Book Recommendation: "How Children Succeed" - Paul Tough

One of my favorite Malaysian students, Muaz.

One of my favorite Malaysian students, Muaz.

Paul Tough's "How Children Succeed" should be required reading for anyone interested in the American education system, social inequality, and personal characteristics that correlate with success.

His book resonates with me because I came from a community where few people attend or complete college. It was always a mystery to me, especially when I started working for UT and I had an inside perspective on just how credentialed its students are, how not only did I make it out of my community, but graduated at the top of my class.

Since I worked in so many different high schools, from the highest to the lowest performing, I observed some students who enrolled and continued their studies at UT. Tough's book provides context to my observations about the characteristics and qualities to look for in precocious and resilient students: perseverance, self-control, creativity, zest, conscientiousness, and an overall awareness of who they are and the environment they are raised.

I read his book in 2013 and again in 2015. He introduced me to Dr. Angela Duckworth's research on "grit" defines as perseverance and passion directed at long-term goals. Gritty people learn from failure and bounce back from adversity. People with more grit tend to do better than their less gritty peers across many domains: the corporate world, the military, academia, and athletics.

Like Frank Bruni, Tough agrees that how you approach your education matters more than where you go. For students living in poverty, there is such a small or non-existent safety net that, for those students who do make it out, they are often tougher and more resolute than their resource-rich peers.

I see this working in admissions - a few of the best students at the lowest-performing schools amazed me with how much they could balance. It wasn't just the typical stuff on a college resume, but I worked with students who were the primary breadwinner in their family, were homeless, and who cared for their own children while ranking in the top of their class. 

If you want a nuanced perspective on important themes especially in today's highly polarized political climate, I strongly recommend Tough's concise, smooth presentation of education in America.