Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I taught English in the rural South Carolina high school I attended as a student. Many of those years, I taught Advanced Placement courses as part of my load (I taught all levels of English and usually sophomores and seniors) and was department chair.
Over the years, I worked hard to create an English department that served our students well. We made bold moves to provide all students in each grade the same literature textbooks (not different texts for different levels, as was the tradition, thus labeling students publicly) and to stop issuing to students grammar texts and vocabulary books (teachers retained classroom sets to use as they chose).
And a significant part of our English classes was the teaching of writing—having students write often and to produce multiple-draft essays. I stressed the need to end isolated grammar instruction (worksheets and textbook exercises) and urged that grammar, mechanics, and usage be addressed directly in the writing process.
Even though the principal was supportive and a former English teacher, at one faculty meeting while the administrators were discussing recent standardized test scores for the school (yes, this test-mania was in full force during the 80s and 90s in SC), the principal prefaced his comments about the English test scores with, “Keep in mind that the English scores may not reflect what we are doing here since we don’t teach grammar.”*
In a nut shell, that sort of mischaracterization and misunderstanding about best practice is at the foundation of my previous post exploring Joan Brunetta’s writing about how standards- and test-based schooling had failed her.
A few comments on the post and a follow up discussion in the comments with Robert Pondiscio—as well as a subsequent post by Pondiscio at Bridging Differences—have prompted me to continue to address not only how we still fail the teaching of writing but also how that failure is a subset of the larger failure of students by traditional approaches to teaching that are teacher-centered and committed to core knowledge.
Revisiting “The Good Student Trap” in the Accountability Era
Adele Scheele has coined the term “the good student trap,” which perfectly captures how schools create a template for what counts as being a good student and then how that template for success fails students once they attend college and step into the real world beyond school. My one caveat to Scheele’s ideas is that especially during the accountability era—a ramping up of traditional practices and norms for education—this trap affects all students, not just the good ones.
And the trap goes something like this, according to Scheele:
Most of us learned as early as junior high that we would pass, even excel if we did the work assigned to us by our teachers. We learned to ask whether the test covered all of chapter five or only a part of it, whether the assigned paper should be ten pages long or thirty, whether “extra credit” was two book reports on two books by the same author or two books written in the same period. Remember?
We were learning the Formula.
• Find out what’s expected.
• Do it.
• Wait for a response.
And it worked. We always made the grade. Here’s what that process means: You took tests and wrote papers, got passing grades, and then were automatically promoted from one year to the next. That is not only in elementary, junior, and senior high school, but even in undergraduate and graduate school. You never had to compete for promotions, write résumés, or rehearse yourself or even know anyone for this promotion. It happened automatically. And we got used to it….
What we were really learning is System Dependency! If you did your work, you’d be taken care of. We experienced it over and over; it’s now written in our mind’s eye. But nothing like this happens outside of school. Still, we remain the same passive good students that we were at ten or fourteen or twenty or even at forty-four. The truth is, once learned, system dependency stays with most of us throughout our careers, hurting us badly. We keep reinforcing the same teacher-student dichotomy until it is ingrained. Then we transfer it to the employers and organizations for whom we’ll work.
This model of traditional schooling includes a teacher who makes almost all the decisions and students who are rewarded for being compliant—and that compliance is identified as “achievement.”
In English classes, a subset of this process is reflected in how we teach, and fail, writing. As I noted in my earlier post, Hillocks and others have noted that traditional commitments to the five-paragraph essay (and cousin template-models of essays) and a return to isolated grammar exercises have resulted from the rise of high-stakes testing of writing. As well, the accountability era has included the central place of rubrics driving what students write, how teachers respond to student writing, and how students revise their essays.
So what is wrong with five-paragraph essays, grammar exercises, and rubrics?
Let’s focus on rubrics to examine why all of these are ways in which we fail writing and students. Alfie Kohn explains:
Mindy Nathan, a Michigan teacher and former school board member told me that she began “resisting the rubric temptation” the day “one particularly uninterested student raised his hand and asked if I was going to give the class a rubric for this assignment.” She realized that her students, presumably grown accustomed to rubrics in other classrooms, now seemed “unable to function [emphasis added] unless every required item is spelled out for them in a grid and assigned a point value. Worse than that,” she added, “they do not have confidence in their thinking or writing skills and seem unwilling to really take risks.”
