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Living in Dialogue: Paul Tough Turns Away from Punitive Education Reforms

Paul Tough’s Helping Children Succeed is a great corrective to the hubris that undermined the contemporary school reform movement.  Tough volunteers a modest statement about his methodology, and in doing so he offers an alternative to corporate reform and its grand vision of “disruptive innovation” to blow up the education “status quo,” in order to produce “transformational” change.

Tough explains that he is a journalist who describes particular interventions, pedagogies, and/or programs that may be representative of larger dynamics. The sensitive use of these human scale case studies, informed by social science research, can provide broader insights into causal relationships in terms of what works in a sustainable manner for entire school systems. This process is similar to what philanthropists and foundations try to do; “They look for programs that work and try to replicate them, scale them up to reach as broad an audience as possible.” One problem has been that “scaling up doesn’t work as well in social service and education as it does in the tech world.”

Tough’s premise “is that no program or school is perfect, but that each successful intervention contains some clues about how and why it works that can inform the rest of the field.” Rather than discover a technocratic silver bullet, his goal is “to extract and explain the core principles of each program I write about and look for common threads running through them.”

Many reformers are dismayed by the meager gains produced by their top-down mandates, and upset by the fervent pushback by educators and patrons that they prompted. Some reformers seem willing to consider new ideas, such as better early education, but others remained determined to double down on their politics of destruction, using mass school closures to break the backs of the teachers’ and unions’ resistance. I didn’t imagine that output-driven reformers will be satisfied with Tough’s failure to articulate a concise accountability regime to replace their commitment to test, sort, reward, and punish, and sure enough, here’s an example. 

Even as Tough’s eclecticism and incrementalism will disappoint market-driven reformers, his extremely diplomatic approach to critiquing reform will annoy many teachers.  For instance, both sides of our education civil war should agree with Tough’s desire to identify interventions with children that “might at first seem, to the adults in their lives, to be small and insignificant,” such as “the tone of a parent’s voice,” but that can redirect the trajectory of their lives. To reformers, such a goal may seem too small and, to teachers, it might sound like one more in the long list of cheap and easy “quick fixes” that have been dumped on schools.

On the other hand, Tough’s is too realistic to expect miracles from small interventions that resemble the steady stream of “silver bullets” that have zapped teachers’ energy, as they also convinced corporate reformers that traditional methods of school improvement would always be inadequate. So, while I can’t list Tough’s recommendations in a way that is more concrete than the principles that he articulates, the following are insights that should inform the next era of school improvement.

First, Tough criticizes the local, state, and federal “bureaucratic divide” where “early-childhood and school-system administrators do not collaborate or even communicate much.” He wants systems to “consider the developmental journey of children, and particularly children growing up in circumstances of adversity, as a continuum.” Of course, data-driven reform was predicated on the effort to break schooling down into discrete components where measurable learning can be attributed to individuals who can be held accountable for failing to meet those metrics. It is the antithesis of what Tough wants, a recognition that the education of a child is “a single unbroken story from birth through the end of high school.”

Second, Tough wants us to start early and to emphasize positive interventions to help families get their children off to a good start.  He praises programs ranging from Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up (ABC) to the home-visiting program known as the Nurse-Family Partnership. Tough endorses expensive and comprehensive programs such as Educare, as well as All Our Kin, which serves 1,500 children for less than $900 per child per year. Speaking of modest interventions, Tough notes that a “few minor choices” such as speaking in a low voice, expressing sympathy, and redirecting clients and students can produce important benefits.

Third, in terms of instruction, Tough proposes:

Two toolboxes that are most effective to turn to when you’re trying to create an environment conducive to positive student mindsets. They are “relationships: how you treat students, how you talk to them, how you reward and discipline them, and a pedagogy: what you teach, how you teach it, and how you assess whether your students have learned it.”  

Reformers will likely be horrified by Tough’s failure to address sanctions.  But, we teachers should embrace the lessons that he gleans from Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. They “proceed from the principle that humans are natural learners and children are born creative and curious, ‘intrinsically motivated for the types of behaviors that foster learning and development.’”

Tough later becomes more explicit in concluding that current accountability measures “may be skewing teacher behavior in a way that is on the whole disadvantageous to students.” I wish Tough had connected some dots, linking reforms pushed by the federal government and philanthropic institutions, and that focused on high-poverty schools, to the ways that those schools operate under the “principles of behaviorism rather than self-determination.” However, readers who are not invested in defending output-driven reform are likely to grasp Tough’s point when he concludes that these high-poverty schools:

…are often the schools where administrators feel the most pressure to show positive results on high-stakes standardized tests and where teachers feel the least confident in their (often unruly and underperforming) students’ ability to deal responsibly with more autonomy. And so in these schools, where students are most in need of help internalizing extrinsic motivations, classroom environments often push them in the opposite direction: toward more external control, fewer feelings of competence, and less positive connection with teachers.

Corporate school reform stresses a narrow part of the intellectual side of learning.  When its sad history is written, I imagine the failure of data-driven, competition-driven reform will be attributable in large part to the failure of technocrats to understand the human side of education.  Tough has played a valuable role in stressing the socio-emotional side of teaching and learning. He has joined a long list of journalists who forced reformers to grapple with cognitive and social science.  By now, many reformers acknowledge that the socio-emotional supports that Tough promotes aren’t just “excuses” to be ridiculed, but an essential foundation of school improvement.

So, why aren’t our education wars coming to an end? To answer that question, we must consider the ways that reformers have doubled down on the mass charterization of schools.  Even these market-driven reformers now talk a good game about the need for student supports, they do so, as in the case of the Broad Foundation’s attack on Los Angeles schools, as a part of their assault on teachers and unions.  Broad’s campaign seems to be a clear case of punishing opponents through winner-take-all competition.  Similarly, corporate reformers are horrified that Hillary Clinton might back off from high stakes testing.

What most separates reformers and educators who oppose them is their punishment fetish.  We don’t deny that accountability and consequences are facts of life and those extrinsic measures have a role to play. Corporate reformers remain firm that the punitive must play a decisive part in school improvement. These measures also are a tactical device aimed at discrediting, disrupting and replacing public schools. Tough speaks softly as he articulates a constructive message that emphasizes the better angels of human beings.  Perhaps he will help win the competition-driven reformers over to his collaborative vision. Or, maybe, they won’t change until they taste defeat. I hope we don’t have to wait until that final battle before incorporating Tough’s wisdom into a new era of school improvement.

What do you think? How many corporate reformers understand why they have failed? Why are they in love with punishment? Will they listen to Paul Tough?

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John Thompson

John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his neighbo...