10 December 2013

Paul Tough v. Peter Høeg - or - the Advantages and Limits of "Research"

or, How Children Succeed v. Borderliners

Years ago now, in the first semester of my doctoral program, a professor named Cleo Cherryholmes
In Memorian Cleo H. Cherryholmes
challenger of all that we "know"
came to speak to my "Research Methods" class. Cleo would later become a remarkable mentor, and a friend, but at that moment all I knew was that he was being brought into this class as a sop to postmodernism and qualitative research, things dismissed by the demeaning faculty leading the course, led by Dr. Robert Floden.

About 20 minutes into Cleo's discussion, I interrupted and asked, "but isn't it all just storytelling?" And he said, "Obviously, but how do you know that?" "And I said, "I'm not sure, I just know it."

And he said, "Oh, good," and paused for maximum effect, "because if you had gotten this from him," he looked at Floden, "I'd have to think a lot more of him than I do."

We became fast friends. Cleo would mean much to me, and he continues to inform what I do and how I see. Floden would become, in my world view of education, one of the leading villains - preventing universities from becoming useful to K-12 education. But that is not this story...

This story is encompassed in my question: "[the writing of research, the conduct of research] isn't it all just storytelling?"

I've thought about this question a great deal the last couple of weeks as I've struggled through listening to Paul Tough's book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. It is a very good book, a very important book, and yet, well, something very essential is missing from Tough's reporting, something which ultimately makes the book as dangerous as it is valuable. What's missing isn't just that Tough never learned the "art of the anecdote" from those who led the New Journalism revolution 50 years ago - his "human" scenes fall flat every time - and it isn't just that a career at The New York Times tends to make most who live that life fawn in the presence of power, whether Scooter Libby or the Goldman-Sachs Education Man, Geoffrey Canada.

It is more than either of those things, it is, I suspect, the essential failure of straight rationalism, and of those who always seek causal inference. And it is that straight rationalism and a direct belief in causal inference - combined with the very limited world view constructed from life in elite schools, elite jobs, and elite neighborhoods - surely creates its own palette of disorders: Perhaps this is a case of Data Over Acceptance Disorder, the problem of seeing the world purely through quantitative data analysis, combined with Elite Limited Vision Disorder, the belief that the world you know is the only world that matters. And if these are the disorders which limit and ultimately undo Tough's storytelling it is because not only the author suffers from these issues, but almost every adult interviewed in the book suffers from the same - from the unprepared Chicago High School principal to the founder of KIPP, from the University of Chicago economists who open Tough's tale to the pop psychologists who construct theories about "learned optimism."

As I said, it's an important book. As Tough told Valerie Strauss, "The book is about two things: first, an emerging body of research that shows the importance of so-called non-cognitive skills in children’s success; and second, a new set of experimental interventions that are trying to use that research to help improve outcomes for children, especially children growing up in disadvantage. Some of this research is decades old; some is very new. Part of what I’m trying to do in the book is to show the connections between fields of research that are generally kept quite separate, including various branches of economics, neuroscience, pediatrics, and psychology." It is an important debunking of much of the so-called "research" behind the work of 35 years of "educational reformers," going back to the start of the Reagan Administration. It is, though Tough doesn't know this, a vindication of sorts for the Open Classroom movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the Schools Without Walls movement of the same period, of high schools like the Philadelphia Parkway Program and New Rochelle's (NY) 3Is which worked to help "troubled" kids via reconstruction of self through independence and trust. (Tough doesn't understand what "character education" may look like, but those with a wider understanding of educational history will see this clearly.)

And its an important book because of its investigation of Allostatic Load and what that concept requires of educators. All this is good, and all of that offsets Tough's depressing unquestioning trust in the powerful, from the University of Chicago to Arne Duncan, from Harvard researchers to those who run elite schools to those elites who run schools for those in poverty. That Tough never asks the questions beneath his questions is no more reason not to read his book than it is not to read The New York Times. We can use both to collect information while reserving the right to do better analysis than the author - or publication - may be capable of.

The founder of KIPP went to school
beyond these gates, paying a tuition
now at $37,000+ per year:
a place with none of the rules
enforced on KIPP students.
Mostly, it's an important book because Tough has written a book which might begin to persuade his The New York Times social class, the wealthy, powerful people who set national and international agendas, that their education agenda of the past 30 years has been wrong. I cannot do that, and my writing cannot do that, because "evidence" of a single specific form is the only thing which this group responds to. And Paul Tough has assembled that form of information admirably, largely repudiating all that he has - and much of what The New York Times has - written about education before. That switch really matters.

