I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, and when I do, it is usually narrative. But I threw this book up on my wish list after listening to a This American Life episode that featured some of the research that went into the writing of it, and my lovely friend Adrienne, a stellar psychologist, whose husband is a stellar NYC educator, bought it for me for my birthday. I was hooked from the first page. Not only was the experience of reading this book completely engaging, but it laid out theory after theory that thrilled me. Part of that thrill came from the fact that, although I discovered something new on nearly every page, almost none of it came as a surprise. It all made such sense. As an educator, I’ve read about plenty of schools and theories on who falls behind and why, but this book was the most comprehensive, powerful and meaningful collection of data and ideas I’ve ever encountered.
Working, as I do, with incredibly diverse populations of students—basically the entire spectrum New York City has to offer, from the most privileged children attending the ritziest private schools to children in the foster care system who’ve been cycled through a host of low-performing schools—every chapter of this book spoke to me. I read about studies on stress and how persistent childhood trauma can literally rewire children’s brains and make it impossible for them to succeed in school without serious intervention. I read about how IQ tests can be frighteningly accurate predictors of children’s success as adults, but not for the obvious reason—children that do well on a test that offers no immediate reward have a strength of character, or conscientiousness, that will benefit them hugely in the future. Children who score poorly, but when rewarded with a chocolate for every right answer close the gap with those scoring in the middle of the IQ pack and so probably are no less “smart” than their peers, will still be more likely to fall behind in the future because of their lack of motivation to try absent of immediate reward. One of the central arguments of the book is that no matter what sort of programs and money get thrown at a chronically underperforming school, no matter how many regime changes it goes through, there are problems that cannot be addressed by a school system alone. Reading this book, one learns that–surprise!–teachers aren’t necessarily the problem. Lack of funding and overcrowding, though obviously huge problems, aren’t necessarily the heart of it, either. When a community and its families–or lack thereof–are in ruins, a school can’t take up all of the slack.
There is a lengthy segment on the South Williamsburg middle school chess program that just got the big-screen treatment; I particularly enjoyed this section of the book because, in addition to writing about how and why this program makes a difference for the kids it serves, it illuminated what the program did not and could not help with, and it also was filled with explicit examples, down to verbatim conversations the chess teacher had with her students.
I was surprised to read so much about Riverdale, the extremely high-end, liberal school in the Bronx, and their struggle with character education for students who are shielded from hardship to the extent that they never develop character skills other children more naturally gain. The book primarily focuses on poverty’s debilitating influence on “grit, curiosity and the hidden power of character” but also touches on, not just Riverdale, but schools like Princeton and Harvard, which increasingly funnel their graduates into financial careers that offer little in the way of fulfillment besides money; it points out that for many affluent students, when the possibility of abject failure is completely removed, success is by default.
Structurally, Tough profiles various academic studies as well as several case studies—actual schools, actual programs, actual families, actual students. He refers back to what he has already explained in a way that provides several through-lines and lets the research build into well-rounded arguments. He has a very assured way of presenting his material; there is a lot of forward momentum in his writing. He asks questions, presents very well researched examples, attempts to answer questions, and leaves plenty of room for hope.
I wish everyone would read this book. Usually when I say that, it means I wish everyone could experience the elation of reading spectacular fiction. When I say that about this book, I mean that people would treat each other differently if they read this book and absorbed what it had to say. I mean that I wish people with money would read this book and donate to some of the programs described in its pages that are making real differences in young people’s lives. I wish that teachers who scream at their students to “sit still” would read this book to understand why they can’t, that people I grew up with would read it to understand, if they don’t already, that their privilege is just that, and on and on. Read this book! We need to do better by many, many of our communities and families and young people and there are ideas in here that can–really–help.