Paul Tough

Writer & Speaker


New York Times Magazine

Saying No to College,” September 5, 2023
“What changed in the last decade to make a college education — and higher education as an institution — so unappealing to so many Americans?”

The Richmond Hill Experiment,” September 15, 2020
“When Covid-19 began to take its toll in the spring, that effort suddenly began to unravel, as students abandoned their college plans, often compelled by economic necessity to try to find work to help support their families.”

What College Admissions Offices Really Want,” September 10, 2019
“Enrollment managers know there is no shortage of deserving low-income students applying to good colleges. They know this because they regularly reject them — not because they don’t want to admit these students, but because they can’t afford to.”

Who Gets to Graduate?” May 18, 2014
“Whether a student graduates or not seems to depend today almost entirely on just one factor — how much money his or her parents make. To put it in blunt terms: Rich kids graduate; poor and working-class kids don’t.”

A Speck in the Sea,” January 5, 2014
“Aldridge shouted once more, panic rising in his throat, and then silence descended. He was alone in the darkness. A single thought gripped his mind: This is how I’m going to die.”

Obama Vs. Poverty,” August 19, 2012
“If any American president might have been expected to focus his attention on Roseland and its problems, it would be Barack Obama. The neighborhood, as it happens, played a critical role in Obama’s personal and political history.”

What If the Secret to Success Is Failure?” September 18, 2011
“What is good character? Is it something that can be taught in a formal way, in the classroom, or is it the responsibility of the family, something that is inculcated gradually over years of experience?”

Education Reform’s Two-Month Warning,” July 8, 2011
“Do we really want to accept that the best that the United States can do for those 1 million 5-year-olds, with 13 years and vast resources at our disposal, is to get 90,000 of them to proficiency in math, while we let the other 910,000 fail?”

No, Seriously: No Excuses,” July 7, 2011
“Why are some reformers resorting to excuses? Most likely for the same reason that urban educators from an earlier generation made excuses: successfully educating large numbers of low-income kids is very, very hard.”

An Epic Dance to the Music of Girl Talk,” March 4, 2011
“It started randomly, as collaborations often do for young people with high-speed connections, limited budgets and big ideas.”

Can Play Teach Self-Control?” September 25, 2009
“Over the last few years, a new buzz phrase has emerged among scholars and scientists who study early-childhood development, a phrase that sounds more as if it belongs in the boardroom than the classroom: executive function.”

24/7 School Reform,” September 7, 2008
“In an election season when Democrats find themselves unusually unified on everything from tax policy to foreign affairs, one issue still divides them: education.”

A Teachable Moment,” August 17, 2008
“While it is true that for decades the children of New Orleans toiled in a substandard school system, they have also continually faced countless other obstacles to success — inadequate health care, poorly educated parents, exposure to high rates of violent crime and a popular culture that often denigrates mainstream achievement.”

In New Orleans, One School Begins and Another Ends,” August 17, 2008
“Three years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city’s school system, Rabouin High, in downtown New Orleans, is on the road to recovery. In the Lower Ninth Ward, Lawless High wasn’t so lucky.”

The Class-Consciousness Raiser,” June 10, 2007
“It may be that the only people with abiding faith in the power of class divisions in America are the country’s few remaining Marxists and Ruby Payne.”

What It Takes to Make a Student,” November 26, 2006
“The evidence is now overwhelming that if you take an average low-income child and put him into an average American public school, he will almost certainly come out poorly educated. What the small but growing number of successful schools demonstrate is that the public-school system accomplishes that result because we have built it that way.”

Preventing Suicide Bombing,” December 11, 2005
“How do you stop a suicide bomber on his way to a target? Until recently, that wasn’t an urgent question for scholars in the West. But it is now.”

The Reawakening,” September 25, 2005
“I wanted to talk to Afghanistan’s travel visionaries, the optimistic souls who could look at bomb-ravaged sites and land-mined hiking trails and see tourist attractions just waiting to be born.”

