Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Oh please Brer Fox, don't make us teach non-cognitive skills!

Tom Toch:

To Tough, the logic of the importance of noncognitive qualities to students’ futures is clear: we need to rethink our solutions to the academic plight of impoverished students. The studies of Dweck, Duckworth, and others support conservative claims that individual character should be an important part of policy discussions about poverty. “There is no anti-poverty tool that we can provide for disadvantaged young people that will be more valuable that (sic) character strengths,” Tough writes, a claim that won’t be easy for liberals to stomach.

I puzzled over this paragraph all weekend. Let's set aside the question of whether these character strengths would really be the most powerful anti-poverty tool if we could, in fact, reliably instill specific traits in poor children.

Why exactly would liberals hate this? We're talking about, for example, "resilience, optimism, perseverance, (and) focus." These aren't things that liberal or progressive teachers oppose. At all. They might emphasize some other traits like open-mindedness, creativity, fairness, active citizenship and kindness, but nobody is, say, actively anti-perseverance (lots of anti-creativity articles lately though).

I eventually figured out that what was happening here was that Toch silently flipped the frame from "useful things to try to teach children" to "the reason people are poor," specifically that liberals don't like the idea that people are poor because of the flaws in their character. That this is the proper reading is reinforced by the next paragraph:

But, Tough adds, the contributions of character traits to students’ success goes a long way toward refuting conservative “cognitive determinists” like Charles Murray, who claim that success is mainly a function of IQ and that education is largely about sorting people and giving the brightest the chance to take full advantage of their potential.

I've never really understood why, say, Joel Klein talks as if his friends used to think poor children were un-educatable, because I never got the idea that it was the majority opinion among actual educators or decent folk in general. Is the whole subtext I've missed that the billionaire boys club are all semi-refomed Charles Murray fans? I find it difficult to remember that people take Murray seriously, because I don't hang out with assholes.

Anyhow, Toch continues:

The research that Tough explores also undercuts claims by Klein, Rhee, and other signers of the Education Equity Project manifesto that we can get impoverished students where they need to be educationally through higher standards, stronger teachers, and other academic reforms alone.

Now we've flipped back to the question of educating students, and what you won't get is a parallel admission that the Broader, Bolder Agenda is also being proved right. Instead we get praise for KIPP handing out character report cards.

OK, fine. Whatever. The reformers won the policy round but they're going to lose the war because their policies won't work, and they're helpfully providing the data that demonstrates it. So all that is left is the slow process of congratulating themselves for adopting their now-marginalized opponents ideas.

This is annoying of course, but overall an improvement.


Jenny said...

I have no idea how you manage to read all that you do, but I am so grateful that you share it. I am about halfway through Tough's book and find it pretty fascinating. I intend to go hear him speak about it tonight (if I can stay awake after the second day of school). Thanks for these links and thoughts.

Sean said...

Another brilliant, devastating critique.

Hoffman you son of a gun