How Children Succeed by Paul Tough

18 Jan

20121016_howchildrensucceed_57Bibliographic Information

How Children Succeed by Paul Tough, Houghton Mifflin, 2012, ISBN 978-0-547-56465-4

Plot Summary

Did you know that the United States has the highest college drop out rate in the industrialized world? Paul Tough in his book How Children Succeed claims that our problem isn’t getting kids into college, it’s getting kids out of it.  “Whether or not a student is able to graduate from a decent American college doesn’t necessarily have all that much to do with how smart he or she is,” Tough writes. “It has to do, instead, with that same list of character strengths that produce high GPAs in middle school and high school.”  These character strengths are: Conscientiousness, Grit, Resilience, Perseverance, and Optimism.  Schools today that focus solely on developing students’ academic strengths are failing to help students learn these important non-academic skills – skills Tough claims can be taught to help students, especially those growing up in poverty, succeed.

Tough’s book collects the latest educational research that shows how important these character strengths are to student success.  In addition to summarizing the latest in neuroscience and social science research, he profiles success stories where schools or school programs are turning kids’ lives around.

Critical Evaluation

I first heard about Tough’s book on This American Life, which used it as the basis for an hour- long program devoted to its stories and research.  As someone who has read a lot of educational books, I found many surprises in Tough’s examination of successful programs and schools and a different lens to look at the persistent achievement gap between rich and poor students. Some of the research was familiar, (such as the importance of mindset – the idea that intelligence is not a fixed endowment) as were some of the profiles (I’ve read quite a few on the success of KIPP schools).  But overall, there is an impressive amount of research here that’s summarized clearly by the author.

Tough makes a convincing case that schools need to do more than just teach content.  Without some form of character education, we are not helping students gain the necessary skills to be successful in college and beyond.  The research in Tough’s book shows that these skills can be taught and learned.  As Tough writes, “It’s not like some kids are good and some kids are bad.  Some kids have good habits and some kids have bad habits…habits might be hard to change, but they’re not impossible to change.”

Information about the author

From the author’s page, we learn that “Paul Tough is the author, most recently, of “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.” His first book, “Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America,” was published in 2008. He has written extensively about education, child development, poverty, and politics, including cover stories in the New York Times Magazine on character education, the achievement gap, and the Obama administration’s anti-poverty policies. He has worked as an editor at the New York Times Magazine and Harper’s Magazine and as a reporter and producer for the public-radio program “This American Life.” He was the founding editor of Open Letters, an online magazine. His writing has appeared in the New Yorker, Slate, GQ, Esquire, and Geist, and on the op-ed page of the New York Times. He lives with his wife and son in New York.


Non- Fiction, Education

Reading Level / Interest Age

Grade 11 and up


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