“Grit” has become a staple of school leadership discussion, due in large part to Angela Duckworth’s best selling book. I just helped a school compose a remarkable vision statement, and grit is mentioned as an essential outcome for their students. Have we swallowed this argument whole a bit too quickly? Does it resonate with us, particularly American parents and educators, because we want to believe that personal grit drove each of us to a differentiated level of success? Have we questioned what grit means to those who grow up in a vastly different condition than our own?
Ira Socol is one of our true educational thought leaders because he is a brilliant and creative thinker, AND, unlike many who write books or give speeches for a living, he works in schools. He has researched the idea of grit and written two long blog posts (Part 1 and Part 2) that I think would make powerful reading for any school faculty, leadership team, or parent community. Ira suggests that grit is not a measure of resilience, but of conformity:
Let’s be clear. What Duckworth, Tough, even Davis are referring to is essential to traditional school success. But the word they are seeking is not “grit” – as I said before, the kids they want to give “grit” to are the “grittiest” kids on earth – that’s how they’ve survived – the word these “grit proponents” are seeking is “compliance.” They want kids working hard at what they themselves value, which is, apparently, “white middle class conformity. “Grit,” school leader Dave Meister says, “is simply a term by which the privileged try distinguish their behavior from those they define as unworthy.”
Ira proposes that the differentiator that we seek is not grit at all, but almost the opposite, what he calls “’slack’ – the moments when necessity is not the sole driver.” It is the margin of safety provided to the relatively well-off or well connected that is not available to those for whom every hour or every day is a mountain of steep challenges. Ira proposes that:
… “slack” and “abundance” are what our “at risk” children need: “They show that abundance allows people slack, space that doesn’t force anyone to consider trade-offs. Conversely, scarcity removes slack. In moments of abundance, then, people behave differently than in moments of scarcity. The consequences for people in poverty are much greater, then, than the consequences for people in affluence.” In my understanding of “slack,” “Negative Space,” not the SLANT concepts of KIPP nor the “misery index” of Duckworth, is the path to opportunity. “This is really about allowing students to breathe.
I may not object to Duckworth and “grit” as strongly as Ira does, but he and others he cites make strong points. During my annual student trip to the Philippines a couple of years ago I wrote about how children there are vastly more resourceful in meeting basic living needs than their wealthy American or over-schooled Chinese counterparts. They demonstrate the natural grit of about 4 billion people on the planet who live in poverty, a set of conditions that are buffered from the lives of the other 3.5 billion by some degree of slack.
Children are not born in need of grit; that is obvious to anyone who has spent time in impoverished communities anywhere around the world. Many American children have their grit buffered or removed. Cathy Caprino, writing in Forbes, identifies parenting behaviors that cripple children’s abilities to become effective leaders: sheltering our children from risk; rescuing them from failure; giving every kid a trophy, win or lose. Many of our schools, particularly those which serve higher income populations, are guilty of these same behaviors; in fact they are demanded of our schools by the parents they serve. I have no data to support it, but I am pretty sure these behaviors are more prevalent in families with higher income levels, with more “slack” in their lives.
While I have not studied this as deeply as Ira and those he cites, I think there is a unique balance that we seek, and that schools can and should play an important role in achieving that balance. Clearly there are American children who need to be re-taught about grit, to be put in experiential environments that recreate more natural conditions where grit provides a meaningful advantage, not to achieve conformity as Ira fears, but to find that sense of inner resilience and drive to persevere that many Americans mistakenly feel is more powerful here than in other cultures. Grit that leads to creativity is good, but kids won’t discover or re-discover their grit if their lives are full of canned, risk-free outcomes.
And yet there are many other children, in all countries and cultures, and perhaps even a majority of American children, who do not need a dose of Duckworth’s grit in schools; they get it when they wake up every day. For them, schools can and must provide them some slack that they won’t find anywhere else. When I go to the Philippines and get out into the farming communities, I never tire of seeing children, dressed in clean, pressed uniforms, walking a few miles down a dirt or muddy road to school. Their school is just a concrete room with a book or two, a chalk board, and a teacher, utterly inadequate by the standards of the developed world, but those students find a bit of slack in that school, six hours a day for a half dozen or more years when they are not working in the fields. For some, that slack time leads to high school and a job, or maybe a college degree and a better job and a family that wrestles with middle class parenting dilemmas like who gets a trophy, rather than who gets to eat. With the indisputable research on the decreasingly accessible middle class dream, is there any argument that more students need more robust “slack” in their lives?
Big ideas deserve and require big discussion; thank to Ira for opening my (our?) eyes to the other side of this big idea. Let’s have the grit to NOT swallow a great-sounding idea without beating it up a bit, and let’s be thankful that we have the slack in our lives to be thoughtful educators.
It is dramatic change(perhaps at the same level), but I wouldn’t call it existential, so it couldn’t be the same level of existential change.
I so appreciate your thoughts here as they (and Ira’s) are widening my lens on this whole idea. I have always bought into the idea of having opportunities to persevere and to work through when things don’t go your way. I guess that’s why I liked the thoughts about grit. Yet, what you and Ira have reminded me of is that this idea can not be thought about or discussed as either good or bad without considering the context of one’s life or situation. For many children, they don’t need any additional opportunities to “grow grit.” They are gritty enough as it is, and more and more opportunities actually have a detrimental effect.
I used to laugh about my mom always saying, “don’t worry, honey, it builds character” and me responding, “then it seems that I will have a lot of character!” What I was blessed with, however, is a context that was pretty free from hardship and scarcity in comparison. So, those challenges I faced did provide me a chance to flex my perseverance and grit muscles. In contrast, I wonder what muscles we should be thinking about for many children who do experience hardship and scarcity. Ira’s notion of slack is interesting, and I will think on it more. But perhaps we should also be thinking of ways to “grow” someone’s experience with nurture, with faith and belief from adults surrounding them, and with love.
Ira’s thoughts really unlocked something that has been in the back of my mind for so long, and based on twitter feedback, a lot of others’ as well. Like so many others, Duckworth wants school to “teach” something that kids will have if we just don’t rob them of it to begin with; as Dave Monaco tweeted, schools and home/family have to be on the same page here. Very complicated, and like most things, we do ourselves and our students a real disservice by defaulting to the one-word solution.
[…] “Grit” has become a staple of school leadership discussion, due in large part to Angela Duckworth’s best selling book. I just helped a school compose a remarkable vision statement, and grit is ment… […]
Thank you for inviting and inspiring this discussion, Grant. I have been intrigued by the concept of GRIT since reading Paul Tough’s book and some of Angela Duckworth’s pieces. As it turns out, our school motto – virtute et numine – is loosely translated to “by grit and by grace”. Perhaps a measured balance between the complexities of grit and grace (slack) is what one must exercise in the life of schools and beyond. Personally, I have always been fascinated by the qualities that the word integrity engenders and choose to use it alongside our “grit and grace”. Again, thank you for being a catalyst to this important discussion.
[…] Lichtman jumped with Does “Grit” need deeper discussion? and others began weighing in with comments, posts and […]
I like the notion of opening a line of discussion that encourages educators to clarify our definitions of “grit” – I appreciate you, Grant, for engaging on this topic… thanks!
I also like affirming “grit that leads to creativity.” One of the consequences of the great democratizing power of the internet, it seems to me, is that our kids have so many choices about how to avoid authentic, messy challenges and simply ‘click over’ to something easier… it may be also that sometimes ‘canned lessons with asked-and-answered questions’ offered by our teaching colleagues enable students to elect a path of lesser resistance – when students would be better served by failing and trying again (and again) to work out tasks for which they – and we – don’t have ready-made answers on a key.
I wonder about “grit” as a wholly insufficient response to Dewey – too often, it seems, school asks students to exercise “grit” when the work of school doesn’t align or resonate with what students are curious about. In this context, “grit” might be a proxy for ‘persevere by doing what school asks of you now… so that you can direct your own learning / realize some reward at a far-off point in the future.’ Dewey reminds us, instead, that “education… is a process of living and not preparation for future living.” I hope we are moving to a day when we can say ‘no thank you’ to this sort of grit… and encourage students and parents to continue a healthy dialogue with school leaders about ways that value propositions for educational institutions must evolve from their traditional forms to models that maybe encourage students to develop essential skills today that will support a lifetime of learning…
Paul Tough will speak at The Lamplighter School in Dallas on 1/27, and I’ll be in the audience… meantime, I’m going to take a shot at directing his attention to your post, Grant, including links to Ira Socol’s thoughtful critique and ideas about slack. Perhaps @paultough will engage in the deeper discussion here, too.
Thanks, Dave. As you will see in my response to Paul’s comment, I think you identify the simple lessons of Dewey as, once again, a path for us to create these opportunities for children that is more authentic than perhaps what has been proposed by Duckworth. As Joise, Pam, and Ira have added, there as so many other examples of psychologists throwing out a great-sounding word that is not supported by rigorous research, and we educators fall into the trap of following what may be easy but not right.
Hi Dave, Grant, and others,
I appreciate the invitation to engage in this discussion and respond to Ira Socol’s critique of my book, “How Children Succeed.” But his critique is difficult to respond to because it has very little to do with my book. Not once in his post does he quote from my book, and for good reason: the ideas that he attributes to the book and to me never appear in its pages.
Socol’s main complaint about my book seems to be that I and the educators and researchers I write about believe that grit is a quality that privileged people possess and poor children do not. He claims that I argue in my book that poor children must increase their grit to the level of better-off children in order to succeed.
In fact, the book says no such thing. It never makes the case that low-income children have less grit than wealthy children. If anything, it argues the opposite. Here’s the one quotation from my book that does compare the grit of wealthy students (at the Riverdale Country School) with low-income students (at KIPP):
“David Levin says that this is one area where he believes KIPP students have an advantage over their peers at Riverdale. ‘The day-to-day challenges that our kids go through to obtain an education are very, very different than the day-to-day challenges of the kids who go to Riverdale,’ he told me. ‘As a result, the grit of our students is significantly higher in many respects than the grit of the students who go to Riverdale.'”
To clarify: Levin is saying that his mostly low-income, minority students have more grit than the mostly white, wealthy students at Riverdale, not less. He doesn’t believe that his students need to behave more like the students at Riverdale; he believes the students at Riverdale need to become more like the students at KIPP.
Dominic Randolph, the head of Riverdale, makes the same point – his concern, expressed at length in the book, is that his wealthy students are so protected from genuine struggle that they don’t have the opportunity to develop the character strengths, including grit, that they’ll need later in life.
Socol quotes Dave Meister as saying “‘Grit’ is simply a term by which the privileged try [to] distinguish their behavior from those they define as unworthy.” Socol writes that “this is the key” to understanding the failings of my book. Perhaps there are some privileged people who use the term “grit” in that way. But the educators I write about in “How Children Succeed” are using the term in precisely the opposite way: they are identifying grit as a quality that privileged children have less of than other children.
This is why it’s difficult for me to respond to Socol’s critique. I can’t defend the ideas that he attributes to me, since I don’t agree with them and have never stated them.
I’d also point out that “How Children Succeed” is not primarily a book about grit. The section on Angela Duckworth’s grit research is all of three paragraphs long. I do think her work is interesting — but I think the research and the educators and the children I write about in the other 99 percent of the book are just as interesting.
Still, I’m grateful for the invitation to take part in the discussion. If there’s anything in my book I can clarify, I’m happy to do my best.
Thanks, Paul, for the thoughts and comments. I would urge you to also see blog posts prompted by this discussion from Pam Moran, Josie Holford, and Mark Crotty that add other perspectives as educators think about our role.
The two points that I feel have surfaced, or that I latched onto in this discussion are these. First, if we agree that children with fewer advantages have more grit, then this must be a more natural state, one that exists before being excised by the buffers of access to resources. How then do we re-introduce grit to those from whom it has been extracted? My best sense is that this, as Dave Ostroff mentions in his comment, is another powerful lesson from Dewey. As opposed to giving students a grit survey and crafting lessons to hand them, we must allow them to experience life and learning in ways that allow them to find, fail, and re-develop resilience.
