Closing the achievement gap: We’ve been building vocabulary. How about also building character?

What sets children on a successful path in school and, hopefully, in life?

The current belief is that it’s how much children know, so we buy math flashcards for 3-year-olds and sit toddlers down in front of “Baby Einstein” videos. We eliminate recess to direct more time to reading and numbers.

But is the answer stuffing information into children’s brains at earlier ages?

A new book suggests that we are focusing on developing the wrong abilities. What might contribute more to children’s success — especially children growing up amid deep adversity — is persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self confidence,  said Paul Tough, author of “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character,” in a telephone interview.

After visiting classrooms, campuses and laboratories and interviewing teachers, researchers, chess masters and students, Tough concludes that the most significant skills children must learn in their early years can’t be taught with flashcards.

A chronicler of school reforms, including KIPP and the Harlem Children’s Zone, Tough became intrigued by the question of why some children thrive and others fail. (Tough also is the author of “Whatever it Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America.”)

To find answers, Tough interviewed the chess teacher who created a chess dynasty in a poor Brooklyn school. He interviewed the head of a prestigious New York prep school who worried that his cossetted students never tried anything that held the possibility of failure.

“People who have an easy time, who get 800s on their SATs, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great … we are actually setting them up for long-term failure,” Riverdale Country School headmaster Dominic Randolph told Tough.

Tough came to believe that success comes down to a set of character traits that, contrary to the belief that they are innate, can be fostered in children.

And those traits are most important to youngsters from low-income families, who don’t have the family supports and financial resources to protect them from youthful missteps, shield them from consequences and set them back on the right track, he said.

“If you don’t have that kind of safety net — and children in low-income families almost by definition do not — you need to compensate in another way,” said Tough. “To succeed, you need more grit, more social intelligence, more self-control than wealthier kids.”

One genesis for Tough’s interest in character and grit grew out of his reporting on KIPP, the high-achieving network of charter middle schools launched by two young teachers in Houston in 1994. Today, KIPP operates 125 schools in 20 states, including Georgia.

In 2003, KIPP co-founder David Levin watched one of his most impressive Bronx middle-school classes graduate high school and head off to college. At KIPP, the students had earned the highest scores of any school in the Bronx and the fifth-highest in all of New York City.

Levin expected this class to flourish in college. But six years later, only eight of them — 21 percent of the original cohort — had earned college degrees. KIPP continued to see too many of its students make it through high school but flounder in college. Levin decided to figure out why.

According to Tough, Levin discovered that the KIPP students who succeeded in college weren’t necessarily the academic superstars of their grades. They were students who showed greater optimism, resilience and social agility. They were able to recover from setbacks. They didn’t let a bad grade destroy them. They would seek extra help from their professors. They would turn down a movie to stay home and study.

So, KIPP added another dimension to its program, one that continues to evolve. Along with fractions and equations, students learn teamwork, empathy, self control and perseverance. Drawing on social science and cognitive-behavioral therapy, KIPP teaches its students to understand that obstacles can be overcome and evaluates them on zest, grit, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence and curiosity.

While Tough understands that some parents — and policymakers — may be leery about schools teaching character, he said, “There is a whole lot that we in the public sphere can do to help develop these skills in kids. There is no better vehicle than parents, but I don’t think it’s the right approach to say, ‘If kids aren’t getting these sorts of skill developments at home, there is nothing the rest of us can do.’ I don’t think it is fair to those kids. ”

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

59 comments Add your comment


October 19th, 2012
7:36 am

High test scores are a necessary but not sufficient condition for success, persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self confidence are also necessary. But one does not substitute for the other, a person can have all the self confidence in the world, but coupled with a low IQ, they are not going anywhere.

Middle School teacher

October 19th, 2012
7:38 am

One Cobb County middle school is taking on the task of cultivating character – read more about it here:


October 19th, 2012
7:53 am

‘‘If kids aren’t getting these sorts of skill developments at home, there is nothing the rest of us can do.’ I don’t think it is fair to those kids. ” Is it me or do we continue to teach and govern to the bottom ? Teachers are pressed for time as it is now so we are now going to have them do more parenting ? The author should have told us that the majority of children lacking in character are from one parent families. This is the same group we have to continue to cater to yet some promote this lifestyle while they should be condemning it.


October 19th, 2012
7:56 am

Do teachers try to instill strong character traits?