The Harlem Project,” June 20, 2004
“Geoffrey Canada knew there were success stories out there. There were always reports in the newspapers about ‘special’ kids who ‘overcame the odds.’ Some brilliant teacher or charity or millionaire went into the ghetto and found 100 kids and educated them and turned their lives around. But those stories seemed counterproductive to Canada. Instead of helping some kids beat the odds, he thought, why don’t we just change the odds?”

The Black White Supremacist,” May 25, 2003
“The greatest twist of Leo Felton’s career as a revolutionary is that after years of effort to win white America over from multiculturalism to racism, the one person he managed to convert was Erica Chase, a racist he has turned into a multiculturalist.”

The Alchemy of OxyContin,” July 29, 2001
“Purdue’s field reps were the first wave of OxyContin apostles, spreading word of the pill’s effectiveness door to door — doctor by doctor, pharmacist by pharmacist. But Purdue’s officially sanctioned word-of-mouth marketing campaign was followed by another, unsanctioned one.”

An Encyclopedia of Lost Practices: The New York Times,” part of an imagined time capsule for people in the year 3000 (written with Stephen Sherrill), December 5, 1999
“What was the New York Times? The short answer is, it’s what you’re holding in your hands, if, that is, you still have what we call ‘hands.'”

The Next Next Seattle,” December 19, 1993
“From Boise, Idaho, to Santa Barbara, Calif., kids with nothing but an electric guitar and a dream go to bed one night in blessed obscurity, and wake up the next morning in the hippest place in America.”

Into the Pit,” November 7, 1993
“A second later I’m sprawled on the floor, thinking that it’s probably a bad place to be, and then someone’s on top of me, his sweaty back pressed against my face, and then down comes someone else on top of him, and all I can see is boots, lots of boots.”

Lapham’s Quarterly

Hearts and Minds: What we fight about when we fight about school,” December 2022
“In every neighborhood there were exceptions, a fortunate few who were able to leverage rare talents or lucky breaks to transcend childhoods of hardship and poverty and achieve educational success. The exceptions allowed those of us in more privileged settings to imagine that the game was not rigged—that opportunity really did exist in every zip code, for those willing to grab it.”

The Atlantic

Welding Won’t Make You Rich,” September 13, 2019
“Over the past decade, as the make-believe story of the rich welder has grown and spread, public spending on the community colleges where actual young people are trying to learn actual welding has shrunk—in some states, quite drastically so.”

How Kids Really Succeed,” June 2016
“If we want students to act in ways that will maximize their future opportunities — to persevere through challenges, to delay gratification, to control their impulses — we need to consider what might motivate them to take those difficult steps.”

The New Yorker

The Poverty Clinic,”[PDF] March 21, 2011
“In the view of Burke and the researchers she has been following, many of the problems that we think of as social issues — and therefore the province of economists and sociologists — might better be addressed on the molecular level.”

Another Dot-Com Résumé” (written with Stephen Sherrill), May 28, 2001 [PDF]
“Raised $235 million in venture capital, and then oversaw planning meetings about what, precisely, to do with it.”

The Book of Joe” (written with Stephen Sherrill), September 28, 1998
“The world’s gone mad. We are all God’s tiny playthings.”

Khmer Roué” (written with Stephen Sherrill), August 11, 1997
“Pol Pot has a problem. It is 11 a.m. on a warm, lazy California morning and he’s having breakfast poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The problem is that he ordered the flapjacks, and the waitress has just brought him Belgian waffles.”

