05/27/2014 12:34 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2014

Paul Tough Explains Why 'Rich Kids Graduate; Poor and Working-Class Kids Don't'

Regardless of his subject, Paul Tough's work is directly relevant to teaching and learning in high-poverty schools. Tough's New York Times Magazine article, "Who Gets to Graduate?," is no exception.

When teaching high school government, I used to mark up articles by Tough and other great journalists. I underlined key words and circled crucial paragraphs in his narrative. I made photocopies and helped students look up difficult words and write their definitions in the margins.

Most of my inner-city students would read along silently as I would read the article aloud. We stopped frequently to make sure make sure that everyone understood the lesson that Tough was teaching, and had to chance to offer his or her own interpretation of the author's thesis. The students' job was to "read the author's mind," master his argument, analyze and summarize his logic and evidence, and write an essay on it.

Some non-readers just listened, but contributed enthusiastically to the class discussions. Those with the most advanced skills silently read every word of the article, often writing long journal entries on Tough's arguments, and they doubled back to lead the conversation. It took two days to master a NYT Magazine cover story (or a New Yorker article.) But, the students took pride in tackling materials that would generally be considered to be over their heads. That sense of accomplishment motivated students to link Tough's journalism to the state standards of instruction, and to master those college readiness concepts.

Tough's account of the University of Texas' mentoring of college students at risk of academic failure is very consistent with my experience in nurturing at-risk high school students. In contrast to other universities, not to mention under-the-gun public high schools, Texas builds on students' strengths. As Chemistry Professor David Laude explains, the normative approach of funneling low-skilled students into remedial programs is "just the worst thing you could possibly imagine doing."

Laude guides the Texas Interdisciplinary Plan, or TIP, which provides support for students with "adversity indicators," or low SAT scores, low family income, less-educated parents, or who had previously failed the course. Laude teaches them the same advanced lessons, albeit in smaller classes with greater supports.

Fortunately, TIP students have a lot of strengths to build on. These lower-skilled students were admitted to the prestigious university because they graduated in the top 7 percent of their high schools. Laude then took his innovation a step further in a program that develops not academic skills but leadership skills.

Tough concludes that the participants succeed because "they are very good students regardless of their test scores." Even if their high schools weren't academically demanding, these graduates "managed to figure out how to learn, how to study and how to overcome adversity."

As much as I loved Tough's article, like so many other profound analyses of education, reading it was bittersweet. When I started teaching, the conventional wisdom was that our job was teaching kids how to "learn how to learn." We laid out that goal from the first day of class. And, in my experience, all students have strengths to be built on, and they respond enthusiastically to being treated with respect.

Twenty-something years ago, few people contended that it made sense to treat teenagers with 5th grade skills as children, and drill them on elementary-level worksheets. Now, this educational malpractice has been repackaged as "standards-based learning" and an instructional "best practice." I've even attended professional development sessions where a high-dollar, out-of-state-consultant said that fill-in-the-blank drill and kill would raise student performance by boosting their self esteem!?!?

Tough writes bluntly of college, "Rich kids graduate; poor and working-class kids don't." Too much of this pattern is a result of the same dynamic in K-12 education. School reformers, like universites, have focused on remediating weaknesses, not building on what students have learned from their schools of hard knocks. Even worse, it has concentrated on rewards and punishment, not building the relationships that are key to educational success.

As Tough explains, "to solve the problem of college completion, you first need to get inside the mind of a college student." The same applies to public schools. With at-risk students of all ages, we "need to address their doubts and misconceptions and fears." If we really get into the minds of public school students, they will teach us how to teach them. Then, we can build on their hopes and dreams.