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Dallas ISD's Mike Miles Will Build Beyond the Test, If the City Lets Him Get There

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Dallas school trustee Mike Morath sent me a link to an Ira Glass "This American Life" radio show about testing and the ability of children to succeed in life. I thought it spoke to a lot of the blowback I get from teachers mad at me for sticking up for Dallas ISD superintendent and reformer Mike Miles.

Spoke to me, too. Maybe we all have something to learn, amazing as that would be in my own case.

Glass starts off with a dude I suppose I might be able to learn a thing or two from: James Heckman, Nobel Prize-winning economist at The University of Chicago, who, according to his website, has conducted "a consortium of economists, developmental psychologists, sociologists, statisticians and neuroscientists showing that quality early childhood development heavily influences health, economic and social outcomes for individuals and society at large."

Early in the radio program, Heckman tells Glass he became interested in early childhood education when he noticed that the amount of testable cognitive information a child has mastered by the end of high school is a poor predictor of how well the child will do in life. Heckman said kids who actually graduate do better at everything -- jobs, marriages, other pursuits -- than kids who learn the same amount of testable information in order to pass general equivalency tests for a G.E.D. certificate.

The ones who finish high school must be learning something else, something other than cognitive information they can spit back on command for a test. At first, when he was beginning his inquiries, Heckman described the unknown element as the "dark matter" of learning.

More inquiry and more collaboration with scientists and experts in other disciplines enabled Heckman to screw down his focus to a single common element that everybody knows about, the one most of us call "character." But when Glass tries to get Heckman to use the word, Heckman squirms.

"The trouble is, 'character,' it sounds very moralistic," Heckman says, to laughter from Glass. They both laugh at Heckman's discomfort. "It sounds like we're running a Sunday school. I think the proper word is probably 'personality' and 'social skills.'"

"Listen to you," Glass teases, "you're changing like from minute to minute."

But they both know what they mean. They mean the ability to park your butt at a desk, shut the hell up and pay attention in the context of larger traits like the ability to delay gratification and focus on a distant goal achievable only through hard work. The kids who finish high school tend to have developed those traits, and those traits have more to do with success in life than a catalog of cognitive knowledge.

But nobody wants to call it character, because that word, character, makes everybody think of some stone-eyed lipless schoolmaster with a cane rod in one hand and a Bible in the other. And ours is a culture that wants to tell the preachy schoolmaster to shove it.

The problem for poor kids from violent backgrounds is that life doesn't just forget to teach them character: It doesn't even allow the part of the brain in which character is conceived to develop normally. Glass also interviews Nadine Burke Harris, a California pediatrician and research scientist who explains how a constant diet of terrifying experience actually shuts down development in the brain's prefrontal cortex where executive function develops, leaving a child with more fight-or-flight impulse than self-control.

And self-control is everything. As I listened, I thought back to a book I read a quarter century ago by two social scientists, Michael R. Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi, called A General Theory of Crime. Gottfredson and Hirschi found that most of the external causes that people had tried for a century to blame for crime -- unemployment, social class, education, culture -- were poor predictors of which kids would turn to lives of crime and which ones would not. The authors wound up like Heckman, drilling down to something that sounded a whole lot like character which they also did not want to call character.

They called it "impulse control" and a bunch of other things, all of which made me mentally chuckle just like Glass was doing with Heckman. I had a picture in my mind of all these social scientists at the end of a trail, staring across a fence into a pasture with a big sign in the middle saying, "Field of Morality." And they were all shaking their heads saying, "Oh, no, we're respectable scientists. We're not going over the fence into that briar patch!"

On the program Glass interviews Paul Tough, author of the 2012 book, "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character," who is the guy who brings the good news. It turns out that that stuff -- that no-name stuff, that stuff we refuse to call character -- is extremely teachable. Tough offers moving examples, including a kid who is interviewed on the show, of young people whose lives were dramatically turned around when they received even the most rudimentary coaching on things like determination or what Tough calls "grit," as well as optimism, listening and focusing on others.

Heckman tells Glass that these social and personal skills offer a better channel for improving the destiny of a deprived child than trying to raise the kid's IQ with cognitive teaching.

"Pure IQ tends to be pretty hardened, at least what's called rank stability," Heckman says. "If you're a top dog in the distribution at age ten, you're probably going to be top dog at age 30.

"Social skills, personality traits, the ability to stay on task, these can be taught, and these can be taught at later ages. There's a malleability there that actually offers a new perspective on social policy, how social policy might redirect itself toward those more malleable soft skills."

After I listened to the show, I called Morath to ask to what extent this kind of research has been incorporated into the current reform regime at the Dallas school system. He said superintendent Miles is very aware of it and has designed an element of his plan for the district, called "Habits of Mind," on these precepts. But it's one of those things, Morath said, that Miles won't be able to get to tomorrow.

"It's part of the comprehensive plan, the roadmap," Morath said. "The implementation of it so far has been weak to nonexistent.

"It's one of these things Miles is going to get to in a year and a half. He's very methodical. He knows the district can only chomp off so many things at once. This is not one of the things that's in the immediate term. It's in the longer term."

The lesson I took from the Glass show is that teachers are not wrong when they tell me children come to them virtually unable to learn. But that's only half the story. Yes, many of them may be missing Heckman's "dark matter," that something else that allows them to park themselves at a desk, shut up and absorb cognitive teaching.

But they can learn the something else. That's the exciting good news. It doesn't sound as if it's even all that hard. Simple coaching of the kids in life skills and coaching of their parents in bonding skills can make enormous differences.

I did think ahead also to all the talk this week about firing Miles. I wish somebody could come to Dallas and teach some simple social skills to the whole city. Think what we could do with patience.

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