This American Life

The Campus Tour Has Been Cancelled
(College admissions and standardized tests during the pandemic, featuring reporting from The Inequality Machine)
March 19, 2021

“>Harlem Renaissance
(Baby College, Geoffrey Canada, and the Harlem Children’s Zone)
From “Going Big,” September 26, 2008

My Favorite Martian
(My father and his search for aliens)
From “Go Ask Your Father,” May 13, 2005

Unkindness of Strangers
(Starlee Kine and her fight with her next-door neighbor)
From “Kindness of Strangers,” September 12, 1997

Life in a Bubble
(Envy and regret in the world of balloon animals)
From “Blame It on Art,” August 22, 1997

(The Mail Recovery Center in St. Paul, Minnesota)
From “Other People’s Mail,” July 25, 1997

Who’s Canadian?
(A conversation with my sister about being Canadian)
From “Who’s Canadian?” May 30, 1997

Food Chain in a New York Apartment
(Catherine Chalmers, photographer)
From “Animals,” January 10, 1997

Liza Lou
(The artist who beaded an entire kitchen)
From “Obsession,” July 26, 1996

The Number Two
(A woman obsessed with the number two)
From “Obsession,” July 26, 1996

New York Times Op-Ed

Go Ahead California, Get Rid of the SAT,” May 21, 2020
“If the Regents concur with Ms. Napolitano this week, it will be a crucial turning point in a national debate about standardized testing that has been going on for decades.”

To Help Kids Thrive, Coach Their Parents,” May 22, 2016
“If we want to improve children’s opportunities for success, one of the most powerful potential levers for change is not the children themselves, but rather the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of the adults who surround them.”

Don’t Drop Out of School Innovation,” August 19, 2010
“At this moment of uncertainty and experimentation, should the federal government wait, as critics of Promise Neighborhoods suggest, until ironclad evidence for one big solution exists? Or should it create a competitive research-and-development marketplace to make bets on innovations?”

Gone but Not Unforgotten” (written with Stephen Sherrill), May 26, 1999
“As a nation, we watched as that boy – the one with three names, Jonathan Something Something, who most likely played the son of Tim Allen – came of age before our very eyes.”

Taking the A Train to Early Retirement” (written with Stephen Sherrill), 1998
“A thousand rides a month gets you to a per-ride fare of just 6 cents. Not bad – but still about 5 cents too much. What?”

What Men Can Do” (written with Stephen Sherrill), March 3, 1995
“Listen, gentlemen, why play defense? We are good at something, too. Something they’re not good at. And that something – let’s say it loud – is imagining what objects would look like if they were rotated.”


Girl Talk Gets Naked. Often,” September 2009
“This is what Gregg Gillis does: he samples, blends, loops, recombines, and reconstitutes the popular music of the past fifty years or so into strange and beautiful new creations.”

Mother Jones

Harlem’s Man With the Plan,” January/February 2009
“Obama, drawing on the research of his Hyde Park neighbor, the economist James Heckman, has made the point that programs like the Harlem Children’s Zone are not giveaways; they’re investments that will pay for themselves in reduced spending on welfare, job training, and the criminal justice system.”

That’s the News and I Am Outta Here,” September/October 1998
“Todd doesn’t track the sort of news other media organizations do. He looks for signs that the Rapture — a divine intervention predicted in the Bible that signals the beginning of the end of the world — is nigh.”


“Schoolhouse Rock”: An Education Blog, September 2008
“A true solution to the problem of underachievement in inner-city public schools is going to require more nurturing families and safer neighborhoods as well as better teachers and more accountable schools.”

Little Gray Book Lectures

How to Communicate Without the Use of Wires, October 2005 (with John Hodgman, Jonathan Coulton, Starlee Kine, and others)
“This is a story about fathers and sons, and it’s a story about communication with alien beings. It begins in the 1820s, in Germany.”

Futurist Dad, February 2005 (with John Hodgman and Jonathan Coulton)
“When I was just a little boy, I asked my father, What will I be? Will I be happy? Will I be rich? Here’s what he said to me.”


City Still Breathing: Listening to the Weakerthans,” Issue 45, 2002
“The word Winnipeg never appears anywhere in the songs on the Weakerthans’ two albums, but the idea and the fact of the place infects them.”


