Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Tough Love

Yes, I like this picture. Wanna make something of it?
I should have mentioned yesterday that that hilarious David Brooks column was drivel, but not pure drivel— actually about something, namely a new book by the education-beat journalist Paul Tough, which Brooks gets to in paragraph 8:
The good news is that attention is finally turning to the love lives of our students — to the psychic and emotional qualities they bring to the classroom. No one is better at chronicling this shift than Paul Tough, the author of “How Children Succeed” and now “Helping Children Succeed.” In his latest book, he asks how, concretely, can we improve students’ noncognitive skills. 
Tough is a pretty good and interesting reporter, though I get a little politically impatient with him—he focuses on ways schools can help students cope with the effects of a bruised childhood, especially victims of Adverse Childhood Experiences, and on developing their "grit" and resilience, hardening them against the experience (and presumably against the insults and abrasions of their future working-class lives) as if there were no point in trying to stop the ACEs, and no value in trying to help the kids integrate their awful experiences into the creation of a multidimensional personality, the way upper-class kids get to do with their encouragement to verbalize and crews of counselors and therapists.

But he has a catastrophic effect on Brooks, for some reason. His last book was the occasion for the first time I caught Brooks flagrantly plagiarizing huge chunks of text, four years ago, and this one brings on some astonishingly bad writing, of which yesterday's sampling is just the tip of the iceberg. "The love lives of our students", which he must have thought of as a kind of Friedmanian jocularity, instead of making us all snicker like eighth-graders ourselves! "Chronicling this shift" when Tough doesn't chronicle a shift but describes a time-limited phase!
(“Noncognitive skills” is a euphemism social scientists use for those things students get from love and attachment.)
He doesn't know the meaning of
  • "noncognitive" ("not related to the process of acquiring knowledge through the senses, experience, or reasoning"—love and attachment both obviously have cognitive and noncognitive components, and they're obviously not the only element on the noncognitive side);
  • "euphemism" (it's a not a euphemism but a technical term; there's not some nasty colloquial word the social scientists are avoiding); or
  • "skills"
That's a terrible term, by the way, with its implication of dark things managed by our reptilian rear brains, as many have said, including a helpful piece by Lucinda Fickel at US News, which offers James Heckman's alternatives of "soft skills" or "character skills" including "persistence, self-discipline, focus, confidence, teamwork, organization, seeking help, staying on task and so on" (commenter Ten Bears at NMMNB asked, "what's love got to do with it?" to which the only answer would be "What's Brooks but a second-hand emotion?").

But the concept is extremely important, especially in regard to early childhood education. When conservatives tell you programs like "Head Start" don't provide any lasting benefits, they're talking about kids' third-grade academic test scores, which really don't show much effect, but when you evaluate it in terms of noncognitive skills, you find that they make an enormous difference, with the higher-quality (i.e., more expensive) programs showing a proportionately greater effect, lasting right into adulthood (I've written quite a bit about it, here and most recently here).

Brooks is overwhelmed with this idea of bringing "love" into the classroom (I suppose he thinks schoolteachers have been taking up the profession all these centuries just because they couldn't get proper jobs, or maybe because they hate America and want to join a union), but that's never been the problem; since the beginning of the 1980s in particular, it's always been money, and our conservative authorities' unwillingness to invest in children who live in neighborhoods where the property values are low.

Which means, elect Hillary Clinton president and a Democratic Congress, and the love will take care of itself. Spread it around.

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