Second, I think we have collectively raised a very valuable discussion about the nature of what we think of as poverty when it comes to “grit” and “slack”. We have suggested that in addition to economic poverty as a differentiator of children who need more or less grit and slack, we can add emotional, social, and “family” poverty, and probably more. A child may come from a well-off family, but have been starved of experiences that allow that child to explore their grittiness, etc. Reducing what may be a very complex set of conditions about the individual child to a word that is easy to toss about, or to a “survey” that fails to take into account so many of these factors, calls into question our reliance as educators on these simple-sounding solutions.
I am not suggesting by any means that you, Paul, subscribe to the above ideas! I am summarizing some of the excellent comments that have come up in this discussion, and appreciate your ideas as we push to go deeper than sound bites, as that is where good education lives.
A quick reply, with more to come…
I honestly heard your book as a work strongly influenced, throughout, by the work of Angela Duckworth and by similar belief systems which ran through the work at the University of Chicago, that Chicago high school principal, and those intervening in the lives of Chicago students. I think I even heard it in the comparative lessons you describe above re: the KIPP/Riverdale divide. “Grit,” after all, is in the title of your book. It is not something limited to three pages.
And that attitude “base” lies in a deep belief in what Weber called, “The Protestant Work Ethic.” Even your noteworthy discussion of allostatic load touches on the damage that does to that “work ethic.”
What I had hoped a reporter would do, what I hope I am pushing you to do, is to ask the questions behind the unquestioned assumptions. For example, research has shown that the “work ethic” can raise the cost of failure http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_world_/2013/08/29/is_the_protestant_work_ethic_real_a_new_study_claims_it_can_be_measured.html and we pretty much know that when the cost of failure goes up, resilience goes down, and it is resilience which is what we need all of our children to possess.
As Alex Kotlowitz has tried to repeatedly point out to you, the primary issue at hand is poverty – a scarcity of resources for our “at-risk” students – and I believe that the answer to that lies not in moralizing lessons about grit, but in providing our children with the abundance which offers them “slack.”
You actually touched on this in a number of the stories you told in your book, but I’d find it disingenuous for you to claim that the overall tone of your book focused on that “work ethic.”
I appreciate your perspective, but I still think you’re misconstruing what I wrote in my book. As with any critique of a book, it would be helpful if you would provide quotations from the book that back up your interpretation. Can you quote some passages where I argue in favor of moralizing lessons about grit rather than providing resources to low-income students?
I’m not sure what you’re referring to when you say that Alex Kotlowitz has repeatedly tried to point out to me that the primary issue at hand is poverty. Alex is a friend, and a writer I admire very much. When I started reporting in Chicago back in 2010, he was a valuable resource for me, and I’ve continued to draw on his wisdom and his perspective. But I don’t think it’s accurate to say that he’s been critical of “How Children Succeed”; as you know, he blurbed the book, for which I was grateful. Here’s what he said:
“I wish I could take this compact, powerful, clear-eyed, beautifully written book and put it in the hands of every parent, teacher and politician. At its core is a notion that is electrifying in its originality and its optimism: that character—not cognition—is central to success, and that character can be taught. ‘How Children Succeed’ will change the way you think about children. But more than that: it will fill you with a sense of what could be.”
In the final chapter of “How Children Succeed,’ as you know, I propose a comprehensive system of support for children who grow up in poverty and disadvantage, starting with trauma-focused pediatric care and continuing through parenting support networks and college preparation programs. I’m happy to debate any elements of that proposal; I’m sure we might disagree on some or all of it. It’s more difficult for me to debate the points you’re attributing to me, since I don’t actually agree with them, nor have I ever stated that I did.
Important to highlight here is that Paul Tough’s work has informed and then responses to his work are viewed through “grit” and “no excuses” ideologies and practices that remain essentially embraced uncritically and problematically.
Tough ay be trapped, as he explains, between his real views and views-by-association, but as a major name in the debate, I urge Tough to recognize his role, and clarify if he is being mischaracterized.
However, I remain adamant that the “grit” narrative is deeply flawed and misapplied—especially, as I have written about often, in the context of the scarcity/slack research in the book “Scarcity.”
Some of Tough’s comments above are problematic in that context.
Children born in affluence and thus a great deal of slack, do not need grit; children born into poverty and thus scarcity, often fail even when they have grit.
In short, it isn’t about grit; it is about slack:
As Ira noted, Tough’s book has the word “grit” in it; thus, Tough remains a key voice in perpetuating the distorted view of “grit” in education and education reform.
Thanks, Paul, for joining this conversation. I just posted an update on my blog and will add your contact information as you have been cited in this discussion thread. We appreciate the depth that you and others bring to what some think of as a simple application of grit.
I promise that over the next 24 or so hours I will bring forward the areas that trouble me. As someone who listens to all text, I need to transcribe, so I hope you appreciate that it might take me a bit longer.
But I really appreciate your willingness to interact.
I will bring up the one moment I wrote about, the kid who seemed a success by all my standards, by all his standards, except that he had dropped out of college… which… honestly, who cares? But there was a fully negative cast thrown on this… by those who intervened in his life, most sadly, by the kid himself…
“Grit hit the fan.” I’ll say. Thanks for channeling this discussion, Grant, and acting as a referee of sorts for the competing perspectives playing out here in the comment section.
I too admire Ira’s passionate recognition of the challenges that underprivileged students already face – the natural grittiness that their circumstances possess. And I think it is important before we begin a national campaign to make life grittier to ask how we interpret that word and how our interpretation as educators will play out in the lives of individual students. Certainly, if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last 100 years, it’s that one size education does not fit all.
However, just as in politics, how we enter into these discussions remains, in my mind, paramount. In his passionate defense of the underprivileged, Ira maligned Paul’s motives for emphasizing the need for grit as deriving from Paul’s elitist desire to manipulate the masses. Actually, Ira’s language is much more defamatory. And as I said, I too admire Ira, so as a result, I found it painful to read his posts.
Paul, in his comments on your blog, barely engaged except to ask Ira for more evidence and less invective. In the end, Ira thanked Paul for his “willingness to interact.” But really I can’t help thinking there’s not much interaction here. We sadly weren’t offered much insight into how better to help all of our students; instead, we were reminded of how unfettered expression on our keypads must be checked by an acknowledgement that we are writing about flesh and blood people, all of whom care for students and who need to be welcomed to the expansive table of our collective discussions.
Thanks, Holly, for this important reminder on the power and nature of discourse. Since I am not a student of the background to these discussions, I did not weigh in as you have on Ira’s comments. I hope that in this, as in all important issues, people of good intent do find their ways to elevate from debate to discourse.
I appreciate your comments. I really do. I understand that my frame can, at times, offend. Sometimes I can do that without intention, in this case, I will admit that it was – at least in part – intentional.
I came to education 18 years ago angry about what schools do to children, and I remain angry. Now anger is joined to an even greater level of frustration. One of the reasons I chose to study the history of American education as deeply as I have, was a desire to figure out why in the world would we be operating a system which fails so many children. What I discovered in that work was that our educational system is working exactly as designed. It was designed to be an instrument of social reproduction, of wealth and power preservation, and it does that brilliantly still today.
What I find in the work of Angela Duckworth, and to an extent Paul Tough, as Paul Thomas suggests, is a willingness to exploit that purpose and preserve it. Which not only makes me angry, it feels like it demands that I call people out on their complicity. Now this is a harsh paragraph, but this is also an asymmetrical battle. Duckworth has an Ivy League university and the Macarthur Foundation imprimatur behind her, Tough has The New York Times and a large publisher behind him. If I am going to be heard – and believe me when I say that I think I am speaking on behalf of children – then I need to be aggressive.
This puts me in a difficult spot. If I believe that the sale of “the grit hypothesis” is dangerous, how do I draw equal attention? But if I am aggressive, how do we move toward a reasoned conversation? Paul Tough must feel, I suspect, like he is being asked to negotiate with an assailant. I understand that.
….. back to work … response to Paul coming …
I’m grateful for your thoughtful response to my comment. I probably should have originally posted directly to your blog because I was in effect writing to you, concerned that your message – which I wholeheartedly agree must be heard – is being muffled by your heated tone. Consider Paul’s reaction; he’s reluctant to engage or take your argument seriously because he feels offended.
But I sympathize with you tremendously. Can you draw attention to your position and be heard without being aggressive? You quote Dave Meister’s twitter comment to you and Pam, “Grit is simply a term by which the privileged try distinguish their behavior from those they define as unworthy.” But Dave on his blog just yesterday cautioned his students on the proper use of social media, “Be careful to use it in a positive manner and follow the Golden Rule: Treat others as you wish to be treated.” Does that rule always apply, even when the stakes are high? Even when you have something to say that the majority or those in power don’t want to hear? Do you then have license to offend?
Because really that’s the essence of your argument, with which I’d agree, that promoting grit for poor kids, especially by those from a white, elitist background, is the misapplication of the golden rule. We shouldn’t treat others as we wish to be treated. That’s well-meaning myopia. Rather we should treat others as they wish to be treated or deserve to be treated. Sometimes the golden rule lacks empathy, the very condition from which you argue poor kids would benefit. I agree. Empathy is the key. Once you recognize the structural inequities built into the system, you cannot help but empathize with poor students and recognize that slack – a buoyancy to a safety net, or frankly just any safety net at all – would allow them the opportunity to thrive in our country’s educational model. Without empathy, grit begins to sound like the kind of encouragement you’d give someone landing on cold cement.
But doesn’t that mean we should also empathize with Vicki Davis. Granted, I’m only privy to your exchange on Twitter about the word “grit” itself, which she explains “is not a buzzword for me, it is a way of life and part of who I am and what I teach every day in my classroom.” So how is it helpful to label her a proponent of the “eugenics movement”? She seems baffled by your comment. Sure, Duckworth places Galton front and center, presumably understanding the word grit’s questionable past, but does Davis? I often wonder where our aggressiveness will take us?
Grit’s denotation as mental toughness and courage appeals to everyone. Its connotation, however, resides in the particular. It conjures up for some a John Wayne resiliency that can overcome any challenge. For others, it drags with it a Horatio Alger narrow mindedness whose patronizing is worthy of Fox News.
Grant emphasized the need to “elevate from debate to dialogue.” Do you think Paul would have interacted with Grant’s blog if the discourse had been gentler? I’m not sure. Like fish, we respond quickly to bait these days. So perhaps you’re right. You’ve got Paul’s ear now … and I’m eager too to read your response.
Man can you use the written word! I love “Without empathy, grit begins to sound like the kind of encouragement you’d give someone landing on cold cement.” And I appreciate your honesty, and even more so, sharing that honesty, combining it with specific references. Your arguments are well-crafted examples of why context and content are mutually re-enforcing!
“Because really that’s the essence of your argument, with which I’d agree, that promoting grit for poor kids, especially by those from a white, elitist background, is the misapplication of the golden rule. We shouldn’t treat others as we wish to be treated. That’s well-meaning myopia. Rather we should treat others as they wish to be treated or deserve to be treated. Sometimes the golden rule lacks empathy, the very condition from which you argue poor kids would benefit. I agree. Empathy is the key. Once you recognize the structural inequities built into the system, you cannot help but empathize with poor students and recognize that slack – a buoyancy to a safety net, or frankly just any safety net at all – would allow them the opportunity to thrive in our country’s educational model”….
I have so many problems with these statements…. the language used demonstrates a lack of understanding on three levels….
The first “ick” that jumps out is “treat others as they deserve to be treated”…. who determines what ‘deserves’ looks like? Right now, it’s corporatist plutocrats who determine how the poor ‘deserve’ to be treated… they do that for the poor in their daily lives and in their childrens’ ‘educational’ lives …. not to recognise that is to be politically and socially naive….
