NYT Magazine's Paul Tough On The HotSeat

In the two weeks or so since Paul Tough’s NYT Magazine cover story What It Takes to Make a Student has come out, the article has been a topic of near-constant discussion (and nearly universal admiration).

Some of that interest comes from educators’ desperate desire for attention. That the piece is long and complex enough to be read as supporting a variety of positions is another. But most of all it's that Tough, an editor who's working on a book about the Harlem Children's Zone, links ideas together clearly and powerfully
(a la Malcolm Gladwell, another talented Canadian). He gives NCLB the Gladwell treatment better than Gladwell himself did three years ago.

On the HotSeat, Tough clarifies what he meant by saying KIPP teachers work 16 hours a day, describes how he came to write the piece, reports that the response has been larger and – perhaps surprisingly – more positive than he expected, and says that the Times Magazine doesn’t actually send its education writers to Siberia (it only seems like that). He seems to say he's more of a SchoolRef than a PovRacer, but I'll leave it to you (and him) to have the final say. Enjoy.


Your old boss Ira Glass said in an interview that there should be at least one line in each story that a writer loves and is willing to fight for – what’s that line in your education story, and did you have to fight for it?

PT: I think Ira is generally right about everything, but I don’t think there are any lines that I would have fought too hard for. Ideas, sure, but not lines. Maybe it’s because I’m an editor myself–I’m convinced that my editor has better judgment about individual lines than I do.

Idea, then – which of them would you have fought to keep in there, or had to?

PT: I didn’t really think about it that way. My goal with the article was to connect a lot of different ideas and pieces of research that I hadn’t seen connected. I thought they were all important. I didn’t have to fight to keep any of them, fortunately.

The conventional wisdom is that editors loathe education stories unless they’re wildly original or affect the lives of wealthy readers True or false, and how much convincing, if any, did it take for the folks at the magazine to greenlight the story?

PT: It wasn’t hard to convince the editors at the magazine to green-light this story, but maybe that’s because I work here. I think editors here do like to assign and run education stories; we run quite a few of them. But I recognize the reluctance you’re referring to, and I think it comes from the fact that education is such a sprawling topic. It’s hard to put any individual story into the right context: Here’s a school that has a new approach, and that approach seems to be working. Well, what does that mean? How does it compare to what has come before? What kind of impact is it having? That context is hard to deliver. Without that context, those stories can be hard to read.

What’s that mean – “hard to read”? Boring? Stupid?

PT: Neither. I think like any complex subject, education policy can be hard for laypeople to follow. It took me a long time to be able to understand regular AP stories on No Child Left Behind. So I think readers are well-served when education stories are put in a larger context.

Whatever happened to the folks who used to write education stories for the magazine – James Traub and Sara Mosle? Have they been killed off or sent to Siberia or something?

PT: James Traub is a contributing writer to the magazine still, but he has moved beyond education and for or the last few years he’s been writing mostly about the U.N. and global development. He wrote the Bono cover story a year or so back, and he just came out with a book on Kofi Annan and the U.N. Sara Mosle is writing a book about a town and a school in Texas that were devastated by a tragedy in the 1930’s. She has been one of my favorite writers on education ever since her cover story on her own teaching experience in The New Republic in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s, so I’m really looking forward to her book.

Generally speaking, what’s the response to your article been like, both substantively and in terms of volume? More, less, or just about what you expected?

PT: It’s been much bigger and more positive than I expected. We got a lot of letters to the editor, and they were mostly saying good things about the article.

What did you think about the editorial page picking up on your piece but then going in another direction – back towards NCLB’s teacher equity provisions (
Why the Achievement Gap Persists)?

PT: I liked it. I think it helped demonstrate that the New York Times does not have one monolithic approach to its coverage of education.

One of the things that folks have glommed onto is the idea that KIPP teachers work 16 hours a day. Where’d you get that from, and does it really matter?

PT: Dave Levin, one of the co-founders of KIPP, said that to me. I wish in retrospect that I’d made it a bit more conditional, and Dave might wish that, as well. (I don’t know that he does, I should say; I’m just guessing.) I think KIPP teachers work really hard and work long hours, and I think that was the point Dave was making. But I don’t think they all work 16 hours a day every day. I think both points are important to understand – and it’s obviously a critical question because of the debate over the replicability of the KIPP model. I do think there are a lot of really good and really committed teachers and potential teachers out there who would be (and are) eager to teach in a school that is well-run and is achieving great results, even if it means a lot of hard work and long hours.

Sixteen hours a day or no, not everyone’s willing to go what I’m going to call the “KIPP route.” Where did you come out from your reporting on the topic of broader, non-instructional approaches- health insurance, living wages, affordable housing, financial incentives to attend and complete school, and – most timely – integration efforts?

