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Paul Tough In Memphis To Talk About 'How Children Succeed'

Mary McIlvaine Photography

Author Paul Tough thinks America’s schools aren’t doing a good job teaching character. Tough has covered education for the New York Times Magazine and This American Life. His latest book is How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.

Tough was in Memphis to speak at a charter school run by the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, which aims to teach character skills—things like zest, self-control, and, yes, grit—alongside math and reading. 

In his book Tough writes about KIPP Co-founder Dave Levin who was disappointed by the college graduation rate of early KIPP classes. That graduation rate was 33 percent, much higher than the national average for low-income students, but nowhere near the ambitious goal Levin set for KIPP of 75 percent.

“So the character strengths that KIPP schools are now starting to teach are an attempt to raise those numbers,” Tough said, “they are basically an argument that if you are a low-income kid without a lot of family resources trying to make it through four years of college, you certainly need a lot of solid cognitive skills, but you need something more--you need grit and perseverance and zest.”

Tough also believes those students need a better-coordinated approach from government and non-profit agencies that aim to help them. Tough warns that the education reforms of the past decades are not enough to close the achievement gap between low-income students and their wealthier counterparts and the country needs “a bigger rethinking of how we deal with kids in poverty.”

To Tough’s mind that would include streamlining services like medical care, education, and child-welfare, “Right now they are very much siloed between different departments, different city agencies, and non-profit groups,” Tough said. “The help that we provide is much more haphazard, scattered, and often very alienating, but I think we can do better.”