One of the biggest gifts I was given at the beginning of my senior year in high school was the worst SAT score out of my entire group of friends. It wasn’t a gift at the time, of course – while my friends applied to private liberal arts schools on the east coast, I applied to ASU (no disrespect to the Sun Devils, of course).
The reason I now consider it a gift is that it put me on the defensive when I entered college. After a high school career spent socializing and doing sports, I earned a 4.0 in my first semester of college. But more than that, I have lived my life since then with the full knowledge that on the test given to all high school students, I was designated sub par. I will never think of myself as clever. And that means I will always feel the need to prove myself.
So when I read the Paul Tough’s fascinating book, How Children Succeed, I was thrilled to note that the reason I flew through college and went onto graduate school has to do, in large part, with my character. I do well because I am determined, resilient, and full of something psychologists call ‘grit.’ And according to Tough, this also has to do, in large part, with how well my parents loved me (Thanks, Mom!).
Some have categorized the book as a parenting manual, though I found it much more tailored to teachers (as I would, I suppose). My favorite part, about how to get kids to graduate from college, is when Tough analyzes the book, Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities by William G. Bowen, Matthew Chingos and Michael S. McPherson. Tough summarizes the authors’ findings like this: “…the most accurate predictor of whether a student would successfully complete college was not his or her score on the SAT or the ACT…the far better predictor of college completion was a student’s high-school GPA. (For my English readership, a GPA stands for Grade Point Average, and teachers award these scores to students throughout their school career.) It turns out that working hard in high school translates to success in later life – excellent news for all of my former students who were not necessarily the brightest but always did the work.
British reviews of How Children Succeed made me giggle a bit. One, in particular, talked about how British schools are all about teaching character, indicating that perhaps the UK need learn no lessons on this front. I guess the reviewer hasn’t been to the school in London I used to teach at. When I tell people in America I taught in England, they are invariably picturing Hogwarts: They say things like, ‘Wow! I bet that was amazing!’ It was anything but. In fact, I was regularly robbed, sworn at, threatened with violence, and actually hit.
And here’s why. The concept of the GPA is one aspect of American schooling that I wish the UK would adopt (and since I am currently writing this from London, it seems apt to discuss it here). The primary reason that teaching in the UK is so much harder is because students have so few reasons to value their teacher. Other than the knowledge teachers impart (which is now quite easily available online), they have little direct impact on their students’ futures. In America, the GPA means that teachers are integral to a student’s chances of going to college. Didn’t do your homework? That zero counts! My assessment of a student’s work ethic means something. To be fair, the UK is doing many things very well, and I plan to devote another whole post to what Americans can learn from the UK system. Oh, how I wish I could have taken A-levels!
How Children Succeed is definitely worth reading for anyone interested in child psychology, education and, yes, parenting. It also vindicated many of my most cherished beliefs: Good parenting is more important to a child’s future success in school than good teaching. Character counts for more in life than intelligence. And the SAT test is asinine. Truly, if there is one good thing I could do in this world, it would be to spend my life eradicating this test for future generations.
By the way, Paul Tough will be speaking this Friday, April 5th, at the Westin in Seattle. I will not be in attendance because I will be in Brazil, which is also why I won’t be posting again until the following Tuesday. Until then, ate logo!