Helping Children Succeed was reported and written with the generous support of five philanthropic organizations: the CityBridge Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, the Bainum Family Foundation, and the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.
Paul Tough has written a new book that aspires to put into action a host of bad ideas that Tough advocated in his 2012 book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. In that book, Tough outlined the eugenics-inspired elitist dream to use schooling to alter poor children’s brains and nervous systems so that they, essentially, become academically immune to the effects of poverty—that corrosive malady that Tough’s wealthy patrons have no interest in doing anything about. And why should they if the segregated urban poor can produce the test scores that are required to grow the wildly lucrative “no excuses” networks like KIPP, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, Mastery, Green Dot, Rocketship, etc.
Instead of suggesting that some part of the billions in philanthropic dollars be used to attack the problem of child poverty at its roots, Tough, in that 2012 book, focused, instead, on the virtues of the “no excuses” charter reform schools to develop “performance character,” which he claimed would provide enough grit, self-control, and gratitude to neutralize the damaging effects of poverty on poor children’s low test scores.
Tough’s first book fantasized about exploiting the neural plasticity of children of the poor, and the KIPP schools were held up as models of successful programs that grind out gritty kids who excel in self-control, gratitude, zest, and the other corporate character virtues that allow for high productivity among students and workers, despite deplorable living and work conditions. Like most fantasies, Tough’s 2012 book depended upon creating an alternate reality to match his dystopian pipe dream of dredging new neural pathways in children’s brains to improve their performance character, or work habits.
In Tough’s gritty sci-fi fantasy, he falsely equated higher test scores that KIPP’s unpaid child workers generate under the soul-crushing tutelage of inexperienced teachers as an indication that improved character (grit and self-control) had been achieved. Like other measures used in the myopic world of corporate education reform, Tough found the proof in the bottom line, and as with other amoral enterprises aimed at increasing the bottom line, the human costs for achieving the numbers did not matter. If test gains could be sustained by emphasizing Tough’s preferred virtues of keeping-your-nose-the-grindstone grit production and living in a behavioral straightjacket, then so much the better: no expensive socioeconomic changes or politically costly sociological alterations would be required.
Of course, we now know how the KIPP Model schools use an accounting system based on avoiding the liabilities of lower-scoring children, along with the application of a form of pedagogical savagery that no middle class citizen would ever condone for anyone other than the black and brown children of the poor.
While these findings were never reported by the corporate media, a number of disturbing high profile stories from these “no excuses” hell schools could not be ignored. Problem children isolated and locked in padded rooms, problem children collected together in basements as influential guests toured the school, children forced to on sit the floor for a week until they “earned” their desks, children choked and dragged by administrators, children with scrapes and bruises from administrators, children forced to bark like dogs and wear garbage cans on their heads, young children whose work was thrown in the floor as teachers denounce their efforts, young children forced to stand in front of the entirely school and apologize for having to use the bathroom at the wrong time.
Most importantly, KIPP’s commissioned Mathematica researchers ((Tuttle, Gill, Gleason, Knechtel, Nichols-Barrer, & Resch, 2013) determined a year after Tough’s 2012 book came out that the extraordinary renditions being used on KIPPsters were NOT, in fact, producing the “character” results that were being claimed by Tough and the Seligman/Duckworth pseudoscience cabal upon which the “grit” empire is built. Steinberg (2014) offers this summary of the Mathematica findings that “were not so widely broadcast”:
They [students] weren’t more effortful or persistent. They didn’t have more favorable academic self-conceptions or stronger school engagement. They didn’t score higher than the comparison group in self-control. In fact, they were more likely to engage in ‘undesirable behavior,’ including losing their temper, lying to and arguing with their parents, and giving teachers a hard time. They were more likely to get into trouble at school. Despite the program’s emphasis on character development, the KIPP students were no less likely to smoke, drink, get high, or break the law. Nor were their hopes for their educational futures any higher or their plans any more ambitious (p. 153).
If the new paternalists’ multi-billion dollar charter business was to continue with the support of elite neoliberals who could not politically afford to support such dehumanization in the name of schooling, a new public relations campaign would be required and a new diversion created. Paul Tough’s new book signals the beginning of the new PR campaign. In fact, Tough’s new book can be downloaded as a pdf for free, and David Brooks and other paid hacks have been moving attention away from the “no excuses” schools to a “kinder gentler” form of school indoctrination as a way to neutralize criticism of the dominant variety of charter schools still preferred by a system based on racist and classist policies.
