Russ Roberts

Paul Tough on How Children Succeed

EconTalk Episode with Paul Tough
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about why children succeed and fail in school and beyond school. He argues that conscientiousness--a mixture of self-control and determination--can be a more important measure of academic and professional success than cognitive ability. He also discusses innovative techniques that schools, individuals, and non-profits are using to inspire young people in distressed neighborhoods. The conversation closes with the implications for public policy in fighting poverty.

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0:33Intro. [Recording date: September 13, 2012.] Russ: You open your book by saying we've been looking for results in the wrong places. By results--childhood success, fighting poverty, helping kids escape poverty and get education. What do you mean, we are looking in the wrong places? Guest: Well, I think that for the last couple of decades especially, we have been overemphasizing the importance of IQ and cognitive skills when we think about what helps children succeed. I think that's why we are so obsessed with test scores both when we think about individual families and as a nation, in terms of our education policy. And the researchers and educators who I write about in the book are arguing for a different set of skills being at least as predictive as success for kids, and arguably more predictive. Russ: Now, you start off the book talking about some recent results in neuroscience and psychology, and I have to confess, first, it's a fabulous book. It's one of the most provocative books I have read on education and poverty in a long, long time. But the opening of the book, I had a little trouble with. You talk about recent results in neuroscience and psychology. Let's talk about those. What relationship do you think we understand between parental attachment and success in children as they grow older? Guest: Well, I think we are learning that there is a very strong relationship between parental attachment and later success. And for me, the book, the study, that made a big impact on me in terms of understanding was this study that came out of the U. of Minnesota, by these two psychologists, Sroufe and Byron Egeland. And they studied a group of kids for many years, doing attachment measures on them and their parents, from actually before birth, getting a sense of the home environment and then continuing on through adulthood. And they draw what for me are pretty persuasive connections between early attachment and not just mental health and happiness. Which I think has been demonstrated pretty well in other studies, but also long-term economic effects--how likely kids are to graduate from high school. Russ: And how is parental attachment measured? What do you mean by, what do they or the scientists mean by that? Guest: Yeah. So, it's a good question. Because I think parental attachment is something that sort of means different things to different people. I think it's just a common usage, just being a close relationship between parents and children. I think there's also this new, you know, like there's this super-attachment idea, like the mom on the cover of Time Magazine nursing her 4-year old. That, this movement toward really intensive attachment between parents and children. But that's not what I'm talking about or what these scientists at the U. of Minnesota are talking about. Attachment as a theory as an idea in psychology dates back to the post-war period in the 1950s and 1960s, when the psychologists started studying the relationship between parents and children in the first years of life. And the way that you measure attachment, the main way is this pretty strange test called the strange situation, where at age--I think they do it about the 12-month and 18-month in a lab setting set up to look like a playroom. An infant and his or her mother play together for a while and then the mother leaves for a while. And sometimes the child is just on his own; sometimes he's with a stranger. And then after a few minutes the parent comes back. And the important, what the psychologists measure in terms of judging attachment, is not what the child does when the parent leaves, because sometimes the child gets antsy; some kids are calm about that. It's the reaction that they have when the parent returns. And if the child is attached and connected and embraces the parent and is happy to see him or her, that is an indication of secure attachment. And the numbers are that 60% of children in the United States are securely attached. So it's not sort of elite group of super-secure kids. Most kids are securely attached. The other 40% are anxiously attached. There are different subcategories of anxious attachment, and different types of anxious attachment tend to lead to different sorts of psychological or other problems down the road. Russ: I'm kind of skeptical of those kind of results, mainly because it's hard to measure those kinds of things with precision and it's hard to control for other factors; and I know they do their best. Bryan Caplan at George Mason U. has an argument, and I've interviewed him on this program, where he argues that parenting is relatively unimportant; and twin studies bear that out. Twins, where they are raised separately, they tend to turn out quite similar. What is your reaction or the scientists' reaction to those kind of results? Guest: So, they take them pretty firmly. The book that I would recommend anyone interested in this is by L. Alan Sroufe and Byron Egeland and others, and it's called The Development of the Person. They are definitely sensitive to those charges. They are writing in the aftermath of Steven Pinker and Judith Rich Harris and others who talked about the small importance of parenting. I did dig pretty deeply into this research, and was contemplating writing about it in the book but decided not to because I felt like--I felt pretty convinced by the attachment research and I felt like it wasn't an argument that I wanted to go through because it takes a long time to go through it. But I think it's really important and interesting. But I tend to fall on the side of the attachment guys rather than Caplan and Harris and Pinker. And so the research that I think came out after The Nurture Assumption that I think is really important and my sense has not been addressed by the people who make that argument-- Russ: the skeptics-- Guest: is by this guy, Eric Turkheimer. And what he found that makes a lot of sense to me is how much your genes matter actually depends on your environment. So, for kids who are in a really positive environment, a safe, stable environment, genetics actually do make a difference in terms of IQ and other results. Because their environment is not having any kind of negative effect on them. For kids who are in negative environments, low income kids, the environment makes a huge difference. To me, I think that's part of the dispute; it may be actually more of a confusion than a dispute. For people like me who are really interested in what's going on at the bottom, I think there's tons of evidence that the environment and parents make a huge difference. For people who are worried about what little additional parental behaviors or activities they can get their kid into Harvard or Princeton, absolutely, it doesn't make--there is not strong evidence that those sorts of parental behaviors make a difference, and genes really do matter. Russ: I'm pretty agnostic on it. I think parenting matters a lot, for a lot of things. I just wonder about the two extremes of that literature. I think they are often grinding their own axe and kind of oblivious to the other side. Guest: I agree.
8:22Russ: Let's move on--to me what's really the most provocative part of the book, the last 80%, which is phenomenal. You start off talking about conscientiousness. What does that term in psychology mean? Why is it important and how important is it relative to cognitive ability? Guest: So conscientiousness, yes it's a word that we all use to mean something and then there's an official psychological category; and the two overlap a lot. It means, it involves self-control; it involves things like punctuality. I think there's a certain amount of empathy to it, to be concerned about others. But it's mostly pretty similar to self-control, self-regulation, being able to control your impulses--delay of gratification is part of it. And it is highly predictive of positive outcomes. In terms of psychological traits it is the most predictive I think of positive outcomes of all kinds. Certainly--it's an especially good thing to have in terms of things like getting through a lot of school, having a high salary, staying married, all of those things are highly correlated. Russ: Staying out of jail. Guest: Yeah. Russ: Important things. How much of it is what you call grit, which is to me the everyday word that as a teacher or parent--certainly in real life I see the importance of grit all the time. I think when you are younger, your SAT score, your grade point seems like the way we determine hierarchy, because that's the only stuff you've got. As you get older you realize those things don't count so much. They matter. But grit can go a long way. Guest: It sure can. So, I think they are different in a way that I think is interesting. They are certainly related, certainly connected. But the scholar who I kind of followed through both the conscientiousness literature and the idea of grit is this woman Angela Duckworth, in psychology at the U. of Pennsylvania. And she started out her scholarly career studying self-control, which is again quite similar to conscientiousness. And she found that, in one famous study, or famous in this world, that if you take middle school kids and at the beginning of the year you give them a measure of IQ and a measure of self-control, that self-control better predicts their GPA at the end of the year than their IQ. So, IQ helps a lot in terms of standardized tests; conscientiousness and self-control help a lot in terms of GPA because you are the kind of person who does your homework and studies for the test. Russ: You could argue that's not very important. Guest: What's not? Russ: Grades. Grades are measuring this weird ability. In a way, grades are conscientiousness, in a certain obvious way. If you don't do your homework, sometimes that literally counts toward your grade. Guest: Yup. Russ: So, it's not just that you don't prepare well for the test if you don't do your homework. So, that's not so surprising. I think the more important thing is the later results, later in life. Guest: Yeah, exactly; that it makes a big difference way down the road as well; that the conscientiousness effect continues into adulthood. So, anyway, Angela Duckworth became this sort of guru of self-control for a couple of years; and then I think started to feel like it wasn't measuring all of the elements of success that she wanted. There's something about self-control that's a little bit narrow and constricting. It's just about following rules and doing what's right; it's like the classic square kind of modality. And those people are not the ones who go on and start bands and invent Apple and the computer and things like that. Russ: Sure. Guest: And so grit was this idea that she came up with; it certainly involved a lot of self-discipline but also involved a large degree of passion. She defined it as perseverance in pursuit of a passion. So, it's somebody who has a very strong goal and does not let obstacles get in the way; does not give up; does not get distracted. And so she now feels like grit is the more important and more predictive of these non-cognitive skills. Russ: One other example that you use in the book that I want to let you talk about--and then we'll talk about what the implications of these results are--you give this utterly fascinating example of rewarding kids for doing well on an IQ test versus not. Talk about how giving kids M&Ms for right answers changed their IQ scores. Guest: Yeah; it's a very strange test. And the relationship between that test and the conscientiousness literature I think is a little complicated. So, two experiments that were done back in the 1970s where they were trying to study motivation. They took some kids and gave them IQ tests. Which you are not supposed to be able to study for; they are supposed to be sort a pure measure of IQ. And, the motivation they gave was the simplest, most straightforward thing ever, which was they gave these kids an M&M for each right answer that they had. And, the kids' IQ scores jumped by like 10 points. And so, that's interesting and I think what it suggests is a lot of kids don't try hard. I don't think anyone would argue that M&Ms actually increase IQ; but they would argue that some kids don't care about IQ tests and why should they? And so they don't really try. And if they try a little bit, they do a lot better. The stuff that I find so interesting about those sorts of tests is that when you do, both in that M&M test and later, similar tests, if you give them a test like that with no incentives and then you give them a test with incentives, some kids will have that 10-point jump; but some kids won't. And the kids that don't have that jump mostly don't have that jump not because they don't like M&Ms, but because they were already trying hard. Russ: Just for the sake of trying hard. Guest: Exactly. You put a test in front of them, they are like: All right; I'll do my best. And that is conscientiousness. Those are the kids who score high in conscientiousness. It's those kids who aren't swayed by M&Ms who actually do better in life. So, yeah, it makes the M&M experiment kind of complicated, because on the one hand it seems like there's this great thing that we can change kids' IQ. And I think it does tell us something about incentives and motivation and the fact that we are sort of leaving a lot of IQ points on the table. In a lot of classrooms. If we could find a good way to motivate kids, a little more sophisticated than M&Ms, they can really do a lot better. But at the same time it still suggests that for kids who need that kind of external motivation, that's still a problem. Because they don't have this other skill that's going to really help them in life. Russ: Well, my memory of your result was it was actually more than 10 points--it was 18, which is a huge jump in IQ. It was 79 to 97, at least in one of the studies that you report. Guest: You're right. Russ: And the incredible thing--well, as an author, I know: everybody knows your book better than you do; it's just the way it goes. Guest: I learned that a long time ago.
