Helping Children Succeed and Voldemorts

Imagine an oncologist who proposes various pain medications, but who never treats your cancer. Or a police captain who recommends home security systems, but who won’t arrest the burglar. Imagine, as well, that this is what most people want.

Ridiculous? Of course. Even so, such has long been the custom for education reform in The United States. And, unfortunately, such is true as well for Paul Tough’s latest contribution, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016). It’s a luminous work. It also pointedly avoids the real issue.

Tough has made an inspiring career of visiting the world’s most troubled schools, searching for ways to alleviate the suffering and challenges so many disadvantaged students and their teachers face. His previous best-selling works have been game-changers, and Helping Children Succeed will likely be one, too.

Tough highlighted before how neither knowledge nor academic preparation determines a child’s success in school. Rather, character matters most, which includes important skills such as perseverance and self-control.

The trouble is, a child growing up in poverty too often lacks these skills, and we can’t just give her a quick mini-lesson on character.

“…recent research shows that harsh or unstable environments can create biological changes in the growing brains and bodies of infants and children,” Tough explains. “Those changes impair the development of an important set of mental capacities that help children regulate their thoughts and feelings, and that impairment makes it difficult later on for them to process information and manage emotions in ways that allow them to succeed in school.”

The most critical years in a child’s life, it turns out, are the first three; and the crucial factor then is the child’s environment, in particular her level of stress. A poverty-stricken child commonly faces toxic levels of stress, with devastating consequences in school and in life. This more than anything else explains the pernicious “achievement gap” between rich and poor students (a gap that exceeds the much more talked-about one between White/Asian and Black/Latino kids).

The good news, which Tough outlines in Helping Children Succeed, is that early interventions with low-income parents — such as coaching them to create interactive, intimate relationships with their children and, as a result, a safer, less-stressful environment — have proven extremely effective at engendering essential character skills, miraculously without anyone having taught those skills explicitly.

For example, one of the myriad programs Tough reviews took place in Jamaica, where “The children whose parents were counseled to play more with them did better, throughout childhood, on tests of IQ, aggressive behavior, and self-control. Today as adults…by a variety of measures, including wages, these formerly delayed infants have now caught up….”

It’s all about the nurturing relationships adults create with children. Indeed, Tough’s later chapters demonstrate that even teachers like me, just by focusing mindfully on our daily interactions, and thereby creating a warm, inclusive atmosphere in class, can still enable many of our disadvantaged students to do well.

Helping Children Succeed points to where, when, and how we might most effectively intervene in order to ameliorate some of the worst ravages of poverty. It is a important, timely book, which Tough, himself, underscored: “For the first time, a majority of the country’s public students…fell below the federal government’s threshold for being ‘low income.’” Thus, “helping poor kids succeed is now, by definition, the central mission of American public schools and, by extension, a central responsibility of the American public.”

So, how could Tough and his seminal book still disappoint?

It’s the poverty, stupid! Like most educational pundits, Tough fails to confront what’s really the matter. He seems to accept poverty as something immutable, an unfortunate but inevitable fact of life, like bad weather.

Nonetheless, there’s a glaring reason the United States of America, the wealthiest nation in the history of the planet, has by far the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world: It is the direct result of government/corporate policies. We just don’t want to talk about that.

Poverty, you see, is one of the “Voldemorts,” the underlying causes for floundering schools, causes which “must not be named.” These include recruiting our teachers from the bottom percentiles of college graduates, segregating our schools more than ever before, sending our least qualified teachers to our most disadvantaged children, clinging to a century-old, assembly-line, age-based approach to education…. (Notice how none of the most touted “reforms” such as standards or charters deal with any of these embarrassing problems. In fact, research indicates they only exacerbate them.)

Of all the unmentionables, however, poverty is the worst. It is the single most powerful impediment to student success in school. (Even high-stakes standardized testing, another disingenuous “reform” if ever there was one, serves only to document the gaps in achievement that poverty creates.)

Now that childhood poverty has reached a catastrophic level, Paul Tough instructs us how to mitigate its devastation for some children. His advice is invaluable, but doesn’t go far enough.

The central responsibility of the American public is not to help poor children succeed. It’s to confront the burgeoning poverty that prevents ever-more of them from doing so. It’s to finally face the burning but shameful issues crying out for our attention.

Aspirin, home security and Tough’s new book are but convenient stop-gaps, mere Band-Aids for grave maladies threatening our schools and our society. Paul Tough offers hope to alleviate them. What we need is the courage, even the outrage to eradicate them.

Our denial will not save us, or our poor children.

David Ellison, author of Bloodletting: Why Education Reform is Killing America’s Schools, teaches history in Union City, California.

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