to “keep their heads low” and to be “quiet”. That is not empowerment. It is oppression. True empowerment, I believe, comes from the struggle against oppression, not compliance to it. The day the kids in KIPP stage non-violent civil disobedience against KIPP’s cruel discipline policies or fight for culturally-relevant curriculum is the day I will think they’ve become empowered.


      1. Let’s start telling it like it is, in all of its un-PC glory: KIPP’s version of “grit’ teaches black and brown students to take 50 lashes and say, “Thank you, Massa.”


        1. Having taught several KIPP kids after they have moved into high school, that’s absolutely ridiculous. KIPP kids know that they have it within them to succeed, and every one of them that I’ve seen in my school has. Flawlessly? No, but then neither do my more affluent students. They have voices and use them. Have you even interacted with a range of KIPP kids?


  18. Thank you for articulating these issues so thoughtfully! Much appreciated!!! Any conversation about educational reform which suggests that we can reform one societal institution (schools) without reforming the other institutions and the very society itself, is naive and misguided – and in my mind at least, the motives are suspect….


    1. That is actually exactly what Tough says in the book, which gives inner-city kids an advantage over kids from higher-income areas. It’s about channeling that resilience and giving them the tools they need to make a better life for themselves.


  19. Amen! I refuse to let the children to which Tough refers, believe that they need “character training”. Unfortunately they have too much character. They support their buddies, even when some buddies need to be reported to people they don’t trust. They pocket some of the lunches for the kids at home. They love a teacher who recognizes the individual in them and treats them with dignity and equity. Oh no, no amount of Tough’s grit, can match these character traits. Perhaps in a way, children of color and poor children need to lose some of their character and act like the Deformers in education: make money off the backs of the poor, don’t address the real problems in education and blame the students if the don’t achieve acceptable scores on tests stacked against them in the first place. Oh by the way, keep reviewing Tough’s book. I put my money where my mouth is, so I won’t buy the book.


  20. What Tough is talking about is resilience–not character. Character is moral development–which probably cannot be directly taught.

    You’re right, though: resilience is nothing new. But I suppose it’s fun to think kids can break out of poverty if they work hard enough. We like our pre-conceived notions to be reinforced, and this is the original American delusion. Sad.

    You ultimately need both: a no-excuses attitude and anti-poverty programs.


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