Best-selling author Paul Tough says closing achievement gap is education’s most pressing issue
Best selling author Paul Tough will be speaking at the OC Forum Wednesday thanks to a new partnership between Orange County United Way, the Children and Families Commission of Orange County and THINK Together. The three community-based organizations are working together to address the countywide issue of closing the educational achievement gap experienced by many at-risk children and inviting Tough to speak on those topics is a good first step. Tough is the author of “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Power of Character,” and “Whatever it Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America” He is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a speaker on various topics including education, poverty, parenting, and politics. Prior to his talk, Tough answered a few questions for us here:
Q: What do you think is the most pressing education issue and why?
It’s the persistent achievement gap between children who grow up in poverty and those who grow up in affluence. Until we can solve that problem, it’s going to be difficult for the United States to live out its promise as a democratic and egalitarian society.
Q: What steps can parents take to Teach, Help, Inspire, and Nurture their children and set them up for educational success?
There are plenty of things parents can do to help their children succeed, from reading with them to providing a safe and stable and secure home for them. But one of the most important steps parents can take is to nurture their children’s non-cognitive skills or character strengths – qualities like grit, persistence, self-regulation, and optimism. In infancy and early childhood, parents can do that by developing a close, responsive, attuned relationship with their children. And in later childhood, they can do it by giving their children the right kind of autonomy. When children are taught that struggle is O.K. – that they can learn from their failures and mistakes – they are more likely to succeed.
Q: What was the genesis of “How Children Succeed?”
After I finished my first book, “Whatever It Takes,” I realized I still had some big questions about what’s really going on in childhood – why some children succeed while others fail. When I started digging into the science around those questions, I discovered there was a lot of interesting and important research going on – in neuroscience, in economics, and in psychology. And a lot of the research was pointing in the same direction: that we were ignoring a crucial set of skills that children need to succeed.
Q: What advice would you give to Orange County school administrators and teachers about helping children succeed?
I would advise them to think about how to find the right balance between the development of cognitive skills and character strengths in their students. Both are important, but right now, in most schools, we put too much emphasis on that narrow band of cognitive skills that get measured on standardized tests. If we want to help children succeed in the long run, we need to help them develop their character strengths as well.
Q: What does LIVE UNITED mean to you?
It’s the phrase on the T-shirt I wear when I go running! (A kind gift from the folks at United Way of Coastal Fairfield County, in Connecticut, where I spoke earlier this year.) But to get a little deeper: I think it represents the fact that if we want to create a country where children who grow up in disadvantage have a real opportunity to achieve meaningful success, we need to work together, to draw on many different elements of our community and our society.
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