Questions and answers with journalist Paul Tough


Editor’s Note: Paul Tough is an award-winning journalist who has written several books on the challenges of educating low-income children, including “How Children Succeed” and “Helping Children Succeed.”

The Detroit News: Can children who grow up in low-income households be educated as well as more affluent children with the right schools, or do some aspects of poverty have to be ameliorated before an equal education is possible?

Tough: This is not an either/or question. It is true that many low-income children growing up in high-stress homes face greater difficulties learning in school. The evidence from neuroscience clearly shows that stress and adversity can have a serious detrimental impact on a child’s ability to focus and succeed in school. But it is also important to recognize that children who grow up in adverse circumstances can absolutely become successful learners. They just need more help and more attention.

News: You report in “How Children Succeed” on findings from neuroscience and psychology that children who suffer from severe stress at home often come to school with their ability to focus, self-manage, memorize and learn significantly compromised. What percentage of low-income children suffer these education disadvantages?

Tough: There is no precise research that I know of, but I would estimate that one in five children in the U.S. have experienced the stress that comes with serious adversity in childhood, and in cities with neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, like Detroit, that figure might be as high as one in two.

News: What’s the latest evidence on the extent to which these consequences of toxic stress can be reversed once a child enters school?

Tough: Most of the evidence I’ve encountered so far is anecdotal. No extensive research exists yet on how particular interventions impact specific stress-related behaviors. There are a growing number of schools, like the Expeditionary Learning schools, that are thoughtful about the needs of children and are taking steps to alter their school environment and curriculum to take account of those needs.

News: In addition to the issue of stress, you cite the many children who come to school without certain character elements or non-cognitive skills that are critical to success such as persistence, self-discipline and grit. Do you see this as a separate challenge from toxic stress, and have you found schools that are enabling children to acquire these character qualities?

Tough: There is no easy answer yet to the challenge of helping children acquire those qualities of character that promote success in school and in life. But let me say first that I believe that students can lack character or non-cognitive skills like self-discipline and grit even if they grow up in stable, affluent households. Administrators at one of the private prep schools I wrote about in “How Children Succeed” told me that many students there lacked persistence and grit because they had lived protected lives, devoid of challenge.

Helping both low-income and affluent students to succeed requires a new way of organizing schools, one that goes beyond the skills measured on standardized tests. Teachers who use a “deeper learning” approach lecture less and encourage more classroom discussion. They spark their students’ curiosity and complex thinking by having them learn through experiments and creative projects. They encourage students to think of themselves as scientists and scholars — developing theories, debating possibilities, asking questions, doing original research — rather than simply dutifully taking in and accepting whatever the teacher says.

News: You have made a powerful case that communities and schools that don’t recognize the consequences of stress many low-income children suffer are not likely to succeed in educating poor children well. What should Michigan do to successfully educate its poor urban and rural children?

Tough: First, we need to help teachers and administrators understand the impact of stress and adversity on the education of children in high-poverty communities, and guide them in using some of the trauma-informed practices that have been shown to help such children emotionally and psychologically. Second, we should provide these students with lots of academically challenging work. That doesn’t necessarily mean more homework or more tests — I mean more challenging in the sense of demanding the kind of project-based, problem-solving experiential learning that affluent schools often offer their students.