Rubric-based writing and assessment, then, reflect the exact problem I highlighted earlier, one noted by Applebee and Langer: teachers know more today than ever about how to teach writing, but commitments to accountability and testing prevent that awareness from being applied in class; as Kohn explains:
What all this means is that improving the design of rubrics, or inventing our own, won’t solve the problem because the problem is inherent to the very idea of rubrics and the goals they serve. This is a theme sounded by Maja Wilson in her extraordinary new book, Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment. In boiling “a messy process down to 4-6 rows of nice, neat, organized little boxes,” she argues, assessment is “stripped of the complexity that breathes life into good writing.” High scores on a list of criteria for excellence in essay writing do not mean that the essay is any good because quality is more than the sum of its rubricized parts. To think about quality, Wilson argues, “we need to look to the piece of writing itself to suggest its own evaluative criteria” – a truly radical and provocative suggestion.
Wilson also makes the devastating observation that a relatively recent “shift in writing pedagogy has not translated into a shift in writing assessment.” Teachers are given much more sophisticated and progressive guidance nowadays about how to teach writing but are still told to pigeonhole the results, to quantify what can’t really be quantified. Thus, the dilemma: Either our instruction and our assessment remain “out of synch” or the instruction gets worse in order that students’ writing can be easily judged with the help of rubrics.
Once fulfilling the expectations of the rubric becomes the primary if not exclusive goal for the student, we have the SAT writing section and the unintended consequences, as Newkirk explains (English Journal, November 2005) about students writing to prompts and rubrics for high-stakes testing:
George Hillocks Jr. has shown that another persistent problem with these types of prompts concerns evidence—the writer must instantly develop instances or examples to be used for support. In a sample of the released papers from the Texas state assessment, some of this evidence looks, well, manufactured….When I first read this essay, I imagined some free spirit, some rebel, flaunting the ethics of composition and inventing evidence to the point of parody. But when I shared this letter with a teacher from Texas, she assured me that students were coached to invent evidence if they were stuck [emphasis added]. In my most cynical moment, I hadn’t expected that cause. And what is to stop these coached students from doing the same on the SAT writing prompt? Who would know?
As but one example above, “the good student trap” is replicated day after day in the ways in which students are prompted to write and then how teachers respond to and grade that writing. The failure lies in who makes almost all of the decisions, the teacher, and who is rewarded for being mostly compliant, students.
While core knowledge advocates and proponents of rubric-driven assessment tend to misrepresent critical and progressive educators who seek authentic learning experiences for students with charges of “not teaching X” or “So what shall we teach?” (with the implication that core knowledge educators want demanding content but critical and progressive educators don’t), the real question we must confront is not what content we teach and students learn, but who decides and why.
If we return to rubrics, well designed rubrics do everything for students (see Education Done To, For, or With Students? for a full discussion of this failure), everything writers need to do in both college and the real world beyond school.
Rubric-driven writing is asking less of students than authentic writing in a writing workshop.
Traditional core knowledge classrooms are also deciding for students what knowledge matters, and again, asking less of students than challenging students to identify what knowledge matters in order to critique that knowledge as valuable (or not) for each student as well as the larger society. The tension of this debate is about mere knowledge acquisition versus confronting the norms of knowledge in the pursuit of individual autonomy and social justice—making students aware of the power implications of knowledge so that they live their lives with purpose and dignity instead of having life happen to them.
My call is not for ignoring the teaching of grammar, but for confronting the norms of conventional language so that students gain power over language instead of language having power over them. Why do we feel compelled not to end a sentence with a preposition? Where did that claim come from and who benefits from such a convention?
Why does academic writing tend to erase the writer from the writing (“No ‘I’!”) and who benefits from that convention?
You see, critical approaches to teaching go beyond the mere acquisition of knowledge that some authority has deemed worthy (what Freire labels the “banking concept” of teaching). Yes, knowledge matters, but not in the fixed ways core knowledge advocates claim and pursue. Critical approaches to knowledge honor the dignity of human autonomy in children, something that many adults seem at least leery if not fearful of allowing in their classrooms.
Core knowledge, rubrics, templates, prescriptions, and prompts are all tools of control, ways to trap students in the pursuit of compliance. They aren’t challenging (or “rigorous” as advocates like to say), and they aren’t learning.
As Scheele explains:
System dependency is not the only damaging thing we learned in the context of school: We learned our place….
Yet most of us were falsely lulled into a false self labeled “good” by fulfilling the expected curriculum. The alternative was being “bad” by feeling alienated and losing interest or dropping out….