Many students arrive at the classroom door with a decent amount of character traits. They’ve learned them at home and school is the place where they are reinforced.


For those who arrive at school lacking these traits….

Their parents will not back the teacher or school for ANY consequence. Despite a teacher’s best efforts, the parent will undermine his/her authority.

Schools can not fix or replace fundamental development skills that must be learned in the home.

Schools can help cultivate those skills, but you can’t expect school/teachers to “deprogram” kids who’ve been giving daily doses of disrespect and blaming everyone else for your problems.


October 19th, 2012
8:04 am

…and let me add that programs like KIPP are successful BECAUSE…a parent took the initiative to enroll their child in a program that demands discipline.

I suspect that those who refuse to submit to the idea of accountability for one’s actions are the first to remove their child from KIPP, or they are strongly counseled to find a school that better “matches” their child’s “unique” needs.

(Edspeak for your child is undisciplined and we need you to find another school…ASAP).


October 19th, 2012
8:06 am

If public schools try to teach character, what we’ll end up with is a values-free, non-judgemental, culturally relativistic melange of politically correct goo. Remember, these are the folks who killed marking mistakes on paper with red ink.


October 19th, 2012
8:19 am

Ha, so the corrupt schools want to teach character?

Maureen Downey

October 19th, 2012
8:25 am

@Guest, Not sure what schools are corrupt but this push for more emphasis on coping skills is coming from a variety of sources including the research community, which is increasingly showing the role of brain chemistry and stress responses in children’s success.
One of the most interesting chapters in this book is about the brain research.


October 19th, 2012
8:25 am

Whenever you see a story with the words “achievement gap” in the title, it will follow a predictable pattern.
1. It will cite an example where someone took a select group of minority students and through exceptional efforts got them to equal the achievements of white/Asian students on a limited measure. In doing so, they conveniently ignore the probability if white students were included in that group, the achievement gap would still occur within the group.
2. They will never mention the role that IQ plays in the achievement gap.

The bottom line is just because you have an IQ of 80 doesn’t mean you can’t be successful in life. However, you won’t have the same opportunities that someone with an IQ of 120 will have.

It’s really that simple.


October 19th, 2012
8:32 am

American education has been enduring one social experiment after another, since the middle 1960,s, in an effort to close the achivement gap. So far, nothing has worked.

I seriously doubt social experiments in “building character” will fare any better.

Maureen Downey

October 19th, 2012
8:43 am

@Lee, The book addresses IQ, and the emerging research that intelligence is malleable. One of the most interesting research studies found children scored 18 points higher on an IQ test when a tasty treat awaited them. In another experiment, military recruits outperformed their more educated peers on a coding-speed test, likely because they were willing to put more effort into the test.
Experiments are suggesting that IQ tests may not reveal intelligence as much as the quality/trait that makes a person try harder on an IQ test.
Just as we have learned so much more about heart disease and cancer in the last 30 years, I think science will open our eyes to a much more nuanced understanding of intelligence/brain development than what we assume now.

Dr. Craig Spinks/ Georgians for Educational Excellence

October 19th, 2012
8:48 am

Dr. Tough and I agree.

That’s for posting this, Maureen.


October 19th, 2012
8:49 am

Here we go again….wanting schools to replace families. It is imperative that we seperate low-income families from bad famalies. I went to school with some lower-income folks who were raised right. Its the (yeah, very stereo-typical, I know) single mothers with five kids by four different men (yes, this is true alot, too….check the stats) that do not have a chance. The behaviour on the ouside has to change. Quit worrying about the cell-phones, nails, tatoos and do’s, and act like decent human beings…..raise kids right. No, this is not racial….this dynamic is happening now in ALL COMMUNITIES.


October 19th, 2012
9:05 am

Love this Maureen, thank you. I once had the incredible opportunity to hear Ron Clark speak at a child abuse convention a few years ago. For those who are not aware, he had amazing success with his students in a rural town and then in NYC. He went on to start a Charter School in Atlanta. The first thing he said he did with every class was to insist on things like manners and promote good character traits. The kids had to praise other kids when they gave oral reports. He would frequently bring cookies, candy etc. to the classroom. His rule was, “If I give you something and you don’t say Thank You” within three seconds, I get it back”. He talked about the crushed looks on the kids faces the first few times he did this and that within a very short time his students, at least while in his class were always gracious and respectful to him and to the other children. He taught the kids interview skills, people skills etc.. and because of this, many were accepted into charter and private high schools. Their academics improved as well but that just seemed to come along with their self confidence and self respect. Dr. Tough is dead on with this one.