15:38Russ: But what I found fascinating, and I thought this was really a totally nonobvious and incredibly useful insight, is that if you had to choose between the 79 or the 97, I think most people would say: well, the 97 is the better measure of IQ because that's the one where they were trying. Guest: Right. Russ: And of course that means they really are 97s. You can't call them a 79. But maybe the 79 is the right measure to use because that captures the fact that if they are not highly motivated, they just don't try. Guest: Right, exactly. Russ: And the people who, there are a lot of things in light that don't get incentivized. You either do them well or you don't. Guest: Right. I do think it's true that 97 is their real IQ and that that's an important thing to keep in mind, but I think it also says that IQ is not everything. IQ doesn't matter as much as we think it does, and arguably as much as conscientiousness. So, to me it really suggests--in some ways it sets us off down the path of the whole book--that if we could find a way to teach, not just to help kids do better on that one test, but to teach conscientiousness, to help kids develop grit and self-control, then--they've already got the intelligence. These are kids who do terribly in school and they don't see the long-term incentives even though they are there. If they were getting a 97 they'd make lots of money down the road. But they can't see those incentives down the road. If we could connect them to those incentives, make them understand how these long-term payoffs are really going to help them--then, they've already got the IQ to do well in school. Russ: So that was my next question. Which is: I think most people understand and agree that grit, conscientiousness, self-control, delaying gratification--these are all things that help a person become more successful in life. And anybody who has children thinks about this--or at least anybody who has read the literature like you have; and I've at least dabbled and understand that these things are important. It's not obvious that you can do anything about it. So, where do you think we stand on that question? How can we, if at all, increase grit, conscientiousness, and these characteristics that do help people later on in life? Guest: I think there's some pretty strong evidence that we can change these things; but I think you are absolutely right that we don't yet know how. And so in my book, part of what I'm doing is trying to point people toward experimental evidence or some particularly innovative educators who I think are developing these skills. But absolutely--we don't yet have a curriculum or a real methodology that's going to say: Here's how you boost conscientiousness scores. I do feel like for kids who are struggling in school and especially for kids in high-poverty neighborhoods, I do think that giving them, talking with them about the importance of these character strengths, giving them a clear sense of how hard work and conscientiousness now is going to lead to clear paths later, language in a context that makes sense to them, can have an enormous effect. I mean, in some ways it's exactly why all of these high performing charter schools from Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) to all of the ones in the same mold--it's exactly why they are so successful. They just get these kids to become incredibly conscientious and to work really hard. And they do it by being really good at motivating them and partly that has to do with a sense of group identity and all the kind of fun it is to be a student. Russ: The rah, rah. Guest: Exactly. But I think it's also very--like, on the walls of KIPP there are posters explaining the economic data about how much your salary will increase if you get a BA. And I think that's a pretty abstract concept to most kids. But I think it's pretty compelling when you look at the numbers. Russ: Do they believe it? Guest: I think they do. Russ: There are a lot of things that we tell kids--you were a kid once. They just don't believe it. Guest: I think that alone--if you go into a classroom and say: Okay, here's the data; you get a BA and here's what you are going to make. That's probably not going to do it. But I think in the context of these more powerful motivation techniques that KIPP uses, this group identity and wall-to-wall messaging, I think that that message is really powerful. And that without it then all of that other stuff becomes kind of empty. If you can say to kids: This will lead to real success and you can do it and other people like you can do it, that is not something you year a lot and not something you see evidence of a lot when you are growing up in a high-poverty neighborhood. And seeing that evidence and hearing that message is, I think, really powerful.
21:08Russ: So, in my house--I have four kids. We basically don't watch television during the week at all. We don't have cable, because my three boys will watch intermural volleyball competition between division 3 athletic managers. I mean, they will watch anything competitive that's sports-related. Guest: ESPN-7. Russ: Correct. Exactly. They'd like all the ESPN cable package. So, because of ESPN--and I have a similar disease, both for myself and for them, we don't have the cable package; we don't have ESPN. Today is Thursday; we will not be watching the Bears-Packers, which I'm sure some subset of us, not all of us, would watch, not all of, if we had access to it. And they're not going to be going to a bar to watch it. I've restricted them from that. I worry that that has not made them more conscientiousness. It's made them more excited about college, where they can watch ESPN 27 hours a day. Do we think there's anything there, in terms of long run effect? I worry--not worry--I think it's just the way it is: Isn't a huge part of this just genetic? I mean, you look at kids; anybody who has more than one kid knows there is a variance in grit, conscientiousness, competitiveness, which is another aspect of this you don't talk about in the book--but I think some people try harder on IQ tests because they want a high number; it makes them feel good. The way they like a high score on anything. Tell me how I'm doing. Guest: I mean, I think some of it is, sure. There are some kids who are, there are some people who are more naturally conscientious, more naturally competitive, more naturally sensation-seeking or pleasure-seeking; and all of that stuff has a big impact on who you are and how you go through life. People cannot be--Pinker's right: there is not a blank slate; you can't mold people absolutely. But I think that you can change. People change all the time. Kids in middle school are not necessarily the way they are when they become adults. One of the things that I'm persuaded by is the mindset research, this idea that can sound kind of touchy-feely, but I think has pretty strong evidence behind it: that when kids believe that they can change their intelligence, they actually do better. They work harder. And in some ways I think that's similar to what we were just talking about, the message is that you can actually succeed if you go to college--it's just not something, I think for a lot of middle school students especially, they hear the message that they are never going to change, so they believe it. So, I think there is something positive about giving kids the message that they can change. The other thing that I'd say--and this is maybe a little bit outside the realm of science and slightly more in the realm of anecdote--Angela Duckworth talks in I think a really interesting way about the word "habit". She quotes William James as basically saying that character is just a fancy word for your habits. And she thinks that's a really positive thing to say to kids, because when you talk about character, often kids think character is something that is fixed and can't change; but habits, like you can change your habits. If you bite your nails, you can stop biting your nails. It's hard but you can do it. And I think in lots of ways that's what's going on with you and your family and ESPN--like there is something, I think it's a very positive. It's a positive thing for kids to say: We're not going to get in the habit of doing this. We're going to restrict ourselves from doing this. Partly it just gets them out of the habit of like, every day I come home and I watch sports. Which I think is a useful pattern to have in your head. And partly I think it gives them a lesson in conscientiousness--like: Oh, I can actually choose to deprive myself of something. Of course, in the moment they are going to complain and feel incredibly wounded. But I think that practice of like: Oh, I'm delaying gratification, I'm putting something off, I'm denying myself of something, for a reason--that's all good stuff to practice. It doesn't mean people are going to be perfectly conscientious when they go through life, but I think it's a positive thing. Russ: Now, Yisroel Salanter, a 19th century rabbi who started something called the Musar movement in Judaism, which is about character improvement. I think he would agree that character and habit are interrelated. But he also said: It's easier to learn the Talmud than to change a habit. Learning the Talmud is very hard. He meant the whole thing; he didn't mean sampling it. I think every adult who has--when I look back at the habits I've broken, the few, and the things I've improved on or at least wanted to improve--whether there are actually improvements, I don't know, but things I've changed--it's not obvious what the mechanism is that made those things happen. And I think it points to your point about we don't know how to do it. There are some people who can do it; there are people who inspire. But it's not science. Guest: It's definitely not science. And this is all kind of levels of, matters of degree. But I tend to think people can change themselves pretty well. Like I think there is--I think about my own life; I think about people around me. There are certainly patterns that people get into that are very hard to break. But at the same time, I feel like I don't know anyone who doesn't have a habit in their life that they've broken or a pattern that they've changed. It takes work, and it takes reflection and it takes a little sacrifice. But I think people change all the time. Russ: As Mark Twain said: It's easy to quit smoking; I've done it a score of times. Changing habits for a while is relatively easy. It's changing them for good that is I think is dramatically harder and we don't know that much about it. Guest: You're right. But at the same time, a lot of people have quit smoking in the United States in the past 20 or 30 years. I did it once. I think there are other habits that people change in society, like we all wear seatbelts now. We do sometimes get into habits. The big ones are harder to change than the little ones. I think there's something about the little ones that can be somewhat inspiring.
