The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Paul Tough's meticulous, fascinating New York Times Magazine piece ("Who Gets to Graduate?") is, in some ways, a story about signaling. What signals do students receive--not just in college but from birth--and how do those signals shape the stories they tell themselves when they run into hard times?

UT Austin researchers have discovered that these stories matter as much as academic skills when it comes to predicting which students will graduate. Family income predicts graduation, yes. But so do stories. When students fail a class, they are more likely to persevere and seek out help if they have heard signals telling them they belong in the hard classes and they will get smarter with hard work and help. The opposite is also true, as the story details:

"When you send college students the message that they're not smart enough to be in college -- and it's hard not to get that message when you're placed in to a remedial math class as soon as you arrive on campus -- those students internalize that idea about themselves."

My only criticism of Paul's story is that it should be bigger and broader. The US education system sends kids remedial signals at every age level--not just in college. We do it through tracking kids into different streams ("gifted," "honors," IB and AP classes) from a much earlier age than many other, smarter countries. We do it through deeply embedded, often subconscious stereotypes about what kids can do--based on the color of their skin or the income of their parents.

In fact, the United States is one of the few countries where schools not only divide younger children by ability, but actually teach different content to the more advanced track. In other countries, including Germany and Singapore, all young kids are meant to learn the same challenging core content; the most advanced kids just go deeper into the material.

Around the globe, the later countries wait to track kids into different content streams based on ability or interest, the better everyone in the country seems to do. Like UT Austin, nations like Finland and Poland have learned that if they insist all kids master the same, challenging academic material and they provide the extra help and high-quality teaching to make that possible, then they get much better results than if they dumb down the curriculum for their lowest-performing kids. Of course, great teachers work to differentiate their teaching to meet kids where they are; they have groups within the classroom that are fluid and carefully chosen. Special education intervention happens in their classrooms in most cases. But they don't send half their kids out of the room for easier (or harder) classes.

Over the past half century, many developed countries have slowly, haltingly, delayed tracking. They've changed the signals, in other words. Poland's schools delayed tracking from age 15 to 16 starting in 1999, and that one change seems to have had a dramatic impact on the entire country's performance on the PISA test. Finland, too, has slowly delayed tracking over the past four decades. Today, Finnish kids get to choose vocational or academic high schools around age 16. Until then, Finnish schools follow a strict ethic of equity. Teachers cannot, as a rule, hold kids back or promote them when they aren’t ready. That leaves only one option: All kids have to learn. To make this possible, Finland’s education system funnels money toward kids who need help. As soon as young kids show signs of slipping, teachers descend upon them like a pit crew before they fall further behind. About a third of Finnish kids get special help during their first nine years of school. Only 2 percent repeat a grade in Finnish primary school (compared to 11 percent in the United States, which is above average for the developed world). It helps, of course, that Finnish teachers are among the best-educated, best-trained teachers in the world.

In the world's education superpowers, kids are hearing different signals--the kinds of signals that convince them they are capable of great things if they work hard enough and get enough help. That mindset sounds remarkably similar to the strategies deployed by Chemistry Professor David Laude at UT Austin, as Tough describes:

"He did everything he could, both in his lectures and outside the classroom, to convey to the [high-risk] students a new sense of identity: They weren't subpar students who needed help; they were part of a community of high-achieving scholars."

That identity changes everything. Everywhere.