The second sharp intake of breath comes with the idea that slack equates to safety net…. it certainly does not…. slack for any child can only come when all of his/her first and second level needs are met – think Maslow’s hierarchy and the point at which self actualisation is a possibility/probability… what a mean-spirited and narrow place to be, to think that we only need to give children a ‘safety net’ and then they’ll be OK…. they won’t be OK – they’ll just be surviving with a few less grumbles in hungry bellies and minds…
The last and possibly largest cringe-generating idea is that if we give poor children “slack” they will have the opportunity to thrive in our country’s educational model…… um…. excuse me…. so making it possible for poor kids to conform and perform in a fundamentally and supremely dysfunctional indoctrination system is a good thing? As Krishnamurti said: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
Thanks, Sahila for these comments. I hope Holly responds because I believe you are taking her comments in a direction far from what she means. But that is what this thread has unwrapped: that we each place a great deal of power in the words we hear, and the common usage of some of those words and phrases resonate differently to different people. My request in this, though, to all, is to first look respectfully to what we all share…and then discourse on the differences!
I’m sorry you were so offended by my comments to Ira. You felt that “the language used demonstrates a lack of understanding” on my part. But that’s the thing about “understanding.” It means to “stand in the midst of.” It’s contextual, dependent on person, place, and time. Where I stand and where you stand are not the same. It requires empathy for me to place myself in your shoes and see things from your perspective, which admittedly is not easy for any of us.
I am deeply concerned about the inequities that exist in our country. And I hope that in my work as a teacher and a writer and in my life as a friend, wife, and mother that I am making some meager dent to fix these problems.
I am not aiming to be rude or unempathic with Holly’s position….
I am frustrated by what seems to me (my filters) to be a naivety about what is really going on in this society, this global world, and has been going on for thousands of years…
Nothing has changed in ‘civilisation’ since the dawning of tribalism and congregation in settlements, along with the consequent creation of power structures …
There’s a rigid, narrow, straight line of continuity from then to now, with NO REAL CHANGE, GROWTH, DEVELOPMENT…. it just APPEARS as though we’ve made progress, are more sophisticated. The reality is hidden under a veneer of elaborate costuming and charades.
Most of us are still (Middle Ages) serfs though some of us have moved up into the mercantile class and others have found a slight improvement in our lives by becoming the ‘go-betweens’, the jesters, the knights, liege men and squires, the scribes, the town-criers, the counting house clerks, the estate and plantation managers, the private armies, the lackeys of the lords… Some of us serfs have it harder than others because of other factors such as gender, skin colour and are reduced to becoming the town beggars and outcasts…
I can’t speak for Ira, but I imagine that some of his frustration comes from knowing this to be true and seeing people (who MUST know better) refuse to acknowledge it.
I see this refusal to acknowledge the truth of social, economic and political life as cowardice, coming from a need to protect one’s own place on the ladder.
Denial enables the continuance of the monstrosity that is human ‘civilisation’…. And when we are stuck in denial, we can’t solve these issues; denial fills all of our time and space so there is no room for GRACE to shift things…
And then to argue TODAY about how to help the (most) poor and (most) disadvantaged in education, our children, without addressing the problems in the system, is just cruel… If we’re not willing to talk about and solve the real problems, we would be/do better to be silent…
I went to see Paul Tough speak at The Lamplighter School in Dallas last night, and I’m writing to share a few notes that were meaningful for me:
I heard Mr. Tough say that, for all kids, education is emphasizing the wrong stuff when it uses cognitive metrics like IQ and SAT/ACT. His thesis might be that there’s a growing body of research which suggests that noncognitive traits matter… a lot. Tough might encourage us to look in a familiar direction: do schools emphasize what matters for kids?
Mr. Tough did/does talk about low SES kids and schools – maybe more than we’ve given him credit for in this discussion thread. He makes a clear distinction — kids who live in poverty are surrounded by adversity all the time. Tough cites research that names this concept toxic stress. He makes an impassioned plea that what these kids need is protection from toxic stress – not more of it. I hear him advocating for the same sorts of wrap-around services that scholars like Richard Rothstein (and others) have been writing about for some time. (Aside: I would add that choosing KIPP as his primary example is problematic – the KIPP model is too controversial and too wrapped up in elevating self-control – which too often looks like ‘conformity’ to norms from the dominant culture… Mr. Tough cited Expeditionary Learning last night – http://www.elschools.org. I think it’s a stronger case study!)
Mr. Tough’s reporting also suggests that high SES kids need more exposure to adversity. I like that he admits that the title of his 2011 NYT story “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” is an editorialist’s overstatement. He explains that it’s not so much that high SES kids need to experience failure as much as they need authentic experiences that include the real possibility of failure. He asks whether we confuse stress (low risk of failure) and challenge (higher risk of failure). I like his (simplistic, I know…) analogy of comparing exercise by climbing a StairMaster (high stress/low challenge) to exercise by climbing a mountain (high degree of challenge). I think Tough is on to something when he posits that high SES kids have lives full of stress that lack real challenge. I hear a nod to Dewey and the value of having a healthy set of real experiences — followed by reflection, feedback -meaningful engagement in metacognitive processes – and then time/opportunities for 2nd, 3rd attempts.
For all kids, Paul Tough might suggest that we ask: HMW help children learn to manage stress, challenge/adversity, and possibility of failure more effectively (rather than protecting some and/or not protecting others)? HMW adults model responses to failure effectively? HMW talk openly with kids about our setbacks and how we’ve learned/grown?
Thanks again, Grant – I am grateful to you for connecting all of us together in a space that promotes reflection and dialogue… all in the service of kids.
Thanks, Dave, for this very clear reporting! If this issue were monochromatic, it would not be worth our time, so I see in this discourse from all who have commented, passion for children. I also see a common thread emerging: a single word captures a following, and there are probably more examples where a single word is based on weak rather than strong foundations.
Again, given the extent to which “grit” has permeated the consciousness of educators, what a valuable (and free!) discourse for a faculty or school community to study and discuss!
“Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway” (as the old George M. Cohan song goes), or The New York Times Building (for my purposes here), just outside The Bronx, sits a 3,700 student high school with a very high poverty quotient. New Rochelle High School serves a ten-square-mile city with a highly diverse population. It’s about 1/3 White, 1/3 African-American, 1/3 Latino, about 50% free and reduced lunch. It’s my alma mater (yes, disclosure), but I visited twice last year, long after my graduation. Paul Tough might have made his way there in search of high schools which struggle with poverty. NRHS does and has for many years. But NRHS has always treated poverty with abundance. A flood of options and resources and trust. It’s an open campus high school with the widest range of programs I know of, including a seven-year-old, and quite dazzling, Performing and Visual Arts Wing which houses both “arts majors” and about a third of the student body in the many courses offered. NRHS is hardly perfect. It requires lots of security guards. Its technology use is embarrassingly low. It has drop outs. It has violence. But it succeeds not because the City of New Rochelle has particularly good “wrap around services” but because the school offers students everything the schools Tough reports on in Chicago do not.
A bit more than two hours south of Washington lie the schools I work with. We’re not a huge urban district and we sure have our areas of wealth (of course, so does Chicago, and as Tough indicates, so does New York City), but we also have vicious high-stress poverty in our urban ring and heartbreaking rural poverty in the “hollers” of the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Here, though we lack the resources New Rochelle has (largely because of differences in taxation attitudes between north and south), and though we have all the ills we might expect from poverty, we also combat the allostatic load Tough (valuably) writes about with abundance. With small class sizes created by a shrunken central office staff, with “Responsive Classroom” programs in our elementary schools, with a vast range of course offerings and the best learning spaces we can build.
All over the nation, the schools which make a difference are doing so by attacking the toxic impacts of poverty with the abundance which offers the “slack” Paul Thomas describes. But they do not make best sellers or New York Times Magazine articles. And this is point one:
Everyone who goes out to tell a story begins the search for that story with a particular frame. Paul Tough’s frame is not unfamiliar to me – I will assert (again) that it is a frame which grows logically from a role as a Times reporter and as a child of privilege and elite private schools. His search sends him to the power centers – Arne Duncan’s school district, the University of Chicago School of Economics, the Riverdale Country School ($43,000/year), and the darling of the wealthy, a KIPP school.
And thus he did not write a book titled, “What Children Need, the power of education which gives children safety, time, and choice.” He wrote a book titled, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.”
Paul can claim that he “means” many things, and he can speak (lucratively, I presume) and alter his message. But even with the appeal for an improved welfare system (an extension of his book on Geoffrey Canada) at the end, no one can read his book and not sense that while, yes, rich kids need authentic experiences (I sure saw that in my visit to Riverdale), poor kids need, more than anything, “character” – which, in story after story in the book, means getting past all the wrongs, all the scarcities, in their lives, and starting to act more like middle class white kids.
If he would stick to that story, I think I’d have more respect. I’d disagree of course (Google: “Ira Socol Pygmalion” if you must), but he’d be sticking up for his book, which, in classic colonialist terms, frames the problem of poverty as a pathology, and suggests character education as the principle cure.
Authors, researchers included, myself obviously included (as Holly above noted) are, in key ways, responsible for how people understand their words. It is not entirely Reader Response Theory out there. Paul Tough made choices in reporting, he made choices in where he went to report, he made choices in who’s data he chose to believe and include.
I believe those choices suggest things which lead to societal actions which are harmful to children.
Thanks, Ira, for that honest response to the discussion. As I noted earlier, we have collectively uncovered some colors to this discussion that (I don’t think) have permeated our collective consciousness as educators. I will invite Paul to continue the discourse if he likes. In hearing the report of his talk via Dave Ostroff it is clear to me that there are areas on which the two of you agree, though the paths to get there may be very different. And I imagine there are areas where you so not agree in substance; bravo to all of us for parsing those, finding the dissonance, and bringing it forth for others to study.
I missed your follow up. I do regret some of my exchange with Vicki, because I did not start out to label her as “pro-eugenics.” I said, “Even someone I think of “as smart” as @coolcatteacher – Vicki Davis – jumps in the water with pro-eugenics professor Angela Duckworth and brings “teaching grit” into her classroom.” Which may have been overkill, but I guess I am offended by Duckworth fans, and I let that carry me away in the following Twitter exchange.
Because you are right. Unless you followed earlier Twitter exchanges regarding Duckworth and Galton, you would likely no know the origins of her beliefs – the curriculum of colleges of education rarely include history or philosophy I have learned.
But I do hope dialogue can grow from “verbal combat.” That’s the culture I was raised in. The result being that grudges and personal anger have never been my style. Early in my Twitter life I clashed repeatedly and angrily with another educator. Today he and I share an office and work many projects together. Thesis – Antithesis – Synthesis, and all that.
I grew up outside Philly, the youngest of seven. We had “constructive criticism” night at the dinner table, so in a sense I was literally nourished by “verbal combat.”
I admire passion, perhaps more than any other quality in an individual. I weighed in today because I admire yours and fervently hope that your perspective gains traction.
As always, I’m grateful to Grant for providing a sparring venue for engagement, edification, and encouragement. I’ve been teaching for eighteen years myself, and I’m inspired to see how so many of us are working on the system these days, rather than just in it.
In my previous comments here, I made a straightforward request: I asked you to back up your voluminous critique of my book with actual quotations from the book. You promised to deliver those quotations and said you needed 24 hours to transcribe them. Now, a day and a half later, you post another comment that criticizes my book and my journalism … without a single quotation from my writing. Not one.
Let me repeat: the reason that you find it so difficult to produce quotations that back up your critique of my book is that they do not exist. You can’t find a single moment in my book where I argue in favor of moralizing lessons about grit rather than providing resources to low-income students. You can’t find a single sentence in which I argue that wealthy children possess more grit than poor children. And you apparently can’t find evidence that Alex Kotlowitz has repeatedly tried to point out to me that the primary issue at hand is poverty.
Instead of backing up those inaccurate claims, you add some new ones in this latest comment. You say that “in story after story in the book,” I argue that poor kids need to start acting more like middle class white kids. Again, you don’t provide any evidence or a single quotation to back up your claim. You do this, again, for a simple reason: your claim is not true. If you think I’m wrong about this, please quote some passages from the book that support your case.
The other new claim in your latest comment is that in my reporting for “How Children Succeed,” I chose only to report from “power centers.” O.K., let’s look at where I did my reporting.
