On Children and Childhood

children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew

“[anyone lived in a pretty how town],” e.e. cummings

In one of those early years of becoming and being a teacher, when I was still teaching in the exact room where I had been a student (a school building that would eventually be almost entirely destroyed by a fire set by children), it was the first day of school, and I was calling that first roll—a sort of silly but important ritual of schooling for teachers and students.

Toward the back of the room and slightly to my left sat a big young man, a white male student typical of this rural upstate South Carolina high school in my home town; like me, he would accurately be considered in that context as a Redneck.

Just about everyone knows everyone in my hometown, and we are very familiar with the common names of that town. So when I came to this young man’s name—Billy Laughter (it rhymes with “slaughter”)—I said “Billy Laughter” (rhyming the last name with “after”).

Smiling, I scanned the room and then turned my eyes back to Billy; he was red-faced and on the edge of having a very bad first day, one that was likely going to result in his being punished for my having done a very stupid thing. I raised my hand, palm facing him, and said, “Billy, my mistake. I’m sorry. I was trying to be funny but it wasn’t.” And then I said his name correctly.

Billy had suffered a life of people mangling his name, and he wasn’t in any mood for my being clever on the first day of school.

Several years laters, when I was teaching a U.S. history class as part of  my usual load as a member and chair of the English department, while I was having students form small groups, two young white males bumped into each other, back to back, while moving their desks. I caught the moment out of the corner of my eye and had to rush over to deter the fight that was about to occur.

I wasn’t surprised—this was typical of my small community, along with fights starting because “he/she looked at me wrong”—but some time after this, I saw a research study that explained how people in the South and North handled personal space differently. In the South, bumping into someone or looking at someone wrong is often interpreted as challenging someone’s honor, requiring a response. People in the North, conditioned by mass transit and crowded cities (I suspect the study was as much about rural and urban, as South and North), are not as apt to find acts of close proximity anything other than that.

So setting aside the urge to examine the Redneck honor code, I want to add just one more event from my coaching life in those middle years of my teaching.

While running a drill at soccer practice, I heard a comment from a player in a group behind me. My mind heard a player with whom I had been having trouble. He was difficult in class and on the team, and worst of all, he was very disruptive at practice.

I turned and, without hesitating, I announced, “You are out of here,” pointing with my finger up the hill. Throwing him out of practice? No, I kicked him off the team.

As the young man was walking up that hill, a timid player on the team said, “Coach, that was me.”

I had just kicked a young man off the team who had, in fact, not said a thing.

A day or so ago, I received an email from Alfie Kohn about his new book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child. Alfie was apologetic about self-promotion so I replied, thanked him for the book, and noted a book I am co-editing that appears to be of a similar mind about children and childhood, Pedagogies of Kindness and Respect: On the Lives and Education of Children.

I also noted that our perspectives on children—on how parents, teachers, and society treat children—appears to be a minority view.

I have been mulling, then, or more likely stewing about this for some time: What makes adults—even the ones who choose to spend their lives with children—so damned negative and hateful about those children?

That, I must admit, is the source of my palpable anger at the “grit,” “no excuses,” and “zero tolerance” narratives and policies.

I grew up and live in the South where the default attitude toward children remains that they are to be seen and not heard, that a child’s role is to do as she/he is told. If a child crosses those lines, then, we must teach her/him a lesson, show her/him who is boss—rightfully, we are told, by hitting that child: spare the rod spoil the child.

That Christ’s love comes in the form of corporal punishment has never made any sort of sense to me, but I find that same deficit view of children is not some backwoods remnant of the ignorant South; it is the dominant perspective of children throughout the U.S.

Barbara Kingsolver explains in “Everybody’s Somebody’s Baby”:

This is not the United States.

For several months I’ve been living in Spain, and while I have struggled with the customs office, jet lag, dinner at midnight and the subjunctive tense, my only genuine culture shock has reverberated from this earthquake of a fact: People here like kids. They don’t just say so, they do. Widows in black, buttoned-down c.e.o.’s, purple-sneakered teen-agers, the butcher, the baker, all have stopped on various sidewalks to have little chats with my daughter. Yesterday, a taxi driver leaned out his window to shout ” Hola, guapa !” My daughter, who must have felt my conditioned flinch, looked up at me wide-eyed and explained patiently, “I like it that people think I’m pretty.”