But it is a dangerous book because Tough continues to look for simple answers which will make life comfortable for his social class. It is a dangerous book because it never really asks the tough questions. It is a dangerous book because it holds out those old New England Calvinist ideals - grit and hard work - as the "by your own bootstraps" way to the top - as the path for the poor without ever really acknowledging that the rich need none of that.

Principally it is a dangerous book because, through the use of only stories selected by the researchers Tough fawns over, it implies a series of essential untruths about those who grow up along America's socio-economic, learning, and behavioral borderlines. It is not a dangerous book, however, for the reasons suggested by "the usual suspects" - E.D. Hirsch, Daniel Willingham, and Peter Meyer. "Yet it is hard to argue from recent reform efforts that the aim has been to increase the “information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years," Hirsch laughably pronounces, proving once again that he has actually never seen a public school. The danger in the book is not Tough's correct demolition of the "cognitive hypothesis" - the idea that schools have been focusing on Googlable information instead of life long learning competencies - but his lack of art in understanding children born differently from himself.

But that missing art, that missing empathy, that missing doubt, where do we go to reach for that? And why is that important?

'640K is more memory than anyone will ever need.'

The first computer mouse: research must have shown
that taking your right hand off the keyboard
would make one less efficient
Whether Bill Gates ever actually said, "640K is more memory than anyone will ever need," isn't the important question. The fact is that the computer industry, like most industries, is filled with examples of research data leading to flawed conclusions because the research is - as quantifiable research always is - based on understandings of the past.

The graphical user interface, the computer mouse, was known to all sorts of people before Apple Computer introduced the Lisa Computer in 1983. In fact, it was a gift to Steve Jobs from Xerox, which couldn't see any advantage in it. And there is no doubt that, based in the knowledge of computer users in the early 1980s, research must have shown that taking your right hand off the keyboard would make one less efficient. The research only shows the known world of the researcher.

Twenty years later, among a dozen companies, only Steve Jobs' people understood what a handheld could do. Others were trying to build better phones. But the iPhone was a pretty crappy phone that did a dozen non-phone things really well. Ford, in the late 1950s, named a new car the "Edsel," a name which meant sophistication and fine design in southeast Michigan, but which just sounded funny to everyone else. Blackberry missed the point that phones, even sophisticated phones in the hands of business leaders, were now "mobiles," which needed to function as effective computers.

That fact: that quantifiable research can only tell you about what you already know, is a critical problem for people of Paul Tough's class, people with Data Over Acceptance Disorder. And its a disaster in education - blocking real change from ever being considered "What Works" by those in power. And so we get someone like David Coleman, "architect of the Common Core," making this ridiculous - if entertainingly profane - statement:
"Do you know the two most popular forms of writing in the American high school today?…It is either the exposition of a personal opinion or the presentation of a personal matter. The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with these two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people don’t really give a sh** about what you feel or think. What they instead care about is can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you’re saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me. It is a rare working environment that someone says, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.”
Coleman, a life spent fully immersed in nothing but prior knowledge, cannot understand the power of either personal experience or the imagination. He believes that the best storytelling is that which is endlessly repeated until it is "normed." But the best storytelling is not what Paul Tough writes, or what David Coleman tests - rather - it begins with the art of seeing what few others can.

Thus, in Tough's chapters 11 and 12, his researchers search their known world among children they do not know at all - and that is a problem for the story Tough wants to tell. First, he tells us that kids in a Chicago juvenile detention facility have much smaller vocabularies than other students, but we have no way of knowing whether that is true or not. The vocabularies of the jailed teens was not measured, instead they were asked about white middle class vocabulary. I could easily devise a test based on South Side Chicago street vocabulary that middle class AP students would fail, but there just isn't any validity in either assessment. Then Tough writes about how children with less "attentive" mothers were more likely to engage in disruptive activities in classrooms - but again - we do not have any idea what "disruption" means in this context. We might guess the behavior standard being sought is that used by KIPP, sitting still, staring straight ahead, and shutting up. But if I looked at St. Ann's School in Brooklyn Heights, I might find that the wealthy children of highly attentive parents would be acting a lot like Tough's troubled kids - a great deal of movement, distraction, talking out of turn, leaving the classroom, staring out the window... In fact, later in the book, Tough himself acknowledges as much, but that pesky Data Over Acceptance Disorder prevents him from understanding his own experience, he's stuck in David Coleman's world of non-imagination.

from the borderline...

