Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why

Paul Tough

125 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016

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I had two big goals for my new book, Helping Children Succeed, and both were related to my previous book, How Children Succeed (2012), and to the reactions it produced in readers—especially readers who were educators. My first goal was to provide a more practical, concrete framework for action for educators, policymakers, and other practitioners who were trying to improve outcomes for low-income children. I wanted to do my best to answer a question that I heard from many teachers, especially those working in high-poverty schools: Now that we know this, what do we do?

My second goal was to wrestle in print with my sometimes complicated feelings about the attempt by some educators to turn the collection of non-cognitive capacities that I wrote about in How Children Succeed into a precise set of skills that could be measured, assessed, defined, and taught. I understood and appreciated the desire to expand our existing assessment model, which is so dependent on standardized tests that mostly measure a narrow band of cognitive skills. But I wasn’t convinced that it really made sense to consider these non-cognitive capacities primarily as “skills” to be “taught.” The section below, which is from the second half of the book, is where I took on that dilemma most directly. —Paul Tough

If we want students to act in ways that will maximize their future opportunities—to persevere through challenges, to delay gratification, to control their impulses—we need to consider what might motivate them to take those difficult steps. But perhaps the way we’ve been thinking about these competencies is wrong. Maybe it’s less useful to consider them as akin to academic skills that can be taught and measured and incentivized in predictable ways and more useful to think of them as being like psychological conditions—the product of a complex matrix of personal and environmental factors. And perhaps what students need more than anything for these positive academic habits to flourish is to spend as much time as possible in environments where they feel a sense of belonging, independence, and growth—or, to use some of the language of the psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, where they experience relatedness, autonomy, and competence.

Let’s return for a moment to the ongoing debate over noncognitive skills and how (and whether) to define and measure them. You may recall that the original impetus for focusing on this previously unexplored set of skills, in How Children Succeed and elsewhere, was the growing body of evidence that, when it comes to long-term academic goals like high-school graduation and college graduation, the test scores on which our current educational accountability system relies are clearly inadequate. Standardized-test scores are not irrelevant—students with high achievement-test scores do better, on average, in high school and in college than those with low scores—but those scores are not as predictive of success as other measures, including, most notably, GPA. A high school student’s GPA, researchers have found, is a better predictor of her likelihood to graduate from college than her scores on standardized tests like the SAT and ACT. This is likely due to the fact that GPA captures more than just cognitive ability and content knowledge. It also reflects the noncognitive behaviors and mindsets and traits that enable students to leverage their existing cognitive skills more effectively in school.

What is frustrating to those who want reliable measures of these newly important skills is that it is quite difficult to isolate and define, using the blunt instrument that is a student’s GPA, what exactly enables her to succeed. And in the current educational-policy environment—in which accountability, based on empirical data, is valued so highlyt—if you can’t clearly identify and measure skills, it’s hard to convince people to take them seriously.

This has led to an active effort by educators, researchers, and policy makers to analyze and categorize noncognitive skills in the same way we would reading and math skills. Most of us agree that the SAT math section does a pretty good job of measuring a student’s ability to do high school math (though there are quibbles, of course). But there is no similarly accepted measurement of a student’s level of grit or conscientiousness or optimism. This hasn’t stopped advocates from trying to develop those measures—and even to hold teachers and schools accountable for students’ performance on them.

The stakes connected to these efforts are growing. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Education granted a waiver from the narrow test-based-accountability requirements of the No Child Left Behind law to a coalition of eight school systems in California, together named CORE (for California Office to Reform Education). In the spring of 2016, schools in these eight districts began using a new assessment system that includes a measurement, based on student self-reports, of students’ growth mindset, self-efficacy, self-management, and social awareness. At the same time, officials around the nation have been trying to figure out how to respond to the new Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind in December 2015 and requires each state to come up with its own accountability system that must include at least one nonacademic measure. CORE is seen as one possible model for states to follow.

The challenge facing administrators is that student self-reports, which CORE uses, are by definition subjective, and if in the future a state decides to hold its teachers or principals accountable for their ability to develop students’ non-cognitive skills—if, say, next year’s salary is dependent in part on increasing students’ social awareness—there could be a temptation to influence or even manipulate the scores. In 2015, two leading researchers in the field of noncognitive skills, David Yeager of the University of Texas at Austin and Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania, published a paper investigating a wide variety of assessment tools for noncognitive skills. (Duckworth, as it happens, is the creator of the most widely used self-assessment measure for grit.) They concluded that when it comes to comparing students at one school or in one classroom with students in another, self-assessments just don’t work — especially in cases where they are used as tools for accountability.

But there is another approach to evaluating these capacities in students that is worth considering—and it’s one that might give us some new insights into the broader question of how to motivate struggling students to adopt more productive behaviors. A few years ago, a young economist at Northwestern University named Kirabo Jackson decided he wanted to investigate the ways we measure the effectiveness of teachers. He found a detailed database in North Carolina that tracked the performance of every single ninth-grade student in the state between 2005 and 2011—a total of 464,502 students. The data followed their progress not only in ninth grade but through high school and beyond. Jackson had access to each student’s scores on the statewide standardized test, and he used that as a rough measure of their cognitive ability. Then he did something new. He created a proxy measure for students’ noncognitive ability, using just four pieces of existing administrative data: a student’s attendance, suspensions, on-time grade progression, and overall GPA. Jackson’s new index measured, in a fairly crude form, how engaged the student was in school—whether he showed up, whether he misbehaved, and how hard he worked in his classes.

