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Guest blogger – Joe Cozart reviews Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Dr. Joe Cozart

Issue(s): State Policy, Redefine Student Success

Today’s guest blogger is Dr. Joe Cozart of Georgia Virtual Learning. He reviewed Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed, and provided the following review. Enjoy his post!


Tough, P. (2013). How children succeed. Random House.

Those in education quickly learn how to identify students in a class who have the skills to succeed as well as those who do not.  However, the more pressing issue has always been what to do with those students lacking the skills to be successful.  In Paul Tough’s book, How children succeed, he focuses on the soft skills students need to perform well in school and life.  These skills include grit, curiosity, and character.  This is accomplished through compiling the findings from a number of research studies.  However, this book is by no means a literature review. The writing style keeps the concepts accessible to anyone in education, regardless of their background in educational research.

The book begins with an interesting comparison of traditional high school graduates versus those who earned a GED.  Essentially, those with a GED are found to retain content knowledge from high school just as well as graduates.  The time to study for and earn a GED averages about 40 hours versus about 4000 total hours to graduate from high school.  So from a purely economic standpoint, it would seem more efficient to earn a GED if the content knowledge is all that matters.  Of course, while each group had similar retention of content even years later, the high school graduates ended up having higher lifetime earnings, less time in jail, more post-secondary education, less job changes, and even lower divorce rates.  While the traditional high school graduate was putting in those thousands of additional hours of work, what they seemed to learn was how to persevere through difficult tasks, people, and situations.  The GED students did not learn those skills so they eventually struggled more than their peers in persevering through other trying tasks like finishing college and maintaining a steady job.

Online and blended learning excel at making the content of K-12 education more accessible and relevant to students.  However, to reach our students who need our help the most, we must also ensure that our online experiences equip participants with the soft skills needed to be successful beyond our times with them.  The push toward developing these soft skills has been seen in many states with a push towards career and technical education.  This book outlines specific strategies to develop these needed skills outside of academic curricula.

Mr. Tough’s first main point focuses on why many at-risk students from high poverty struggle in school.  In particular, the medical effects of poverty are discussed at length.  The fight or flight receptors in the hypothalmus region of the brain become overstimulated when children are raised in stressful environments often associated with poverty.  When the hypothalmus is overstimulated, it triggers receptors in the pituitary gland and the stress responses we are all familiar with including clammy hands and elevated heart rate. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain most affected by stress and this is the area where executive functions, often referred to in education as soft skills, are developed. When the body is overstressed, it is more difficult to develop and exhibit self-control and delayed gratification.  Those skills are helpful in academic settings but for students in stressful environments it is more like having a fire alarm going off while trying to learn.  Thus, it is not the poverty directly, but the stress related to it that causes academic issues.  Our application in online learning is to be sure our focus on big data and learning management also includes collecting information on student home lives and providing interventions when necessary.

The next obvious question is how to address the stress associated with high poverty home environments; exactly what type of interventions will be effective.  Parental attachment lets students deal with the stress of poverty.  Children need to be comforted when they are upset.  While that sounds intuitive to many parents, what it looks like in practice does not come naturally to all.  Parenting coaches help parents learn to better comfort their children and build stronger attachments.  When parent attachment is high, the stress levels children experience is drastically lower, even in high poverty. Students can also benefit from intense mentoring that will help students better cope with the stress in their lives. By focusing on these non-academic issue, students are in a better mental state to develop the soft skills that will help them succeed academically.  While these interventions are typically face-to-face, the core coaching and mentoring can certainly be applied in an online environment as well.

The second section of the book focuses on how to build character, by which he means self-control, willpower, and motivation.  There is a good summary of psychological research on motivation including a study that showed candy as a reward led kids to do better on IQ test.  It of course wasn’t that it made them smarter, it made them try harder.  It isn’t just a high IQ that helps you do better in life, job, school, money, but the characteristics that make you try hard on an IQ test to get a higher score too. While these little perks help with motivation, too much affluence can actually hurt motivation. Without enough struggle people generally don’t develop character as well.  Prestigious schools don’t raise the ceiling for rich kids, they raise the floor.  By surrounding students with other affluent achievers, it provides a safety net that will keep most students from failing to achieve.