27:38Russ: The implication of that is that change and improvement comes at a very personal level and less at a top-down, societal level. It's a big--the implication is there is a strong personal responsibility to play in each of us in making the world a better place. Are you comfortable with that? Guest: Yes. Yeah, absolutely. I don't think you can change anybody else. But at the same time, I think in the context we are talking about, which is for me about parenting and education, I think that it is also important to look at the evidence that adults can help children change. Absolutely. And a lot of this very personal, psychological transformation that can happen, happens for kids, usually happens in relationship with adults. So, whether it's a parent or a sports coach or a teacher or a mentor, when kids make changes, certainly for the better but arguably also for the worse, it's usually not under the influence, not only because someone is telling them what to do, but in a relationship with an adult they are getting somehow motivated to change. I think it's very hard if you are a kid to just change your life on your own. Some kids actually do it and that's always kind of amazing to watch. But usually in this kind of relationship. And so I think that that, especially for kids who are living in adversity, coming from high poverty neighborhoods, it's one of the things I think is important to think about, especially when we start thinking about the public policy implications of this. Because when I've seen them change--and I think there's some experimental evidence of this but I think mostly my sense of it is just through the reporting of it and I think I've watched myself--I think that it's always done through sort of close relationships. I think the reason that I get so anxious about these credit recovery programs for kids in these schools, where they fall behind on their credits and they end up going into a classroom where there are just a bunch of kids all staring at computer screens clicking a mouse, answering quiz after quiz and then someone in Arkansas says that they've completed 7th grade geography or something. So, I'm skeptical about that, for a lot of reasons: for content, but I'm really skeptical about it because I feel that what those kids need, and they're the sort of kids who can't complete American History in the class, what they need is a connection, with a teacher, right? And so finding ways to do that can be a little bit complicated. But I think there's lots of evidence that it's exactly what those kids need. Russ: One of the--it's an interesting thing, there's a lot of excitement and I'm excited about it also, about online education efforts--that can improve the educational process. But as you point out in the book, schools and growing up is a lot more than conveying and understanding information, which is what a computer screen is good at. You might get some understanding and knowledge, something a little deeper than information, but those intangible things you are talking about aren't going to be there. Guest: Right. I get excited about that kind of online education as well, but I think it's clear that that stuff works best if you've already got conscientiousness. So, there's already kind of this conscientiousness gap, if education moves in that direction I'm just worried that it's going to increase that gap.
31:14Russ: Now, in the old days people used to argue that one of the virtues of sports was that it builds character. And I think they meant that word, character, in a very rich way. How you treat others, dealing with failure, dealing with success. And you don't talk about sports in your book. But you do talk about chess. It's definitely a competitive activity. It's not aerobic. Most of the time. But talk about what you learned--it's an extraordinary set of stories in the book about some chess programs in America. Guest: Sure. I just want to talk first about sports, and I absolutely take your point that sports coaches are one of the groups of people who I think do this better than anybody, and I think give people the motivation to change and give them a clear set of tools to develop these character strengths. I think it happens all the time. And so, I happened to pick chess instead of football because I found this chess teacher I wanted to write about. But also because I think that even when we think that this is true, that sports builds character, we think of it--I mean, it's a physical activity. The fact that you can also do this, that something like this is also happening in something like chess, that we think of as the ultimate intellectual ability, I think is also really telling. So, the chess team that I followed is the Intermediate School 318 Team in Brooklyn, a middle school team. And right now when you look at chess results at any national competition, the kids who mostly win chess tournaments are rich kids, kids from exclusive private schools, kids from competitive exam schools, or kids from parochial schools. And that's true in every grade except the middle school grades for the last few years; and that's because School 318 wins everything for years. And this past spring, they won the National High School Championship for the first time, which is quite remarkable considering that none of them are in high school yet. So, really good chess players. So, I set out a few years ago, and when they were in the beginning of their winning streak, to try to figure out what was going on. And my first instinct was there was some trick--that this was somehow a selective school that was getting all the smartest kids from all over the city. But it's not. It's a pretty regular New York City public school with a pretty big majority, low-income population. And the kids who excel at chess are not necessarily the "smartest kids" in the school and when you look at their standardized test scores. So I think what's happening is that they are using these other skills, these noncognitive skills or character strengths. And I think that is because of their teacher, Elizabeth Spiegel, who is a great, great teacher and I think will remind some people of, you know, football coaches because she has that same sort of gruffness and intensity and I think a combination of caring very much about the kids and wanting them to succeed, but also not babying them. Russ: Yeah. She reminded me of my 8th grade teacher, Miss Kinean [sp.], at Muzzey Junior High in Lexington--if anyone out there knows what happened with Miss Kinean, she was a life changer for me and lots of students, because she didn't coddle us. She used the full grading scale. F wasn't low enough for her. You could get an M, you could get an M-; and you could get multiple A+s, A-quadruple plus. She needed more options. Just thought I'd get in a plug for her. But anyway, tell us about her. Guest: Sure. And the thing that I came to conclude about her teaching style was it came down to this one particular ritual that they have, which was after every game, a tournament or in the classroom, you have to sit down with Ms. Spiegel and go through your whole game. Russ: Phenomenal scene in the book. Guest: And I would sit there in some of these--and these are middle school kids, tiny kids with enormous backpacks. And so I was expecting, especially when kids lost, that she would be sort of like: you tried your best, it's just a game. Russ: Good job. Guest: And there's another one coming up. And she's mean! Like she really is tough on these kids. And she's like: Why would you make that move? How long did you take to think about that one? That was a terrible move. If you are going to play like that, you can just go home. Just saying really mean things to these kids. But not just picking on them, not belittling them; I mean maybe trying to make them feel bad, but in a temporary kind of way. And to my surprise the kids loved it. And I shouldn't have been so surprised. But I was. I think I had kind of taken the lessons of self-esteem to heart; that you could wound a kid's self-esteem and it's going to be incredibly damaging. But all athletes can tell you this if they've had a great coach. All musicians who've had a great teacher can tell you this. What you want more than anybody is that teacher who is paying close attention to your strengths and your weaknesses and not letting you get away with mistakes; and pushing you to improve yourself. And in chess that is exactly what kids need to succeed, this kind of repeated feedback. Russ: Not just chess. Everything. You need feedback, and you need to fail; you need to play people better than you, not just win every time. Guest: Absolutely. But in chess, what I think is remarkable about it, is how fast you can improve. I absolutely agree that these methods work for everything. But chess, because the feedback loop is so fast--you lose your game; you sit down with Ms. Spiegel; she goes over exactly what mistakes you made and what you could have done differently; and then you've got another game in half an hour. And you do that seven times in a weekend. That is an incredibly effective way to learn things. And I think that if that part of it weren't there, her actually getting them to look very honestly at their mistakes, analyzing them, figuring out what they could have done differently, I don't think it would happen. I think kids would just get stuck in a rut and they'd stay at the same rating level. But kids' ratings shoot up all the time on this team. Russ: I think--it's another point I think relevant for the discussion of online education--we don't like to admit it, but some great teachers are great because they have a unique ability to motivate an individual to want to please them. It's an external motivation that's become frowned on by Alfie Kohn and others who suggest that that's not going to last. And yet I think it helps build the habits that we are talking about. And there's an amazing scene in that book when after a success, she cries. Out of joy. Because that's part of teaching, too. It's not just the student who has that relationship. A great teacher is deeply rewarded when they see their students learn, and get up off that floor, and they succeed. Guest: Right. And I think what's telling is what made her cry. It's not the kid who won the whole championship, who was the best player on the team. It was the kid who a). had improved the most, and b). who she had helped improve. Who, she could see him learning things and using things on the chessboard that she herself had taught to him. Amazingly satisfying thing for a teacher. Russ: Incredible story. Before we leave this section I just want to mention that there is a poem by James Dickey that captures this idea of grit and coaching and inspiration and parenting. It's called "The Bee." And instead it pictures the football coaches at Clemson College, 1942. If you are interested out there, if you like poetry, it's a beautiful poem; and it captures some of this.
39:15Russ: Let's move on to the public policy issues. I found out about your work from a NYTimes Sunday Magazine article you had a few weeks back, I think it was called "Obama vs. Poverty." Start with how you opened that piece, or at least it was a story in the piece, about how he campaigned. The Chicago neighborhood of Roseland. What happened after he became President? What happened when he was there and what happened afterward? Guest: Just to clarify one thing: I don't think he ever actually campaigned in Roseland. He was in Roseland in the 1980s as a Community Organizer. Russ: Oh, I'm sorry. Guest: But the campaign speech I was talking about was in 2007 in Anacostia, which is a Roseland-like neighborhood. Russ: Okay; a different bad neighborhood. But he was talking about this tragic, tragic situation in America where there are neighborhoods that appear to be neighborhoods of hopelessness. And poverty didn't always equal hopelessness. It just used to mean, sometimes, you didn't make as much money as some other folks; you had a different kind of life, of course; but you didn't have despair. And this is about despair. So, talk about his campaign and then what happened. Guest: Sure. So, I've been writing about poverty for a while now, and I'm very influenced by the writing of William Julius Wilson, the sociologist from the U. of Chicago who talks about neighborhood effects and especially the effect of concentrated poverty. And how, in the 1960s and especially the 1970s, poverty concentrated in American cities in a way that it hadn't ever before in American history. And that had devastating effects on the people who lived there, on the neighborhoods themselves; and I would say especially on the children who grew up there. And so pre-President Obama, young man Obama, spent some formative years in one of those neighborhoods, Roseland, in Chicago, at a particularly--and I hadn't realized this until I went back and looked at other