With a mother’s keen myopia, I would tell you, absolutely, my daughter is beautiful enough to stop traffic. But in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, I have to confess, so is every other person under the height of one meter. Not just those who agree to be seen and not heard. When my daughter gets cranky in a restaurant (and really, what do you expect at midnight?), the waiters flirt and bring her little presents and nearby diners look on with that sweet, wistful gleam of eye that before now I have only seen aimed at the dessert tray. Children are the meringues and eclairs of this culture. Americans, it seems to me now, sometimes regard children as a sort of toxic-waste product: a necessary evil, maybe, but if it’s not their own they don’t want to see it or hear it or, God help us, smell it.

I just don’t get it.

A child is not a small adult, not a blank slate to be filled with our “adult weariness,” or a broken human that must be repaired (I won’t belabor, but the whole Original Sin idea doesn’t help and justifies the drive to use the rod).

But it is also certainly true that children are not angels, not pure creatures suited to be simply set free to find the world on their own.

Seeing children through deficit or ideal lenses does not serve them—or anyone—well.

And within the U.S. culture there is a schizophrenia—we worship young adulthood in popular media, but seem to hate children—that is multiplied exponentially by a lingering racism and classism that compounds the deficit view of childhood. Consider the research showing how people view children of color:

Asked to identify the age of a young boy that committed a felony, participants in a study routinely overestimated the age of black children far more than they did white kids. Worse: Cops did it, too….

The correlation between dehumanization and use of force becomes more significant when you consider that black boys are routinely estimated to be older than they are….

The less the black kids were seen as human, the less they were granted “the assumption that children are essentially innocent.” And those officers who were more likely to dehumanize black suspects overlapped with those who used more force against them.

In the enduring finger-pointing dominant in the U.S.—blaming the poor for their poverty, blaming racial minorities for the burdens of racism, blaming women for the weight of sexism—we maintain a gaze that blinds us to ourselves, allows us to ignore that in that gaze are reflections of the worst among us.

Why do the police sweep poor African American neighborhoods and not college campuses in search of illegal drugs? Why do we place police in the hallways of urban high schools serving mostly poor African American and Latino/a students, demanding “zero tolerance”? Why are “grit” narratives and “no excuses” policies almost exclusively targeting high-poverty, majority-minority schools (often charter schools with less public oversight)?

When I raise these questions, I can rest assured I will inspire the same sort of nasty response I often encounter when cycling. A few motorists make their anger known when we are riding our bicycles, and I am convinced that while some are genuinely frustrated with our blocking temporarily the road, the real reason they are angry is that we are enjoying ourselves as children do.

And nothing angers a bitter adult as much as the pleasures of a child.

Children are not empty vessels to be filled, blank hard drives upon which we save the data we decide they should have. Children are not flawed or wild, needing us neither to repair nor break them.

And children are not to be coddled or worshipped.

They are children, and they are all our children.

Yes, there are lessons to be taught, lessons to be learned. But those driven by deficit or idealized views are corrupted and corrupting lessons.

Each and every child—as all adults—deserves to have her/his basic dignity respected, first, and as adults charged with the care of any child, our initial question before we do anything with or to a child must be about ourselves.

In 31 years of teaching, I can still see and name the handful of students I mis-served, like Billy above. Those faces and names serve as my starting point: With any child, first do no harm.

The ends can never justify the means.

“Treating People with Fundamentally Unequal Backgrounds as Superficially the Same”

“Work hard. Be nice.” is the tag-line of Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools, schools that serve primarily (and often exclusively) high-poverty minority students.

These concepts for students are also central to enduring slogans in the U.S. aimed at workers. The Puritan work ethic is a pillar upon which capitalism is built, in fact.

As a cultural myth, however, that implores students and workers to work hard, “Work hard. Be nice.” proves to be almost all myth, a misleading myth, a deforming myth—one that serves the interests of the privileged and thus would be better phrased as “Work Hard (So We Don’t Have To).”

This sloganism must be placed in its historical and current contexts.

In the U.S., until the mid-1800s, Blacks were shackled and told to work hard and be quiet.

In the U.S., until the early-1900s, women* were told don’t work because this is men’s work.

In the U.S., at best, the sort of meritocracy possibility behind work hard wasn’t open to everyone until well into the twentieth century in fact.

In the U.S., as we move deeper into the twenty-first century, the intersection of the meritocracy myth, the work hard ethic, and the promise of upward mobility reveals a pretty disturbing picture—one that refutes each of these refrains, one that calls into question building schools for high-poverty minority students on false promises.