So what’s the problem? The problem is the danger. The danger lies in thinking about life as a test that we’ll pass or fail, one or the other, tested and branded by an Authority. So, we slide into feeling afraid we’ll fail even before we do-if we do. Mostly we don’t even fail; we’re just mortally afraid that we’re going to. We get used to labeling ourselves failures even when we’re not failing. If we don’t do as well as we wish, we don’t get a second chance to improve ourselves, or raise our grades. If we do perform well, we think that we got away with something this time. But wait until next time, we think; then they’ll find out what frauds we are. We let this fear ruin our lives. And it does. When we’re afraid, we lose our curiosity and originality, our spirit and our talent-our life.
Beyond Rigor, Templates, and Compliance
In my position at a small and selective liberal arts university, I now teach mostly good students in my writing-intensive first year seminars. Students are asked to read and discuss Style, a descriptive look at grammar, mechanics, and usage that raises students’ awareness and skepticism about conventional uses of language, but rejects seeing conventions as fixed rules. (We ask why teachers in high school tend to teach students that fragments are incorrect when many published works contain fragments, leading to a discussion of purposeful language use.)
Throughout the course, students are asked to plan and then write four original essays that must be drafted several times with peer and my feedback. The focus, topic, and type of essay must be chosen by the student. To help them in those choices, we discuss what they have been required to do in high school for essays, we explore what different fields expect in college writing, and we read and analyze real-world essays in order to establish the context for the choices, and consequences of those choices, that writers make—specifically when those writers are students.
I offer this here in case you think somehow I am advocating “fluffy thinking” or a “do-your-own-thing philosophy” of teaching, as some have charged. And I invite you to ask my students which they prefer, which is easier—the template, prompt-based writing of high school that created their good student trap or my class. [HINT: Students recognize that five-paragraph essays and rubrics are easier, and they often directly ask me to just tell them what to write and how. As Mindy Nathan noted above, good students are “unable to function [emphasis added] unless every required item is spelled out for them in a grid and assigned a point value.”]
My students reinforce for me every class session that we have failed the teaching of writing and those students by doing everything for them in school. They are nearly intellectually paralyzed with fear about the consequences of their own decisions.
When challenged and supported to be agents of their own learning, their own coming to understand the world, and their own decisions about what knowledge matters and why, however, they are more than capable of the tasks.
And with them in mind, I must ask, who benefits from compliant, fearful students as intellectual zombies, always doing as they are told?
* Although he phrased his comment poorly, my principal was, in fact, making a valid point that a multiple-choice English (grammar) test was unlikely to fairly represent what our students had learned about composing original essays. He intended to make a swipe at the quality of the test, although he did so gracelessly.
We have two recent commentaries that detail how schools and teachers fail students in the teaching of writing—one comes from a college student and the other, from a former teacher. While both reach the same conclusion about the teaching of writing, the reasons for those failures are in conflict, suggesting that we must consider whether schools and teachers are fumbling the teaching of writing, and then why.
Posted at Anthony Cody’s Living in Dialogue, a former Massachusetts student and current college student, Joan Brunetta, confronts the negative consequences of high-stakes accountability driven by standards and testing:
I am currently a student at Williams College, but I grew up in the public school system in Cambridge, MA and was among the first cohort of kids to have every single MCAS test administered, 3rd grade through 10th. Over the course of my years in the Cambridge public school system, I saw the scope of my education narrowed with increased testing, from a curriculum that valued student growth, experiences, and emotions, to one that was often cold and hard and moved on whether or not we were ready.
Brunetta’s experience should not be discounted as anecdotal since an analysis of twenty years of reform in her home state tends to reinforce her claim. As well, her message about how writing instruction distorted by standards and testing failed her is equally compelling:
In the years I attended high school, in which more focus was centered on testing, much more of our learning was directed toward tests. I wrote hardly anything but five-paragraph essays in high school English and history classes before 11th grade….
Some students said that they actually remember more of what they learned in elementary school than of the material they had learned just the last semester in high school, because those pieces of history or literature were taught in a context and were talked about, not glossed over and memorized quickly. Others noted that they had actually read and written more in elementary school than high school….
