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Paul Tough

The power of higher education to change a student's life is strongly linked to their socioeconomic status

Bestselling Author of The Years That Matter Most

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Paul Tough | Bestselling Author of The Years That Matter Most
Lavin Exclusive Speaker

Who gets to graduate, and what are the deciding factors? In his new book, The Years That Matter Most, New York Times bestselling author Paul Tough makes a mind-changing inquiry into higher education. Does college provide real opportunity for young people to improve their prospects and social mobility? Or is it a rigged game? In talks drawn from his six years of research and travel, Tough challenges the status quo, revealing how higher education and social mobility really work, and what we can do to make it more equitable for all. 

“Gorgeously reported. Vividly written. Utterly lucid. Paul Tough jumps skillfully between deeply engaging personal narratives and the bigger truths of higher education. The way he tells the stories of these students, it's impossible not to care about them and get angry on their behalf.”

— Ira Glass, host, This American Life

In his newest offering, The Years That Matter Most, education speaker Paul Tough introduces the innovative new ideas—proposed by psychologists, sociologists, and economists—on how to address the problems related to access to higher education: issues like discrepant graduation rates, social mobility, and the need for a nationwide effort to better identify and recruit high-achieving, low-income students to highly selective colleges.  It’s a book that will will change the way readers think—not just about education, but about America itself. In his earlier book How Children Succeed—which spent over a year on The New York Times bestseller list—Tough challenges the belief that intelligence, endlessly measured by test scores, is the sole predictor of how well a child will do in school and in life. In his follow-up, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why, Tough offers a practical guidebook for educators, parents, and community groups dedicated to improving the lives of children growing up in adversity, containing all-new strategies based in the emerging science of success. Tough ushers in a tidal change in thinking with his argument that curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, self-control, and grit are better indicators of success than IQ.


He identifies a phenomenon in our culture that he calls the “adversity gap”: Some kids, especially those growing up in poverty, simply have too much adversity in their lives, and others, especially those growing up in affluence, actually experience too little. Tough says children develop character strengths when they persevere through adversity. And it’s our job as adults in their homes, schools and communities to give them the support and guidance they need to manage and grow from those setbacks and disappointments. 


Tough is also the author of Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, which chronicled the inspiring story of the Harlem Children’s Zone. He is a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, where he has written cover articles about first-generation college students, character education, and OxyContin addiction in Appalachia, among other topics. He has also contributed stories to This American Life, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Esquire, and GQ


“Paul Tough facilitated our educators retreat for dozens of school superintendents, university deans, directors of education organizations and staff members from the Ohio Department of Education. He not only used a very cohesive and thoughtful PowerPoint presentation format but also posed excellent inquiry questions for table discussion. Mr. Tough referred to examples from his book, challenged the audience to think about non-cognitive traits, and cited background research at appropriate times. One participant stated, ‘The conversation was outstanding. It renewed my faith that the right combination of adult support, nurturing, teaching and coaching can overcome the greatest of obstacles.’ The educators, who attended this retreat, gave it some of the highest ratings.”

Martha Holden Jennings Foundation

“Thank you for participating in the PBS and CPB sponsored breakfast ‘Our Kids, Our Communities, Our Future’ at the PBS Annual Meeting in San Francisco. Your presentation about How Children Succeed was funny, informative and helped to demonstrate the importance of being a champion and mentor to underserved children, and the power of public media to foster engagement. I continue to hear from station leadership and project managers who were inspired by your address and are excited to think differently about ways to engage their community. Thank you again for illuminating our thoughts with your research and anecdotes.”

Corporation for Public Broadcasting

Speech Topics

A Saner Approach to College Admissions Making Sense of a Broken System

Why are young people today so stressed out about getting into their preferred school? In his latest book, The Years That Matter Most, Paul Tough investigates higher education and reveals how complicated, crazy and unfair the college admissions system has become. In this talk, he argues that our obsessive focus on getting our kids into prestigious colleges actually undermines the kind of character strengths that we want to develop in our children. The admissions anxiety that dominates many schools and communities often has the effect of turning complex, idealistic teenagers into stressed-out, competitive monomaniacs. Tough locates the roots of that madness in recent shifts in the economy and higher education, and proposes solutions that schools and parents—and society as a whole—can take to bring sanity back to the process of college admissions.


The Years That Matter Most How College Makes or Breaks Us
For most of the 20th century, colleges and universities in the United States were powerful instruments of social mobility and increasing equality. Each generation’s population of college-educated adults was bigger and more diverse than the one before it—a phenomenon that helped create the great American middle class and produced the most powerful economy in the world. Today, the system of higher education in the United States tends to work very effectively for higher-income families, but it is no longer accomplishing its traditional mission of helping ambitious poor and working-class young people reach the middle and upper classes.
Paul Tough is the bestselling author of How Children Succeed and a contributor to The New York Times Magazine and This American Life. In his new book, The Years That Matter Most, Tough describes the way higher education in America can both help and hinder young people searching for better opportunities. The book tells the stories of several remarkable students, including some for whom college acts as a powerful engine of social mobility. But Tough also reveals the sometimes hidden ways that our higher education system favors children of wealth and privilege, and holds back striving young Americans from modest backgrounds. We’re approaching a watershed moment, an opportunity to enable millions of young people to forge a reliable path to a decent life. At other points in American history, we’ve been able to unite to create educations systems that respond to their needs. We owe it to ourselves to do better—and we need to let history remind us that we can.
Grit at School
How Children Succeed The Hidden Power of Character
Our society currently places a great deal of emphasis on intelligence as the sole indicator of value in children’s education. But in this talk, Paul Tough lays it bare: we believe that success comes from those who score highest on tests, from preschool to SATs. Yet evidence indicates that our story here might be dead wrong. The work of a new generation of researchers and educators points to the fact that the qualities that have a better shot at indicating lifelong success are “non cognitive” or what we might refer to as “personality traits” such as: curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, self-control, and grit. 

Using the tools of science, Tough peels back the mysteries of character and traces the links between early childhood neurological development and environment. By showing how “nature” and “nurture” are intertwined, Tough explores how childhood stresses modify life success and the surprising ways that parents do—and do not—prepare their children for adulthood. Tough helps us understand how early adversity affects childhood emotional, social, and cognitive development in ways that will carry on throughout  their entire lives, and what we can do about it.
Grit at School
Helping Children Succeed What Works and Why
It’s long been true that kids from affluent families tend to do better in school (and on standardized tests) than kids from low-income households. Despite decades of government initiatives and the tireless work of social workers, psychologists, and educators, this gap persists. It has become the central issue in American education, as over half of public school students are now classified by the federal government as ‘low-income.’ 

In this keynote, drawing from his new book Helping Children Succeed, Paul Tough provides a new framework for understanding the challenges of low-income children and offers some innovative solutions. It starts with the biological mechanisms that accompany adversity. Children adapt to their surroundings: Stable, loving early environments incline kids to trust and be curious. But when children grow up amidst violence or chaos—what some doctors call “toxic stress”—their stress-response systems are set to look for trouble everywhere. In school, it’s often hard for them to focus, stay calm, and trust their peers and teachers, which makes it difficult to keep up academically. They are more likely to be disciplined or punished, but less likely to receive the genuine help and understanding they need. 

If we want to help children develop the character strengths like grit or self-control that Tough first explored in How Children Succeed, we first need a more thorough understanding of adversity, home life, and brain development. In a keynote that distills groundbreaking research from psychologists, economists, and neuroscientists, Tough outlines the small steps parents, educators, and civic leaders can take to meaningfully change student motivation and behavior—especially among kids from low-income backgrounds.