Now, as I have struggled with Tough's clinical prose, I have found my mind inserting the voice of the young Peter in Peter Høeg's Borderliners. A unique voice. A literary voice. And, for Mr. Coleman, a "compelling account of [someone's] childhood."

Borderliners, in many ways what I consider the most important book available about education, is all about allostatic load, but it also understands that high allostatic load factors do not mean that a child comes to school "disadvantaged." Rather, their advantages are simply not respected nor exploited by the school. The damaged children described by the "young Peter's" narration are all brilliant, all incredible observers of their worlds, and are all incredibly capable. They sound - in Høeg's storytelling - quite unlike the way any of Tough's children "sound." And perhaps this is because Høeg can do something none of Tough's numbers and none of the researcher/storytellers in How Children Succeed can do - that is, use one's own unique observational skills to channel the actual voices of these children.

And this is what matters about actually hearing, and actually relaying to us, the voices of these children - the voices that Høeg channels explain why Tough, and KIPP founder Dave Levin, can't figure out why their plans don't really work. And the central difference between Tough's story and Høeg's story is this - because of Elite Limited Vision Disorder Tough and his friends begin from the point of view of what these kids cannot do. Høeg, on the other hand, starts with everything his three - or four - heroes can do.

And that makes all the difference in the world. Tough and friends want to teach "grit" to the "grittiest" kids in America, because none of them has any idea who these kids are.

Actually, what Tough and his friends want these kids to possess is willing compliance, not "grit" nor "character." "Grit" and "character," I have found in a lifetime of working with kids on that "borderline" Høeg talks about, is what has enabled the kids Tough wants to "help" to survive - even to age five or six.

Høeg, understands the gap created by allostatic load, and that it is not a gap of achievement or character, but a gap of inexactness as opposed to exactness...
"Fredhoj and Biehl never said it straight out, but I know now, with certainty, what they were thinking. Or maybe not thinking, but sensing. What the cosmology was, upon which all of their actions rested. They were thinking that in the beginning God created heaven and earth as raw material, like a group of pupils entering Primary One, designated and earmarked for processing and ennoblement. As the straight path along which the process of evolution should progress, he created linear time. And as an instrument for measuring how far the process of evolution had advanced, he created mathematics and physics.

"I have had the following thought: What if God were not a math­ematician? What if he had been working, like Katarina and August and me, without actually having defined either questions or answers? And what if his result had not been exact but approximate? An approximate balance perhaps. Not something that had to be improved upon, a springboard to further achievement, but some­thing that was already more or less complete and in equilibrium." - Høeg Borderliners
"What if God were not a math­ematician?" and not a quantitative researcher? What if God was a storyteller, and education could build on, and not fight against, the stories our children bring to us? What if our researchers understood the art of listening to real stories and the art of retelling those stories? What if those charged with discovering "what works" for children actually knew how to hear and see children?
"I don’t think the specific character strengths that KIPP and Riverdale have chosen are necessarily the right ones. In fact, I don’t think we’ll ever have an authoritative list of essential character strengths. And I do think that for any young person, part of the process of growing up is coming to understand your own character. But I think there is some strong evidence emerging about how effective certain character strengths are in helping guide young people toward successful outcomes. For me, that list includes grit, conscientiousness, optimism, self-control and perseverance. That’s not a prescriptive checklist, but it’s a useful guide for anyone, young or old." - Tough in interview
"Not something that had to be improved upon, a springboard to further achievement, but some­thing that was already more or less complete and in equilibrium." Here's where the limitations of what we call "research" appear. Here's where those limitations become, umm, most limiting. Where Tough can only measure accomplishment by children who are "improved" - better grades, more success in interactions with the kind of people Arne Duncan and Barack Obama put in charge, Høeg understands, and can explain, something very different.

Though the narrator of Høeg's book uses the term "damaged" for himself and his two - or is it three? - comrades, he never doubts any of their capabilities, or their abilities to out-think and outmaneuver all those not "on the borderline." They are not deficient and they are not disadvantaged, despite their pain, despite wounds beyond most of our comprehension. And they are surely not "behind," unless you rig the measurement system, or, as Tough does, you assume that the rigged measurement system is both fair and reasonable.

