Everyone is looking for a silver bullet that will close the achievement gap nationally, in public schools in the City of Chicago, and here in Oak Park.

Is it about more effective teaching in the classroom? Is it about better after-school academic supports like one-on-one tutoring? Is it about double-dosing math and reading for those who are behind grade level? Is it about having a fairer disciplinary system? Is it about getting students into extracurricular activities? Is it about better measuring student achievement so we know whether the student is making progress?

It is about all these things, but there is something more.

My holiday reading this year included a bestselling book that takes a different approach, titled, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, by Paul Tough.

Tough, who previewed some of this material in the New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker, argues that qualities such as perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism and self-control, impact student success as much or more than scores on ACT exams.

Teaching “character” in school is the third rail of education reform. According to Tough, liberals downplay the role of character, fearing the discussion will devolve into ugly stereotypes. Conservatives like the values-based discussion but then, as Tough writes, they effectively say, “There’s not much society can do until poor people shape up and somehow develop better character.”

Tough’s book is not a polemic. His point is that science shows that childhood stress and adversity can affect a student’s learning in school, but effective strategies emphasizing “character” can improve student performance dramatically.

So what are the psychological traits that allow high school graduates to make it successfully through college, work and life? An inclination to persist at a boring and often unrewarding task, the ability to delay gratification, the tendency to follow through on a plan.

For Tough, increasing the odds for students in general and low-income students in particular means not only learning the ABCs but also deliberately developing soft skills, such as persistence, teamwork and accuracy.

Tough believes that as practiced in innovative charter schools such as KIPP, students can build “character,” learn optimism, learn to fail quickly and keep going, and increase self-control. The term du jour, as evidenced by the title of this book and as first articulated by Angela Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania, is “grit.”

What if improving overall student achievement and closing the achievement gap requires that students develop a better sense of grit along with geometry?

What if this character trait is just as important as academics to the success of students in Oak Park?

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