Dr. John Trotter

October 19th, 2012
9:09 am

Maureen, I hate to say it but so many of the students in the “failing” schools exhibit almost no character. This is the main problem. Haven’t you heard me say it a zillion tmes that the motivation to learn is a social phenomenon and that without the requsite motivation to learn, it doesn’t matter what the teacher does, the student will not learn…because he or she does not want to learn? Lack of character has always been a huge default in the left-brained driven standardized testing curricula.


October 19th, 2012
9:11 am

To Sir With Love………..where is Sidney P. when we need him………….

sad day

October 19th, 2012
9:16 am

What will be the parents’ responsibility if teachers are doing it all? Society has to stop blaming teachers for its problems. I suppose that teachers are the reason why so many young people are incarcerated and why so many women have 5 children by 5 different men. Oh yes, teachers promote all of the immoral behaviors that are rampant in society.


October 19th, 2012
9:21 am

Our moderator needs to disclose that Paul Tough is a writer, not a scientist, and his interpretation of current scientific literature on IQ and brain function is entirely from a layperson’s perspective.

Inman Parker

October 19th, 2012
9:29 am

The theory of multiple intelligences somewhat blunts the IQ argument. The theory basically states that we all have different talents and abilities, and to judge “intelligence” just on math problem solving and reading comprehension ignores many children (and adults) who are talented in art, music, athletics, social interaction, speaking, writing, and any number of other “intelligences.” While this theory has been kicking around for some time, most schools still don’t know to deal with it. So, we’re stuck with judging a child’s abilities on how fast he can complete 100 arithmetic problems. Ridiculous.

Private Citizen

October 19th, 2012
9:33 am

“What sets children on a successful path in school and, hopefully, in life?”

Having healthcare and a stress-free debt-free home. Ruined credit from health care is almost exclusive to the USA. That mean difficulty buying a car or home.

Despite citizens facing personal bankruptcy to go with illness whether insured or not, “US spends two-and-a-half times the OECD average” on health care. Document:

Referring page

You wonder why mama has three jobs and no cell phone minutes, this is a part of it.

Redux: Various “magic bullet” education reform initiatives tend to ignore the context that USA is the only OECD country without non-exploitative health care coverage for all of its citizens.

OECD = The mission of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is to promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world.

USA is an OECD member country and is conspicuous as being the only member country without health care system for citizens. That’s why the OECD has an exception report pertinent to the United States on its page about health care.

Dr. John Trotter

October 19th, 2012
9:34 am

More than 40 years ago when my father was a principal here in Georgia, he had his homeroom teachers to teach their students social skills and manners each day. Simple things like “please” and “thank you.” It is amazing what a difference this makes. But, what teachers have to contend with today are these numbskull adminisrators who seem to allow students to curse out teachers with near impunity.

Middle School teacher

October 19th, 2012
9:50 am

What is truly discouraging as a teacher is that the same people that lump all public schools into the category of “corrupt” also poo-poo the efforts of schools to make positive changes that will help build character. Believe it or not, the “values-free, non-judgemental, culturally relativistic melange of politically correct goo” teachers that teach in public school are likely the same teachers that would be teaching at private and /or charter schools (many have done both). There are many more upstanding, moral (even -shudder- Republican!) teachers in schools than there are corrupt and morally bankrupt – the bad apples happen to be the ones that make the news. So how about trying to find a way to work with the good teachers instead of stomping on teachers as a whole every chance you get? As good teachers who try to do our best every day, it would really mean the world to us.

Private Citizen

October 19th, 2012
9:50 am

The mission of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is to promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world.

Health policies and data
Social policies and data
Families and children

OECD Health Data 2012 – Country Notes

OECD Health Data 2012 U.S. health care system from an international perspective

“Why is the US health spending so high? US spends two-and-a-half times the OECD average”

bootney farnsworth

October 19th, 2012
9:58 am

we can’t teach character. thats a job for parents and church.

what we can do is model it.

bootney farnsworth

October 19th, 2012
10:00 am

oh, and we could -if allowed to- model something else which builds character.

Private Citizen

October 19th, 2012
10:04 am


• The U.S. ranks 14th in the world in the percentage of 25-34 year-olds with higher education (42%).

• The odds that a young person in the U.S. will be in higher education if his or her parents do not
have an upper secondary education are just 29% — one of the lowest levels among OECD countries.

