Book Review: The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us by Paul Tough

October 16, 2019 is a sunny and windy day in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Coming into school in 42° degree weather on this crispy cold morning, USM’s hallways are unusually quiet, classrooms are all empty.  That is because today is filled with preACT/SAT test.  All students are gathering in 3 different gyms throughout the High School campus to take the standardized tests.

8:15, Dr. B started test taking instruction.  “Please clear your table with only a pencil, the instructional menu and the answer key package, everything else needs to be put away.  Phones are off, calculator is only used during the math session, no food and drinks are allowed during the test either…”

I am one of the 4 chaperons in the aux-gym with the freshmen class.  Suddenly, murmur erupts, some little fearful voices start to echo, “What?  Not even water?  I’m always thirsty.”  Already anxiety-filled gym is stuffed with worries, concerns and stress…  “You will have breaks in between, you can drink water…” Dr. B added, the crowd started to settle, but the tension was growing high.

After a seemingly endless long verbal instruction on the “ACT intellectual property rights”, the privacy policy, the prohibited behaviors, etc.  Finally, students were allowed to pick up their pencil to fill out the section A’s oval bubbles for the school name, then student’s name, ID number…  All the way till section W, it asks for High school course/grade information.  It took a total of 75 minutes just for these sections.

One girl raised her hand and called me over: Would I have a chance to have a sip of water?  I whispered quietly, “Have a sip now.”  “But, I didn’t bring a bottle with me.”  “Oh, Dr. D should be giving you a break before the official test starts, then you can go.”

Finally, the 5 minutes break came, students rushed out the door to get some water or go to bathroom.  Some just needed the movement to get blood flowing.  Three of my freshmen boys locked eyes with me, “Ms. Lu, let’s do tree meditation.”  I smiled back, “Come on, I’ll lead you in 30 high jumping jacks.”  We jumped on the side of the gym, quickly, we were all out of breath.  “Ready?”  I asked.  “Ready!”  They all gave me a thumb up and nodded.

“Get back to your seats NOW!”  Dr. D barked out in his booming voice.  Silence quickly took over the entire gym.  The preACT was ready to start.  My 90 minutes chaperoning shift ended.  I left the freshmen in the gym while more colleagues trickled in to take over our spots.

I felt annoyed, irritated and frustrated, and strangely, at the same time, hopeful.

Hopeful?  How?  Why?  You might wonder.

Well, I think largely it is because that I met Paul Tough, one of the national best selling authors, last night.  A few years ago, I became Tough’s fan after I first read his How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, if you have not, I highly encourage you to.

On September 16th, 2019, after six year’s research on high education and social mobility, after visiting 21 different states, sitting in a freshman calculus class for a semester in University of Texas and philosophy seminars at Princeton, devotedly spent time at giant flagship state universities as well as tiny storefront colleges, interviewing more than 100 students, and following a half dozen of them closely for years from their home, high school to their colleges, his new book, The Years that Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us was released.  Tough started a book tour immediately.

Our school librarian, Laura Klein is a forward thinking and multitalented person.  Upon her arrival at USM, she has launched many unique projects beyond her job description:  Study Buddies, film festival and many research related projects, besides being a busy librarian.  Due to her close working relationship with a local independent bookstore, Boswell Book Company, USM fortunately snatched Paul Tough last night while he was on a book tour in Milwaukee.

Tough, despite his last name, is a gentle mannered, thoughtful and deep thinker.  When he smiles, his face and eyes all lighten up, very genuine.  Tough was born in Canada, dropped out of college twice.  He called his six years research on college campus was meant to make up the void.  Certainly, his personal college path did not predict the normal trajectory of high ed and social mobility.  However, how many others could also break the odds?

In Tough’s book, he cited a well know economist, Raj Chetty, a USM alumni, throughout.  Raj is famous for using big data to analyze trends and patterns.  He discovered the income-dependent nature of SAT/ACT scores: the more well off a family is, the higher SAT/ACT their children could score.  Why?  Because they could afford additional SAT/ACT preps and tutoring.  The higher SAT/ACT scores one has, the better chance one could get into a highly selective college, especially, the ivy leagues.  If you could graduate from one of these ivy leagues, regardless of your family background: poor or wealthy, the future income you could bring in is pretty similar.  In other words, four years of an ivy league college could wipe out the financial disparity between you and your college classmates potentially.

The troubling fact is this: in these highly selective colleges, 75% of the students come from families in the top income quintile – and only 2 or 3 percent come from families in the bottom income quintile.   In other words, the poors often remain poor.  The rich often remain rich.

We have to ask: can a college degree still be transformative?  Is a successful college experience designed for all?  Or only for a selective few?

Even when the lucky few poor students could get into a highly selective college, the culture shock and profound unease these students experience can be disheartening, demoralizing and disabling.   Because in order for them to succeed, they need persistent and time-intensive mentoring programs for academic, social and emotional well being as well as psychological adjustment.  Many colleges simply ignore it.  Many people think that these poor students, on a full scholarship ride, should simply be grateful.

The book sounds disturbing and heavy.  Tough did not leave us in complete despair, though.  Toward the end of his book, he spent a lot of time writing about University of Texas (UT) and math professor, Treisman’s study group program.  Under a law in Texas, each year, UT automatically admits the top 6% of high school graduates cross the state.  these high GPA students could come from a vigorous college prep or an inner city classroom.   UT’s admission office designs many effective mentoring programs to help students from low-income families to adjust to UT socially, emotionally, psychologically as well as academically.  In Treisman’s freshman calculus class, he teaches students how to find confidence and self-belief through calculus.

Prior to Tough’s public talk at USM last night, Laura also organized a small dinner gathering with a group of Tough’s loyal fans.  I was lucky to meet him in person.  At the dinner, I asked him about “hope” because the idealistic side of me wants more UTs and Treismans in the world.  I asked him whether he would think that his book would create a dominos effect: more people would want more UT like colleges and Treisman’s study groups in every state, therefore, the better world everyone is in.

He smiled and said: I hope so.

That was why after I spent nearly 90 minutes with the class of freshmen to only get their preACT test ready to take, my heart remained hopeful.  I believe the change will come sooner or later.




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