Here’s a rubric that my 7th and 8th grade teachers used for evaluating our essays. This is what real rigor looks like to me. Our papers were looked at as true pieces of writing, with respect to our ideas, our structure, and our use of language. If you compare this to the rubric for an MCAS essay or an AP essay (both of which apparently test for a “higher” level of critical thinking), the juxtaposition is truly laughable. I would particularly like to point out the 7/8th grade criteria for good organization: “The paper has a thoughtful structure that surfaces from the ideas, more than the ideas feeling constrained by the structure. Paragraphs and examples connect with fluid transitions when necessary to make the relationships between ideas clear. The organization is not predictable but artful and interesting in the way it supports the ideas.” (emphasis my own)
To do this in writing is hard. It is a challenge. It is what real writers do when they write engaging essays, books, and articles. In MCAS essays and all the essays we wrote to prepare for MCAS essays, using an unpredictable structure was wrong. To do anything but constrain your ideas by the structure was very wrong. When we learned essay writing in high school, we were often handed a worksheet, already set up in five paragraphs, telling you exactly where to put the thesis, the topic sentences, and the “hook.” In my freshman history class, I was told that each paragraph should have 5-9 sentences, regardless of the ideas presented in the paragraph. The ideas didn’t matter–structure reigned supreme. There is nothing wrong with learning how to write in a structured and clear way–for many students, having certain structures to rely on or start with is very helpful. But when testing was involved, all of our writing was reduced to a single, simple, and restrictive structure–simply because that structure is simpler (and therefore cheaper) to grade. It is important to note here that I have heard multiple college professors specifically tell all their well-trained, test-ready students never to use this structure in their writing.
Furthermore, in elementary school, we were taught to edit our writing (a skill totally missing from any MCAS standards and tests and generally lacking from high school); we wrote at least 2 or 3 drafts each time. At the end of the year, we created a portfolio presentation, which we gave to parents, teachers, and community members about how we had grown over the year, what we still needed to work on, and what our goals were for next year. Almost all of my writing practices and skills that I use each day in college –and even more so, the ability to evaluate my own work and see what I need to do in the next draft or on the next paper–come from my middle school years in a school that was not following the guidelines and was refusing to prep us for tests.
Again, Brunetta’s experience is one student’s story that is typical of how high school instruction in the U.S. has been decimated by accountability, standards, and testing. Applebee and Langer, in fact, have compiled a powerful examination of the exact experiences Brunetta details: Despite teachers being aware of a growing body of research on how best to teach writing (in ways Brunetta experienced in elementary and middle school), there remains a “considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (LaBrant, 1947, p. 87), notably in writing instruction in schools today.
However compelling Brunetta’s story is, Robert Pondiscio shares Brunetta’s conclusion while offering a much different source of failing students in the teaching of writing:
Like so many of our earnest and most deeply humane ideas about educating children in general, and poor, urban children in particular, this impulse toward authenticity is profoundly idealistic, seductive, and wrong. I should know. I used to damage children for a living with that idealism.
I taught 5th grade at PS 277 in the South Bronx from several years. It was the lowest-performing school in New York City’s lowest-performing school district. We didn’t believe in the kind of literacy instruction practiced by New Dorp High School, as described by Peg Tyre in her piece, “The Writing Revolution.” It is not an overstatement to say that our failure to help students become good readers and writers is why I became a curriculum reform advocate.
Pondiscio has continued to blame authentic writing instruction as a failure, linking it to the same narrowing effect as accountability:
More recently the muscular brand of test-driven education reform that has come to dominate schooling has ill-served those purposes by hollowing out the curriculum further still. If a child reads on grade level and graduates by age 18 our schools will eagerly pronounce him or her educated and send them off into the world, with diminished agency, fewer options, and less opportunity than their affluent and better-educated brethren. We have conspired—all of us—to make them less than fully free.
This fundamental injustice upset me and upsets me still. I sometimes note that my progressive credentials were in good order until I became a teacher. The education I was trained to give to my students left them less than prepared for self-sufficiency and upward mobility. My complicity in allowing the scope of their education to be narrowed, whether by progressive ideals or test-driven accountability, robbed them of some measure of their liberty. Not just economic liberty, but freedom of thought and expression.
What, then, should we conclude from Brunetta and Pondiscio in the context of what we know about best practice in teaching writing and how writing is being taught in K-12 schools?
First, we are clearly failing the teaching of writing, and as Hillocks warned (see Hillocks, 2003, and Hillocks, 2002), that failure is primarily driven by high-stakes accountability’s influence on the classroom.
