Friday, December 13, 2013


I’m a parent of a 10-year-old, and therefore still in the limited-duration sweet spot of actively caring about educational policy, child development and the intersection of both. I can also get pretty wonky when it comes to education, having conflicting passions about socialized, universal public education and a longtime secret hope for voucher-driven, scorched-earth reinvention of the entire American education establishment. Because I’m so on the fence, and traveling with my wife through some urgency in how we parent and school our kid, I’m like a moth to a flame for big-picture education reform books like Paul Tough’s recent bestseller “How Children Succeed”, which reads like a synthesis of all the latest and greatest theories about how a child learns, and therefore, how American public education might need to be reimagined. 

In an admirable desire to be readable, the book comes out in the wash like an amalgamation of a half-dozen Atlantic, New Republic and New Yorker articles you swear you’ve read before, written in the same sad story/problem statement/recent research suggests/initial positive results/happy ending formula that can be engaging and somewhat breezy to read, but ultimately a bit flat in the final summary. “How Children Succeed”, which posits quite engagingly that “non-cognitive” personality traits like character, determination, grit and focus are the key to college advancement and post-graduation success, feels like a first draft of some intuitively spot-on research that Tough would now like to see enacted within the system. 

I wish him well, and I’m totally on board with the cause, but I found the stories and research presented here to be a haphazard pasting together of a lot of newer ideas (“let your kids fail; it’s good for them”; “children who have the single-minded focus to practice their passions incessantly, whatever they are, already have the tools to succeed”; “teachers matter” etc.) with some illustrative stories that might or might not prove his points. It’s clear that the American educational system, designed in the 1800s for a world totally unlike the one in which we inhabit now and without the benefit of 125 years of psychological and sociological insight, needs to be blown up in significant ways in order to encourage our brightest bulbs and help to keep the flame flickering in our dimmest lights. “How Children Succeed” scatters a few well-written ideas onto the table, adding to the clutter of all the illuminative paths that we might actually decide to follow in the next 10, 20 or 50 years.