You mention that I reported at the University of Chicago economics department – but you don’t mention that I was there to report on the work of James Heckman, the economist who has made the most influential case of anyone in the nation in favor of investing far more public resources in early childhood education for low-income children. Personally, I think that’s a story worth telling; I accept that you disagree.
You say that I went to Arne Duncan’s school district – without mentioning that when I reported on the Chicago Public Schools, Arne Duncan was no longer the CEO, and that I did almost all of my C.P.S. reporting at Fenger High School in Roseland, one of the poorest public schools in the nation – hardly a power center. As well, you fail to mention that my one brief reference to Duncan in the book was to criticize his lack of attention to Fenger’s real problems while he was CEO.
You leave out, meanwhile, the reporting I did at Nadine Burke Harris’s pediatric clinic in San Francisco; the time I spent with Steve Gates, the YAP mentor in Roseland who works closely with young gang members; my reporting on Alicia Lieberman, the psychologist who runs the Child Trauma Research Program at UCSF; my reporting on Lanita Reed, the hairstylist whose careful and patient counseling helped set Keitha Jones’s difficult life on a better path; my account of Anita Stewart-Montgomery’s supportive counseling visit to the home of a teenage mother named Jacqui; the entire chapter on I.S. 318, the Brooklyn public school whose chess team has become so successful because of the hard work of both staff and students; as well as the many hours I spent in Kewauna Lerma’s living room on the South Side of Chicago, listening to her and her family as they talked about her struggle to overcome a difficult upbringing and succeed in high school and then in college.
I did not choose to report on Monisha Sullivan or Keitha Jones or Kewauna Lerma or Steve Gates or James Black because they were powerful; I chose to report on them because they are real people with complicated lives. And their stories, each one in its own way, help to demonstrate the central thesis of “How Children Succeed”: that children who grow up in disadvantaged circumstances need much more and better help than we’ve been offering them as a nation – and a reform strategy that focuses only on boosting their test scores is not enough; we also need to pay attention to the environment in which they are growing up, and to the effect it has on their mental health and psychological well-being.
One more point: I would not have gone, as you suggest, to New Rochelle High School “in search of high schools which struggle with poverty,” for the simple reason that New Rochelle High School is not a low-income school. Forty-two percent of its students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, which is less than the New York State average of 43 percent. Your claim that New Rochelle High has a “very high poverty quotient” is simply not true; in fact, it is wealthier than the average school in the state.
You go on, in your comment, to compare the middle-class school you attended with “the schools Tough reports on in Chicago,” meaning, I presume, Fenger High and ACE Tech. You say that your school is more successful than those Chicago schools because it offers students everything that ACE Tech and Fenger do not.
But that’s an unfair comparison. Unlike New Rochelle High, ACE Tech and Fenger High really do have very high poverty quotients. Ninety-seven percent of students at ACE Tech are eligible for a lunch subsidy; at Fenger, the statistic is 98 percent. Unlike New Rochelle High, they are both located in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty with high crime rates.
As you know, I wrote at length in “How Children Succeed” about Elizabeth Dozier, the principal of Fenger, as she worked long and hard to provide academic opportunities, empathetic personal connection, and robust support services to her students. In my opinion, most educators in high-poverty public schools, like Elizabeth Dozier, are doing the best they can under very difficult circumstances. But despite their efforts, their students are not succeeding like students at middle-class schools like New Rochelle High. You claim that that underperformance is the fault of those teachers and administrators, who, in your opinion, aren’t doing a good enough job of delivering “abundance” to their students. Personally, I think that’s unfair to educators like Dozier; as I explain in the book, she’s doing a valiant job of bringing abundant opportunities to her students, despite the many obstacles she faces.
The real problem that students at ACE Tech and Fenger face, unlike students at New Rochelle High, is concentrated poverty and the social disruptions that accompany it. Educators can do a lot to overcome the effects of poverty, but they can’t do it alone. As I argue in “How Children Succeed,” we as a society need to do a much better job of providing support for students at schools like ACE Tech and Fenger, so that they can succeed the way the middle-class kids at New Rochelle High do.
You claim in your latest comment that schools like Fenger that are trying to deliver abundance don’t make for New York Times Magazine articles. But in fact I did write an article for the Times Magazine about Fenger (and Steve Gates and President Obama) back in 2012. Here’s the link:
In the conclusion to that article, I laid out a proposal for how President Obama might do a better job of helping children who are growing up in Roseland, the high-poverty neighborhood where Fenger is located. Here’s what I wrote:
“What [Roseland] needs more than anything else is an antipoverty strategy that is much more comprehensive and ambitious than what exists there today, an approach that focuses on improving outcomes for children from birth through adolescence. Food stamps and other assistance are crucial, but parents like Damien’s mother need help that goes far beyond that. Schools need to be better, yes. But better teachers and higher expectations can’t on their own alter the pervasive influence of an entire neighborhood. And so the president could do what he pledged to do in Anacostia in 2007: create more programs that take on, in a direct way, the family dislocations that are holding many poor children back, like home-visiting programs for parents, intensive early-childhood education targeted at the most disadvantaged families and mentoring programs for teenagers, like YAP.”
You’ll notice that nowhere in that proposal do I argue that poor kids need to act more like middle-class white kids.
Ira, you are welcome to disagree with my approach to addressing poverty among children. Maybe you don’t like home-visiting programs or mentoring or intensive early-childhood education. That’s fine; we can have a debate about that. I’m happy to make the case for those programs, just as I did in the Times Magazine and in my book.
But what you’re doing, instead, is inventing false claims about what my book says, and then refusing to back up those claims with any evidence or quotations whatsoever. That, to me, is a rhetorical approach that is not worthy of these important issues. Young people like Keitha and Kewauna and Monisha deserve better.
I hope, if this discussion continues, that you can focus on what my book and my other journalism actually says, instead of what you would like to believe it says in order to fit your preconceived notion of who I am and what I believe. My guess is that would lead to a more worthwhile conversation.
Thanks, Paul, for this detailed review and summary of some of the key narratives of your work. I am gaining, as I am sure others are as well, a good understanding of your focus and arguments. I will Tweet out the link to the article you have provided, as well as a Tweet to urge readers to check in for this stage of the discussion.
Allow me to deconstruct your response, starting with the things you did not say, or perhaps, failed to bother to ask as your journalism moved forward.
Let’s begin with the basics – while yes, the most recent free and reduced lunch statistics I’ve been quoted for New Rochelle High School (whose leaders said 50%, not the 42% you found via Google on the “Great Schools” site, but the economy shifts quickly these days, so who knows), is far less than Fenger, half of Fenger, this is true because of districting, the key cause of scarcity in American schools. Chicago – yes – a Vallas/Duncan district today no matter what you claim – is no poorer overall than New Rochelle (and perhaps no wealthier either), it simply gathers its high school students together differently.
Now, large cities have always done this – but that is the point. If you want to break the problem of scarcity, break the problem of concentrated poverty, you do it via school redistricting, you do it by bringing children and communities together in schools which share resources so that abundance is available. New Rochelle could have two high schools – that would not be unusual in a city with its population in this nation. If it did so – Chicago-style – it would have one Fenger and one New Trier. But it has not chosen to do that, perhaps it learned the lesson of its bitter desegregation struggle. Perhaps it simply is lucky in its history or in its lack of available land for its schools. But either way, there is a lesson there – a challenge to the story you have told.
Why is this important?
Arne Duncan, as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, as the guiding spirit behind the hiring of a principal like the grotesquely unqualified one you found at Fenger, increased the socio-economic segregation in Chicago’s public high schools through his “school improvement” programs which helped to concentrate the poorest students in fewer schools. If he and his successors had done the opposite, brought communities together, thus bringing resources together, the need for the band-aid social services you so clearly describe would actually lessen. The schools, because of middle class support, would have the kinds of resources now provided by small numbers of home visits, et al.
I am not saying that you are wrong. Believe me, in my years as a police officer in The Bronx I learned to know the absolute value of those who provide these services. I used to search for those services for children and families around Evander Childs High School. And when I worked at a Ministry for the homeless in Grand Rapids, Michigan I even helped to provide those types of services, but honestly Paul, that is not what America’s poor children “need,” even if we might help a few “succeed” by providing that.
“You’ll notice that nowhere in that proposal do I argue that poor kids need to act more like middle-class white kids,” you tell me, and this is perhaps your most telling statement. You do not even see what you have written, and this strengthens my belief in the nature of New York Times elitism. It is blinding.
I do not know if you have ever read the work of Edward Said, a scholar who has strongly informed my work, particularly his piece on Kipling’s Kim, in his 1994 book Culture and Imperialism. “[W]hether we like it or not,” Said writes of Kipling’s quite beautiful work – a work quite appreciate in many ways of “native” people, “its author is writing not just from the dominating view-point of a white man in a colonial possession but from the perspective of a massive colonial system whose economy, functioning, and history had acquired the status of a virtual fact of nature.”
So when you say:
“Alicia Lieberman, the psychologist who runs the Child Trauma Research Program at UCSF; my reporting on Lanita Reed, the hairstylist whose careful and patient counseling helped set Keitha Jones’s difficult life on a better path; my account of Anita Stewart-Montgomery’s supportive counseling visit to the home of a teenage mother named Jacqui; the entire chapter on I.S. 318, the Brooklyn public school whose chess team has become so successful because of the hard work of both staff and students; as well as the many hours I spent in Kewauna Lerma’s living room on the South Side of Chicago, listening to her and her family as they talked about her struggle to overcome a difficult upbringing and succeed in high school and then in college.
“I did not choose to report on Monisha Sullivan or Keitha Jones or Kewauna Lerma or Steve Gates or James Black because they were powerful; I chose to report on them because they are real people with complicated lives.”
You are not even seeing the unifying strand behind these stories. Yes, they are therapeutic, yes, they are important, but at their essence, they are both charitable and colonial. The lessons in every case (and you can continue – probably rightly – to insist on actual transcribed quotes, but work on life have interfered so far), are that students need conform more effectively to school and societal expectations.
Now, whether that is what children in poverty need to do or not can surely be debated. I say “no” – http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2011/07/pygmalion.html – http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2009/11/colonialism-of-michelle-rhee-or-tfa-v.html – but many say “yes.” I think that is the debate we ought to having here because THAT is our essential disagreement, not what you wrote. But like Said, I am a deep postcolonialist in belief, and I believe in challenging the assumptions which create the power structure – http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2008/05/may-day-retard-theory.html – not trying to “cure” those victimized by that power structure individually.
But I will give you one key example: In your book you tell the story of the girl who, after speaking with her grandmother, breaks the pregnancy/poverty cycle of her family, gets to work, becomes the exceptional student. You also tell the chess club story. Both are, in their own ways, great. But to deny that either path is “middle class style” is absurd. So I will give you a different story, one of what we call “abundance.” In our most “at risk” high school – no, again, no Fenger, but we have not allowed that to happen (though again, we could if we districted like Chicago) – what we added was first, a music studio to our library. This allowed a range of high poverty students, and we’re talking both black and white poverty, to come together around an existing set of community passions, from rap to hillbilly blues, and then to bring the middle class students, with rock, show tunes, and classical added, to join with them. We allowed these students to present their work, and to construct their core course learning via music, we did not impose our passions, our paths on them – rather we embraced theirs. From there we expanded an already inclusive theater program, including what we might call “street dance” and “street music” if we had real streets in that area. We kept kids in school. We kept kids in class. We kept kids engaged and involved in the positive, but our entry point was substantially less colonial in nature.
Again, we can debate whether break dancing in the musical In The Heights provides kids with the societal skills that chess club does, but that is different than insisting that these are not different in significant ways.
You are also missing a key point about your stories. Unlike Kotlowitz, who very well be a friend and mentor to you, I never found in your book the sense that you went out and found the children in your stories. In every case the story – “good” or “bad,” “success” or “failure” – apparently came to you through the researcher, the aid provider, the source of therapeutic intervention. This changes the nature of your reporting in ways I am not sure you understand.
