Bestselling author praises Memphis school in book
How well kids do in school has less to do with grades than intangibles, like how hard they try when they think no one is watching, according to Paul Tough, whose new book “How Children Succeed” inched up a notch to No. 5 this week on the New York Times best-seller list.
Tough, who will be in Memphis Monday evening, specifically cites KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter schools for helping kids develop the grit it takes to get and stay in college, particularly for low-income students, and go on to lead fulfilling lives.
“What impresses me the most about KIPP is they’re always trying to improve,” Tough said by phone this week. ” I think they are asking all the right questions and will keep doing that until they find the right answers.”
The argument about the weight on grades versus other kinds of intelligence comes as the nation grapples with a data-driven culture in public education that requires testing at every level.
KIPP tests, but its character culture is what Tough noticed. All lessons at KIPP flow through the character sieve.
At KIPP Memphis, icons for the five traits it values most integrity, grit, curiosity, social intelligence and kindness are everywhere in the school, constant reminders of what it takes to make it to college and succeed beyond that.
“They create a visual anchor; people tend to remember things that they have a visual anchor around,” said Andy Bobowski, the school’s leader.
Fifth graders studying Harriet Tubman this week at KIPP Memphis were impressed by her heroism and lasting place in history. But when they wrote about her in their own words, they used words like grit and integrity: “You should always have integrity, even when you are not being watched,” one youngster wrote.
That is assurance to Bobowski, who uses the themes as examples the character message is taking root.
“These are things we know lead to success and are necessary to be successful in life, to be successful in college; to have friends, to have a family and be able to support your family,” he said.
When a student turned in $5 he found in the halls last week, Bobowski praised him for acting with integrity. The student likely earned extra cash on his imaginary paycheck at KIPP, a reward, like a bonus at work.
Bobowski admits he can’t know if the child would have behaved the same way in a different setting. But because it happened at KIPP, the behavior was noted and affirmed.
“We were able to have a conversation about showing integrity, and he did that because he is here,” he said.
KIPP has always stressed character, but it sharpened its game when it realized that its high-achieving first graduates in New York stumbled and fell when they got to college. KIPP’s much-studied class of 1999 produced only a 21 percent college graduation rate, forcing its founders to study how kids could score at the top on standardized tests and fizzle out in college.
“They started to think about character in new ways,” Tough said, “by getting more and more intentional and scientific about it.”
Two years after it began emphasizing character in New York KIPP schools, college graduation rates there jumped to 46 percent. (Nationally, according to census data, 10 percent of students in poverty graduate from college.)
Tough devoted much of one chapter to KIPP’s work, including KIPP Through College, a mentoring program KIPP set up to stay in touch with alumni, starting with eighth-grade graduates, until they complete college.
Jim Boyd, member of the Transition Planning Commission that made recommendations for the merger of Memphis and Shelby County schools, read Tough’s book, bought every copy at Laurelwood Booksellers and will be at the lecture Monday.
“I hope lots of people read it and that we have a community discussion about it. There are important things he underscores in the book that we need to address, and not just for children in poverty. Just because you have money doesn’t mean you are capable of parenting.”