Grit and Good Parenting

Everyone who has an interest in America's future should read How Chidren Succeed by Paul Tough, who quit his job at the New York Times to research and produce this unflinching, fascinating yet ultimately hopeful look at educational attainment. In fewer than 200 pages he nails what's wrong with our educational system -- in a phrase, lack of parenting -- and then proceeds to show how we can correct it. The underlying problem is income inequality and the behavioral problems it generates. The surprising solution: non-curricular changes that focus on showing kids how, in a parental way, to get things accomplished. The problem isn't what or how we're teaching them: it's that we aren't addressing their physiological inability to learn anything with ease.

It starts in the earliest months of life when parental care alters their body chemistry and their brains. If they are born into a household beset with conflicts, anxieties and dysfunction, their bodies will go into permanent alert, always ready for fight or flight. This state of permanent stress -- their allostatic load, as he puts it -- floods their bodies with chemicals that slow the development of brain regions governing self-control. It puts them into a state of readiness for trouble, at all times, shrinking their working memory and boosting hyper-activity. Not only poor households, but extremely wealthy ones, as well, produce children with these symptoms: wherever kids have a sense of needing to achieve without parental attention and support, their ability to learn will degrade. It generates a level of stress that becomes an impairment.

In an overly-stressed child, "Neurotransmitters activate, glucose levels rise, the cardiovascular system sends blood to the muscles, and inflammatory proteins surge through the bloodstream." It's a physical response that evolved in order to survive predatory, life-or-death situations. With repeated exposure to disorder and conflict, a child goes into "firehouse" alert. The effect of good parenting is to prevent this from happening. In essence, the effect of bad (and good) parenting is biochemical.

The book addresses this core educational problem, which has nothing to do with curriculum or teaching methods, and little relationship with teaching skills -- it has to do with the diminishing ability of children to simply sit still and focus. Anyone familiar with the widespread use of drugs to alleviate A.D.H.D. will understand now why these drugs have taken hold.

"Babies whose parents responded readily and fully to their cries in the first months of life were, at one year, more independent and intrepid than babies whose parents had ignored their cries. In preschool, the pattern continued."

Why Children Succeed starts with this dark view of our current educational crisis and proceeds to show, in case after case, in innovative program after program, how children can be restored from this damage and turned into above-standard students.

Interesting facts from the book:

• Optimism is a teachable, learnable skill.
• Crucial character skills for academic success are, yes, honesty, but also appreciation for beauty, kindness, gratitude, and social intelligence.
• "Ability to handle stress and manage strong emotions can be improved, sometimes dramatically, well into adolescence and even adulthood."

The best possible situation for a growing child is to have a supportive and attentive set of parents who model successful character traits. Yet that isn't enough. A child also, ironically, needs failure. To endure and recover from successive failures is crucial -- because success and achievement largely result from a person's willingness to try, fail, analyze, adjust and then try again, until success comes.

The book concludes with a heartening account of how a program called OneGoal has turned around the lives of hundreds of students. With an annual budget of $1.7 million, and more than 1200 students enrolled at twenty Chicago high schools in a three-year course, it has turned under-performing students into college graduates. It isn't about curriculum. It's about training in how to be highly effective people -- not just students -- through resourcefulness, integrity, ambition, professionalism, and resilience.

The numbers for this program underscore the message of the entire book: kids can learn and succeed, regardless of income, if there are people who care enough to help them learn how to succeed. Of the 129 students who started as juniors in OneGoal in 2009, 94 were enrolled in four-year colleges as of May 2012. Another 14 were enrolled in two-year colleges. The persistence rate (the opposite of the drop-out rate) is 94 percent.

And all it cost was $1,400 per year, per student. Maybe OneGoal is a place to start with a national program for improving educational achievement.

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. He can be found at Good Reads.