Because when I tell you about children it is based on a different introduction. Whether I tell you about New Rochelle High School, or our schools in Virginia, or Godfrey-Lee Schools in Wyoming, Michigan, I am telling stories based in walking within those places, hearing the range of children directly, engaging the voices “un-introduced” by adult story. I think I have always done that. It is why, in years of working with students with disabilities, I never read the reports before meeting with the children. If you read the reports, if you listen to the adult voices first, you cannot ever quite hear the children in the ways we must.
for now, Ira
Thanks, Ira. As a reader on the sidelines of your discourse with Paul Tough, I see an emergence that was probably there at the outset, but became clouded by the scoring of points. I observe that you both believe deeply that poverty is THE key factor that holds back many of our children from achieving goals that are open to families with greater wealth. I understand that you believe that Paul looks at the problem through a “post-colonial” filter; I look forward to his direct comments on this. That is a point of metacognition to which we all must be sensitive.
Ira’s critique of Paul’s work is that it recapitulates a *colonial* narrative. in turn, Ira suggests that a “post-colonial filter” (I’d suggest framework) reveals the assumptions and privileges both in the anecdotal sections of his book, and the NYT-stance towards ed-reform.
Re: Tough, et al.:
I think those who have directly and indirectly endorsed “grit” and “no excuses” must be somewhat accountable for the very real and ugly implications behind the terms and the policies. It is the same sort of veiled racism and classism I confront about the Richard Sherman debate (using “thug” and GPA to mask racism; see http://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2014/01/26/richard-shermans-gpa-and-thug-label-the-codes-that-blind/ ).
This discussion highlights that some people (Ira and I, for example) are passionately and deeply concerned that children are being harmed by calls for “grit” and “no excuses” policies. That passion may be confrontational and uncomfortable, but it is sincere and needed, I believe. (I will not apologize to offended adults as long as children are suffering the consequences, although I am seeking ways to avoid such offense.)
Tough has offered extended explanations to clarify here, and while much appreciated, I don’t see a willingness to recognize his role in complying with Canada’s HCZ, KIPP, and other “grit”/”no excuses” dynamics.
As Ira has noted, Tough’s use of the term in the title and support for Canada/HCZ and KIPP have been powerful in helping the worst of “grit”/”no excuses” to expand and essentially avoid any challenges.
I confronted the “Harlem miracle” misinformation years ago; and that still represents the problem: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/08/opinion/08brooks.html?_r=0
See my http://www.opednews.com/articles/Reconsidering-Education-M-by-P-L-Thomas-100816-438.html
Tough and his work are central to the narrative, and that narrative is inaccurate (http://ny.chalkbeat.org/2009/05/08/just-how-gullible-is-david-brooks/) yet it remains powerful.
I am not trying to attack Tough, and I appreciate his comments here, and also believe him. But his name and work carry a great deal of weight—weight that has given momentum to the “grit” and “no excuses” narratives and policies that have yet to be fully unmasked for their racist and classist underpinnings.
Tough and others would help if they could make clear and repeat points in public venues highlighting these facts:
Slack + no grit = success
Scarcity + grit = rare/no success
Demanding “grit” or highlighting “grit” in segregated schools where children continue to live in scarcity is simply inexcusable.
For Tough, who has built at least some of his public capital on the term “grit” (please Paul, if you feel that is unfair, explain just how it is), if he feels that has been misunderstood, the next step is to help those of us who reject that term and its misuse by also rejecting that term and its misuse.
I would be very grateful to have Tough join those of us seeking to focus our policies on both social and educational equity for all children in the U.S.
Thanks, Paul. This marvelous discourse started with our exploration of those terms “grit” and “slack”. Like any good inquiry, it has developed into a large fractal, and I appreciate you brining it back somewhat to the issue of the popular understanding of “grit”. For the vast majority of educators who will never read the deep thread between Paul Tough and Ira Socol, “grit” remains an easy concept, one that has percolated vision and mission statements and the classroom. I agree that people with the ear of the public can dramatically advance this discussion by being clear about the use of the term, by overtly stating the fallacies it has come to acquire.
Let me add here an insight into the IS318 chess club. You celebrate a teacher quite willing to call a child’s choices “stupid” and who’s immediate reaction to choices she does not like is to threaten to remove the child completely from the tournament he is involved in. And then here you tell me that this, in a chapter titled, “How to think,” is not attempting to enforce middle class, “white,” values.
Whatever happens in the scene you describe after that beginning, the child has been put on absolute notice by his white superior that she is in power, that her choices are the right choices, that the child’s success – even the child’s continued participation – is based on his willingness to mimic his superior.
Why was this a story you chose to tell? I guess that is a crucial question for me? Would the story have been different if the child had gathered his peers around him to analyze the game? How would that have differed? And if they had done that, would they have been involved in original – and their own – thinking? or in channelling their white superior, as we see in KIPP peer interactions?
[…] that have prompted varying degrees of pushback about math and “authentic” practices, concerns raised about “grit” (notably in the work of Paul Tough), and my use of the term […]
I just want to add this note: Chicago’s public schools are poor – places like Fenger High School exist – because the City of Chicago has provided awful schools for years, and they continue to be awful. That is a community decision, a political decision, ultimately a moral decision.
from the Chicago Reader: http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/cps-alternatives-suburbs-magnet-selective-enrollment-lowincome/Content?oid=11046489
“In Chicago, low-income enrollments are the norm. Last year, an astonishing 85 percent of CPS students were from low-income families.
“Why is the proportion of low-income CPS students as high as it is when the citywide proportion of low-income families with children under age 18 is a much lower 52 percent? Mainly because so many middle-class parents are unwilling to send their kids to the city’s public schools. Instead, they send them to private schools, or, when their children reach school age (or high school age), they move to the suburbs.
“This isn’t a new development. It’s a legacy of the racial segregation that has characterized Chicago and its public schools for decades.”
In other words, the City of Chicago is much closer, demographically, to the City of New Rochelle than a casual observer of the school systems might suspect. But while New Rochelle brings kids together and sustains an acceptable percentage of middle class flight by providing great schools, Chicago has chosen a different path, creating middle class flight and eliminating the opportunity for healthy, abundant, school environments.
Who gets held responsible for this?
Ira, as I posted below, you’re simply wrong about the comparative demographics of New Rochelle and Chicago. Chicago has a poverty rate three times as high as New Rochelle. Check your numbers.
And Steve Bogira’s article, which you link to, isn’t blaming the Chicago school system for the low quality of its schools; Bogira is blaming poverty, and all the social ills that go with it — the exact stew of dysfunction I described in my comment below (and in my book).
Look at the first two sentences of Bogira’s article:
“Chicago’s public schools have performed abysmally for years on many measures. But that’s how schools with overwhelmingly low-income enrollments typically do.”
That’s right. Yes, there’s a lot to complain about in the way that C.P.S. has run its schools, and I do a fair amount of complaining about it in “How Children Succeed.” But to say that the concentrated poverty that exists throughout so much of Chicago is the fault simply of school policy is a vast oversimplification. And to say that Chicago and New Rochelle are demographically close is entirely false.
I have to say, I’m a little taken aback to find that once again, you’ve posted a critique of my book without a single quotation from that book. But I guess I should be used to this by now. And clearly, you’re not going to let your inability to find in my book any evidence for the claims you’re making about it stop you from making further claims.
So here we go.
You say in your comment (at 12:31 pm, above) that there is only one reason that students at Fenger High are unsuccessful and students at New Rochelle High and the schools in Albemarle County are successful: school districting policy. In your mind, the South Side and New Rochelle and Albemarle are all basically the same, demographically; what’s different is the way that central-office bureaucrats place students into schools.
Have you been to the South Side recently? I spent more than two years reporting there, and I can tell you that the story there is much more complicated than you make it out to be. As I describe in “How Children Succeed,” and as William Julius Wilson described in more depth in his books “The Truly Disadvantaged” and “When Work Disappears,” the problem on the South Side goes back for decades. It has its roots in the collapse of the industrial job base in much of the Midwest, in racist housing and criminal justice policies, and in white flight. As a result, the South Side – an area of about 100 square miles – is almost entirely African American and poor. Its population has been shrinking for decades. And as Wilson explains, that economic segregation, combined with massive job losses, led to previously unseen concentrations of poverty on the South Side, which led to a variety of social ills. The schools in those neighborhoods, including Fenger, declined, and most of them have not recovered.
Though I was critical, in “How Children Succeed,” of Paul Vallas and Arne Duncan and their policies, I can also sympathize with their situation. The problems of neighborhoods like Roseland go far beyond what any districting policy can do. When you sit in Roseland, there are no well-off neighborhoods for miles and miles in any direction. In theory, C.P.S. administrators could bus students to and from the north side, which is 20 miles away, but it wouldn’t make much of a difference – the entire Chicago school system is low-income. Eighty-seven percent of the students in C.P.S. as a whole are eligible for lunch subsidies – and that includes all of the wealthiest schools in the Chicago system. The entire school system has a poverty rate more than twice as high as New Rochelle High – a school you identified as having a “very high poverty quotient.” And the schools on the South Side, of course, have a poverty rate much higher than the Chicago average.
But in your view, the high schools in Albemarle and New Rochelle would be exactly like Fenger “if we districted like Chicago.”
That’s a statement that indicates that you don’t have a lot of experience of concentrated neighborhood poverty. The median family income in Albemarle County is almost $100,000. The child poverty rate in Albemarle County is 8 percent, compared to 21 percent nationally, and compared to well over 50 percent on the South Side of Chicago. New Rochelle’s median family income is more than $88,000, and the poverty rate is less than 10 percent, compared to a national average of over 15 percent. (Your claim that “Chicago … is no poorer overall than New Rochelle” is not just false, it’s offensive. Median family income in Chicago as a whole is $42,724; the poverty rate is 28.1 percent, almost three times as high as New Rochelle’s.)
So you look at these two wealthy areas where you’ve lived and worked, and you say that the reason that the children in the schools there are doing well is not because they are fortunate enough to have been spared, by the accident of birth, from the ravages of concentrated poverty that kids on the South Side face. It’s because of the way the schools in those wealthy areas are districted, and the fact that you added a music studio to the school library.
You go on to say that the people I wrote about who work with children on the South Side, like Lanita Reed, are “charitable and colonial,” and that their only goal is to force students like Keitha Jones to “conform more effectively to school and societal expectations.”
Let me remind you: Lanita, an African American woman in her early 30s, grew up on the South Side, in poverty, and she now owns and runs her own hair salon. Working with a group called Youth Advocate Programs, she signed up to mentor Keitha, a Fenger student who lived in a house populated by drug dealers and drug abusers, where she had been sexually assaulted as a child. By giving Keitha a job at the salon and talking with her over the course of many months, Lanita helped Keitha stop fighting at school, confront her abuser, graduate from high school, and enroll in community college.
So yes, one way of looking at Lanita’s work is that she is a colonialist. Maybe she encouraged Keitha to change her life because she wanted to make her more conformist and compliant and white. But that certainly wasn’t the way it looked to me – and I spent a lot of time with Lanita and Keitha, separately and alone, in the salon, at school, at basketball games, and out to dinner. It looked to me like Lanita wanted to help Keitha be happier and more in control of her own life. To me, the work Lanita was doing was positive and powerful, and more important than anything anyone at Fenger could do alone. To you, Lanita’s work is a band-aid, and a colonialist one. Instead, you’d prescribe a music studio in the library. You think that would have turned things around for Keitha.
It must be satisfying to sit in white, wealthy Albemarle County and criticize people like Lanita, Steve Gates, and Elizabeth Dozier (who you call, with no evidence, “grotesquely unqualified”), all African Americans who grew up in poverty and stayed in their low-income neighborhoods to try to make things better for children growing up in similar circumstances.
To me, though, your attacks on them are the very definition of elitism.
Allow me to call “intellectual fraud” here:
Yes Paul, Chicago has distance problems – so does Albemarle County (we cover 726 square miles, roughly the same geographic size as New York City), no New Rochelle does not.
Chicago also has a rather remarkable transportation system which many places lack.
But first, how does Mr. Tough claim both at New Rochelle High School has a 42% free and reduced lunch rate, yet a 10% child poverty rate? Are all impoverished children in high school?
