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John Thompson: Why Reformers Should Read Paul Tough’s New Book

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John Thompson thinks that reformers should definitely read Paul Tough’s new book, Helping Children Succeed.

They went gaga for his previous book, How Children Succeed. It introduced the concept of grit, and suddenly reformers thought they had the key to success.

Fortunately Paul Tough did not cling to his discredited dogma. He realizes now that grit can’t be taught, and it doesn’t matter nearly as much as attachment and decent nurturing.

John Thompson writes here:

Paul Tough begins Helping Children Succeed by noting that a central aim of school reform has been reducing the disparities between poor and affluent children, but that the achievement gap has not decreased and often it has grown. Governmental and philanthropic efforts have produced some individual successes but “they have led to little or no improvement in the performance of low-income children as a whole.” Moreover, Tough has witnessed another type of collateral damage. Although he doesn’t explicitly attribute it to accountability-driven school reform, Tough has spoken with hundreds of teachers in recent years who “feel burned out by, even desperate over, the frustrations of their work.”

Tough later becomes more explicit in concluding that current accountability measures “may be skewing teacher behavior in a way that is on the whole disadvantageous to students.” I wish Tough had connected some dots, linking reforms pushed by the federal government and philanthropic institutions, and that focused on high-poverty schools, to the ways that those schools operate under the “principles of behaviorism rather than self-determination.” However, readers who are not invested in defending output-driven reform are likely to grasp Tough’s point when he concludes that these high-poverty schools:

Are often the schools where administrators feel the most pressure to show positive results on high-stakes standardized tests and where teachers feel the least confident in their (often unruly and underperforming) students’ ability to deal responsibly with more autonomy. And so in these schools, where students are most in need of help internalizing extrinsic motivations, classroom environments often push them in the opposite direction: toward more external control, fewer feelings of competence, and less positive connection with teachers.

Tough doesn’t explicitly name the names of corporate reformers who imposed so much pressure to raise test scores, but it’s hard to read his analysis without questioning whether it ever made sense for technocratic reformers to use the stress of testing to overcome the education legacies of the stress of poverty and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). He cites a 2007 study by Joseph Allen and Robert Pianta which found that middle-class-and-above students:

Were about equally likely to find themselves in a classroom with engaged and interesting instruction (47 percent of students) as in one with basic, repetitive instruction (53 percent of students). But students in schools serving mostly low-income children were almost all (91 percent) in classrooms marked by basic, uninteresting teaching.

Neither did Tough explicitly connect the dots between pervasive basic skills instruction in high-poverty schools and competition-driven reformers who used the stress of competition and the stress of bubble-in test accountability, which increased socio-economic segregation, as a cure for the legacies of racial segregation.

As in his previous work, Tough emphasizes the role of “chronic early stress — what many researchers now call toxic stress,” of trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences, as well as how early education and aligned and coordinated socio-emotional supports are necessary but not sufficient. Poor children of color need the same engaging, holistic, creative, and respectful pedagogy as affluent kids. Tough cites Edward Deci and Richard Ryan about “three basic human needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.” However, he doesn’t mention a cornerstone of the contemporary school reform, “earned autonomy,” or the theory that autonomy should be bestowed only on principals and (perhaps) educators and students in schools that have proved themselves worthy by posting high test scores. Neither does he stress the cognitive science which explains how market-driven reform undermines relationship-building.

Tough gently chides accountability-driven reform with the words, “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.” I can understand why Tough didn’t go there, but I still wish he had reminded readers that virtually everything he writes about the disadvantages that children bring to school would have previously been condemned by data-driven reformers as the “benign bigotry” of low expectations, and excuse-making.

Tough then urged a “different paradigm, admittedly imprecise” that would offer “a more accurate representation of what is happening in effective classrooms.” First, we need to change our policies and institutionalize teamwork in order to address “the developmental journey of children, and particularly children growing up in circumstances of adversity, as a continuum— a single unbroken story from birth through the end of high school.” Tough would “change our way of thinking.” He would educate parents and teachers in better, more positive ways to communicate with children.

Tough stresses Allen’s and Pianta’s research showing how professional development improves outcomes, even when – or especially when – there is no punitive dimensions to the process. Moreover, he stresses intrinsic motivation for learning, not extrinsic rewards and punishments. In fact, this hints at the message that corporate school reformers should take from Tough in terms of accountability regimes. There are times when extrinsic measures and accountability measures are necessary. But, it’s time to reject the reformers’ seemingly unquestioned belief that disincentives must be central components of education policy.

I would be thrilled if reformers would read Tough, repudiate their dogma of test, sort, reward, and punish, and join teachers in making schooling a team effort which stresses the positive. In his discussions with edu-philanthropists, Tough must have gained a sense that this is possible. Perhaps he is borrowing a page from the researchers he cites and limiting himself to a positive tone of voice when communicating with reformers. I hope he’s right, but my sense is that the accountability-driven, output-driven, test-driven, data-driven, competition-driven, punishment-driven components of the contemporary school reform are so deeply engrained in their ideology that we will have to wait until they are defeated before Tough’s approach can be scaled up. But, I believe that day will come and Tough’s analysis will inform the next, more humane generation of reform.

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