literature from that period--it was just this period in the late 1980s in Chicago when things were just falling apart at an incredible rate. That was partly I think to do with crack cocaine coming into those neighborhoods. This was just when Mayor Washington died. But I think lots of people who were writing about it at the time, especially in 1987--that's the year that Obama mentions--things just felt like they were going off the rails in those neighborhoods in a way that they hadn't before. And so, I think that he was--as I am--I think he was influenced by both his observation of these neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and the literature around concentrated poverty. And felt, like a lot of us do, that it is a public policy problem that we do not have answers for. I think Charles Murray makes a really good case in Losing Ground that the traditional liberal approach to concentrated poverty in those neighborhoods did not work during that era. And arguably cannot work. But I also think there are solutions that he suggested and that other conservatives suggest that haven't worked, either. I think none of us know what to do for those neighborhoods. And so, in that speech that Obama gave in 2007 in Anacostia a few months after he announced his presidential campaign, he talked about his experience of being in Roseland. And he talked about the experience of living in those neighborhoods of concentrated poverty in a way that I think is very rare, maybe has never happened before that a presidential candidate would talk about this research. Russ: They talk about a log cabin. Guest: Exactly. So, I think part of the reason that presidential candidates don't talk about it is it's very rare for them to have had the kind of experience he did. And the other reason is because it's a place that, if you are talking about public policy, it's a scary topic to get into because we don't quite know yet what works. So, he proposed some things that I thought and think were really important, including significantly this idea of promised neighborhoods, this idea of expanding the Harlem Children's Zone, which is what I wrote my first book on; and replicating it in other cities around the country. Russ: What is the Harlem Children's Zone? What's distinctive about it? Guest: So, the Harlem Children's Zone is quite distinctive. It is a 97-block neighborhood in central Harlem, and this man, Jeffrey Canada, has built this organization through philanthropic money that tries to help every kid in that neighborhood to succeed. By succeed, he means graduate from college. Or at least have the opportunity to graduate from college. And he does that by starting from the premise that is also I think William Julius Wilson's premise and Senator Obama's premise, that the lives of kids in those neighborhoods are so complexly bad--not just sort of straightforwardly bad--that it doesn't make any sense to try to fix just one thing in their lives. You know, just fix their health care-- Russ: Make the school better-- Guest: Just fix their education. And ignore everything else. And so he set out to try to plug all the holes, create a safety net for those kids. He started a few charter schools, more or less modeled after the KIPP schools. But he also provides early childhood education, parenting, a farmer's market, a health clinic, to try to address all of the needs that these kids have. And it's a hard intervention to measure scientifically; but my sense is that he's had very positive results. And so the idea of the Promised Neighborhoods was to do public/private partnerships like that, or public/philanthropic partnerships like that in 20 cities across the country. Russ: And what happened? Guest: Well, we do now have several Promised Neighborhood programs. There are several cities, quite a few cities that have received $500,000 planning grants from the Department of Education to apply for an implementation grant to start a Promised Neighborhood. And I think there are actually three cities that actually have received implementation grants of $10 million dollars or so. And I've visited some of these Promised Neighborhoods, and-- Russ: they are promising. Guest: Yeah, they are promising. But you know, the budget of the Harlem Children's Zone is I think something like $80 million dollars a year. And what President Obama talked about was spending billions of dollars a year. And that's a tough thing to talk about, a). in an election campaign, and b). in a moment of economic crisis. But I think you can really make the case that in order to make that sort of transformative change, you've got to spend that kind of money. And absolutely, he's not. He's spending about 1% of what he said he was going to.
46:10Russ: So, for me, there wasn't anything novel in the fact that a politician didn't keep his promise. That's dog bites man. What I found--the thought-provoker of your story--was the realization, at least among some, maybe not the President, but at least among some that maybe spending billions really wasn't the solution anyway. So it wasn't that he hadn't followed through and kept his idealistic promise. It's that that idealism is maybe not so well-founded in reality. The government can step in and spend that amount of money and transform those lives. I mean, we've been trying that approach for 50 years now. Guest: Well, yeah. I would be more susceptible to that argument if it had been tried and failed. I don't think it was the case of Obama having a realization that this wasn't going to work. Russ: No, I'm talking about your realization, actually. That it's more complicated. Guest: Yeaaah. But I'm not sure I have come to that realization. I still think that Promised Neighborhoods is a really good idea. Because I think--and you are right, I do say at the end of the article that, you know, some of the problems that exist in these neighborhoods, may be beyond the reach of any government to really deal with. But I think we actually haven't tried enough. We actually have spent lots of money. And the case I would make is we do still spend lots of money in these neighborhoods. The government is intensely in these neighborhoods. Russ: Oh, yeah. Guest: But mostly in pretty negative ways, pretty unproductive ways. And so, I think, my vision for Promised Neighborhoods, which I still think is pretty connected to Obama's vision in 2007 for Promised Neighborhoods, is that it doesn't have to be about spending more money. I do take a lot of Charles Murray's points about the spending that went on in the 1960s and 1970s and how a lot of it was very counterproductive. But I think that was more about the way the money was spent than that it was spent at all. Russ: Absolutely. Guest: I think a lot of conservatives have, you know, taken from him that like: Do not spend any money on poor people; it's just going to go to waste. And so I think what Jeffrey Canada does, he's much more sensible about how to spend money in low-income neighborhoods than, you know, the war-on-poverty folks were 20-30 years earlier. And I think part of the reason is he is part of a, he is running a non-profit, he's the Chief Executive Officer (CEO); he thinks differently than a government bureaucrat. And that was another thing I was an am excited about when it comes to Promised Neighborhoods. These were going to be these public and private partnerships that weren't going to be about how Washington bureaucrats decided about how the money got spent. So, I'm still hopeful. At least, I'm still optimistic about it. I'm not necessarily optimistic that we'll ever spend the money, but I'm optimistic that if could make a big difference. If we ever spent money more sensibly in those neighborhoods. I could be wrong. It may simply be that we just don't think this is what governments should do; maybe government can't do it. The problem is, if that's true, I don't know what the solution is. Because I don't think that anyone else has a good solution to those problems. And they do keep getting worse. I mean, some things are getting better. Crime is getting better; in many cities, in inner cities, than it was. But I think in terms of like, family dysfunction, things continue to get worse; in terms of educational results, things continue to get worse. The American ideal of equality of opportunity simply doesn't exist for millions of kids. Russ: It's a terrible tragedy. But I think your book points to the solution. Maybe it's not the one you like. And maybe I'm over-reading it. But your book highlights some extraordinary individuals. People who care. People with lots of grit, trying to help others find grit, find a rock to hold onto in a very bad stream that they are being swept along by. And we know it works. But it's not one thing. What works is letting a bunch of individuals creatively create their own organizations in a civil society, voluntarily, collecting money from people voluntarily; and let those people blossom and bloom. And the more government tries to solve that problem with your dollars and mine, the less incentive people have to create those organizations; and the less incentive we have to give to them. So, I think to me--I'm an emergent, Hayekian, classical liberal, limited government kind of guy--don't you think the lesson is we have to get the government out of the poverty business and let these other things emerge? And the best ones will thrive and the worst ones will fall away? Guest: Uh. I hear where you are coming from. But I just don't think that the money is there. There's not a market economy in helping poor people. You know what I mean? There's a philanthropic-- Russ: There's no profit to be made. There's no monetary profit. But there's emotional profit. Guest: Sure. Russ: And nothing is worse than conflating voluntary activity with business. Business is one thing we do voluntarily. But those organizations you are talking about, those non-profits, which is just a word to mean--it's just a tax term. Right? It's people trying to help other people, and if they succeed, they can raise more money. And if they don't, they fail. And they get the rewards of seeing that satisfaction occur; and if they don't do it, they will not get the satisfaction and they will do something else. Guest: Sure. I take your point. But I would say there are two places I differ with you. One is, I actually think that this is one of the roles of government, is to help poor people. That government is going to continue to help poor people. It's just a question of whether they do it in a smart, efficient way that increases opportunity or not. And I think that unless we push the government toward being more smart and efficient in terms of focusing on opportunity for children rather than anything else, they won't do those things; government won't do those things. And those kids won't have opportunities to do better. The other thing is that--I mean, I take your point. Philanthropy is a great way of helping people. You know, the reason that the Harlem Children's Zone works is that it has $80 million dollars a year. And that's just not going to happen in Detroit and Cleveland and Youngstown, OH. Because there is not--like Jeff has like four billionaires on his board. Russ: Sure. Thank God. Thank God there are a bunch of billionaires. Guest: Yes, exactly. But there are lot more billionaires in Manhattan than there are in these other cities, and Jeff is really good at connecting with billionaires in a way that every philanthropist is not. His great combination of skills is that he cares intensely about kids and he's a fantastic fundraiser. Russ: Yeah, I agree. Guest: And there just aren't--I mean, Elizabeth Spiegel is fantastic at connecting with kids, too; she is not necessarily a fantastic fundraiser. So I don't think that that $80 million is going to follow everyone. Russ: I agree with that. Although I'd like to see Jeff start some franchises. And maybe that's his next move. I'm sure his time is scarce. He's a busy guy. I'm sure he's having enough trouble just keeping his own thing in Harlem going. Guest: And you know, that is exactly what Promised Neighborhoods was to be, his franchises. So, it's a slightly different vision from what you are describing. Because franchise is with the government's involvement. But I think there is a model there that could work. Russ: Well, I think it's wrong to think the amount of money is the key. You have to have some resources. But I think the biggest mistake we've made in anti-poverty and education is assuming that more money means more results. We know that's not true. So it has to be true that it's how the money is spent. And I think fundamentally it's extremely hard for the government to spend that money well. I applaud your idealism in saying we just need to make them spend it better. I think that's a challenge that may be too hard to conquer. Guest: I hear you. I agree on that one.

