In his latest, How Children Succeed, critically acclaimed journalist and New York Times Magazine editor Paul Tough effectively argues that policymakers are putting entirely too much emphasis on exams.
Despite that, parents are as frustrated as ever, teachers are tired of “teaching the test” and too many students are still failing. So why does this culture of hyper-testing persist? Well, for one thing it’s easier—at least for those administering the exams.
Here, Tough talks more about that surprising phenomena, the significance of noncognitive learning and from which direction the fomenting backlash against excessive testing might finally come.
What’s the key to understanding noncognitive learning, and what advice would you give to parents of school children today?
I think it’s really about thinking differently about your child’s skill set. And in thinking about what skills are going to be most useful in adolescence and adult life.
I think a lot of parents have been trained by the culture and the education system to think that the skills that matter are the skills that are measured on tests. Increasingly, we know that’s not the case. When I think about my own son, I think a lot about the skills he’s going to need in life. And I feel like I’m less concerned than I think I would have been before I started doing this research about his reading and math abilities and his very specific school-oriented skills.
And I’m more concerned with his perseverance and self-control, and his emotional fortitude. And so, I think if those are the things that you value, there are lots of ways to help your kids develop those. For instance, giving challenges, giving support and trying to find the right balance between the two.
Was there anything in your own schooling that informed the kinds of questions that you’re asking as an adult?
Sure, I think I was a student that was very much in the standardized-testing mold when I was growing up. I went to a pretty academically competitive high school and there wasn’t a lot of talk about character or noncognitive skills. It was very focused on test scores, and I think I came out of that experience feeling that, in some ways I had gotten a great education, but in other ways I had missed out on something—that there were other kinds of preparation for life that I hadn’t had. And I think I spent a lot of my years after high school figuring out how to get those skills and how to develop them.
What was the thing that surprised you most about putting this book together?
I think what I was most surprised by was watching some of the individual kids like James Black, the chess player who did so well, and Kewauna Lerma, the girl in Chicago who I watched finish her high school career and start her college career. They were kids with many obstacles in their lives. And even though I am a fairly optimistic person about what people can accomplish, I was worried in both their cases that they wouldn’t be able to achieve everything that they have achieved.
But they have, each in his or her own way, overcome a lot of those obstacles and went on to accomplish amazing things, and I think they’re going to continue to do that. It showed just how powerful noncognitive skills and character strength can be in the lives of individual kids and how far they can take them.
What are the biggest challenges facing teachers in the classroom today?
I think it’s different in different types of schools. Teachers have a ton of challenges in high poverty schools because they are often teaching kids who are not just behind in the terms of cognitive test score results, but also because of the environment they’re growing up in, they have problems with behavior, emotional maturity, dealing with setbacks.
I think that the way that schools systems are set up, and arguably especially in high poverty neighborhoods, those teachers don’t have a framework to deal with those problems. They have a lot kids that are angry or misbehaving or upset about what’s going on inside or outside of the classroom. And what they’re told is, “Your job is just to increase test scores.” There are kids in schools that need a lot of help. But it’s not enough just to drill them in testing skills. That’s partly why there’s such a high degree of teacher burnout.
How does one measure the development of noncognitive skills?
I don’t think it’s impossible, but I do think it is more difficult [than standardized testing]. Partly what is so appealing about standardized testing for an educator, is that they’re kind of easy. You sit the kid down, you give him the test, you get a number and that supposedly suggests that you can measure exactly what that child’s been taught. And when you’re talking about noncognitive skills, it’s just a lot harder to figure those things out.
I don’t think it’s impossible, but I think it’s more of a challenge for teachers and educators. In lots of ways, the character report card project that I wrote about at the KIPP schools, especially in New York, I think that’s an attempt to try to solve that problem. To try and really isolate these skills and turn them into something that’s measurable.
Where will the backlash against hypertesting manifest?
I don’t think the change will necessarily come from changing laws or changing No Child Left Behind. I think some of those things might have to happen. But I think it’s going to happen more on an individual level in terms of what parents do, what teachers do, how parents and teachers communicate with each other. So, if there is a shift going on—and I hope there is—I think it is happening on a more personal level rather than on the political level.