Saturday, January 19, 2013

"How Children Succeed"...

If you've been a regular reader of this blog in the past couple of months, you're aware that I've volunteered to teach a couple of computer courses at the North Hempstead, NY "Yes We Can" community center, which opened in my neighborhood here last September. Related links:

Approval for CS101 at the Community Center.

Keeping Busy.

I'm writing this on the evening of 1/14/2013, and the Computers-100 class that I thought was going to start in early December got pushed to 1/15/2013 3:30PM (tomorrow afternoon) when the town decided more paperwork was needed. The town's lawyers came up with a waiver for me to sign that I swear looked more appropriate for rock climbing then for teaching a computer class. It's times like that when I wish I was wealthy enough to have a lawyer on retainer to get a second opinion on what I presume to be a "contract of adhesion". Of course, that would likely have resulted in the town and I being in continuing discussions instead of trying to get this ship launched. Still, I've got to envy those scenes in Woody Allen's movies where he gets into a discussion about something, steps off screen for a second and comes back with some famous authority in tow to settle the argument.

The second class is a mentored version of's CS101. I'm still hoping to get that one rolling on 2/4/2013, 7-9PM on school nights.

One unexpected side effect of my getting excited about teaching these classes is that suddenly I have a previously unknown interest in "Education" as a topic. My prior education experience has been limited to my once-upon-a-time having been a student (K-12 in Union, NJ public schools [13 years], BS in IE/OR at Cornell U. Engineering [4 years], and MSE in "Computer, Information and Control Engineering" [CICE] at U. of Michigan [1 year] - 18 years of formal education), and a decade or so ago, I did seriously date an elementary school teacher. Oh, and there were all those years when my 2 children were in school. They have each now completed their undergraduate college degrees and moved on to the exciting world of work. So, with my new-found interest in "education", this month I discovered and watched the videos available on the web of last September's New York Times "Schools for Tomorrow" conference.

Several books got mentioned in the conference, among them:

"How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character", by Paul Tough.


"The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the way we Think, Read and Remember"", by Nicholas G. Carr.

So I put in requests for those books to the Westbury Public Library. Hurrah for inter-library loans. Even though my reserve request for "How Children Succeed" was 2nd in the queue for that book, the library managed to get a copy for me from a library in a nearby town. The book is new enough that they only loaned it to me for 14 days, so I had to dig into it quickly. It's due back soon. I enjoyed the book enormously and recommend it if you have children or any interest in education (and you certainly should have interest in education).

The book

The premise of "How Children Succeed" is fairly well telegraphed to you by the book's title and sub-title. The book opens with a visit to a pre-K class in Red Bank, NJ. The book's introduction (pp. i-xxiv), should not be skipped when you read the book. He introduces James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago. In 2000 Heckman won the Nobel prize in Economics for a statistical analysis technique he developed in the 1970's. In the late 1990's he turned his attention to a study of the GED program (high school equivalency certificate). Way back on p. 203 of "How Children Succeed", Paul Tough gets around to presenting detailed formal references published by Heckman and others about Heckman's study of the GED. I won't take the time to reproduce those citations here, particularly since I haven't chased them down and looked at them myself (and this article is shaping up to be plenty long already...).

The idea of the GED is that, given what schools develop is cognitive skill, then by testing for those skills, a high school drop-out can show he has the knowledge and smarts to graduate from high school without wasting the time it takes to actually finish high school. (My now deceased Mother dropped out of high school during the Great Depression to take a job as a telephone operator. Later, in the 1960's, as I was in high school, she pursued and received a GED degree because she wanted to finish her high school degree before I did). I hadn't realized how much growth there'd been in the GED program since it began in the 1950's. The book reports that in 2001, nearly one in five new high school "graduates" was actually a GED holder.

Heckman wanted to examine more closely the idea that young people with GEDs were just as well prepared for further academic pursuits as high-school graduates. He analyzed a few large national databases, and he found that in many important ways, the premise was entirely valid. According to their scores on achievement tests, which correlate closely with IQ, GED recipients are every bit as smart as high-school graduates. But when Heckman looked at their path through higher education, he discovered that [statistically] GED recipients weren't anything like high school graduates. At age twenty two, Heckman found just 3 percent of GED recipients were enrolled in a four-year university or had completed some kind of post-secondary degree, compared to 46% of high school graduates. In fact, Heckman discovered that when you consider all kinds of important future outcomes -- annual income, unemployment rate, divorce rate, use of illegal drugs -- GED recipients look exactly like high-school dropouts, despite the fact that they have earned this supposedly valuable extra credential, and despite the fact that they are, on average, considerably more intelligent than high-school dropouts


What was missing from the equation, Heckman concluded, were the psychological traits that had allowed the high-school graduates to make it through school. Those traits -- an inclintation to persist at a boring and often unrewarding task, the ability to delay gratification; the tendency to follow through on a plan -- also turned out to be valuable in college, in the workplace, and in life generally. As Heckman explained in one paper: "Inadvertently, the GED has become a test that separates bright but nonpersistant and undisciplined dropouts from other dropouts." GED holders, he wrote, "are 'wise guys' who lack the ability to think ahead, persist in tasks, or to adapt to their environments."