Some charter schools are working on systems that seek to teach character traits that lead to academic success. KIPP schools have behavior modification systems like SLANT, which stands for sit up listen ask questions, nod and track speaker.  They refer to it as role switching, how you need to act when in the dominant culture, which is the business culture and how you should act at college interview, in a museum etc.  Other strategies that are taught in some schools include mental contrasting where students are taught to concentrate on positive outcomes as well as obstacles that may get in way of achieving it. Students do better when they think they can improve their intelligence.  Character report cards seek to reinforce with students that their character is something they can improve over time.  It is not static.  These behavior modification systems and character report cards are certainly interesting ideas to incorporate further into the online environment.

The third section of the book looks at how to think.  The primary example is with chess.  Some schools in high poverty areas have had great success with chess teams and teaching students how to play at high levels.  When students become more accomplished chess players, it correlates with an increase in IQ.  Additionally, it teaches soft-skills like problem solving and self-control.  The idea of clubs in the online arena is by no means new, but Mr. Tough’s ideas make a compelling argument for any online school to add a chess club or give it more priority if it already exists.

The fourth section focuses on how to succeed. There is a college conundrum in our nation in that we still send lots of kids to college but other nations are catching up with their post-secondary attendance rates. College education is more valuable today than it has ever been yet we have so many American college students dropping out.  One issue is undermatching in low income groups where they tend to attend schools below their ability level and that actually makes them more likely to drop-out.  Whether or not you finish college has more to do with your work ethic than IQ.  This work ethic is best reflected in high school grades.  So students need more than just ACT SAT prep, they need rigorous courses along with mentoring that provides a path to college for students and focuses on that long-term goal.  This is an area where online learning is well positioned to meet student needs.  Projects like NROC’s Ed Ready can let students see what they need to do to gain the necessary skills to be good candidates for higher level colleges.  The visualizations possible in an online tool like this help make the college preparation process concrete in a way never possible before.

The final point Mr. Tough makes is about creating a better path for students. He begins with where not to look, teacher quality is important but likely accounts for only ten percent of variation in student success. Initiatives for educating high poverty populations work best with the most able of the poor, but our national education initiatives are done broadly based on lunch subsidies so we can’t easily identify the best places to focus efforts.  We need a well-organized national system like Teach for America but for counseling and mentoring.  This group could mobilizes high quality, motivated staff to help young children better deal with the stress of their high poverty lives.  When students are able to better deal with the stress in their lives, they will be in a position to close achievement gaps seen in underperforming groups.

The overall message of the author is that schools must focus on addressing non-academic barriers before students are ready to learn the content schools teach.  For students to be successful in college and beyond, they will need soft-skills that will equip them to persevere through difficult academic and life situations.  These skills can be taught to students in schools and need to be supported with intensive mentoring for at-risk students.

In terms of blended and online learning, the overarching application is that we must shift our focus from being so content driven.  A learning management system is ideally suited to efficiently help students acquire content knowledge.  However, if we stop there, we have done our students a disservice and have not set them up to succeed after leaving the K-12 education system.  We must help our students focus on goals for their postsecondary education and the skills required to well wherever that next step is.  In this challenge, we in online learning also have a great opportunity because of our ability to easily organize and aggregate student data.  Instead of only focusing on student data with academic performance, the focus must shift towards data on student soft-skills and gaps in those skills that need to be addressed.  Overall, this book is one that I would recommend to anyone in online and blended learning.  Mr. Tough compiles a wealth of educational research and presents it in interesting snippets that keep the reader engaged.  It provides a glimpse into the bigger picture of the challenges our students face everyday outside the classroom and what we can do to help them.

Joe Cozart is the Associate Director of Strategic Planning with Georgia Virtual Learning, which runs a statewide virtual school through the Georgia Department of Education.  He has been in education since 2003 and online learning since 2005. Dr. Cozart oversees research conducted on the program both internally and externally.  Current research is focusing on learning analytics and teacher development.  Additionally, he writes policies for the school and advises regarding online learning policies with stakeholders across the state.  Dr. Cozart earned his Ph.D. from The University of Georgia in mathematics and science education.

Joe Cozart, Georgia Virtual Learning

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