PT: When you say “not everyone,” do you mean not every parent, not every child, not every teacher or not every administrator? I think the one thing we know is that there are many more parents and children willing to go the KIPP route than are now going the KIPP route. So I think that’s the first problem to solve. That seems like a good first principle, in fact: if there are poor children and poor parents willing to put in the kind of effort and hard work that KIPP students exert, we shouldn’t be denying them that opportunity.

Getting to the actual question: I’m certainly interested in broader, non-instructional approaches. That’s why I’ve chosen to write a book about the Harlem Children’s Zone, an organization that is trying to develop a new model for improving the lives of poor children. I think their approach – combining education with social and other supports -- is a very important one. I think Geoffrey Canada, the group’s founder, is right that it’s hard to improve the lives of large numbers of poor students through education alone.

But I don’t necessarily agree that the approaches you list are the most important ones for the educational success of poor children. I do think it would be good for more people to make a living wage and get health insurance. But I don’t think we need to wait until that happens to make big improvements in the education of poor children.

The additional supports that I think are more important are the kind that the Harlem Children’s Zone offers: ones that are targeted directly at poor children, and directly at the goal of preparing them for college. They include parenting classes, all-day pre-kindergarten, after-school programs, family-support programs, a greenmarket, an asthma initiative and other interventions.

Providing affordable housing for everyone might take a while. These are programs you can put in place pretty quickly, if you want. And in Harlem, at least, they get results.

To vastly oversimplify the debate over child poverty, it strikes me there are two camps. People in the first camp are more excited by the idea that if we improve the economic situation of poor families, their children will wind up being better educated. People in the second camp are more excited by the idea that if we improve the education of poor children, we will improve their economic situation.

I’m in the second camp.

What should those folks who voted for NCLB, or are about to reauthorize it, keep most in mind when considering its future?

PT: I would hope that they would mostly think about what it would take to make it work. Start from a vision of 2014 in which there is no achievement gap and high levels of proficiency across the board. O.K., what does 2013 need to look like, and what would it take to get there? And then what does 2010 need to look like, and what would it take to get there? And then 2008?

Tell us a little about your education: Public or private? Coed or single sex? Loved it or hated it? Jock or nerd?

PT: I grew up in Canada, where I attended an unusual high school called the University of Toronto Schools. It had an entrance exam and fees, but it wasn’t exactly private. It was what I think you’d call a progressive education – a lot of independent projects, student presentations, Latin and Geography and Music and Art and German and History and other non-core subjects. We were all nerds, needless to say. I was on the basketball team, but I don’t recall ever winning a game.

So far, your piece has generated a slew of blog posts, as well as editorials by David Brooks and Jon Chait. What did you think of the Brooks and Chait pieces – has anyone written anything that qualifies as noteworthy?

PT: I’m not sure what you mean by noteworthy, but I’ve been interested in all of the responses I’ve read. David Brooks’s column does stand out for me; I was really pleased that he mentioned my article, in part because his column has been such a good resource for my research over the past year. He has been developing in his columns an argument about human capital and the importance of home life in education that I think is very important and quite new.

How did the book project lead to the article?

PT: One of the projects the Harlem Children’s Zone runs is a charter school called the Promise Academy, which is now in its third academic year. At the beginning of its first year, the teachers and administrators were surprised and a little overwhelmed by how far behind their middle-school students were when they arrived in sixth grade – most were reading at a fourth-grade level, and some were reading at a second-grade level. On the first day of school, Geoffrey Canada promised them and their parents that they would all get to college. This seemed to me to be an extremely difficult promise to keep, and perhaps an impossible one.

I started looking around for research relating to what the teachers and administrators were up against, and I also went looking for schools that were accomplishing, or coming close to accomplishing, what Canada was promising to do. For a long time I didn’t think anyone was achieving it. The first school that started to convince me otherwise was Amistad Academy, in New Haven. From there I got to KIPP and the Uncommon Schools and the charter debate and the Education Trust debate and Richard Rothstein and Ronald Ferguson and the Thernstroms, all of which was really just to help me figure out an answer to the question of how Geoff Canada might be able to keep his promise. I still don’t know the answer. But the book isn’t due till the end of next year.


Anonymous Mike G. said...

great interview. thanks.

1:06 PM  
Anonymous Bill Gerstein said...

Everybody in the Chicago Public Schools bureaucracy should read the article and the interview. This is the conversation that we should be having not what we are currently talking about at the area instructional level. Aligning the curriculum to the college readiness standards and having curriculum maps are not enough.

7:14 PM  

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