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COMMENTS (42 to date)
Keith Vertrees writes:

Personal bias confirmed: hard work matters! ;)

We can learn a lot about the progressive viewpoint from something that Mr. Tough said at the end:

One is, I actually think that this is one of the roles of government, is to help poor people. That government is going to continue to help poor people. It's just a question of whether they do it in a smart, efficient way that increases opportunity or not.
I.e., government must spend big $$$ regardless of any evidence of results. Accept that and try to make them waste only 70%, not the full 100%. Fair assessment?

Abe writes:

The IQ study with the M&Ms, and the story of the chess teacher were my favorite parts. I think both vouch for the fact that there are many things that are hard to measure. This makes mandating spending very difficult. It's funny how others can see the same data and reach the opposite conclusions. That's my bias. :)

Mark Crankshaw writes:
I actually think that this is one of the roles of government, is to help poor people.

That's what makes a liberal a liberal. The liberal hears the government claim that they are "helping" the poor, and naively believes the claim to be true. Then they are baffled as to why the "help" isn't all that effective and in fact is a colossal disaster. Then Liberals claim that the same government, if provided with just a few more trillions of dollars, will get their "help" right next time.

Here's a more reasonable take: government poverty programs are working exactly as they were planned:
1) keep poor people segregated and isolated in the inner cities slums or the rural hinterland
2) thereby keeping the children of the poor in failing public schools
3) keep the poor sedated with the morphine of social welfare programs and dependent on government handouts so the process can continue in perpituity.

Result: pliant and dependable Democrat voters, out of sight and out of mind, whose children can not for the most part possibly compete in education (and thus the job market) against the children of the general voting public. Instead, these poor children will form the basis of a future permanent underclass (so government can collect a few trillion more to "help" them), the future criminal class (so government can collect billions to "protect us" from them by buidling prisons and incarcerating them at great cost) or those children might, if they're lucky, become the low paid help that our society needs.

The fantasy is that voters, particularly affluent voters, want poor kids to succeed. Successful poor kids would compete for good jobs against affluent kids--the children of those who actually run this country. We can see affluent families devoting enormous sums of wealth to enable thier kids to "get an edge" academically, and to "get into the right school" so they can "get a good job". These are zero-sum propositions. So why then would such parents be interested in enabling the competition that their children will face?

Why not then under-cut your childrens economic, social and vocational competitors from the start so they can not even begin to compete? And if you can convert those competiting children into a steady revenue stream by reducing them to uncompetitive dependents, why not? If you can gets these depedendents to then vote to increase the revenue stream by which the government benefits, why all the better for those liberals who run the government programs (which by design serve only the interest of the affluent liberals who create them). It's not a mistake, it's deviously brilliant.

It's not that government welfare programs don't work. It's that they work all too well...

emerich writes:

An interesting and provocative podcast, but I had to do a (figurative) double take when he said “we have been overemphasizing the importance of IQ and cognitive skills when we think about what helps children succeed.” Really? It was only seven years ago that Lawrence summers was fired from Harvard for, among other things, saying the greater variance in men’s IQ could be a factor in the sexes’ representations in certain fields. (He did not say, as was widely reported, that men had greater average intelligence.) Has the New York Times ever published an author suggesting IQ is important? I also have to side with Russ's skepticism about where the solution is likely to come from. Billions (trillions?) of wasted dollars are plenty of proof that no solution to the catastrophe of our education system will work if it’s just more money channeled through the education bureaucracy. With that approach, even if Mr. Tough gets just what he advocates, a decade or two hence we’ll have more of “La meme chose.”

Speed writes:

From the always excellent This American Life ... "Back to School."

As kids and teachers head back to school, we wanted to turn away from questions about politics and unions and money and all the regular school stuff people argue about, and turn to something more optimistic — an emerging theory about what to teach kids, from Paul Tough's new book How Children Succeed.

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/474/back-to-school

Jim Ancona writes:

I found this to be a frustrating podcast. Perhaps it was the juxtaposition with last week's edition with Brian Nosek--I kept thinking, "What's the evidence?" He dismisses Judith Rich Harris' work, but a big chunk of her book is making points that Nosek made last week and Russ has made many times: There are a lot of bad studies out there and correlation doesn't equal causation.

It's intuitively plausible, perhaps even obvious, that "grit," conscientiousness and self-control are important determinants of life outcomes. I'm willing to believe that part of what IQ tests measure is motivation is part of what IQ tests measure. What must be proved is whether it's possible for schools, parents or other interventions to have a long-lasting effect on those traits and thus on outcomes. Without evidence (and I didn't hear Tough provide any in the interview), this just sounds like another bad self-help book. Because I doubt that Russ would waste his time if that's all it was, it was frustrating to listen to the interview and be unable to understand what he was excited about.

Douglas Tengdin writes:

This is one of the best arguments for home-schooling that I know. The story about Elizabeth Spiegel is fantastic. Here is a coach who actually cares about her kids. We all know the type: the uber-tough coach/teacher/mentor that gets weepy-eyed when the kid who can barely tie his/her own shoelaces wins, or comes close to winning, in the big game/test/interview. It's why parents get misty-eyed at graduations. The beat teachers, the ones that make a difference, CARE. And for the most part, parents who home-school do it because they really, really care about their kids' future success--academically and throughout life. The Moores say that an average parent is better than the best teacher, and this is the secret sauce: they CARE. Their DNA is at stake!

The twin studies that Bryan Caplan cites don't study twins placed in radically different homes, in part because it's rare for an adoptee to be placed in a home that doesn't care and doesn't form a secure attachment. That's why the "parenting matters, up to a point" argument is appealing.

But the CARING coach/teacher/mentor model for education is all about making an emotional connection, and using that connection to facilitate achievement. BTW, that's also why two-parent families are relatively successful. Apart from the economic issues, having a built-in bad-cop/good-cop model is a natural advantage. I suspect that there will be neurological research showing why, some day.

But it was nice to hear Russ's skepticism on the trillions of dollars to be spent on education. Apart from providing for basic needs, you simply can't institutional caring. And the government-aid model is self-defeating: it fosters the kinds circumstances that its very institutionalization was intended to relieve.

George writes:

Interestingly, what Harris/Pinker and the Minnesota Study of Risk and Adaptation seem to agree on is that peers do have a meaningful infulence. Maybe this is another reason that KIPP and similar programs are so powerful -- they build an environment with positive social proof and peer influence.

eric falkenstein writes:

He starts by stating that status quo basically assumes The Bell Curve is true: IQ is most important. This assertion has been strongly disputed on several independent grounds whenever it is mention (IQ isn't real, isn't measurable, not important, etc.), and certainly every major institution disputes it. Yet, people keep addressing it as if it's conventional wisdom. Perhaps it is, but silently, which is why people get so angry about it.

Alex G writes:

I have a question for Russ or anyone who can step in and answer.

In many of his podcasts, Russ mentions that in the absence of government institutions to combat poverty, private institutions/initiatives will emerge, and will be more effective. Assuming that existing government programs are ineffective, what is preventing a truly effective private initiative from being undertaken right now? Are there examples in other countries, where governments were not actively fighting poverty, of private charitable and philanthropic programs that had a significant impact on lifting people out of poverty?

