What makes some kids straight-A students who go on to college and success in the job market? What makes some of their peers struggle and drop out of school? Kara Miller asks Paul Tough, author of "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character."

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The question of what helps children succeed is a really thorny one — and everyone from parents to educators to politicians seems to debate it. But it’s a debate that’s worth wading into, because our society depends on successful children who become successful adults.

Paul Tough, author of "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character," is no newcomer to the discussion about what helps kids succeed. He’s tracked children and looked through data in a quest to discover what helps some kids flourish, while others struggle and stumble.

The Intelligence Myth

Experts have long theorized that what matters in a child’s success is their intelligence. In the 1990s, the Carnegie Corporation released a study showing that children weren’t reaching their full cognitive potential because of insufficient stimulation in the first few years of life. The study led to what’s called “the rug-rat race,” in which businesses, parents, and educators try to cultivate cognitive development in the very young — by teaching them another language or listening to classical music.

But the rug-rat race doesn’t proceed at the same pace for all children. Even in the first few years of life, sociologists have spotted disparity in children of different classes’ cognitive development. By age three, kids of professional parents have heard around 30 million words. By the same age, the kids of parents on welfare have heard only 10 million words. Experts have long thought that these early cognitive discrepancies predict a child’s success or failure later in life.

“What is so appealing to us about [this] cognitive hypothesis is that it has this very clear sense of cause and effect,” Tough says. “If these kids just need to hear 20 million more words than all we have to do is say 20 million extra words to them and they’ll be fine. Whereas what I’m finding in the research I’m doing is that there’s this other set of skills that matters at least as much or more.”   

Thinking Outside the Test

Take the research of Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, who looked at the continued success of high school graduates as opposed to students who got their GED. Heckman found that the GED was a great test — cognitively, the students who got their GED were just as intelligent as high school graduates. But as they moved forward in life, the high school graduates were much more successful, while the GED students followed a trajectory closer to that of a dropout.

Looking at the data, Heckman theorized that a high school diploma must confer a set of skills that had nothing to do with cognitive ability — but that allowed its recipients to succeed later in life. Things like the ability to plan for the future, follow rules, and delay gratification.

Heckman’s theory holds true for other tests of cognitive ability — tests like the SATsand the ACT, which play a large role in college acceptances. In his research, Tough found that a student’s SAT score is not a good indication of whether they will ultimately graduate. Instead, GPA, the average of a student’s grades, is the best predictor of success.

“It’s hard to change your IQ,” Tough explains. “But it is possible to change your GPA, simply by working harder, by applying yourself, by being more resourceful and creative in terms of how you get your work done…all of those things are incredibly useful when a child gets to college.”

Teaching Kids to Fail

Luckily, Tough says, the non-cognitive skills that are essential to student success can be taught. Programs across the economic gap are adding the skills to their curriculum — from KIPP, which is aimed at giving low-income students the opportunity to succeed, to schools like Riverdale Country School, a New York City private school with a $40,000 price tag.

These schools are emphasizing the importance of failure. They hope that by teaching their students to persevere and overcome obstacles while they are still in high school, they will have the skills to handle setbacks in college and the job market.

“They way you develop character is through failure, is through trying something different, challenging yourself, taking a class that you don’t know you’re going to ace,” Tough argues. “And actually failing sometimes, and discovering that you can pick yourself back up again.”

Teaching kids to fail is a sticky issue, Tough recognizes — there’s no easy formula to help parents and educators through it. But if building character can help students persevere through college and beyond, failure might be a risk worth taking.