And we have a 29% free and reduced lunch rate in our schools, so that 8% rate now quoted confuses me.
But these statistical challenges hide Mr. Tough’s refusal to accept the obvious. Communities, even communities like Chicago, make choices to concentrate poverty or not. I brought up these comparatives, as I said, to indicate that many communities might choose to concentrate poverty in certain schools, but others do not. Would one of our high schools by as “bad” as Fenger in we concentrated our 29% in one building (that’s a bit larger than our smallest high school), no, not right away. But give it a few consistent years, and it might well become so, as educators and leaders could find reasons to flee.
The excuses Mr. Tough offers for Chicago remind me of those used in the school desegregation battle in Boston in the late 1960s. “Its too far, kids will be on busses for hours each day.” Well, honestly, we have kids on busses for two hours each day. I grew up watching New York City high school kids crossing that city by mass transit every day. These are decisions you either make or do not make.
In closing here, I will say that I have “sat sit in white, wealthy Albemarle County” for about a year now, which must make me seem elitist to a rich kid graduate of Toronto’s most exclusive private school who works for The New York Times. And I will say, quite happily, that I came here to do the work Mr. Tough likes to write about, but never do. But, as I have mentioned, I have worked, lived, fought among the people Tough wants to prescribe solutions for most of my life. I doubt he can understand that, it would require a self awareness I do not see in his work.
But I will say that he can diss the music studio only because he is clueless. He seeks pathology among all not like himself, and that pathology requires cure. It is the ultimate expression of the depressing colonial deficit model which has trapped our children forever. The only thing new in the work of Duckworth and Tough are the names of those elites profiting from these theories.
Sorry Paul, your responses suggest that you understand far less than I thought when I first wrote about your book.
Thanks, Ira. I think we have strayed from the thread which had to do with the common definitions of grit, so I think if you and Paul want to continue, best done on your blog or his. This is not a rejection of anyone’s arguments, but a redirection of further discussions related to the poverty issue.
Thanks, Paul. As I noted on Ira’s last post, I think we have strayed from the thread which had to do with the common definitions of grit, so I think if you and Ira want to continue, best done on your blog or his. This is not a rejection of anyone’s arguments, but a redirection of further discussions related to the poverty issue.
I explain the reason for the disconnect between child poverty rates and school-lunch-subsidy rates on p. 191 of “How Children Succeed.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers lunch subsidies to any schoolchild whose family income falls below 185 percent of the poverty line – in 2012, that meant an income of $41,348 for a family of four. So there are a lot of American families whose income falls above the poverty line but below the lunch-subsidy cutoff. (You can call that intellectual fraud if you want, but it’s a fact.)
That’s why Albemarle County has a 29 percent free and reduced lunch rate and an 8 percent child-poverty rate. Both are well below the national averages. (About 40 percent of children nationally are eligible for free and reduced lunches, as I explained in my book.)
I’m not dissing the music studio, by the way. I think it sounds great. I just think you’re wrong that a music studio alone would be the magic bullet that would turn things around for the kids at Fenger High. They need more help than that, and that’s because they face challenges far more severe than the students at the high school in Albemarle County.
Poverty is poverty. And poverty rates, even free and reduced lunch rates, are notoriously unreliable numbers, in Chicago, in New Rochelle, even in Central Virginia. Yes, I understand the differential. I also understand that in, say a state with little in the way of Medicaid or “welfare,” and a state with long-held deep suspicion of government, we might have many students not listed on any rolls who desperately need help. I know enough about our students to know your numbers are wrong.
And Paul, there are no “magic bullets.” Not character education, not home visits, not wonderful grandmothers, not music studios, not even diverse high schools. But at the heart of this conversation is the question of where we put pressure and where we put resources.
The stories you tell are pathologies, as I have said. You understand them as pathologies. And I will not doubt that truth – I said this in my first post. We do indeed have a pathological system – a legalized system of child abuse – in this nation. That pathological system creates children with pathologies.
Your book focused on those individual pathologies and possible cures. I believe that puts the blame, and the pressure, and perhaps some resources, in the wrong places, because without changing the pathological system, we simply create more children with pathologies every day, in a race we cannot possibly win.
The reason Paul Thomas, I, and others believe you are letting the powerful off the hook is because you are. At your “best” you prescribe a somewhat better welfare state and somewhat improved funding. That’s nice, if we were “close,” but we are not close.
Without sounding condescending, I will say that I am older than you, and I perhaps have a wider range of life experiences. One thing that age gives me is a knowledge of the experience of a time when America was willing to consider radical solutions. We had a presidential candidate in 1968, one with a powerful chance of winning, who promoted a guaranteed national income. We had a President, in the mid-1960s, who transformed poverty in much of America into something significantly less awful. I can also dimly remember Canada making radical change, beginning socialized medicine, a move which transformed your home society.
What American education needs is an understanding of the need for radical change. You can write plenty of books about Geoffrey Canada or character, or even the wonderful works of a few people. You can even bring essential emotional research to light, but none of that helps kids stuck in poverty – Chicago South Side poverty, or New Rochelle West End poverty, or Esmont, Virginia poverty, unless there is systematic change in our schools – in funding, in curriculum, in pedagogy, in what is valued.
So you discount what New Rochelle is trying, and what we are trying here in Virginia, but I hope you are your audiences won’t discount the argument for abundance. The music studio in the high school was an early step, but hardly the only step, as we try to transform schools to close the opportunity gap. We have, I suppose, talked here about life skills for a dozen years. We call them our Lifelong Learning Competencies, which we list above our state’s content standards on our priorities list – and what you say about that in your book I find correct. But our competencies are designed to be individually actualized, and our paths vary in every community, in every classroom, because only a system which flexes to meet child needs can accomplish anything. We don’t belittle our students. We don’t call them stupid. We take their ideas, passions, interests and use them to build opportunities.
We are attempting systemic change, which is what brought me here, to “sit in white, wealthy Albemarle County,” from working with Special Needs students in Michigan, because it is only in system change, in fundamental change, that we will find answers.
And yes Paul, that is a huge challenge to those in power, including those who own, publish, write, and even read The New York Times. It is a much bigger challenge than talking about how kids must change.
I’m not discounting what you’re doing in Albemarle County. I think it sounds great, and I certainly believe that kids in well-off counties like Albemarle deserve support and opportunity and abundance, just as children in poor counties and cities do. (Here’s the economic data for Albemarle, if anyone’s interested: http://goo.gl/QufJVh .) My focus in my reporting has always been more on areas of poverty than areas of wealth, because I believe that’s where we need change most urgently, but I don’t discount that children in middle-class and wealthy areas have serious issues, too, and they’re often poorly served by their schools. I think working to improve those schools is a noble goal, and I’m glad you’ve taken it on.
But I think that what Lanita Reed and Steve Gates and Elizabeth Dozier are doing in Roseland is important and noble and good as well. And that’s where you and I differ. Without knowing these people, or understanding the intense challenges they are facing, you choose to dismiss and insult them, to call them colonialists, to say they’re unqualified, to say they’re pathologizing the young people they’re trying to help and forcing those young people into conformity and compliance.
In my view, that’s just not fair, and it’s not accurate. Lanita and Steve and Liz are working every bit as hard and intelligently as you to improve the lives of the students they’re trying to help. They’re doing so with love, generosity, empathy, and respect. They listen to the ideas and passions and interests of those students. And they believe in systematic change, just as you do; a person can’t live in Roseland these days and not want systematic change.
But you choose to belittle them, and me for writing about them, because they don’t cite Edward Said or express themselves with the appropriate post-colonialist language. That, to me, truly is condescending. I believe the problem is big enough that your work and their work can exist side by side, without either of you needing to dismiss the efforts of the other. It’s unfortunate you don’t feel the same way.
[…] answer to Grant Lichtman’s Does “Grit” Need Deeper Discussion? appears to be an unequivocal yes—based on the exchange in the blog post comments, the Twitter […]
My extended follow up:
The “Grit” Narrative, “Grit” Research, and Codes that Blind
This is a copy of the blog posted by Eric Juli earlier today; the original is on his site: http://growinggoodschools.blogspot.com/2014/01/grit-or-slack-are-we-asking-right.html?m=1 I am copying here with his permission to make sure that it become easily viewable as part of the record of this important discussion. Readers can comment here or on his site:
I want to positively contribute to this Grit/Slack debate. I’ve started and stopped this post at least four times since Grant Lichtman asked me to contribute to the discussion on Sunday. Here’s where we are as I see it:
Paul Tough has said that students lack a set of non-cognitive skills, and the current term to define this subset of skills is grit. Josie Holford discussed her frustration with Grit in terms of socio-economic class. Vicki Davis talked about Grit as being how we respond to the tough situations in our lives. Ira Socol offered a new term, “Slack” to frame what kids in poverty lack that middle class and upper class students have in abundance because, he pointed out, kids in poverty are some of the grittiest around.
I agree with all of it and I agree with none of it. Let me try to explain.
At my inner city school, I have to remind my staff all the time that we can only focus on what we can control. We can’t control what happens to our students beyond the time they are with us. We can’t control that there isn’t electricity at home. We can’t always control when students have beds. We can’t control or solve a lack of clothing. We can’t control or be there when our high school students are acting as the parent, because the parent is working multiple minimum wage jobs. We can’t control it when parents are unsupportive.
As hard as it is to admit it and face it. We aren’t in the business of solving poverty. I don’t wake up every day to head to my job as a high school principal to fix poverty. I’m in the business of teaching and learning. I’m in the business of kids. I’m in the business of offering choices and opportunity to students who need a clearer or different path.
Ira’s absolutely right when he frames slack as something that our kids are missing. I had more slack than I knew what to do with and it saved me time and time again. My kids have zero. If there’s such a thing as negative slack, then that’s what they’ve got. But I can’t spend more time than it took to write those sentences focusing on the slack my students don’t have. We don’t have any tools or opportunity to give them slack. In 2014, in inner city Cleveland, where is the slack coming from? It isn’t coming from anywhere. So Ira is right, but it doesn’t move us forward and it isn’t something we have control over.
The same is true with Josie’s points. In my white, middle class sensibility, I agree with every word she wrote. But none of it helps me at school tomorrow. Just because Josie’s frustration is true for her and for me; she and I are more alike than my students and I are, doesn’t make it true, useful or valuable for my students day to day.
I like that Vicki talked about grit in the context of dealing with what’s tough in our lives. That definition is absolutely true for me. But it’s only a small piece of the definition of grit for my students. When I was in high school, the most adversity I faced was being the shortest kid in class and always managing to find myself in the friend zone with any girl I liked. It felt brutal at the time, but let’s be honest…I wasn’t redefining what it is to face adversity and develop grit.
For my students, they have a different idea of what tough is in their lives. We haven’t had school for four days in a row because of extreme cold. Last week, while we were in school, it was also terribly cold, just not dangerous enough to close school. In the last week, I know students who have chosen to lend their coats to younger siblings and cousins, so another could be warm. I have plenty of students without coats at all, and most are choosing to come to school every day we’re in session. I know students who choose to let someone else in their family eat today. They will see how hungry they are tomorrow and see if they need to eat then. I know students who don’t have beds, or who offer their bed to someone else in the apartment. I know students who travel two hours to come to school; a place where they don’t feel valued, respected, cared for, and accepted. I know students who leave work all night, and then come to school in the morning… and then all the money they earn goes to the rent or to keep the lights on. My students know more about being tough as teenagers than many people learn in a lifetime.
But I want to make a key addition to Vicki’s definition. Vicki talked about tough. I want to posit that there’s a difference between life-tough and school-tough. When Ira talked about the grittiness of kids in poverty, I think he’s referring to life-tough. My students have life-tough down. They know how to handle life-tough. Most don’t know anything other than life-tough. What they don’t know how to deal with is school-tough.
Ira talked about traditional school success in the context of compliance. I’m not sure I agree with that. To be fair, inner city educators have turned compliance into an art form. And we’re fairly focused on it at our school as well. But if grit has school-tough in the definition, I can point to some specific indicators, aspects or skills that my students do lack. For me, I don’t use grit or slack. I call them Habits of Mind. But the words don’t matter. Essentially, these are the skills and tools we need to do school well. And let me say, in no uncertain terms, that my students and students in poverty across the country do school terribly.