Floccina writes:

When you start to think about how the Government to run one these programs you start to have doubts. You would have to:

1. Hire some very dedicated person to head it up not a political person. This is not too hard and would probably be done right.
2. They would need to start to hire many very dedicated people. This is very difficult.
3. These hires would then be federal Government employees which means that you almost cannot fire them. This would erode their dedication to the program.
4. These people would have to very dedicated until the retire.
5. If a mishap occurs like you hired a Jerry Sanduski (people like that have ways of getting into such programs the bigger you get the more like one is to get in) you need to resist adding rules that would kill the whole program.
6. You will need an act of congress to significantly change some things and might be battling the power of government employees and bureaucrats.

Shad writes:

You should have Charles Duhigg on your podcast to talk about habits. He has written The Power of Habit that talks about ways to change habits.

Doug T. writes:

Alex,

Aren't there an exceedingly large number of these organizations that currently exist both inside the U.S and out (United Way, boys/girls club, churches, etc.)? Are you asking for empirical evidence of the "effectiveness" (begs a question of metric) of private v. government or are you asking for empirical evidence of "crowding out" (or both)? What do you mean by "significant impact"? (scale/number of people, overall outcome --- I am only trying to clarify your question).

I am interested in someone with some empirical results on these questions as well. I have an opinion based on (personal) anecdotal evidence only. That being said, I spent time (years) as a church missionary and believe that private organizations (like churches, but not exclusively) can have an enormous impact on both the current and future well-being of impoverished individuals.

Doug

Alex G writes:

Doug,

Thanks for your followup. I didn't really have any specific metrics or targets in mind, but rather wanted to see if there was some kind of study that anyone was aware of that supports the point that in the absence of governmental anti-poverty programs a much more effective private alternative will emerge. I guess, effectiveness would be best measured by social mobility from poor to at least middle class. I am sure someone, somewhere, must have done a study like this. Relevant demographic data should be available for many countries, as well as information on changes in government policies related to poverty.

I am a believer in emergent order, but the argument that private sector will come up with anti-poverty initiatives that will make the poor better off goes against my intuition. Sure, there are many non-governmental organizations out there (some of which you have named), but how does their impact stack up to government programs? I don't know. But would be very curious to find out.

I also don't understand what is keeping those hypothetical private initiatives that would put to shame government programs from emerging now? Is it because the government is actively (even if ineffectively) involved in this? But if government programs are that inefficient, surely private alternatives should have emerged already.

At the same time, this whole premise might be flawed. Should there even be anti-poverty programs, both from practical and philosophical perspectives? Is it even realistic that poverty can be eliminated, or even significantly reduced? Does it have anything to do with the lack of natural ability and "grit" in some people? Does it have to do with the environment, i.e. is it nature vs. nurture? So many questions...

Mort Dubois writes:

@Alex G & Russ: a better question/comparison with anti-poverty spending might be to look at defense spending. Russ: are you bothered that so much defense spending doesn't seem to make us safer? It's a waste of money on comparable scale to anti poverty efforts, and yet I haven't heard you discuss it in any of the recent podcasts. And Alex G: I like your question about whether large scale efforts to increase public welfare emerge from private markets, voluntarily. If this was true, we might expect to see privately funded defense forces emerge when the government doesn't take the lead. And that does happen, in societies where defending yourself from your neighbors is important. But not in rich, well regulated countries. One of the blessings of wealth and freedom is letting the government take care of difficult tasks so that we can get on with our own concerns.

I have an example of that in my own life: a severely autistic son who requires constant care. State-funded intervention frees me from having to do this myself, so I can run my business (and employ 15 people, and provide a product that my clients seem to like.) Instead, this task is performed by people who want to do it, and are able to make a decent living due to the government's money. Take away the state funding and there's no guarantee that private resources will appear in their place. My son's caretakers scramble to support themselves, or change jobs, and I close my business. Is that an increase in our welfare?

emerich writes:

Floccina, you nailed it.

Greg G writes:

The central theme of this podcast was that the importance of the self discipline and motivation of students are vastly underestimated in seeking educational solutions. This seems right to me.

If most people really got a good look at what K-12 education looks like today they would be shocked at how much of a typical teacher's time and energy has to go into handling a very small number of highly disruptive students. Our reluctance (as a matter of policy) to remove these students from regular classrooms has been the main thing that has prevented us from getting better educational results. Other countries do not practice this kind of radical inclusion. A generation ago we did not do it. The time that teachers take in dealing with disruptive students is taken directly from time that would otherwise be spent on students ready to learn.

In my opinion it is this, not a lack of resources, not bad teachers, not unions, not testing or the lack of it, that is the biggest obstacle to improving American K-12 education.

How in the world can we hope to teach self discipline if we do not insist on discipline within the classroom environment? Good podcast here but I wish you had both connected the dots a little more on this last point.

Russ Roberts writes:

Alex G,

Your question probably deserves its own podcast or at least a more lengthy treatment than I can offer here, but here is a start.

If you examine the history of poverty fighting in America, there used to be a great deal of private relief but it ended with the increase in the federal government's role in public spending in the 1930's. Today, that remains the case--very little private charity goes to the poor. Why? Would you donate money for a private organization that helps poor people with food? You would be unlikely to donate--your taxes already fund the food stamp program. Would you give twice? Public activity crowds out private initiatives that try to accomplish the same goal.

There is some private charity helping the poor today--there are, for example, food pantries and soup kitchens. But they mainly help homeless people--people who rarely participate in the food stamp program--a program where participants have to provide an address. So a food program for homeless people can successfully collect private donations. Much harder for one that fights poverty generally. The food stamp program (and others) crowds out private initiative.

Or consider Mort Dubois's comment above. He has an autistic son who is helped with government funding. Could a private program for autistic children exist? Possibly. It would have to address something that isn't addressed by the public program. Otherwise, it would be very hard to collect funds for the private program. Now if the public program was awful and the private program had the promise of being much better, the private program might be able to thrive. But I think you can see the challenge of getting people to contribute to a private organization helping autistic kids. They are already paying for the public effort with their taxes.

The public school system in America is so awful in some neighborhoods that substantial money can be raised privately to give kids scholarships to private schools even though people already pay taxes to create "free" public schooling. That private scholarships exist is a tribute to people's generosity and to just how lousy public education is in some neighborhoods.

You write:

that [the] private sector will come up with anti-poverty initiatives that will make the poor better off goes against my intuition. Sure, there are many non-governmental organizations out there (some of which you have named), but how does their impact stack up to government programs?

That's what this podcast was about, in part. Read Tough's book. He writes about individuals and organizations outside the public sector who are making a difference one person at a time. These programs typically don't "scale"--it's not easy to make them 100x bigger, say. But they are making a difference despite the incredible public resources being devoted to helping poor kids but that don't do a very good job. We could use a lot more people doing those kind of activities. The enormous public effort funded by taxes crowds out the opportunities for creative efforts that might emerge otherwise.

As I write in my book, The Invisible Heart, if we ended public support for the poor, the private efforts that would emerge would be very unlikely to raise the amount of money that we currently spend publicly. So the total amount spent in a private system would be much less. But it could be much more effective. The amount of money spent is a poor predictor of the effectiveness of the results when there is little accountability. There is little accountability in the public sector. They can force me to support their programs through taxes. I don't know that a world of privately funded anti-poverty programs would do better than the current system. But I think it is worth a try given how poorly the public system performs.

sebastian writes:

I am shocked that in an educational system that has emphasized a soft, self-esteem building relationship between students and teachers a small amount of grit and harshness produces good results.

Next we'll find out that adding the 1st spoonful of salt to a big pot of soup improves its taste more than adding the 19th chopped carrot.

I like the argument being made, and I completely agree that treating kids like adults, sufficiently often, is important. I wish some emphasis would have been made about the context in which this argument is made. People born in the past 30-40 years in the west grow up in a pretty lax environment. Would these findings apply elsewhere in the world? Would they have applied for kids 70-80 years ago?

It's great to have 1 teacher that's harsh and demanding. It's not so great to have every teacher be harsh and demanding all the time. If we take the hard-work idea to an extreme we're left with the Soviet style educational system. Great for getting the most out of people. Unless, of course, you happened to crack, which many(most? who knows) did. Just like with physical strength training(for instance), put too much pressure on your body and some muscle snaps and you lose a bunch of progress. Put too little pressure and you stagnate.

I liked Russ's comment about needing to be challenged. I wish it would have been qualified as "challenged at an appropriate level." Just enough to keep improving, not so much that we find the challenge hopeless. Similarly for structure, you need enough structure and self-discipline to achieve goals. Not so much that it stifles your ability to set yourself the correct goals.

James writes:

I think the core problem with our public schools is actually very simple: Low Expectations. Only magnet schools and high-performing charters actually expect kids to perform and punish them when they do not.

