Critical Success Factors

Robert W Andrews

In his new book How Children Succeed, Paul Tough provides a nuanced understanding of our failing education system. Once I picked up his book, I could not put it down. His summary of major research investigating non-cognitive character traits gave me new language to describe our program. It is more than just being smart that dictates success, there are other non-cognitive skills that can be equally, if not more important. What was exciting to me about Tough’s book was that he provides examples of how and why teaching these traits is possible.

Our program searches for students at under-performing schools or from under-resourced communities.  We look for high achieving yet potentially vulnerable kids. We believe these kids are consistently under-matched with regard to their college choices. When given exposure to a variety of experiences, both academic and social, these kids can go head to head with their peers if they matriculate at highly selective colleges and universities. Tough’s book gave me new insight into how we select our scholars and why we believe non-cognitive traits matter.

What Tough suggests about character is not something new to us. Sit around the table at Scholar Selection and you can see this play out. Does Maria have the “fire in the belly” to make up for her low testing? Will Julio ask for help when he’s placed into a more advanced math class as a ninth grader? Each year we make decisions after assessing both cognitive skills (state wide testing) and non-cognitive skills (interview, essay and letters of recommendation from teachers). We also review  middle school transcripts. Until reading Tough’s book, I couldn’t label what we have been doing all alongbut now I  see that intuitively we have been choosing students with grit. Sometimes we mistake students with big dreams for those with motivation and that can lead to difficulty down the road. But when our selection process works well we choose kids who not only have potential academically (as seen through testing and grades), but also have strong “character.” Once selected, we expose our scholars to new experiences through social and academic enrichment. As one can imagine, watching these kids run with new found resources and capabilities is inspiring.

Our program model is based on what we have termed “Critical Success Factors” ( These, as the name suggests, are critical for our scholars to “make it” in our program and at a highly selective college. We are finding that our model works, but can we do more? Can we expand the scope of  scholar selection by looking more closely at applicants “Critical Success Factors”, or non-cognitive traits prior to selection? If so, perhaps we can reach even more students.

Each year a few students withdraw themselves from our program because they  don’t want to do the “extra” work necessary to get to college. While some of these kids have ACT scores similar to those at the most elite colleges around the country they don’t have what it takes to get there. Is there an intervention  that can teach drive at this age? Tough’s research argues it is possible. We are fired up to meet that challenge.


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