For example, I have plenty of students who are below grade level. But I have plenty of students who are at or above grade level too. Regardless of how they read, write, or do math, most of my students are currently failing. And yet they are the toughest kids I know. If grit is just being tough, and persevering, then why are my kids struggling academically so much? Here’s what I think. The toughness my kids exhibit in life does not transfer to school. Academic perseverance, academic stick-to-it-ivness, academic courage, academic behaviors, academic skills, academic dispositions, do not transfer just because a student is “gritty” outside of school.
My students with one shirt, no food, who travel two hours to get to school, who give up at nothing in life outside of school, give up all the time, a thousand times a day, in academic settings. I don’t really know Ira, but I think I can hear him say at this point, that this is what white middle class conformity expects of them and it isn’t right. To that I say, of course it isn’t right. But it’s the world. It also isn’t right that my students are in poverty to begin with. But they are; so we deal with it. I can only address what we have control over. To get out of poverty, my students need to be successful in school. I’ve built a career believing that education is the ticket out. To be successful in college and careers, my students need school-tough. And they just don’t have it. What’s right has very little to do with what is.
There’s plenty more to say, but I want to get this posted so I can get into the conversation.
And that brings me to an important point I want to make. If this grit/slack conversation is about what we do to help kids, then I’m in until the end. If this is really a conversation about what ought to be different in the world, then I’m out after this post. I want to talk about what we have control over. Poverty is bad. Okay, but it ain’t changing anytime soon. And I have to go work with kids tomorrow, who aren’t expecting poverty to go away anytime soon. We still need to figure out how to help them be successful; poverty or not.
Here’s an important piece: I haven’t figured out how to teach my students school-tough. I don’t know how to teach them all academic-courage and academic-perseverance. I know how to do it with individual kids. In that arena, I can claim success. But I’m the principal of a school now, not a classroom teacher. I haven’t figured out how to teach an entire school how to do school well. And I certainly haven’t figured out how to help my teachers teach my students how to do school well. Is that a conversation you want to have? Can we shift away from whether or not this is a middle class expectation, or a conversation about compliance to one of what we do to help students like mine develop the toolbox to help themselves? That’s what I want to talk about. Do you want to talk about word choice or actions? My students, and all those like them, don’t need a debate about word choice. They need actions. Are you in?
This has been a fascinating discussion to follow. one question I have for Ira Socol, Paul Thomas, et. al., is this: Do you believe it is morally acceptable to help kids break out of the cycle of poverty without ending the structural causes that started the cycle in the first place? I get the sense from this grit/slack divide (though I think it’s a false dichotomy) that there’s an idea that the prerequisite for providing equal opportunity is destroying structural inequality. In other words, until we can get rid of the economic unfairness that privileges the 1%, the racism-led redlining that has caused such housing disparities, the cultural dominance of white middle-class values, etc., any other effort falls short of some standard of true social justice.
I think what Mr. Tough and others are pointing to is that a comprehensive system of supports (and empathetic high expectations) can largely mitigate the effects of poverty – hold the negative cognitive, psychological, physiological impacts at bay long enough to give kids a chance to reach their aspirations. It’s a circuit-breaker. Yet I can understand how that might feel in some ways like a cop-out, when it’s not about the circuit needing to be broken but the entire system needing to be rebuilt.
I’m not sure why both efforts can’t overlay: Why can’t we simultaneously give children the supports and help them cultivate mindsets and skills they need to overcome challenges they didn’t ask for, while also working to transform the societal structures that put us in this position to begin with?
Thanks, Elliot. I got some sense of that from Eric Juli’s marvelous response. Of course Eric wants to see structural change to the poverty he sees every day. But he is not willing to hold off with a more narrow focus on giving students the learning tools they need to succeed in school. Sure, there is a conformist element to succeeding in school, but Eric sees these as mutually re-enforcing, not exclusive. I agree with him.
from my point of view this conversation is primarily about journalism and message. I may strongly disagree with some actions celebrated in Tough’s book and might support others, but my question for him remains about who he chose to speak to, and why. And ultimately, where he puts the blame for poverty: on the character of children or om the system.
As I noted, I, like many others, have spent our lives doing the best we can in broken systems. What we need from elites like Times reporters is pressure on the system to change.
That’s a great question, and it’s one I’ve been wondering about throughout this conversation: Why does Ira object so strenuously to the work being done on behalf of children in poverty by advocates and educators like Lanita Reed and Steve Gates and Nadine Burke Harris and the many others I write about in “How Children Succeed”? I think your suspicion is right: Ira believes that anyone who helps young people like Monisha and Keitha and Kewauna is simply perpetuating a colonial system, and that the more authentically post-colonial approach is to let them keep suffering until the revolution arrives.
From the perspective of Albemarle County, I can see how that might seem like an attractive approach. When only 8 percent of the children in your county live in poverty – less than half of the national average – the problem of child poverty probably doesn’t feel very urgent. But in the communities where I’ve done my reporting, and where Eric Juli works, the situation feels very urgent indeed.
Ira, as to your question of whom I chose to speak to in my reporting, I answered that question in my comment above:
And I explained why I made those choices:
“I chose to report on them because they are real people with complicated lives. And their stories, each one in its own way, help to demonstrate the central thesis of ‘How Children Succeed’: that children who grow up in disadvantaged circumstances need much more and better help than we’ve been offering them as a nation – and a reform strategy that focuses only on boosting their test scores is not enough; we also need to pay attention to the environment in which they are growing up, and to the effect it has on their mental health and psychological well-being.”
As to whether I call for systemic change in my book, here’s one more quotation, from p. 193 of “How Children Succeed.” (At this point, I’m becoming pessimistic that you’re going to keep your promise to provide quotations from the book, so I’ll have to do it.) In this passage, in the concluding chapter, I’m describing the lives of children in the most disadvantaged families in the nation – the more than seven million children whose family income is less than $11,000 a year:
“Despite these children’s intense needs, school reformers have not been very successful at creating interventions that work for them; they have done much better at creating interventions that work for children from better-off low-income families, those making $41,000 a year. *No one* has found a reliable way to help deeply disadvantaged children, in fact. Instead, what we have created is a disjointed, ad hoc system of government agencies and programs that follow them haphazardly through their childhood and adolescence.
“This dysfunctional pipeline starts in overcrowded Medicaid clinics and continues through social-service and child-welfare offices and hospital emergency rooms. Once students get to school, the system steers them into special education, remedial classes, and alternative schools, and then, for teenagers, there are GED programs and computer-assisted credit-recovery courses that too often allow them to graduate from high school without decent skills. Outside of school, the system includes foster homes, juvenile detention centers, and probation officers.
“Few of the agencies in this system are particularly well run or well staffed (there is no Teach for America equivalent sending in waves of eager and idealistic young college graduates to work in them), and their efforts are rarely well coordinated. For the children and families involved, dealing with these agencies tends to be frustrating and alienating and often humiliating. The system as a whole is extremely expensive and wildly inefficient, and it has a very low rate of success; almost no one who passes through it as a child graduates from college or achieves any of the other markers of a happy and successful life: a good career, an intact family, a stable home.
“But we could design an entirely different system for children who are dealing with deep and pervasive adversity at home. It might start at a comprehensive pediatric wellness center, like the one that Nadine Burke Harris is now working to construct in Bayview-Hunters Point, with trauma-focused care and social-service support woven into every medical visit. It might continue with parenting interventions that increase the chance of secure attachment, like Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up, or ABC, the program developed at the University of Delaware. In prekindergarten, it might involve a program like Tools of the Mind that promotes executive-function skills and self-regulation in young children. We’d want to make sure these students were in good schools, of course, not ones that track them into remedial classes but ones that challenge them to do high-level work. And whatever academic help they were getting in the classroom would need to be supplemented by social and psychological and character-building interventions outside the classroom, like the ones Elizabeth Dozier has brought to Fenger or the ones that a group called Turnaround for Children provides in several low-income schools in New York City and Washington, D.C. In high school, these students would benefit from some combination of what both OneGoal and KIPP Through College provide – a program that directs them toward higher education and tries to prepare them for college not only academically but also emotionally and psychologically.
“A coordinated system like that, targeted at the 10 to 15 percent of students at the highest risk of failure, would be expensive, there’s no doubt. But it would almost certainly be cheaper than the ad hoc system we have in place now. It would save not only lives but money, and not just in the long run, but right away.”
So that’s me calling, very explicitly, for systemic change. You simply don’t like the systemic change that I’m proposing. And that’s fine. Child poverty in America is a terribly complex problem, and I may not have found the right solution yet.
But to belittle that proposal, and the work of the people I write about who are trying to design and build a better system for the country’s poorest children, while saying that the work you’re doing in the comfortable precincts of Albemarle County is “a huge challenge to those in power” – that’s just wishful thinking. The work you’re doing is important and worthwhile, I’m sure. But it’s not more important – or more of a challenge to the existing system – than the work Nadine and Steve and Lanita and everyone else I wrote about is doing.
I repeat, because Paul repeats himself continuously, that my issue is not with most of the work – inexperienced principals without required skills and untrained chess coaches aside – he writes about but with why he chose to write about that. His explanations ring hollow as any kind of educational agenda as do his claims that he calls for system change. For those changes would make sure that Paul and his children, the children and grandchildren of his Times colleagues, and the rest of the elites were left blissfully alone while charity was dispensed in somewhat more liberal forms to the poor – who, as Henry Ford offered a full century ago – would get to undergo “character education” in exchange for some kind of minimal supports.
I know Grant hasn’t wanted leftist rage here; but at some point this is what I begin to feel. I know Paul is offended by academic phrases like colonialism, but that is what drips from Paul’s comments here even more than from his book. And Paul, that’s a real cause of continued poverty and pain in this nation.
in the end Tough describes no solution, just better triage for the wounded. I’m certain now that he believes that’s enough.
But it’s not enough for me.
Re: “Do you believe it is morally acceptable to help kids break out of the cycle of poverty without ending the structural causes that started the cycle in the first place?”
My argument is not about choosing (in fact, I see the “no excuses” advocates as the ones who have thrown up there hands, fatalistically, saying as many do that there is nothing they can do about systemic inequity and poverty).
We have a moral imperative to end social inequity AND educational inequity. But without addressing social inequity, in-school efforts will be greatly weakened.
Currently, the “grit”/”no excuses”-based reform movement is allowing poverty to be essentially ignored, allowing those in power with privilege to avoid accountability for social inequity, and perpetuating in-school inequity by increasing the accountability/standards/testing dynamic that is NOT a solution to inequity.
Further, many of the direct applications of “grit”/”no excuses” ideologies also slip into paternalism—which is unacceptable. The “missionary zeal” of TFA and the “middle-class code” of Ruby Payne are examples of that paternalistic failure. The “no excuses” movement has actually embraced the term “paternalism” justifying what I see as classist/racist practices masked as “saving” poor children.
We need to move forward committed to ending social inequity and educational inequity while being vigilant about not slipping into paternalism.
No easy task, I admit, but to answer the Q, it isn’t morally acceptable; it is morally necessary. The question is HOW and in conjunction with WHAT.
[…] answer to Grant Lichtman’s Does “Grit” Need Deeper Discussion? appears to be an unequivocal yes—based on the exchange in the blog post comments, the Twitter […]
For some time I have been bothered how people can distort an educational concept and idea, depending how they view their goals in educating young people. I have read many recommending ‘ praising or rewarding effort or the process ‘ to reinforce a ‘ growth mindset’. Instead of helping kids see learning as essentially process , the association of process, grit , a growth mindset with outcomes , see PLthomased -not only distorts the learning process but undermines learning. Alfie Kohn in his article on why self- discipline is overrated acknowledges the importance of things like self- discipline and grit , but only when they come after the kid enjoys his learning and finds it relevant and engaging. Once we have the ‘ meat ‘ – the 4 Cs of intrinsic motivation – choice-autonomy, content-curriculum , competence , collaboration- community we can add the spice of ‘ grit’.