The vast majority of public school teachers are under strict requirements forcing them to be lenient, to avoid giving out F's and even D's. On top of all this, there is no high-stakes exit exam. The SAT/ACT are only important if you are going to college, they only cover a fraction of what is learned in school, and students of even moderately high ability will have no trouble doing well enough to get into a state college. Students would pay much more attention in class if there was actually a reason to do so. We have created a culture of slacking.

Second issue, Russ I have to respectfully disagree with your parenting theory! You are the one keeping them from watching ESPN, but people can only learn self-discipline when they learn to control their behavior themselves. Also, if ESPN is what makes you and them happy then I'm not sure what other activity could be more important. Happiness is vastly more important than "success" in school or career. In my opinion, "success" mostly benefits society, not the individual.

James writes:

I also wanted to comment on the issue of publicly-funded education and poverty programs. I think the reason there is such widespread support for government-provided education, health care, food, housing, etc. is that many Americans simply view these as human rights. Not "entitlements", but rights. Every day we pay for emergency room care for gangbangers with gunshot wounds who won't even tell the police who shot them. Is it really a surprise that we want to pay for public education?

The problem with any private-sector system is it cannot ensure the provision of services to each and every citizen. Only the government can do this. The support for these programs comes from the desire to make these services universal rights, not haphazardly provided by private entities.

Libertarians who try to argue with this philosophy are wasting their breath. The standard of living in the US is so high that most people simply do not believe it is ethical to withhold basic needs from anyone. Isn't this why Hayek advocated a government-guaranteed minimum stipend? We should spend our effort trying to figure out ways to inject market mechanisms and private efficiency and innovation into these government guaranteed services, but forget about trying to remove the government guarantee.

Kurt Hanish writes:

Russ - Regarding using private spending for alleviating some of the hardest elements of poverty, do you at all concern yourself that this is an opening for bad societal groups to win the loyalty of a vulnerable segment of the population? It seems to me that in other countries (and in our own history) organizations like Hamas, drug cartels, Mafia, etc.. have filled that need anf consequently reaped loyalty and other rewards from the people they helped. This foothold has often times resulted in an even greater cost to society. How do we prevent that from happening?

Felix writes:

Great points raised by both James and Kurt there.

To some degree I feel that the political polarization in America at the moment is a sort of referendum on exactly whether things like education, healthcare, safety net for disabled & old people is indeed a right or a privilege. I do feel that there is something approaching a 50/50 split in the american population in this regard and that it's not close to being settled.

To add to what Kurt has said - the Muslim Brotherhood has fulfilled exactly this role in many muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East. To some extent I wonder if the nastier sides to all of these private actors (mafia, drug cartels, Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood) is simply a result of existing within countries without effective rule of law, enforcement, and high standard of living, but I don't believe that can be answered affirmatively in a definitive way, yet. For example, one could make the argument regarding the role of the Catholic church in the US as a private anti-poverty force that they have effectively leveraged this to help assert other (debatabley negative) social views, such as anti-abortion/anti-contraception, anti-gay marriage. Obviously it's debatable whether these are positive or negative positions, but this kind of demagoguery may be the price of embracing a private actor's role in something as large as anti-poverty campaigns in a developed country.

Seth writes:

Alex G. -

I think our biases cause us to be myopic and simplistic in how we classify public and private efforts for things such as 'combating poverty'.

For example, you seem only to consider charitable private efforts as viable alternatives to public efforts.

Walmart, Aldi and Family Dollar are examples of non-charitable private efforts that help many in poverty by making necessary goods available at affordable prices. I know many folks will beg to differ, but is that because they hold a romantic bias for the intent of the effort rather than the result?

We also tend think only of named organizations of people when we use the word 'institution'. But, institutions are also less formal social norms. "An honest day's work for an honest day's wage" is an example of a norm that has driven productivity growth for centuries. So is marriage.


When we look at swaths of the population that still respect these institutions, we see higher productivity and less poverty. Those who have lost respect (many by responding to the distorted incentives produced by anti-poverty programs) have less productivity and more poverty.

The simple institution of shaming an able-bodied person who comes to rely on help from others was an effective anti-poverty institution that has been deadened by gov't efforts to remove shame from being this behavior.

Except, as with other private efforts, shaming doesn't meet the personal preferences of those who view help only as an altruistic gesture. My grandpa viewed a swift kick in the pants (another lost institution) as 'legitimate' help. Many folks today do not.

Felix writes:

Seth,

Couldn't disagree more with your view of shame as a broadly effective tool to dissuade "laziness" and "takers". Let's stop hearkening back to a non-existent golden age of morality and ethics and accept a world view that doesn't start from a point of view that classifies the downtrodden as being in that position primarily due to their own moral failings.

I'm extremely skeptical of the idea of the Protestant work ethic as being responsible for productivity growth in western countries and find it a convenient and artificial (and superficial) construction that reinforces that the historical majority's culture is in some way superior to that of other less productive ones.

I'm not a sociologist, but I find it extremely condescending and ignorant to proclaim that in poor communities, many of which are of the racial minority, unemployment does not still carry a large stigma. It very much does, and a lot of the behavior of these communities that offends and confuses white america (depreciation of education, machismo, flaunting of the law to a certain degree) is an attempt to cope with this shame - finding other sources of dignity when the traditional route (employment, raising a family) has been marginalized.

sebastian writes:

I agree with Kurt that it is very dangerous for the state to renege responsibility for caring for the most vulnerable in society. These are also the people with the smallest stake in the existing social order and the demographic most susceptible to demagogic incitement to violence.

The libertarian argument here, sadly, as with the libertarian argument in deregulating financial institutions seems to be a variation on Greenspans: Well I thought they'd behave morally.

All it takes is one sociopath with a lot of money to start portraying himself as the savior of the poor and you've got a dangerous social movement on your hands. You couldn't throw a stick at Roman history without hitting half a dozen of these guys. It may be that modern humans are well past that point. I, personally, don't think so.

This is not an argument that it WILL happen that way, merely that the risk exists and reasonable people can put different costs and probabilities on it.

That being said there is a difference between government FUNDED education and government PROVIDED education. I am much more optimistic about privately provided choice, while maintaining government as the financer of education.

Doug T. writes:

I'd like to weigh in a little more on the public/private poverty debate. I'd like to make two points. First, there are examples of private help for the poor, on a large scale. I am a member of the LDS church (mormon), and we have a (rather large) welfare program. The program is funded by donations on a local and non-local level and helps people pay rent, get food, find jobs, etc. all with the goal to help people become self-sufficient. I just wanted to give an example of something that is not food-stamps that I have seen work to help many people.

The second point I'd like to make is one about the idea of "rights." I view the issue differently. From my perspective I think this is a social choice about who should shoulder the responsibility. I think most (if not all) people would agree that it is wrong to let the poor starve or go without medical treatment. I think however, like the comment by Mort Dubois, the question is what is the role of society in helping those individuals. Who should shoulder the responsibility? Family, school, church, government? I think that since WWII we have seen a decrease in traditional family and community structure (in not necessarily bad ways) that has raised the question of who should pick up the responsibility.

From my own life, I remember trying to help an impoverished woman move who was getting evicted from her apartment. We were talked about her moving in with family. She said her daughter thought it was too big a burden and wanted her to go to government housing instead. I didn't know the whole situation (maybe the daughter had a very good reason), but I think it illustrates the point. There are often alternatives, but it certainly means re-shifting responsibilities.

I think one avenue to have this debate (instead of an economic argument), is to look at what we think the role of societies institutions should be (who should be responsible). I think more often then not, in the last 50 years we have neglected other traditional community institutions for government help only. I don't think that governmental institutions are always bad, but they aren't the only ones. By giving the government sole discretion, I believe it becomes too easy to say that taking care of the poor, the sick, or the elderly should be someone else's problem.

Felix writes:

I think to some degree, Doug, that the answer as to what institutions should bear the responsibility of these issues hinges on whether or not one views the dispersion of these responsibilities as an inevitability.

If a modern industrialized society does necessarily, as many have argued, imply a breakdown of community structures and an increased premium on individualism, then it becomes not a question of what ought we ,as a society, do to address these issues, but rather what can we feasibly do. I may agree that in a philosopher-king ruled utopia, the private realm would overlap much more into the public realm and confronting poverty/disabilities/etc would be a more natural, spontaneous and dependable result. But to the extent that these institutions ever did exist in the past (and I'm not necessarily convinced that they did on the scale we all wish they did), I don't believe there is any way to turn back the clock now.

philemon writes:

Felix:

But to a very large extent, community structures do exist even in very modern societies. Not necessarily the exact same ones as those a hundred years ago, but analogous ones nonetheless. Doug's own example of LDS is but one. As far as I can tell, there is nothing particular inevitable about the processes you hypothesized.

Nonetheless, there is presumably a right balance between having the *state*--please, talking about "society" here is just a red herring--(1) take the responsibility for directing resources towards the unfortunate and disadvantaged, which would of course also means (2) having other people shoulder the responsibility for ponying up the resources via taxation, on the one hand, and having institutions and communities below the level of the state do (1), and (2b) collecting resources *not* via taxation (voluntary contributions, etc.) for those purposes, on the other hand.

