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Paul Tough, author of the new book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. (Gordon M. Grant for the Globe and Mail)
Paul Tough, author of the new book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. (Gordon M. Grant for the Globe and Mail)

Why kids need to fail to succeed in school Add to ...


That’s a big issue for people thinking about the equality gap between rich kids and poor kids.


Yes, for kids growing up in low-income neighbourhoods, having a secure attachment relationship can make a huge difference. There’s evidence that it serves as a kind of insulation from all of the other problems of poverty. It can’t wipe them out altogether – and it doesn’t mean we don’t have to think about food and shelter and those things – but it’s striking how much it matters.Think about Barack Obama. He wasn’t super-poor, but he was raised by a single mother and they were on food stamps for a while. But he had this mother who was incredibly devoted to him and worked really hard and pushed him really hard to succeed – so adversity didn’t hold him back but, arguably, may have pushed him forward. From a public-policy point of view, this is a challenge, because we don’t really know how to get government to help improve attachment relationships in low-income homes. And I think we’re also not quite sure whether that’s something we should be doing. It makes us nervous to think about that as a public responsibility. But I think it’s something that we really need to think about, and there are lots of people finding ways to intervene and help families improve their relationships.


The other huge difficulty has been clearly raising achievement levels of low-income kids. Almost everything that has been tried – more teachers, smaller classes, all that stuff – hasn’t worked. But you seem to have found some extraordinary educators turning underperforming, undermotivated, low-income kids into successful university students.


Yes. The one young woman I write about at most length is named Kewauna Lerma from the South Side of Chicago. She had a really rough life growing up. Raised by a single mother without a lot of money, she moved around a lot, spent some time homeless and got into lots of trouble as a kid – you know, acted out, got put in the “slow” class in sixth grade. She was heading on a downward trajectory. But then, partly because of a conversation she had with her mother and great-grandmother, but also because of a program she enrolled in called OneGoal, she is now about to start her sophomore year in college at Western Illinois University.

I met Kewauna when she was a junior in high school in Chicago and she had just started working with this program. She described this huge transition – transformation – she had made. Some of it, I think, was her innate character strength. But OneGoal is also specifically designed to help kids in high-poverty neighbourhoods leverage their non-cognitive strengths to overcome their disadvantages. Like Ms. Spiegel’s chess players, they learn to really focus on their shortcomings, to think about what skills they have and what they’re missing and how they are going to overcome that gap. In this case, they’re specifically applying that thinking to college: where am I going to go, what am I going to need when I’m there, how am I going to graduate.

The four-year graduation rate for kids on the South Side of Chicago is terrible, it’s 2 to 3 per cent. But right now, 85 per cent of Kewauna’s cohort is entering their sophomore year of college. So they’re not graduates yet, they may all drop out this year, but it really seems like that what they learn in their OneGoal classes in high school gives them exactly the skills they need to make it through college. And that’s going to change the trajectories of their lives in a huge, huge way.


This suggests that it’s possible to help disadvantaged kids make up the achievement gap by developing their non-cognitive skills.


Yes. A lot of these kids are still not testing fantastically in high school. In fact, some of them aren’t testing well at all. But they’re able to compensate for that with these non-cognitive skills and, as a result, are on track to graduate from college. That challenges my understanding of what you need to graduate from college. It’s not just the smartest kids who graduate, it’s kids who are able to persist.

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