As well, the increased high-stakes testing of writing, notably the SAT and ACT along with high-stakes state assessments linked to standards, has eroded effective writing instruction, as NCTE cautioned. A similar warning about machine-scored writing is a harbinger for even more damage to be done to the teaching of writing.
The tension between Brunetta and Pondiscio about authentic writing instruction remains both troubling and important. In order to understand how Brunetta and Pondiscio could reach the same conclusion with such contradictions, we must examine Brunetta’s and Pondiscio’s characterizations of authentic writing instruction, specifically workshop approaches to teaching writing. Brunetta’s description quoted above should be measured against this from Pondiscio:
Every day, for two hours a day, I led my young students through Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop. I was trained not to address my kids as “students” or “class” but as “authors” and “readers.” We gathered “seed ideas” in our Writer’s Notebooks. We crafted “small moment” stories, personal narratives, and memoirs. We peer edited. We “shared out.” Gathered with them on the rug, I explained to my 10-year-olds that “good writers find ideas from things that happened in their lives.” That stories have “big ideas.” That good writers “add detail,” “stretch their words,” and “spell the best they can.”
Teach grammar, sentence structure, and mechanics? I barely even taught. I “modeled” the habits of good readers and “coached” my students. What I called “teaching,” my staff developer from Teacher’s College dismissed as merely “giving directions.” My job was to demonstrate what good readers and writers do and encourage my students to imitate and adopt those behaviors.
Two brief points from Brunetta and Pondiscio offer a window into clarifying why Brunetta’s characterization of writing workshop is more accurate than Pondiscio’s: Brunetta notes, “in elementary school, we were taught to edit our writing…; we wrote at least 2 or 3 drafts each time,” while Poniscio laments, “Teach grammar, sentence structure, and mechanics? I barely even taught.”
Pondiscio has fallen victim to a common mischaracterization of authentic writing instruction, one that suggests no direct instruction occurs, particularly direct instruction addressing grammar, mechanics, and usage.
If Pondiscio was doing no direct instruction, then, in fact, he did fail his students. But that failure cannot be laid at the feet of workshop or authentic writing instruction.
Workshop approaches to teaching writing authentically include direct and purposeful instruction addressing all aspects of writing, including grammar, mechanics, and usage; the issue has never been if we teach grammar, for example, but when and how.
Pondiscio’s characterization of writing workshop is cartoonish, a simplistic distortion of a vibrant field that portrays the teaching of writing as complex and multi-faceted.
1. Writing Strategies, which involves teaching students strategies for planning, revising, and editing their compositions
2. Summarization, which involves explicitly and systematically teaching students how to summarize texts
3. Collaborative Writing, which uses instructional arrangements in which adolescents work together to plan, draft, revise, and edit their compositions
4. Specific Product Goals, which assigns students specific, reachable goals for the writing they are to complete
5. Word Processing, which uses computers and word processors as instructional supports for writing assignments
6. Sentence Combining, which involves teaching students to construct more complex, sophisticated sentences
7. Prewriting, which engages students in activities designed to help them generate or organize ideas for their composition
8. Inquiry Activities, which engages students in analyzing immediate, concrete data to help them develop ideas and content for a particular writing task
9. Process Writing Approach, which interweaves a number of writing instructional activities in a workshop environment that stresses extended writing opportunities, writing for authentic audiences, personalized instruction, and cycles of writing
10. Study of Models, which provides students with opportunities to read, analyze, and emulate models of good writing
11. Writing for Content Learning, which uses writing as a tool for learning content material (pp. 4-5)
These eleven elements in no way discredit direct instruction or addressing grammar, mechanics, and usage; again, teaching writing is about couching direct instruction within students being provided structured, authentic and whole experiences with multi-draft, original writing.
Pondiscio’s misrepresentation of workshop isn’t unusual among educators who embrace teacher-centered and knowledge-based approaches to learning. Part of Pondiscio’s position lies within his embracing grammar, for example, as a body of knowledge worth acquiring as an end to learning, not as a means to better writing.
In writing instruction, grammar and other surface features (mechanics and usage) are important elements of a larger writing context, and research has shown (see Weaver, 1996, and Hillocks, 1995) that isolated direct grammar instruction neither helps students acquire grammatical knowledge nor improves students as writers. In fact, isolated direct grammar instruction tends to impact negatively student writing:
(click to enlarge)
Pondiscio’s knowledge-based view of acquiring grammar and his mischaracterization of writing workshop are powerfully refuted by what we know is best practice in writing instruction:
(click to enlarge)
As the chart above shows, best practice in writing instruction is not a template, but a range of practices that must be navigated by teachers and students dedicated to students becoming writers. If Pondiscio failed his students when teaching writing, he can point to many things I am sure, but writing workshop properly implemented is not one of them.