Remarkably, Jackson found that this simple noncognitive proxy was a better predictor than a student’s test scores of whether the student would attend college, a better predictor of adult wages, and a better predictor of future arrests. Jackson’s proxy measure then allowed him to do some intriguing analysis of teachers’ effectiveness. He subjected every ninth-grade English and algebra teacher in North Carolina to what economists call a value-added assessment. First he calculated whether and how being a student in a particular teacher’s class affected that student’s standardized-test score. This is the basic measure of value-added assessment in use today; teachers in many states across the country are evaluated (and sometimes compensated or fired) based on similar measures. But Jackson went one step further. He calculated the effect that teachers had on their students’ noncognitive proxy measure: on their attendance, suspensions, timely progression from one grade to the next, and overall GPA.

What he found was that some teachers were reliably able to raise their students’ standardized-test scores year after year. These are the teachers, in every teacher-evaluation system that currently exists in this country, who are most valued and most rewarded. But Jackson also found that there was another distinct cohort of teachers who were reliably able to raise their students’ performance on his noncognitive measure. If you were assigned to the class of a teacher in this cohort, you were more likely to show up to school, more likely to avoid suspension, more likely to move on to the next grade. And your overall GPA went up—not just your grades in that particular teacher’s class, but your grades in your other classes, too.

Jackson found that these two groups of successful teachers did not necessarily overlap much; in every school, it seemed, there were certain teachers who were especially good at developing cognitive skills in their students and other teachers who excelled at developing noncognitive skills. But the teachers in the second cohort were not being rewarded for their success with their students—indeed, it seemed likely that no one but Kirabo Jackson even realized that they were successful. And yet those teachers, according to Jackson’s calculations, were doing more to get those students to college and raise their future wages than were the much celebrated teachers who boosted students’ test scores.

The most obvious thing we can learn from Jackson’s study is that there are teachers out there making significant contributions to student success who are not being recognized by current accountability measures. What’s more, those measures may be skewing teacher behavior in a way that is on the whole disadvantageous to students. If you’re a teacher who is really good at raising noncognitive ability, but the teacher down the hall who is good at raising test scores is getting all the performance bonuses, you might be inspired to change your practices, despite the fact that you’re already providing profound benefits to your students.

But beyond this important policy implication is a second implication in Jackson’s study that is more relevant for our purposes: There is a more creative and potentially more useful way to measure noncognitive skills than what most researchers are currently focused on. Instead of laboring to come up with a perfectly calibrated new assessment tool for grit or self-control or self-efficacy, we can measure noncognitive capacities by measuring the positive outcomes that we know those capacities contribute to.

This conclusion then leads to an even deeper implication: It doesn’t really matter if we label these qualities grit or self-control or tenacity or perseverance, or whether we define them as character strengths or noncognitive skills—or anything else, for that matter. For now, at least, it may be enough to know that for the students in Jackson’s study, spending a few hours each week in close proximity to a certain kind of teacher changed something about their behavior. The environment those teachers created in the classroom somehow helped those students start making better decisions, and those decisions improved their lives in meaningful ways.

Because we tend to talk about school performance using the language of skills, we often default to the skill-development paradigm when considering these qualities: Teachers teach new noncognitive skills; students learn new noncognitive skills; those new skills lead to different behaviors. And if that’s the paradigm guiding our thinking, then of course we’d want to know exactly what those skills are, how to define them, how to measure them precisely, and how to teach them. What Jackson’s study suggests is that what is going on in those classrooms may not really be about students acquiring skills, at least not in the traditional sense.

So here’s a different paradigm, admittedly imprecise but, I would argue, a more accurate representation of what is happening in effective classrooms: Teachers create a certain climate, students behave differently in response to that climate, and those new behaviors lead to success. Did the students learn new skills that enabled them to behave differently? Maybe. Or maybe what we are choosing to call “skills” in this case is really just a new way of thinking about the world or about themselves—a set of attitudes or beliefs or mindsets that somehow unleash a new and potent way of behaving.

It’s not hard to see some parallels here with the research on parenting that I wrote about earlier. Parent coaches in programs like ABC and FIND don’t get hung up on which specific nursery rhymes and peekaboo techniques parents use with their infants; they know that what matters, in general, is warm, responsive, face-to-face, serve-and-return parenting, which can be delivered in many different flavors. That parenting approach, however it is carried out, conveys to infants some deep, even transcendent messages about belonging, security, stability, and their place in the world. And those mushy, sentimental notions find their articulation in the infants’ brains in precise neurochemical reactions: the formation of a synapse, the pruning of a dendrite, the methylation of a DNA sequence. All of which contribute, directly or indirectly, to that child’s future success in school.

The chain reactions taking place in the classroom may in fact be quite similar. Teachers convey to their students deep messages—often implicitly or even subliminally—about belonging, connection, ability, and opportunity. Those messages may not have the same measurable neurochemical effects on a ten-year-old brain as they do on a ten-month-old brain, but they do have a profound impact on students’ psychology and thus on their behavior. When kids feel a sense of belonging at school, when they receive the right kind of messages from an adult who believes they can succeed and who is attending to them with some degree of compassion and respect, they are then more likely to show up to class, to persevere longer at difficult tasks, and to deal more resiliently with the countless small-scale setbacks and frustrations that make up the typical student’s school day. In the same way that responsive parenting in early childhood creates a kind of mental space where a child’s first tentative steps toward intellectual learning can take place, so do the right kind of messages from teachers in school create a mental space that allows a student to engage in more advanced and demanding academic learning.