What, then, do we know about the conditions of the worker in the U.S., meritocracy, and upward mobility—as well as the claim that education is the great equalizer, the one true path to equity and opportunity?

The U.S. Worker in the Era of Disaster Capitalism

Continuing to tell children that hard work is a valued quality is a calloused lie in an era of disaster capitalism. If the American worker ever was revered, that time has surely passed.

Being a worker in the U.S. is something to be endured, something to be avoided, something that is not nearly as respected as being rich.

And the great irony, of course, is “most Americans will always be workers”:

and to be a worker should be an honorable thing worthy of poetic speeches and artistic black-and-white film tributes. Being an American worker doesn’t need to be a condition tolerated on the way to something better, and it shouldn’t be twenty-first century wage-slavery that is a reality echoed in the allegory of SF: “one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself.” As the last paragraphs of Cloud Atlas express, however, the wage-slavery of workers in the context of assembly-line and disaster capitalism is a condition Americans have chosen (or at least been conditioned to choose), but it is also a condition workers can change—if workers believe it is wrong, “such a world will come to pass.” (Academia and the American Worker: Right to Work in an Era of Disaster Capitalism?, p. 22)

Work hard, then, succeeds as a demand from those in power and for those in power because it asks children and adults to plow forward, heads down. If students or workers ever pause to look up, the evidence before them discredits the value in slogans like “Work hard. Be nice.”

Meritocracy as a Promise that Blinds

It is no accident that when Martin Luther King Jr. is honored each year in the U.S., his most referenced words are “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

MLK serves the privileged elite in the U.S. only as he can be reduced to the meritocracy myth. MLK serves the privileged elite as long as the gaze remains on individuals and how hard he tries or how hard she tries.

And thus, the meritocracy myth is not a tool of seeking equity in a free society, but a deforming myth, because:

Meritocracy, defined as a system that rewards according to ability or achievement and not birth or privilege, may be unfair precisely because it is blind to differences of class, wealth and social status.

As Kenneth Paul Tan explains:

Meritocracy, in trying to “isolate” merit by treating people with fundamentally unequal backgrounds as superficially the same, can be a practice that ignores and even conceals the real advantages and disadvantages that are unevenly distributed to different segments of an inherently unequal society, a practice that in fact perpetuates this fundamental inequality. In this way, those who are picked by meritocracy as having merit may already have enjoyed unfair advantages from the very beginning, ignored according to the principle of nondiscrimination.

In “no excuses” schools such as KIPP—reinforced by slogans such as “Work hard. Be nice.”—the same ideology found in the meritocracy myth exists: “treating [students] with fundamentally unequal backgrounds as superficially the same.”

Word hard because that work will be rewarded despite who you are is a compelling narrative, but it also a promise that blinds, a promise that pretends systemic inequity no longer exists, no longer matters.

Upward Mobility? No. Birth Lottery? Yes.

“Contrary to the mantra commonly touted by campaigning politicians,” reports Andy Warner, “few Americans born into poverty ever get to experience the iconic rise from ‘rags to riches.’”

So what do we know about upward mobility, the hope that working hard matters more than the accident of anyone’s birth?

Is America the “Land of Opportunity”? In two recent studies, we find that: (1) Upward income mobility varies substantially within the U.S. [summary][paper] Areas with greater mobility tend to have five characteristics: less segregation, less income inequality, better schools, greater social capital, and more stable families. (2) Contrary to popular perception, economic mobility has not changed significantly over time; however, it is consistently lower in the U.S. than in most developed countries. [summary][paper] (The Equality of Opportunity Project)

The last point above is really important because if people in the U.S. want access to meritocracy and upward mobility, they would be better off in another country.

Also, while income gaps have increased in the U.S., the report concludes:

Contrary to the popular perception, we find that percentile rank-based measures of intergenerational mobility have remained extremely stable for the 1971-1993 birth cohorts. For example, the probability that a child reaches the top fifth of the income distribution given parents in the bottom fifth of the income distribution is 8.4% for children born in 1971, compared with 9.0% for those born in 1986. Children born to the highest-income families in 1984 were 74.5 percentage points more likely to attend college than those from the lowest-income families. The corresponding gap for children born in 1993 is 69.2 percentage points, suggesting that if anything mobility may have increased slightly in recent cohorts.

