Is the “Performance Gap” a Parenting Gap?

  How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, by Paul Tough

(A review and reaction: part 1)

In recent years, many have offered solutions for the failures of the American education system. While some solutions bear up to scrutiny better than others, there are certainly issues that require a multi-pronged approach. There could be positive results if, for example, funds were distributed more effectively, if teachers were compensated differently, if early learning programs were expanded, or if academic hours were extended. Systemic changes are certainly needed, and the debate will continue to rage about which changes would be most effective. Over the past few years, though, I’ve been working with other individuals who want to make a difference in the lives of students in their own communities, whether those systemic changes happen or not. Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character sheds some light on the many factors that make a difference in students’ success or failure.

On a personal note, my experience with seeking practical solutions for low-income students has included providing support to students outside of school hours. I have been involved with students as a mentor and tutor, but I am not a professionally trained teacher. The students with whom I have worked come from the low-income demographic that lies on the wrong side of the “performance gap.” As a rule, I have always looked for practical ways to instill motivation, perseverance, and a vision for the future into their lives. So the How Children Succeed caught my attention, and its contents did not disappoint.

The author goes on a wide-ranging journey to discover what elements are present in students in the U.S. from a variety of backgrounds who succeed – not just in financial terms, but in quality of life and contribution to society, as well. He takes us on a journey beginning with some of the worst-off schools in impoverished Chicago neighborhoods. He goes inside tough public middle schools in New York City, charter schools pioneering innovative approaches, and private and public schools serving wealthy students in the Riverdale neighborhood of New York City and in suburban California. As he interacts with extensive research, observes classrooms and programs, and interviews people across this broad spectrum, Tough zeroes in on intangible factors that help students to succeed, whether they are building on a strong educational foundation or compensating for a poor one.

The first section takes the combined findings of education and public health research on how early childhood experiences affect the course of individuals’ lives. Tough demonstrates, with statistics and stories, how an early sense of security from a strong bond with parents can provide a solid foundation for success in education, vocation, and physical health. On the other hand, trauma, neglect and insecurity early in life can dramatically undermine physical, mental and emotional health for the rest of one’s life, in ways that the best educational institutions and medical professionals cannot overcome with a business-as-usual approach. Tough, and the researchers he interviews, build a convincing argument that the best preventive action possible for our educational systems, medical systems and society in general is caring parental involvement in young children’s lives. In a culture where divorce and dysfunctional, fragmented families are prevalent, this analysis comes as bad news.

For Christians involved in political action and social change, however, I see the potential to bridge a gap between two camps that have been divided. Christian conservatives have long been involved in advocating for stronger families, and providing grassroots, church based training to strengthen Christian families. At the opposite pole, the Christian left has proudly advocated for government policies that help the poor. Both of these are valid Christian concerns. And if solid parenting offers the best hope for poor children to overcome generational poverty and live flourishing lives, then those who want to strengthen families in the name of Jesus and those who want to empower the poor in the name of Jesus could combine their passions, knowledge and expertise to work for the kingdom of God in a powerful and meaningful way. Of course, this would require a lot of challenging and “messy” relational work: getting involved in the lives of struggling families – wealthy or poor – requires great fortitude, and nearly as much patience as having civil dialogue with people on the other end of the political spectrum in America.