• The U.S ranks 28th in the percentage of 4-year-olds in early childhood education, with a 69%
enrolment rate.

• Across all OECD countries, 30% of the expenditure on higher education comes from private
sources, while in the U.S., 62% does.

• Teachers in the U.S. spend between 1 050 and 1 100 hours a year teaching – much more than in
almost every country.


October 19th, 2012
10:05 am

Self control is more highly correlated with high grades than is IQ.

Middle School teacher

October 19th, 2012
10:07 am

Yes and no. I can model for a child the correct way to solve an algebra problem. I cannot make her do it correctly (or make her learn it all for that matter). But I do believe as schools we can be more deliberate and intentional about modeling good behavior for children rather than relying solely on situational opportunities. And discipline is critical to reinforcement as is parental involvement and support.

Private Citizen

October 19th, 2012
10:18 am

Number of hours of teaching time per year (for teachers in public institutions)

Primary education – US: 1,097 hours. OECD average: 782 hours. 1 of 35 countries
Lower secondary education US: 1,068 hours. OECD average: 704 hours. 3 of 34 countries
Upper secondary education US: 1,051 hours. OECD average 658 hours. 3 of 35 countries

Ratio of teachers’ salaries to earnings for full-time, full-year adult workers with tertiary education

Primary school teachers US: 0.67. OECD average: 0.82. 19 of 27 countries
Lower secondary school teachers US: 0.69. OECD average: 0.85. 19 of 27 countries
Upper secondary school teachers US: 0.72. OECD average: 0.90. 19 of 27 countries

Private Citizen

October 19th, 2012
10:22 am

Looks to me like many readers are content to deny health care and replace it with manners and behavior modeling. This is a fundamental context.

Private Citizen

October 19th, 2012
10:30 am

Please pardon repeat information / moderation. Sounds good. Thank you.


October 19th, 2012
10:39 am

@Middle School teacher,
My comments were not directed to the character, or lack thereof, of public school teachers. That fact of the matter is that in public schools, an unmarried teenage mother can bleat in public about the injustice of not allowing her yearbook picture to include her bast.., er, illegiti…, dang it, uhh, infant child to whose father she is not married in her yearbook photo and the pathetic response from the school HAS to be “we only allow the student named in the each student’s yearbook photo.”

When actually, the complete correct response is “having a child while unmarried, in school, and as a teenager is a HORRIBLE example that we will not promote in our yearbook.” They can’t say that. Because it’s public school.

I do not hold public school teachers responsible for this.


October 19th, 2012
11:00 am

Additionally, on a more mundane note, public schools are the institutions that brought us “credit recovery”, no grades lower than a 50 (even if the student does NO work), students bringing in sheaves of “make-up” homework at the end of the semester that ought to have been done on time, and automatic retakes for any test.

Good luck teaching students anything about good judgment, consequences, or character in such an environment.


October 19th, 2012
11:18 am

“@Lee, The book addresses IQ, and the emerging research that intelligence is malleable. One of the most interesting research studies found children scored 18 points higher on an IQ test when a tasty treat awaited them.”

If that is the case, then all you have to do to close the achievement gap is to simply give the minority kids a cookie every afternoon. Problem solved

Maureen Downey

October 19th, 2012
11:20 am

@Lee, I think every facet of life could be improved if a cookie awaited us.

Pride and Joy

October 19th, 2012
11:25 am

SEXISM is so ugly.
Sexism is really ugly on a blog dedicated to education.
This comment is so sad and so wrong “why so many women have 5 children by 5 different men.”
One can more accurately say…
“why so many men impregnate many women and abandon their own children.”
I know of several men who have children who are from different mothers and only weeks apart in age…
One man impregnating many women and abandoning his own children…
The term “baby daddy” ought to be shameful.


October 19th, 2012
11:38 am

A few months ago, when pre-K funding was being discussed, many people stated that the purpose of that program was to teach and instill basic principles such as manners, social skills, etc. Why didn’t these students learn it then if this program is so successful? Parents need to STEP UP AND TEACH THEIR OWN CHILDREN THESE SKILLS. Start being a parent, for gosh sakes!! Teachers should not be expected to teach AND parent. Good grief.

Hillbilly D

October 19th, 2012
12:06 pm

Character has to be built in the home. It isn’t and/or shouldn’t be the job of the schools, in my opinion.