So "cognitive skills" is only part of what successful children have when they finish high school. The "non-cognitive skills" aren't tested by the GED tests, and are only indirectly gauged by completion of a high school degree. Goodness knows, I don't recall my high school paying much attention to teaching personal behavior, curiosity, self-control and social fluidity. But Heckman concludes those are all important components of being successful in life. Seems that a stable home-life is where those non-cognitive skills are developed in most children who have them.

Much of the rest of "How Children Succeed" describes visits to the schools in the slums of the South Side of Chicago and to various schools in New York City, ranging from a very upper-class high school in Riverdale, to the KIPP Infinity Middle School (a "charter" school) in Harlem.

From example after example, it is quite clear that growing up in poverty is not conducive to development of those non-cognitive skills. So the question asked is "Can schools successfully teach those non-cognitive skills?" At KIPP schools they explicitly teach SLANT (Sit up, Listen, Ask questions, Nod and Track the speaker with your eyes).

That KIPP school and the Riverdale Country School worked together to develop a grading system for evaluating students on:

  • Grit
  • Self-Control
  • Zest
  • Social Intelligence
  • Gratitude
  • Optimism
  • Curiosity

Among the unsettled differences between the 2 schools was the question of how public should the student's non-cognitive skill grades be? At the KIPP school, I gather they organize their parent-teacher conferences around discussing how a student is doing on the grades for those skills. At Riverdale, the grades are private. Riverdale's worry is that if the grades are released, that will merely foment tutoring courses to help student's boost their non-cognitive skill grades.

Not mentioned by Tough in the book, but the significance of a deficit of non-cognitive skills was certainly noted in the 1961 song "Officer Krupke" in West-Side Story. Sad that all these decades later we're still not sure what to do about it.

One of Tough's observations is that a key to success in life is the ability to recover from failure. He notes that in poverty, the few students who do master recovering from failures may actually be better prepared for succeeding as enterpreneurs than are the comparatively sheltered upper class kids of Riverdale Country School. Chapter 3 of the book spends many pages discussing a chess club at a New York City public middle school (Brooklyn's IS 318). When you play chess, it is expected that often you will lose. The coach of that team apparently has gotten very good at teaching her students not to let the losses weigh down their enthusiasm for doing better in the next game. Chess teams, of course, can do the same coaching at upper class schools, but coaches with the talent of the one at IS 318 are few and far between.

In Chapter 5, Tough quotes Jame Kwak, author of the blog post "Why do Harvard Kids Head to Wall Street?"

The typical contemporary Harvard undergraduate, Kwak wrote, "is driven more by fear of not being a success than by a concrete desire to do anything in particular." The post-college choices of Ivy League students, he explained "are motivated by two main decision rules: (1) close down as few options as possible; and (2) only do things that increase the possibility of future over-achievement." Recruiters for investment banks and consulting firms understand this psychology, and they exploit it perfectly: the jobs are competitive and high status, but the process of applying and being accepted is regimented and predictable. [...] "For people who don't know how to get a job in the open economy", Kwak wrote, "and have ended each phase of their lives by taking the test to do the most prestigious thing possible in the next phase, all of this comes naturally."

As I read that, I couldn't help but think of my own daughter, now a Columbia U. BA holder (double major in math and economics) and working in a major Manhattan bank as a business analyst. She'd likely question the reported ease of the recruiting process, having initially landed an offer from Lehman Brothers while she was still in her Junior year, but that firm managed to pass out of business during her senior year without even bothering to send her a letter formally withdrawing the job offer. She did scramble to find employment in her chosen industry despite the shambles that industry was in the year she was graduating.

Closing remarks

To close, I strongly recommend that you read "How Children Succeed". A couple of blockquotes from the book hardly do it justice. In my opinion, the book lives up to the favorable reviews printed on the back cover of the dust-jacket of the copy that I borrowed. The book's author, a college dropout himself, does a good job of pulling together a convincing argument for his point that "non cognitive skills" and the ability to robustly recover from failure are an important part of what children need to learn to succeed in life. He convincingly argues that we seem to be finally making headway in figuring out how to educate children toward a path they can follow to get out of poverty after decades of failed attempts in the ongoing "war on poverty".

As this is one of my few postings on a topic far out of my field of expertise, I look forward to seeing what I hope to be lots of comments from folks with more experience in the field of "Education" than I have. I moderate the comments to keep out the spammers, but I hope you won't be shy about posting your comments down below. If you have a blog of your own, feel free to post a link in the comments to whatever opinion piece that this article has perhaps motivated you to write, please.

1/28/2013 - Fixed a few typos.