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Pool: How kids can succeed

By Frank T. Pool
March 25, 2013 at 10 p.m.


For many years I have been concerned about helping young people grow up to be successful, and assisting them in deciding what success means. As our society has experienced widening economic inequality over the last three decades, these issues take on new meaning.

I just finished reading "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character" by Paul Tough. The book was published in 2012, and I had read numerous reviews before receiving it as a Christmas present.

The book is easy to read, a combination of journalistic reports on students and schools with summaries of research in the social sciences. Its central thesis is that the attributes which matter most in getting young people to succeed are not cognitive traits such as intelligence or academic skills, but non-cognitive attributes such as conscientiousness, self-control, and persistence.

Tough clearly has spent a great deal of time visiting schools and getting to know educators and young people. He talks about the challenges facing affluent students-overly high expectations and parents who are simultaneously too meddlesome and yet too emotionally distant. But the bulk of the book deals with students who grow up in poverty.

We are coming to the end of an era that began in the 1990s and focused on test scores and their improvement as the key to making education more effective in this country. This movement for educational reform was well-intentioned, but the focus on tests (and later, on teacher quality) has led to a narrow, dull, inauthentic kind of learning.

Besides, as Tough relates, it turns out that, contrary to expectations, what really predicts a student's success in college is not the SAT test, but a kid's high school grade point average, despite the wide differences between high schools.

Why can that be? It's likely that kids who are bright and knowledgeable enough to score very well on tests have not learned how to do work consistently, punctually, and conscientiously.

I can think of numerous students I've taught who are in this category. Their performance can be brilliant in class discussions, but their research papers and essays sag into what I refer to as Bad Scholarship, which I often call by its initials.

Other students, especially those from less privileged backgrounds, give up too easily. How many times I have heard kids give up on a challenging text, saying "That don't make no sense." No, the text is fine. They've just given up. Too quickly.

Conscientiousness is one of the five basic personality traits, along with agreeability, neuroticism, openness, and extraversion. The big question is whether this trait is a permanent part of one's character, or whether it something that can be taught.

Tough and I both hope it is the latter. Some evidence seems to show that when people approach such things as intelligence as being changeable, their performance improves. I've often said that motivating a kid takes about as long as teaching him or her to read. In both cases families do the bulk of the work.

Conservatives are right, that character matters, but they stop there. Liberals rightly point out the trauma and chaos that blight the lives of poor children, but they are reluctant to criticize the way other people raise their children.

It's fashionable nowadays for everyone, left, right, and center, to blame the schools for kids' lack of success. Tough's book contains examples of failures and successes, and partial successes.

Students who succeed are resilient. If our country is to succeed in educating all its children, we as a nation need to be resilient, persistent, and goal-driven.

- Frank Thomas Pool is a poet and English teach er working in Austin. He grew up on Maple Street in South Longview and graduated from Longview High School. Email him at FrankT.Pool@gmail.com.

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