William Casey

October 19th, 2012
12:08 pm

Membersip in the United States Marine Corps would help most people’s chances for success in life (if you don’t get kille in the process.)


October 19th, 2012
12:25 pm

It’d be best if black leaders stressed the importance of character building in our children. If a white leader mentions it, there’s an immediate charge of racism.

living in an outdated ed system

October 19th, 2012
12:36 pm

To the skeptics reading this post (you know who you are), Mr. Tough is fairly spot-on. I can tell you from being on the ground of programs such as The Atlanta Music Project, based on the globally heralded “El Sistema” music philosophy, that character matters. In fact, social and emotional learning must be built BEFORE academic learning can occur. I have seen first-hand how after school programs such as AMP can motivate kids and not only change behavior, but change their life trajectory.

Schools CAN help teach these skills – it’s not just for parents and church. At-risk youth don’t have stable parents, yet programs such as AMP are working. How is that possible?

It’s possible because these skills CAN be taught.


October 19th, 2012
12:42 pm

The schools cannot do everything! Parents, even poor ones, even single ones, even non-English speaking ones, have got to step up to the plate and parent their offspring!

Hey Teacher

October 19th, 2012
12:57 pm

Great post! I would argue that most good teachers are already teaching “character” — and we don’t need an overpriced, scripted program to help us do this. What is lacking in most schools is backup — the typical public school is so afraid of lawsuits that enforcing good behavior never happens. In my school, cussing out a teacher warrants a verbal “warning” for the first offense. Kicking students out? That requires an act of congress. Cookies might work as an incentive for good behavior, but someone with a Gluten allergy might sue the school for not having an alternative.

Suzanna Jemsby

October 19th, 2012
2:14 pm

This conversation around character building is a very pertinent one, particularly in a part of the world where often the parents are trying to provide a “better” experience for their children than the ones they had. I know several people who think that “better” experience is one free of adversity, which essentially means the child is fairly cosseted.

So next time you (the parent) is going to run back over to school because your child has forgotten his lunch, or her English homework, consider how the child might handle the situation without your interaction. Mr Tough would advocate, as would I, for letting them solve it without you.


October 19th, 2012
2:21 pm

TEACHERS ARE NOT THE PANACEA TO SOCIETY’S PROBLEMS. Parents need to fulfill the role of their titles. Having children is an option.


October 19th, 2012
3:18 pm

William Casey – The marines didn’t do very well in viet nam, due to the draft effect. Quality is self selecting, the draft is not, so the marines floundered, along with the army and navy. Don’t let the vfw crowd fool you with their re remembered wwii history, most guys were trying every trick in the book to avoid the draft, and if drafted, avoid a combat roll. In the re remembered version, they all volunteered for combat!

Pride and Joy

October 19th, 2012
5:06 pm

Lee brings logic to the table:
“If that is the case, then all you have to do to close the achievement gap is to simply give the minority kids a cookie every afternoon. Problem solved.”
Logic will get them every time, Lee.


October 19th, 2012
5:45 pm

I’ve seen this nonsense so many times it makes me sick. Character education should be taught in the home and discipline should be meted out at the schools for infractions of the discipline code. Unfortunately neither one is happening on any kind of consistent basis. I’ve read on this blog that “research” has proven that putting kids into better environments from where they came will improve their behavior. I call BULLWASH!! I’ve seen it work exactly the opposite way for far too many years! My district has seen a huge influx of kids from the ghettos of Atlanta due to the economic downturn and while some of them strive to assimilate into the mainstream culture, most do not. In fact the majority of them bring their “swagger” from the hood and dare us to punish them! The saying that one bad apple can spoil the bunch was spot on.


October 19th, 2012
7:35 pm

Gosh, I wish this blog had a “like” button similar to Facebook’s! When schools try to enforce discipline (which students who don’t have it at home especially need) parents go berserk, and the school board caves and won’t back the schools.

If everyone got a backbone, set standards and stuck to them, students and our educational system would be much better off!


October 20th, 2012
1:47 am

@Lee and other like minded individuals…

Just curious, what’s the name of the gene that codes for IQ?

Correlation does not equal causation. If there is no genetic evidence to support your argument then that leaves the door open to consider other mitigating factors. Those other factors would fall under the “nurture” side of the nature vs. nurture debate. The “nurture” factors can be manipulated either by society or individuals resulting in what many erroneously perceive as a cause and effect relationship when indeed it is not.