I tend to feel most hopeful in midsized cities. I was just in Athens, Georgia and New Haven, Connecticut. Those cities are kind of similar in that they’re not [predominantly] poor cities. They’re not like Youngstown, Ohio. But they have some significant poverty. They also both, coincidentally, have a very wealthy educational institution in the University of Georgia and Yale University, respectively, as well as lots of committed, interesting people, good nonprofits, and people who want to improve their community in a broad sort of way. So there are lots of resources in both of these places. It’s cities like these where I feel most optimistic about a Promise Neighborhood-type intervention. It just feels solvable in a way that being on the South Side of Chicago feels less solvable. Not that I don’t think there’s a solution down the road, but taking one neighborhood in the middle of the South Side and trying to solve it is really hard because there’s a dozen other really poor neighborhoods all around you. In some cities, there really are just 80 blocks where there’s a lot of poverty. That’s a lot of blocks, but it also just feels like there are actual borders to work with. It gives you something very specific to target.
In all of these cases we’re talking about universities, but I think that in some cities, like in Omaha, Nebraska and in Tulsa, Oklahoma—I think in both of those cities there are Buffetts. I think [billionaire businessman] Warren [Buffett] is in Omaha and one of his kids is in Tulsa. I think in a lot of cities there’s one foundation that has just a ton of money. That’s another place where you feel hopeful. These guys could say, “OK. We’re putting $20 million per year into this one thing instead of spreading our money all over town.” That could make a huge difference.
How did you get started on “How Children Suceed?”
It came out of the aftermath of the first book. I started hearing various things, reading, and questioning various things that related to the first book. For example, I started hearing about some of the struggles that some of the students from the high-performing charter schools were having as they moved on to high school and into higher education. I was intrigued by that. Part of it was very specifically [economics professor] James Heckman of the University of Chicago. [When I interviewed him for the first book] he mentioned this idea of noncognitive skills, but I didn’t really go too deeply into it. I met up with him again after the first book came out, and he was getting more and more interested in this research [on noncognitive skills], and that got me more and more intrigued. [Eventually] I just had that feeling, that nice feeling you get sometimes as a writer, where little pieces of the puzzle were coming together in an intriguing way. That started to make me feel there was something going on here that could maybe become a book.
I think most people accept the idea that poverty is often a major roadblock to children’s intellectual development. “How Children Succeed” points to the potential for noncognitive skills that are less dependent on, say, family income, to help close the gap. But do you worry that some people might instead point to a lack of noncognitive skills as yet another way of blaming poor people for the fact that they’re poor?