Interview with Paul Tough on How Children Succeed

I really enjoyed Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed. I highly recommend it to parents and educators alike. I’m thankful he was willing to briefly interact with me on a few questions.

You argue against the theory that IQ determines a person’s academic outcome. What role, if any, do you see for nature (innate talent)?  For example, taking as a given that grit, curiosity, and delayed gratification are vitally important to success, would you acknowledge that some have more innate talent than others in (say) mathematics?  Or would you argue that what determines who does better in math is entirely a function of grit, determination, strong mentoring, etc.?  

Certainly, IQ plays a major role in math ability, and a significant portion of a person’s IQ is innate. (Scientists disagree on precisely what portion.) What I’m arguing in “How Children Succeed” is not that innate IQ plays no role in a child’s success in a subject like math. It’s that IQ – and success on standardized math tests – plays less of a role than we thought in the kind of long-term outcomes we should really care about, like college graduation rates.

You offer some incisive critique of both the political left and right when it comes to education policy and the (deeply unfortunate) lack of social mobility we’re seeing in our day. Is there anything that you think Republicans and Democrats might immediately work together on–low hanging fruit if you will?  How about, for example, the encouragement of charter schools and merit pay? 
My sense is that charter schools and merit pay aren’t particularly uncontroversial topics. From what I see of the education debate, those two subjects still seem pretty contentious. So I wouldn’t define them as low-hanging fruit. 

One project that I would hope Republicans and Democrats could work together on is improving our nation’s college-graduation rate. While our college-enrollment rate has been going up in recent decades, our college-completion rate has gone down. But this seems like a solvable problem: Economists and psychologists, in the last few years, have uncovered some relatively straightforward and inexpensive interventions that improve college persistence, especially among first-generation college students. My hope is that both Republicans and Democrats would see interventions like these as a way to simultaneously boost the country’s supply of human capital and level the playing field for young people who grow up in disadvantage.

Should traditional college be the appropriate goal for every high school student? What do you say to the argument that we don’t have enough good people going into the trades, that vocational degrees are less expensive and more quickly obtained, and that such professions often pay quite well?   

Certainly, traditional college shouldn’t be the goal for every high school student. But right now there’s a huge and disturbing class divide in this country in college-graduation rates. If you grow up in the top income quartile, you have about an 80 percent chance of graduating from college; if you grow up in the bottom income quartile, you have about an 8 percent chance. Certainly there are plenty of young people in each income quartile who would be better suited to vocational training than college. There are, I’m sure, lots of well-off kids going to college simply because it’s what everyone in their family has done, and many of them would be happier and more fulfilled in vocational school. But at the same time, it seems clear that a much higher percentage of low-income students can and should be graduating from college, and it should be a national priority to enable them to do so.

And while it’s true that some trades that don’t require a college degree do pay well, on the whole, in today’s economy, professions that require a college degree are much higher-paying and more stable. The wage premium for a college degree right now is at an all-time high, and the unemployment rate for Americans with a college degree is significantly lower than the rate for Americans without a college degree. Those economic data suggest that the country needs more college graduates, not fewer.

Thanks, Paul, for taking the time to interact.


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    […] How Children Succeed Alex Chediak interviews Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed. […]

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