Tough’s new book, in fact, brings word that white philanthropists are doubling down, once again, on treating the symptoms of poverty, which are now acknowledged as low esteem, lack of motivation, disconnectedness, and low academic achievement. The big story in Tough’s new book, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why is of a sea change in the public relations messaging from the charter industry and the elite paternalistic foundations that constitute the corporate education reform movement. No longer are the bare-knuckled segregated charter schools held up as models of corporate effectiveness and efficiency, even though the U. S. now has thousands of these hell schools operating across the urban landscape.
The new model is a kinder, gentler form of corporate school, one in which children are relieved of the caustic and dehumanizing environments of the “no excuses” catechism for an “expeditionary” kind of project based Common Core curriculum aimed, still, at creating levels of grit and self control to neutralize the devastations of poverty and social neglect. Because Tough’s patrons have their eye on the 51 percent of the K-12 market who now qualify for free or reduced price lunch, the new model will have to represent an alternative to the penal “no excuses” charters that now house large swaths of black and brown urban school children.
And if the first Tough vision was of the creation of a black superchild with Booker T. Washington political sensibilities, the second one is of no less compliant super social child that is as likely to be white as black, an economically segregated child who gains strength from his connectedness to other children of the disconnected. And children of the white poor, for sure, will require another form of paternalism and manipulation to become gritty, self-controlled, and grateful customers of Common Core. White parents would never allow the kinds of treatment recommended for disadvantaged children of color, who are still warehoused in the “no excuses” schools all across America.
So regardless of how much Paul Tough’s patrons would like to shift the focus from the hellish “no excuses” corporate reform schools that, thus far, have been celebrated as the solution to educating the urban poor in segregated schools, the fact remains that the majority of the 7,000 charters in this country are of the same brutal variety that Tough and the billionaires have now begun to downplay.
It is with little fanfare, then, that attention now moves away from the toxic KIPP Model schools. While Tough’s 2012 How Children Succeed… celebrated the KIPP Model with over ninety glowing mentions of KIPP in just the first hundred pages, the 2016 Helping Children Succeed… includes exactly one mention of KIPP in the entire book. No doubt, Tough’s book allows us to see that charter industry is now concentrated on diverting attention from the corrosive “no excuses” reform schools to a new educational tool with a new method for re-wiring children to self-control and persist, without question, in any required task.
Tough explains that the solution new depends upon “deeper-learning strategies:”
Deeper-learning strategies are often presented as a corrective to the no-excuses philosophy of education associated with some of the earliest and best-known charter-school networks, including KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Achievement First. In their early years, especially, those schools, which serve mostly low-income students and often achieve standardized-test scores that are far above average for such students, emphasized strict behavior codes, requiring students to comply with a rigorous set of rules about how to dress and how to sit in the classroom and how to walk through the hallways. At many of those schools, elaborate systems of incentives and punishments were (and often still are) a central part of the strategy for managing and motivating students.
But more recently, the sharp dividing lines that once existed between no-excuses and deeper-learning schools have begun to blur. In the fall of 2015, Elm City Preparatory Elementary School in New Haven, Connecticut, one of the founding schools of the Achievement First network, introduced a wholesale redesign of its curriculum that includes an embrace of many of the beliefs and practices of deeper learning, including an increased emphasis on experiential learning and student autonomy. Students at Elm City (86 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch) now control their schedule and follow their own personal interests in their learning much more than they used to, and they have more autonomy in the subjects they study, including daily “enrichment” courses in robotics, dance, and tae kwon do. Once every two months, Elm City teachers lead students on a two-week “expeditionary” project in which they deeply study a single subject, sometimes involving extensive time outside school visiting a farm, museum, or historical site (pp. 125-126).
Can the dividing line between punishing segregated test prep charters and “deeper learning” schools be rubbed out by one Achievement First experimental school in New Haven?
Probably not, especially when the Achievement First (AF) school most in the news since Tough published his book is AF’s flagship upper school, which is also in New Haven, where students (98% black) conducted a mass walkout on May 31 to demand a more humane discipline system and more diversity among faculty members (75% white). How embarrassing.