Ultimately, we must admit that Brunetta and Pondiscio are right about the lingering failure of teaching students to write. To answer why, both Brunetta and Pondiscio offer valuable insight, but for different reasons.
Over the past thirty years, high-stakes accountability and testing have ruined the promise of best practice begun in the first days of the National Writing Project in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Standards-and-test mania have supplanted a rich field of teaching writing, one that is still evolving and one that remains characterized by tensions.
But a second reason we continue to fail the teaching of writing is that English teaching has a long history, as I quoted LaBrant above, of allowing a ”considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.” This professional failure has occurred even when the stakes were not high or linked to standardized tests.
Writing remains a powerful and important tool for learning, thinking, and expression. The teaching of writing, although often marginalized and ignored, should be foundational to all education—although it remains a distant cousin to reading and math.
Continuing to seek new standards and better tests will only erode further the failure to teach writing Brunetta and Poniscio identify. Instead of trying to close the achievement gap measured by test scores we have manufactured during the accountability era, we are way past time in our need to address the gap between what we know about teaching writing and what we do with students in our classrooms.
For Further Reading
Writing Instruction That Works: Proven Methods for Middle and High School Classrooms, Arthur N. Applebee and Judith A. Langer
The Testing Trap: How State Writing Assessments Control Learning, George Hillocks
Teaching Grammar in Context, Constance Weaver
Teaching Writing As Reflective Practice: Integrating Theories, George Hillocks
Best Practice (4th ed.), Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde
Research on Composition: Multiple Perspectives on Two Decades of Change, Peter Smagorinsky, Editor
What do zero-tolerance policies, “no excuses” practices, and grade retention have in common?
They all negatively and disproportionately impact children from poverty, minority children, English language learners, and boys; and nearly as disturbing, all are discredited by large bodies of research.
Is the tide turning against at least zero-tolerance policies? Lizette Alvarez reports:
Faced with mounting evidence that get-tough policies in schools are leading to arrest records, low academic achievement and high dropout rates that especially affect minority students, cities and school districts around the country are rethinking their approach to minor offenses.
Zero-tolerance policies, “no excuses” practices, and grade retention have something else in common: they should all be eradicated from our schools. And thus, here is a reader to help support calls for ending these practices and policies:
Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School, Kathleen Nolan
The School-to-Prison Pipeline, Journal of Educational Controversy (vol. 7, issue 1, Fall/2012-Winter 2013)
New Schools, Old Problems [Review: Hope Against Hope], P. L. Thomas
Just Say No to Just Read, Florida, South Carolina [includes retention research]
Implementing Policies to Reduce the Likelihood of Preschool Expulsion, Walter S. Gilliam, PhD
Prekindergarteners Left Behind: Expulsion Rates in State Prekindergarten Programs, Walter S. Gilliam, PhD
The Mis-education of the Negro, Carter Godwin Woodson
At This Week in Poverty, Greg Kaufmann offers Anti-Poverty Leaders Discuss the Need for a Shared Agenda. Taking a similar pose, Diane Ravitch offers her reasoned “dissent” to my post, Secretary Duncan and the Politics of White Outrage, explaining at the end:
My advice to Paul Thomas, whose sense of outrage I share, is to embrace coalition politics. When the white moms and dads realize they are in the same situation as the black and Hispanic moms and dads, they become a force to be reckoned with. The coalition of diverse groups is a source of political power that will benefit children and families of all colors and conditions.
Both pieces raise an important element in the education reform debates, especially as that overlaps with efforts to address and eradicate poverty and inequity: Failure in education and equity reform has be driven by commitments to competition models instead of embracing collaboration and coalitions. To that, I offer the following:
Education Reform as Collaboration, Not Competition
Since the mid- to late-1800s, and especially over the past thirty years, public education has experienced a constant state of reform that can be characterized by one disturbing conclusion—none of that reform appears to work (or, at least, political leaders and the media stay committed, often in conjunction, to that claim).