Now I don't really know if it is reasonable - neither does Høeg, nor do any of us who lie outside the meaty part of the curve - but we all know that it is not fair. We all know that the problem is transactional, not ours alone. We all know, for example, that if homework wasn't assigned we wouldn't be in trouble for not doing homework. That if sitting in chairs was not required we wouldn't be in trouble for not sitting still in chairs. That if work was read to us, those of us who struggle with alphabetic decoding wouldn't be considered "retards." That if we could set our own school hours we wouldn't be in trouble for being late or truant so often. Even, if preventative health care and good birth control was free, available, and respected within society, we might not get women/get pregnant so often. And that if our economic system was remotely fair, we might commit fewer crimes. Yes. All of this is true. And all of it storms through Høeg's storytelling, and none of it appears in Tough's.

Which is what makes Tough's work, like all modernist, rationalist, discourse, just part of what we need to know, it is a story, of course. It is the story the author wishes to tell, like all stories. It is a story the author believes in and which rises out of his/her construction of his/her experience, like all stories, but it fails to get to the human part of the experience, the essential truths, like so much research and too much "non-fiction."

You see, you simply cannot, using numbers, using "evidence," or even using the University of Chicago School of Economics, write the paragraphs below, which are an absolutely required frame for reading Tough's analysis:
"When you assess something, you are forced to assume that a linear scale of values can be applied to it. Otherwise no assessment is possible. Every person who says of something that it is good or bad or a bit better than yesterday is declaring that a points system exists; that you can, in a reasonably clear and obvious fashion, set some sort of a number against an achievement.

"But never at any time has a code of practice been laid down for the awarding of points. No offense intended to anyone. Never at any time in the history of the world has anyone-for anything ever so slightly more complicated than the straightforward play of a ball or a 400-meter race-been able to come up with a code of practice that could be learned and followed by several different people, in such a way that they would all arrive at the same mark. Never at any time have they been able to agree on a method for determining when one drawing, one meal, one sentence, one insult, the picking of one lock, one blow, one patriotic song, one Danish essay, one playground, one frog, or one interview is good or bad or better or worse than another."
- Peter Høeg Borderliners
The paragraphs above, if they framed Tough's story, would transform it, as would these:
"At Biehl's you had to sit down for five to six hours every day ­not including the study period-five days a week plus Sunday for the boarders, more than forty weeks a year, for ten years. While constantly having to strive to be precise and accurate, in order to improve.

"I believe that this went against the nature of children."
- Peter Høeg Borderliners
For Høeg's words challenge the world Tough assumes. Høeg's story inserts the doubt and variability into Tough's world of science and measurement. And, in the end, Høeg's story explains what these kids need in a way Tough cannot.

There is this scene in Borderliners, in it the young narrator Peter describes exactly what he needs. He
tells the story of the orphanage he was in, and how you only got 30 seconds of hot water in the shower, and then had to move to the cold shower. But his friend Oscar Humlum stays under the cold for minutes, stopping the line, leaving Peter in the comfort of the hot water stream. Humlum says nothing then, needs to say nothing, offers neither praise nor sympathy. Rather, he just gives a moment of peace, and for Peter, this is mythic.

Because that is what "we" need, Mr. Tough. That is what we've always needed. Acceptance, belief, a few moments of peace, and maybe - evidence that "we" are worth sacrificing for. Not the kind of "work sacrifice" KIPP expects from their teachers, not the paid sacrifice of social workers, not even the charity sacrifice of volunteers, but the kind of deep personal sacrifice which suggests real care.

It is that which will give "us" both a chance to breathe and believe in ourselves. And in that pause we may find a path.

Will that make us into perfect adults by the standards of a New York Times writer or a Riverdale Country School graduate? Probably not. Both Tough and KIPP are quick to label a Bronx kid with steady work at high level customer service call centers as a "failure" because he didn't complete four years of college. They've not only labeled him, they've convinced the 20-something himself of that failure. You understand, colonialists like KIPP want to make sure the powerless never really feel empowered, so "not quite getting there" is their ultimate currency. But maybe, just maybe, it will allow "us" to be a little bit more alright, and maybe a little bit safer in our own skin.

That won't be enough for Paul Tough, because he can't hear the story, because he has never learned to hear or to tell the complex stories of humanity, but it should be enough for most of us.

"That was what we meant by science. That both question and answer are tied up with uncertainty, and that they are painful. But that there is no way round them. And that one hides nothing; instead everything is brought out into the open." - Peter Høeg Borderliners

- Ira Socol