In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough found that good grades and lots of homework aren’t future predictors of success. Students need to learn how to set and approach goals with mental contrasting, grit, the ability to take on challenges and face failures, and the ability to persuade other people to give them what they need.
Providing challenges is often given as a reason for AP classes (Advanced Placement courses, or IB courses, college courses designed to be taught in high school and success measured by a standardized exam.) But in our personal experience, that isn’t happening for several reasons. In How Children Succeed, there was evidence that agreed with this view.
AP classes and IB classes were created to challenge students, but aren’t fulfilling their purpose.
At the affluent school profiled, the school staff pointed out that “helicopter parents” never let their kids fail at anything, to the point of intervening whenever their kids get a bad grade.
Remember in my previous post about How Children Succeed about characteristics that that lead to success, one of the characteristics of successful students from KIPP was the ability of students to talk professors into giving them extra help. In Outliers, Gladwell calls being able to talk people into giving you what you need, “social intelligence.” It’s a characteristic of many successful people. Gladwell thinks that parents advocating for their child is an important part of teaching their child “social intelligence.”
But Tough doesn’t seem to draw this conclusion. The director of the school thinks that what the parents are trying to do is — instead of trying to help their kids succeed — go for is a high rate of “non-failure” in all things. And on the surface, intervening whenever your child gets a low grade sounds like a bad thing. It doesn’t sound like getting extra help understanding something after class.
However, I can’t help thinking that all these parents who’re rich enough to send their kids to an elite private school must have had some measure of success. It follows that they would have some great success skills, like talking people into getting what they need.
As a parent at an exceptional public school, I can understand the private schools’ parents’ concerns. If you go the route of a large number of AP classes to get into an elite or Ivy University, you have to have near-perfect grades in every class as well. When I first wrote up my thoughts on How Children Succeed, I didn’t know as much about college admissions and I, like many parents, I also thought it applied to getting into any “good” college. In my further research I’ve come to the conclusion that this isn’t true for all colleges and universities; it’s not even true for “good” colleges and universities. But it’s difficult, in a family or a school that values education, to let go of the notion of good grades being important to later success. And in addition to working for what you need, when I read about successful people, the ability to talk others into giving them what they need comes up time and time again.
Additionally, there can also be many reasons why parents interfere when their child gets a bad grade. It’s not as simple as it sounds. At a high achieving high school, when a student is absent from an illness, the workload of just a couple of days can be impossible to complete unless you have teachers who’re willing to negotiate.
Ironically, this need for students to be challenged is not just given as a reason for taking AP courses, but it’s often given as a reason for taking a heavy load of AP courses. Thus the emphasis by colleges and universities that a student take as many AP classes as they can handle. However, in our own experience with AP classes, the problem isn’t necessarily that they’re being challenged by the difficulty of the material. They’re being challenged by the fact that there just aren’t enough hours in the day to complete the amount of homework.
It’s not just my own kids. I’ve talked to a lot of parents. You have to listen closely to their answers, because the first thing many parents will say is that their child is the one signing up for the difficult classes; they want to take them. They’re grades are great. They’re handling everything brilliantly. But even when students appear to be juggling all their commitments and homework, reading between the lines you can figure out that it comes at the cost of something — family time (family dinners), social time with peers, time for non-academic or non-scheduled interests, or sleep. Students are not learning balance and limits.
And when you look at the question of time, you wonder how students have time to develop the other characteristics How Children Succeed has identified as being needed for success. In my next post, I’ll look at while AP classes might go a long way toward developing self-discipline, self-discipline isn’t a good predictor of success.
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