One important reason for having the state do some of the work is so that people do not have access to the institutions and communities below the level of the state can be assisted.

On the other hand, one really good reason for not wishing the state to do all of the work is that the agents of the state are not always in the best position to do (1) properly (lack of information), especially since someone else is paying (see 2 above); this is before we start talking about the inherent temptation for the agents of the state to use the process to dole out patronage, etc. rather than actually help the unfortunate and disadvantaged.

sebastian writes:

@philemon: I think a different benefit of having the state combat poverty rather than local communities is that poverty is not equally distributed.

There are communities that could provide all the services that the state does, there are also communities that could not. What government does is spread the burden of caring for the needy to all of society, thus making sure that no single person or community is stressed to breaking point.


Think of two ways to combat hunger: One is to say that each parish is obligated to provide food and shelter for those without, another is to levy a small tax on all parishes and have the central government handle food and home assistance. The British tried the first method up until the 19th century(hence 'parish'), it failed because parishes that provided slightly better benefits got flooded with poor people. The whole history of The Poor Laws in Britain is an object lesson about just how hard it is to handle poverty in a country where people are actually allowed to move from area to area.

Ken P writes:

That was a very interesting podcast. Dismissing IQ is pretty short-sighted. In my experience, high IQ students often lose interest (which has to effect conscientiousness), due to lack of challenge. Typically, by 3rd or 4th grade these students could have been doing Algebra but the pace is kept slow and there is no path for such students.

The M&M experiment is interesting. Does that mean such students lack conscientiousness or does it mean that those students don't find a test to be rewarding in and of itself? If Russ had ESPN on and some of his children's friends didn't pay attention would that be because they weren't conscientious? Would they pay more attention if he gave them M&Ms for doing so?

I cringed when Tough suggested a public-private partnership. GSEs don’t have a very good track record. Tough’s response was that of anyone defending a problematic government program: “We haven’t tried hard enough.” I guess he’s blaming the lack of success on a lack of conscientiousness on the part of government? I don't really buy that.

I agree with those that say IQ is hard to quantify. I would say that it is more a matter of having an IQ for a given task. My guess is that the teacher teaching chess or the guy dealing with the complexities that hold learning back are both examples of people with very unique types of IQ and a heavy dose of passion. I doubt that they would be the best can stackers in the grocery store, which they should be if it is all about conscientiousness.

philemon writes:

@sebastian

I accept the first point you made--in fact, I would consider it a sort of more generalized version of my "One important reason for having the state do some of the work is so that people [who] do not have access to the institutions and communities below the level of the state can be assisted".

At the end of the day I'd rather be pragmatic about it. The modern state can play a role (obviously). The question is always whether it can really do everything better or more efficiently than other institutions and communities in society, and whether there are areas that are just much better served by other means. But being pragmatic also means that I have to pay attention to issues of public choice, and prefer measurable outcomes rather than symbolic or feel good gestures.

Isn't the parish (in the UK) an administrative division of the state? assuming you are referring to civil parishes. Or if you are referring to ecclesiastical parishes, administrative divisions of a state-church which is, for the larger part of its history funded essentially by taxation rather than voluntary contributions. In which case your point becomes a comment about the relative efficiency of decentralization vs. centralization for a certain function of the state--sort of like asking whether a certain function should be done at the county, state or federal level. But this is not the same as asking whether some function could be better served by state structures or by non-state institutions and communities.

(But now that you've mentioned it, I feel inspired to read up more about the relevant history regarding the Poor Laws. Any good leads?)

John Berg writes:

I've known for a while that Russ is a good teacher. Now I know that he wants to be a better teacher.

What ever the consensus of the readers (and commentators) of this podcast may be, the purpose of the US Federal Government as contained in the Constitution does not include special treatment of the poor--whoever that may be. Perhaps we should suggest this to China, India, or Saudia Arabia. Neither that or "compassion" is enumerated. If more readers took the free Hillsdale College Internet courses on the Constitution, more of us would realize that. (http://constitution.hillsdale.edu)
Thank you, Russ, for making this a good site for my continuing education.

John Berg

sebastian writes:

@philemon: The wikipedia article on the English Poor Laws is pretty much fine. I read about them for a class a million years ago in Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation, but his focus was fairly narrow and he's not the easiest read(also he was a socialist so that may make his story better or worse depending on the reader).

l0b0t writes:

This discussion seems to be missing the point. From a libertarian perspective (or from my own perspective as an anarchist), y'all seem to putting the putting the cart before the horse. ALL TAXES ARE THEFT! The whole concept of tax is a stubborn (and wicked) holdover from a bygone era; the last vestige of feudalism. The idea that everyone must, under penalty of imprisonment or death, pay the sovereign for the privilege of merely existing in the geographic area into which one was born doesn't pass the laugh test. Involuntary taxation is a blatant violation of the non-aggression principle, the bedrock of libertarian thought. The issue is not should the state involve itself in helping the poor (although we have at least two centuries of empirical evidence demonstrating the inefficiency/ineffectiveness of the state versus the free market), the issue is the funding mechanism. Any funding mechanism that requires coercion by armed goons is immoral and evil no matter how lofty the goals. A discussion that ignores such a basic fact seems, to this liberty minded individual, to be naught but pissing in the wind.

As an aside, thank you Russ and thank you to everyone involved in producing this weekly gem of a podcast. I have learned far more about economics from this weekly delight than I ever gleaned from formal schooling.

Mike writes:

Mr. Tough states that the solutions proposed by Charles Murray and the conservatives did not work. First, Mr. Murray is perhaps best described as being a Libertarian. Second, the solutions did not work because they were not fully implemented. It's somewhat of an irony that Mr. Tough proposes that the left's "throw more money at the problem" solution hasn't worked yet because we need to (a) throw even more money at the problem, and (b) use the money more efficiently. But that's always the excuse given by the left - that the money needs to be used more efficiently, i.e. that there is waste in the government run systems. Duh! If there's any lesson we've learned over the years it's that government uses our tax dollars inefficiently. That's because the government''s real aim is not to actually fix the problems - that would put these various agencies out of a job - but to create the illusion that they are doing something to fix the problem. If indeed grit and determination are keys to success and that people need hardships and failure in order to eventually succeed, why do the liberals persist in their belief that we need to coddle the poor with "affirmative action" programs and quotas and provide them with monetary incentives that discourage them from advancing on their own?

Adam S writes:

I would like to think, as Russ seems to, that rich people, if given a lower tax rate, would contribute to more effective poverty alleviation programs than we have now. But then I'm reminded of Steve Jobs` biography, where he rants against any kind of charity because the results are not measurable enough for him. I'm not making the case that government is especially good at doling out money for the poor, but I think Russ overestimates the generosity of the rich and their reasons for giving. I don't think that the government is somehow "robbing" people of the opportunity to donate. There are always needy people and it's naive to think the government can help every single one. For all we know, there could be many more Jobs than there are Gates in the world. Is that better that the alleged failure of a system we have now?

Ray G writes:

Arghh. I'm the high IQ, low achiever guy.

Now in my forties I have a ten year old son who is just like me, and as Russ was speculating, there doesn't seem to be much I can do about it. My greatest fear is that I'm not so much teaching conscientiousness but merely making him crazy so he too, can go go off to college and watch ESPN 27 hours a day.

Arghh. . if only there had been someone there along the way to give me more M&Ms.

sebastian writes:

Why ban a behavior in a child instead of placing a (labor) cost on it? Goes against basic economics it would seem. Make him work 3-4 hours for every hour of ESPN.

James writes:

John Berg,

I'm afraid that appeals to the constitution don't convince hardly anyone on this issue. They would just say it is out of date and needs to be brought in line with reality. It only applies to federal power anyway.

l0b0t,

The problem with anarchy, as I'm sure you are well aware, is that it never lasts. Some form of government always emerges, usually dictatorship. The history of places like Haiti is full of periods of anarchy, but a dictator always emerges. Anarchy is not a valid "form of government", it is just the (brief) period between governments.

Taxes may be theft, but someone else could argue that you have no natural right to the air, water, food, and land you need to survive. Taxes could be the fee to use those resources. You don't have to pay them, but if you don't you must refrain from eating/drinking, hold your breath, and be carried on the back of a tax payer. It all comes down to "natural rights" which is very subjective.

Brian writes:

Rus tried "let one hundred flowers bloom."

Of course the response "[we must continue taking] ... we would not have the required resources ..."

A good response is how much more would you need to pay teachers and administrators to produce more super star chess teachers?

Andrew McKee writes:

Russ -- thanks for the podcast. I've been a listener for 3-4 years and really appreciate the depth of your discussions with your guests, and your willingness to actually engage them on topics.

I echo the listener above who suggested having Charles Duhigg as a guest to talk about what's been learned about the science of habit change. You *can change your habits!

You might also consider Geoff Colvin, author of "Talent is Overrated". The book includes a nice review of the literature on "deliberate practice", the type of practice that is most likely to yield results. It also, as the title suggests, summarizes studies that have debunked the idea that talent is inborn (despite it remaining a popular cultural belief). It also has some practical suggestions about how readers can improve certain skills, and interesting anecdotes from sports, music, and other fields.

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