This is a blog by Peter Gow, and was originally posted on his blog, re-posted here by his permission in order to become visible as part of this discussion: http://notyourfathersschool.blogspot.com/2014/02/in-which-i-confess-to-lacking-grit.html
In Which I Confess to Lacking Grit, Apparently, and Blame It on Family
The most exciting place I knew growing up was the “everyday” living room of my grandparents’ house. It was just across the street, so I could go there whenever I wanted.
The room also served as the main reading room of the “library” that was their house, the room where the bound set of Thackeray and the Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf of books added a certain leathery patina and smell. It was also the room where I could explore the books my grandfather had acquired over the years in response to his enthusiasm of the moment. There were textbooks for dozens of languages, books on various facets of engineering and on photography, books on nature filled with gorgeous color plates of The Apples of New York and The Fishes of the Great Lakes, or maybe it was the North Atlantic. There were even a few books on sports, golf in particular.
I didn’t ever know my grandfather terribly well, as he was in ill-health for much of my sentient childhood, and I never heard him say it, but he was quoted by those who should know (that is, by students and teaching colleagues, the folks for whom he saved his best thoughts) as having proclaimed that “A thing worth doing is worth doing poorly.”
What a shocking line from a respected educator! But yet, he had a point that I fully and completely embrace: that one doesn’t need to be an past master, a single-minded obsessive, a ninth-degree adept to enjoy doing something or learning about it. The Expert may be an American icon, but there is no reason that someone should have to be fluent in, say, Dutch to be interested in it as a language or to memorize the scientific names and characteristics of every apple in the Empire State to appreciate the glory of upstate apple-ness.
For my grandfather, this dilettante’s approach to learning a few things (and sometimes more) about quite a lot of things was a source of intellectual and emotional joy. He wasn’t interested in throwing his knowledge around at cocktail parties, although I daresay he might have unintentionally done so; he just liked learning stuff.
Of course, we live in an age when we are told that persistence, mastery—grit!—is the sine qua non of meaningful living. We’re told to devote our lives to whatever matters to us, to repeat as necessary (and the Gladwell has decreed that 10,000 times are necessary), until we have broken through the barriers of weakness of character and failure that leave those less gritty lying in the dust. Poor sad souls.
So there was my grandfather, child of immigrants and a college scholarship boy who gave up his chance to be a doctor in order to become a Latin teacher (thus alienating himself from his parents forever and aye). At the age of forty he chucked a steady teaching gig to start his own initially wobbly school. He would score low on the Grit Scale. Poor sad, quixotic soul.
I realize that my own household has taken on some of the characteristics of that living room; my Amazon account and my forays into the world of library book sales, where my spouse is a disciplined shopper and I buy like a sailor on a spree, are all the proof anyone would need to convict me of sharing my grandfather’s lack of grit.
So, Gritless Wonder that I must be, I find myself considering that the whole “grit” thing might just be more than a little over-blown. The recent critique that has been waged in the blogs of educators I admire (like Ira Socol and Josie Holford) seems to be onto something, suggesting as it does that prescribing persistence for victims as an band-aid for systemic social failures is more than a little bit facile and cruel.
There’s grit, and there’s grit: heavy-duty, damn-life’s-torpedoes streetwise stubbornness versus good do-bee persistence—and what educator isn’t for persistence when it matters when it comes to schoolwork? But an educator I worked for once noted that “sometimes giving up in a no-win situation is a sign of intelligence,” and there are students who have been dealt hands that no amount of extra effort on homework will turn into winners; grit alone won’t do it, and the mental and emotional energy to sustain this kind of grit are a price that no child should have to pay, although of course many do. I think that we need to focus more on fixing the no-win situations than on worrying about who has grit and who doesn’t.
The point of my grandfather’s saying, I think, is that in the end a thing worth doing is a thing worth doing. Sometimes we may achieve full mastery, and sometimes we can only do the best we can. Whether we’re up for 10,000 repetitions, or whether we just want a taste and then to move on, his belief and mine are that curiosity and enthusiasm are felicitous starting points for the exploration of a world of wonders. I’d rather have my recollections of poking around in my grandfather’s library than be under the compulsion to prove how much grit I have. I think, old-school teacher that he was, that my grandfather would agree.
And as for the grit enthusiasts among us, let’s keep in mind that there’s a difference between persistence and heroism, and that we oughtn’t to be demanding heroism from every disadvantaged kid—at least until we’re ready, 24/7, to demand it from ourselves. Let’s focus not on heroism, nor grit, nor “accepting no excuses,” but rather on something we can all own to.
In response to yet another post on this grit business, Laura Deisley cites Chris Lehman’s call for an “Ethic of Care,” a response to what she beautifully describes at kids’ “yearning for relationship and purpose.”
An Ethic of Care just beats grit all hollow.
I feel like an important distinction needs to be made between little-g grit and big-G Grit. Little-g grit is perseverance during an everyday type task, and sure, that’s not fundamentally or always a virtue. As Gow’s blog post points out, there are times you may want to dabble in something and then let it go, or times when you give something a good effort, realize it’s not going to happen, and are better off backing away (for me, this was the sport of basketball).
Big-g Grit though, that means that when you have identified a serious passion or goal, you have the capacity to show resilience in order to make it happen. The issue for many kids growing up in poverty isn’t whether or not they want to become apple experts– it’s whether or not they want to have the opportunity to be the artist, the doctor, the reader-of-books, whatever it is they have THEMSELVES set as an aspiration. I don’t much care if a kid follows a traditional and straight-line path through college and into a career track or whether she decides to become a polymath world-traveling, organic-farming hippie who changes her mind about her career two dozen times… so long as she has the opportunity to choose.
The realities of growing up in poverty – as Tough and others have detailed quite extensively – is that you are very likely to regularly experience traumas which get in the way of reaching those aspirations. You are weighed down on a neurochemical level by toxic stress, by insecure attachments, by poor nutrition, in some cases by PTSD! (you’re also likely going to poorly-run schools that aren’t messaging a sense of high expectations, but that’s another matter). It’s not fair, but the evidence for these realities is overwhelming, and it makes pursuing one’s dreams that much harder – not impossible, but that much harder. The way to combat the risk factors, to level the playing field that poverty’s effects tilts so wildly, is through resilience factors, which include tremendous amounts of outside support (and ‘slack’-giving actions), as well as cultivating growth mindsets and beliefs that increase the probability for overcoming challenges you didn’t invite to meet the hopes you have declared.
So let’s not conflate grit and Grit. One is a tool that can, like any tool, be applied to either positive or negative effect; the other is a way of giving kids a chance to fully embody their self-defined potential.
To the larger discussion:
One clarification needed (per ehaspel) is about the SINGULARITY of focus on “grit” that is often embedded in the “no excuses” and “grit” narratives.
To foster and encourage effort and commitment in children is obviously a wise thing, but the “no excuses” and “grit” narratives are ideological and real mechanisms for keeping a society/public, a school, a teacher FOCUS exclusively on the child and her/his effort. A consequence of that is that children become equally focused on their Selves.
All of that is harmful and counterproductive when the external conditions are the primary causational factors for whether or not any child (or teacher, or school) can produce outcomes deemed successful.
The slack/scarcity lens acknowledges SYSTEMIC forces as PRIMARY, where our gaze must be FIRST.
Even though achieving slack in the lives of all children is a herculean task, we must not be fatalistic about it (“there is nothing I can do about poverty so I will only deal with what is in my control, the classroom”; see Paulo Freire), and we also MUST NOT throw up our hands in schools and classrooms.
Call for addressing social equity, and then commit in schools and the classroom to practices that foster slack for all students at school, conditions of equity and safety, conditions that allow risk, experimentation, and slow growth.
The accountability era built on standards and HIGH-STAKES testing creates scarcity. “No excuses” policies create scarcity.
BOTH are antithetical to genuine in-school pursuits of equity, and both perpetuate the scarcity many children bring with them from their lives outside of school.
Thanks @plthomasEdD for a number of helpful clarifications throughout this exchange, including your earlier efforts to distinguish the intent of “grit” advocacy in some corners (social/emotional/volitional dispositions, skillsets) from its impact (the unexamined privilege and presumption intrinsic to the “grit narrative”) — and now this clarification in re “the singularity of focus” that leads to some to “throw up our hands in schools and classrooms.”
It is to such sad and myopic conclusions as those — “we are powerless over poverty, so why try: I can only help the kids, so let’s just talk about teaching and learning” — that I object, as recently on @EricJuli’s blog (http://ow.ly/tgsmF) despite his (and others’) heartfelt, vulnerable, and searching efforts to support his school’s learners:
I find myself responding to this contribution to the “Grit/Slack debate” the same way I might respond to a teacher who shuts the door of his classroom on the claim that he doesn’t have time or reason to explore matters of school culture that might not immediately effect his lesson plan on Tuesday. I respond the same way I might to a student who says she doesn’t have time or interest to explore the farther reaching implications of her ideas in the world, because she just wants to know what she needs to get a good grade. I would hesitate to model or to support that kind of thinking in my leadership, if one of my goals is to offer more expansive perspectives, choices, opportunities, and goals in a learning community.
To reduce this to a choice between “word choice and actions,” defined by the comfort, capacity, or faith to control their consequences, is to suggest both that there’s no relationship of others’ contributions to this dialogue to “the business of teaching and learning,” and that our shared aspirations as educators should be framed by guarantees of their success. To that I’d venture the suggestion of a wise person whose reminder I remember, but whose name I forget: “We should not confuse the likelihood of attaining a goal, with the urgency of fighting for it.” And I would venture, more suggestively and cryptically, that the reasoning you use with reference to socioeconomic status, is reasoning you might hesitate to use with reference to race.
To your invitation to “call for addressing social equity, and then commit in schools and the classroom to practices that foster slack for all students at school, conditions of equity and safety, conditions that allow risk, experimentation, and slow growth” — a call that resonates, I think, with the reminders @IraSocol has been providing us — I would only add that this is not something ‘else’ or ‘more’ we might do ‘beyond’ focus on teaching and learning, or something we need to “find time” or “space” or “energy” to do: I’d argue that this might get at the very *core* of our shared purpose in schools, and the shared opportunities we can create for each other, and for all learners.
Chris Thinnes | @CurtisCFEE
[…] “ “Grit” has become a staple of school leadership discussion, due in large part to Angela Duckworth’s best selling book. I just helped a school compose a remarkable vision statement, and grit is ment…” […]
[…] Does “Grit” Need Deeper Discussion? […]
[…] been charging through the worlds of educational leadership, parenting, and child development. Read Does ‘Grit’ Need Deeper Discussion by author Grant Lichtman, as well as the valuable resources linked within his post, for some […]
Thanks for linking to this fascinating discussion. I think the key is “let’s now swallow bites, just because they are small and seem easy to chew. Maybe the are not.”
[…] “'Grit' has become a staple of school leadership discussion, due in large part to Angela Duckworth’s best selling book. I just helped a school compose a remarkable vision statement, and grit is mentioned as an essential outcome for their students. Have we swallowed this argument whole a bit too quickly? Does it resonate with us, particularly American parents and educators, because we want to believe that personal grit drove each of us to a differentiated level of success? Have we questioned what grit means to those who grow up in a vastly different condition than our own? Ira Socol is one of our true educational thought leaders because he is a brilliant and creative thinker, AND, unlike many who write books or give speeches for a living, he works in schools. He has researched the idea of grit and written two long blog posts that I think would make powerful reading for any school faculty, leadership team, or parent community. Ira suggests that grit is not a measure of resilience, but of conformity. Ira proposes that the differentiator that we seek is not grit at all, but almost the opposite, what he calls ''slack’ – the moments when necessity is not the sole driver.' It is the margin of safety provided to the relatively well-off or well connected that is not available to those for whom every hour or every day is a mountain of steep challenges." | by Grant Lichtman […]
[…] reality goes to the heart of the grit discussion that Grant Lichtman, Ira Socol, and Paul Thomas have been engaged in and about which I thought often during my trip. […]