Paul Tough on Radio,” April 1, 2001
“We’d publish sublime pieces by established writers [on Open Letters], and readers took them in stride. But whenever we ran rawer stuff, from teenagers and weirdos and drug addicts, readers responded with great enthusiasm.”

The New Republic

Bipartisanship, Circa 410 A.D.” (written with Stephen Sherrill), January 22, 2001
“No battle is perfect, and inevitably some children are going to be impaled on stakes and their lifeless bodies paraded through the streets. Those tactics don’t make the results of this contest any less legitimate.”

Downsizing, Downsized” (found poem), April 1, 1996
“He was in serious love with a good-looking woman who loved to dance. He was replaced by Lars Nyberg, a Swede.”

Open Letters

The Best Joke Ever: A Letter from Paul Tough on Whittling Down,” September 28, 2000
“Are there any books I just can’t live without? Am I the kind of guy who might need a tie now and then? How important are sunglasses, really?”

A Billion to One: A Letter from Paul Tough on a Moment of Coincidence,” June 21, 2000
“I can still feel the feeling that I had on each of those two occasions, of wanting to be part of something big and significant and magical, and half-believing that I was.”

Saturday Night

The Election of ’99 (Editor’s Letter),” February 2000
“Remember the good old days, when we used to hold federal elections in public? Oh, the fun we’d have.”

Possession,” July/August 1999
“Henry and a few other members of the congregation interrogated M for hours. At dawn, they concluded that she was, indeed, possessed, and that there was only one thing that would cure her: exorcism.”

Identity Crisis,” March 1999
“He had a British accent, but under the influence of a truth serum given to him at the hospital, he said he thought he might be from Morristown, New Jersey. He thought he might be a smoker. He knew he was gay. But that was it.”

New York Observer

14 Ways of Looking at Summer Reruns: Pleasures, Pains of Syndication” (with D. Dolan), August 31-September 7, 1998
“Now reruns are just there. You watch the same episode that you watched five years ago, that you watched 20 years ago. The years run together. You grow old and die.” [Part 2; Part 3; Part 4]

Diary of a Dole Man,” August 12, 1996
“Haley Barbour did junk, too, but he smoked it—the guy was scared to death of needles. Dole used to kid him about it, call him a baby.”

Harper’s Magazine

Should the Clinics Come to Davenport?” (with Marilyn Cohen, Connie Cook, Dan Ebener, Loxi Hopkins, Sylvia Roba, and Jeanne Wonio), August 1996 [Here’s a PDF.]

Does America Still Work? On the Turbulent Energies of the New Capitalism” (with Robert Reich, Edward Luttwak, George Gilder, Albert Dunlap, and Ronald Blackwell), May 1996 [Here’s a PDF.]

What Are We Doing On-line?” (with John Perry Barlow, Kevin Kelly, Sven Birkerts, and Mark Slouka), August 1995 [Here’s a PDF, and here’s another link.]

A Revolution, or Business as Usual?” (with David Frum, William Kristol, Frank Luntz, Mike Murphy, James P. Pinkerton, and Ralph Reed), March 1995 [Here’s a PDF. Also, here’s a video of “Rich White Farmers,” a 1995 off-off-Broadway theatrical production based on the text of this forum.]

The New Auteurs” (with Mark Gill, Jeffrey Godsick, Bob Israel, and Joe Nimziki), May 1993 [Here’s a PDF, and here’s another link.]

30 Seconds to Victory: A Campaign War Game” (with Stuart Stevens, Carter Eskew, Joe Trippi, and others), July 1992 [Here’s a PDF.]

Is Computer Hacking a Crime?” (with John Perry Barlow, Lee Felsenstein, Emmanuel Goldstein, Phiber Optik, and others), May 1990 [Here’s a PDF, and another link.]


Terminal Delinquents” (written with Jack Hitt), December 1990 [Here’s another link.]
“Until recently, hacking was done in the comfort of one’s bedroom, plugged into Mom and Dad’s home phone. But a government wiretap can do a lot to change old habits.”