In 2013, the United States reached a sad milestone: 51 percent of public school students now live in poverty. That’s right, 51 percent. More than every other child. In public schools. In this country. Live in poverty.
Paul Tough’s previous book, HOW CHILDREN SUCCEED, provided extensive research about how noncognitive skills support students’ academic success. In his new one, HELPING CHILDREN SUCCEED: What Works and Why, he asserts, “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.” And in this book, he answers the question: “OK, now that we know this, what do we do?”
This slim, lucid volume is packed with practical ideas, tools, and examples that have been proven to work. Some of the solutions require a shift in mindset—such as focusing on the environment we create for students—and some are more modest, such as using Post-it notes in a particular way. In the former instance, we must to think about how three key human needs drive intrinsic motivation—our needs for autonomy, for competence, and for relatedness/personal connection—and we must ensure that those needs are being met in the classroom environment. In the second case, a simple Post-it that says, “I’m giving you these comments [on this essay] because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them” can have the dramatic effect of disarming students who are predisposed to feel incompetent, motivating them instead to make the effort to revise their work.
While many of the examples that Tough cites have been tried on a small scale, my hope is that a vast number of people will read this book and try out these ideas. We can, individually and collectively, make a significant difference in the lives of young people.
And I love his conclusion: “The first step is simply to embrace the idea, as those researchers did, that we can do better.”
Yes, we can.