Despite massive political, public, and financial commitments to creating better schools in the U.S., most people remain concerned that education is not achieving its promise. While debates often focus on issues related to state-to-state or international comparisons of test scores, we have also struggled with issues of equity, such as high drop-out rates and achievement gaps (see HERE and HERE).
Ultimately, the failure of decades of education reform is likely that we have committed to in-school-only reform. “No excuses” and “poverty is not destiny” represent educational policy such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools and calls for tougher standards (Common Core) and next-generation tests. Education consultant Grant Wiggins defends this in-school-only focus: “Teachers and schools make a difference, a significant one. And we are better off improving teaching, learning, and schooling than anything else as educators because that’s what is in our control.”
Since three decades of standards-based and test-driven accountability have resulted in the current call for different standards and tests, we are poised at a moment when in-school-only reform and competition models such as school choice and Race to the Top must be examined as part of the problem. Instead, education reform must be an act of collaboration that addresses directly both social and educational reform. That collaboration model should begin by acknowledging that we are failing both the historical promise of public education and the call in No Child Left Behind to create scientifically-based education reform. For example, consider just two powerful research-based reasons to change course.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlights the importance of social reform as a powerful mechanism for educational reform: “The impact of increases in income on cognitive development appears roughly comparable with that of spending similar amounts on school [emphasis added] or early education programmes. Increasing household income could substantially reduce differences in schooling outcomes, while also improving wider aspects of children’s well-being.”
And Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much show that—despite the in-school reform argument for students needing “grit”—people in abundance succeed because of slack, not grit, and those same people would struggle in scarcity.
Education reform, then, needs to shift away from in-school-only commitments and competition, thus seeking ways in which the lives and schools of children can create the slack all children deserve so that their grit can matter.
Rob McEntarffer (@rmcenta) Tweeted a question to me about my blog post, The Poverty Trap: Slack, Not Grit, Creates Achievement, asking: “can Grit research (Duckworth, etc) be used as a humanizing/empowering tool, rather than a weapon against schools/kids?”
Rob’s question is both a good one and representative of the numerous challenges I received for rejecting “grit”—some of the push-back has been for my associating “grit” and “no excuses,” but many of the arguments (some heated) I have read simply rest on a solid trust that “grit” matters and thus should be central to what educators demand from their students, regardless of their students’ backgrounds (and possibly because many students have impoverished backgrounds).
I remain adamant that demanding “grit” is deeply misguided and harmful to children, especially children living in poverty. But I also acknowledge that a large percentage of educators who embrace “grit” are genuinely seeking ways in which we can help children in poverty succeed. In other words, many “grit” advocates share my educational goals.
So I think Rob’s question needs to be answered, and done so carefully. Let me start with a nostalgic story.
A Facebook post from a former high school friend and basketball teammate is the basis of this story—my junior year high school basketball team:
I am number 5, and other than wondering why I was looking away and seemingly disengaged, I am struck by my socks.
Throughout junior high and high school, I suffered the delusion I was an athlete, spending most of my free time either playing basketball or golf. My heart and soul longed for being a basketball player, and on my bedroom wall (along with the required poster of Farrah Fawcett) hung a poster of Pete Maravich who wore the same socks superstitiously every game, two pairs pushed down and tattered.
I wanted few things more than being Pistol Pete. Maravich was smart, skilled, and hard-working. Even after his career on the court, Maravich remained the personification of practice and drills: If you work hard enough, Maravich seemed to represent, you too can be a magician on the basketball court.
Soon after Maravich, I added Larry Bird to my list of role models, again latching on to his working-class ethic as an athlete. Bird prompted mythological tales—Larry Legend—about his breaking into Boston Garden to shoot in the dark when the facility was closed.
That’s right, I was a child and teenager smitten by “grit.”
After being diagnosed with scoliosis the summer before my ninth grade, I became an exercise fanatic, possibly as a response to the genetic failure of my body. I created a year-long daily calendar on poster-board each year from ninth through twelfth grades to list and monitor my workouts. For those four years, I wore ankle weights most days and jumped rope at least 300 times each night with those weights on. Every day. Four years.
My Holy Grail was dunking the basketball*—despite my being about 5’10″ and around 130 pounds.
My fanaticism about practice carried over onto the driving range in good weather also. I often hit 300 range balls on the golf course practice range before setting out to play 18-27 holes.
And what did all that get me?
