Friday, April 12, 2013

Book Review: How Children Succeed by Paul Tough

I'm tired of teaching-reform books. Finding a good one is as difficult as finding most anything on the Internet these days: you have to wade through hundreds of half-baked attempts to find the gem you're looking for. And there's a lot of them too: here's an op-ed on the topic running today/tomorrow in the New York Times. Good ideas, but a definite sense of futility, and I feel like I've read it before. Also, couldn't it really be edited to one page instead of two?

It's in this context that How Children Succeed really does stand out. It's not a perfect book, but it's the best on the topic that I've read. Paul Tough writes like he has a personal stake in the topic, and by the end of the book you find out that he indeed does, in multiple ways. He covers ground from the famous KIPP academy to public schools in Chicago to a tournament-winning chess team from the Bronx. There's some good science in here, but it's not wielded like a club, it's integrated into the conclusions, and it points beyond itself (perhaps that is the sign of good science).

A few of the points are contradictory -- is it optimism or pessimism that builds success? -- and a few of the initiatives, like the new "character GPA" focus, are so new they are untested and feel faddish. (There's nothing more faddish than education reform ... ) These are exceptions. Most of this book is much more solid than average.

And don't be thrown by the "children" in the title: several parts of the book have to do with undergraduate retention and definite "young adult" areas of success.

One point Tough hits on but also tends to shy away from is how close all these character-building traits are to a traditional concept of virtue. I understand that, recently, virtue tends to bring to mind compulsive Republican gamblers (it's a long story if it doesn't for you), but to me at least, the notion only works if it is grounded in a community of oft-confused pilgrims working their way toward a goal rather than having arrived at it. In that context, virtue is the best single word to describe what this book recommends. Virtue and love, especially the love of a parent. That definition of virtue must involve love.

My best recommendation of this book is that Tough covers the same ground as Malcolm Gladwell in several places, in a much less flashy yet somehow more lasting manner. So in that sense, he's a more humble and more accurate Gladwell, writing in book length rather than essay length. What's not to like about that?

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