Look back to that junior-year photograph above. In my high school during the late 1970s, letterman jackets were the greatest treasure for want-to-be athletes like me (I often wore my father’s jacket from the 1950s to school, a jacket he earned as captain of the first state championship football team at that same high school). But the rules of receiving a letterman’s jacket revolved around lettering your junior year—no other year of lettering resulted in a jacket.
I lettered every year of high school except junior year—a year I spent almost totally on the bench. I never earned a letterman’s jacket in high school, despite lettering in two sports my senior year.
And all that golf practice resulted in a huge amount of callouses and a year on the golf team at junior college.
But I was never Pistol Pete or Larry Legend, and certainly never close to Arnold Palmer (yes, my golf fantasies had working-class heroes also).
So what is my point? I am not trying to suggest that my anecdotes of my life prove my point, but they certainly make an important case for answering Rob’s question.
You see, throughout junior high, high school, and college, I never really tried at school—I was too busy trying to be Pistol Pete and then Larry Legend. And if anyone looked at the outcomes of these two different spheres—my grades in my classes and my scrawny, blond self riding the bench of countless high school basketball games—which do you think appears to be the result of “grit,” effort?
Despite my growing up in a working class family, I thrived when I did because of a number of privileges—being white, male, and prone to math and verbal skills cherished by the school system.
And the evidence is powerful that privilege trumps effort and that human behaviors are greater reflections of the conditions of their lives (abundance or scarcity) than the content of their character.
When my junior year ended without my having earned that letterman’s jacket, I began carrying with me until this day a deep and genuine sense of failure because I wanted few things more than to hand my father back his jacket and to stand before him in the one I earned, to show him I was the man I wanted to be, which was the man he was. That was a boy’s dream, of course, because my father could not have loved me more then or now than he does.
I trust, as well, that my experiences with trying very hard at things I could never excel in and then excelling in things that required very little effort on my part do inform what I argue is a misguided commitment to “grit” in calls for education reform and in school and classroom practices, even among educators with the best of intentions. So I want to end by answering Rob with a few observations and questions I think should help us at least reconsider commitments to “grit”:
- How do we know when one child is trying and another isn’t? And how do we know why one child works hard and another seems not to make the same effort? I recently arrived at my first year seminar class upset that so many students had failed to submit their essays on time for that class session. My assumptions were all focused on them, but once I arrived in class, I discovered they had all been having technical trouble—the campus email system wasn’t allowing attachments. The focus on “grit,” then, often maintains a singular and accusatory eye on the child, and thus ignores the context, which may be the source of the behavior.
- How often do we misread “privilege” as “grit”? My argument is—almost always. Even when privileged people excel because of their “grit,” the distinguishing aspect of that success remains the privilege. As well, when impoverished people overcome their hurdles due to hard work and “grit,” they remain outliers, and while they should be applauded, their outlier success isn’t a credible template for everyone else struggling under the weight of poverty.
- As I note below, “grit” may be a distorted quality among leaders because our culture is competition-based, and our leaders both feel like winners and are praised as winners. Winning is linked to effort in our society even when the effort is not the key to that success. Leaders as winners, then, tend to project their “grit” onto others—not unlike the messages found in Maravich’s basketball training videos—”Just work hard, like I did, and you can do anything!” While such messages may be inspiring, they are at least incomplete, if not mostly untrue; my efforts in high school were not failures due to my lack of effort, but due to my genetic ceiling.
- And finally, Rob’s question directly: Can “grit” research and ideology be used as a humanizing and empowering tool, rather than a weapon against schools and children? To which I say: If we dedicate ourselves to creating the slack necessary for that “grit” to matter and for such demands to be equitable, then yes. In other words, “grit” fails when it becomes the initial and primary demand of children, superseding commitments to creating the equitable conditions that all children need in their lives and schools. My conclusion about “grit,” then, is that the ultimate concern of mine may be where we prioritize and emphasize it—and how it is used as a spotlight on children in poverty almost exclusively.
On this last point, I think, I can make my best case about why emphasizing “grit” is both misguided and harmful.
From the authoritarian extremes of “no excuses” schools such as KIPP to the more progressive embracing of “grit” that many may call “tough love,” when we honor “grit” we reduce our children to salmon and sea turtles, we create schools that perpetuate a Social Darwinism that is human-made. School, like life, for these children becomes something to survive, a mechanism for sorting.
I think we can and should do better than treating our children like salmon and sea turtles—even when we do so with love in our hearts.
* By the way, yes, I could occasionally dunk in my late teens and early twenties.
Pete Maravich: A Tribute