Upward mobility, then, has a fairly long history of being a misleading promise, and as noted above, a masking narrative like meritocracy. A more accurate narrative is the “birth lottery”:

Although rank-based measures of mobility remained stable, income inequality increased substantially over the period we study. Hence, the consequences of the “birth lottery” – the parents to whom a child is born – are larger today than in the past. A useful visual analogy…is to envision the income distribution as a ladder, with each percentile representing a different rung. The rungs of the ladder have grown further apart (inequality has increased), but children’s chances of climbing from lower to higher rungs have not changed (rank-based mobility has remained stable).

In fact the “birth lottery” remains more powerful than working hard to attend and complete college, as Matt Bruenig explains when answering What’s more important: a college degree or being born rich?:

So, you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated. The disparity in the outcomes of rich and poor kids persists, not only when you control for college attainment, but even when you compare non-degreed rich kids to degreed poor kids!

Therefore, the answer to the question in the title is that you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.

Hard work should matter, and all societies should work toward a meritocracy. But offering meritocracy, hard work, and upward mobility as contracts, instead of goals requiring collective activism, serves only the interests of the privileged—and certainly further erodes the promise of education and the status of the worker.

For high-poverty minority students, especially African American males, “Work hard. Be nice.” rings hollow against a shrinking labor market (even for college graduates), the ballooning debt associated with attending college, the inequity of discipline policies in schools, and the entrenched mass incarceration disproportionately impacting AA young men.

As long as those inequities remain, a slogan such as “Work hard. Be nice.” is insidious soma, a narcotic, the opium of the passive student as passive worker-to-be.

Instead of vapid sloganism, all students but especially students living poverty and minority students are better served by the words of James Baldwin:

I began by saying that one of the paradoxes of education was that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society.  It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person.  And on the basis of the evidence – the moral and political evidence – one is compelled to say that this is a backward society.  Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day and would then return to their homes and to the streets, children who have an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker, I would try to teach them -  I would try to make them know – that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal.  I would try to make each child know that these things are the result of a criminal conspiracy to destroy him.  I would teach him that if he intends to get to be a man, he must at once decide that his is stronger than this conspiracy and they he must never make his peace with it.  And that one of his weapons for refusing to make his peace with it and for destroying it depends on what he decides he is worth.  I would teach him that there are currently very few standards in this country which are worth a man’s respect.  That it is up to him to change these standards for the sake of the life and the health of the country.

* I was urged by a reader to note that the history of woman and work is impacted by race. African American women as workers have a history impacted by race and gender that is often ignored and is unique from white women’s (see, for example, Stay-at-home motherhood not an option for most black women). As well, women have varied and complex histories related to work that include unpaid domestic labor. My rhetorical strategies in this piece were not intended to trivialize, overgeneralize, or ignore any of these complex and important issues.

Criticizing KIPP Critics

An early and consistent proponent of Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools, Jay Mathews has joined a rising group of KIPP advocates directly criticizing KIPP critics, offering two arguments: KIPP charter schools are not abusive or excessively authoritarian, and KIPP critics are prone to misleading hyperbole because they fail to visit the KIPP schools they criticize.

I have heard these concerns before, but in a previous example at Education Next, I had to raise my own caution [1] that if KIPP advocates will knowingly misrepresent critics to make their case, we may be well advised to be skeptical of the claims that there is now a softer side to KIPP.

Mathews, however, makes a balanced call for confronting whether or not KIPP schools practice what critics challenge and has posed a valid concern about KIPP critics not visiting actual KIPP schools. I want to address these concerns here, and also offer my own recommendations to KIPP advocates in the spirit offered at the end of Matthews’s piece: “KIPP welcomes visitors. Interested critics should stop by and see how it works.”

My concerns with and criticism of KIPP charter schools began in 2009, based on an Education Next article praising the “no excuses” ideologies of the schools (Whitman, 2008). That piece does exactly what I have done in my work criticizing KIPP: it associates KIPP practices with “no excuses” and “grit” narratives and practices, which are reinforced in KIPP’s own words, among its Five Pillars:

KIPP schools relentlessly focus on high student performance on standardized tests and other objective measures. Just as there are no shortcuts, there are no excuses. Students are expected to achieve a level of academic performance that will enable them to succeed at the nation’s best high schools and colleges.

My initial criticism of KIPP charter schools as the recognizable brand among many “no excuses” charter schools spreading across the U.S. (and influencing practices in public and private schools that directly note they are modeling their practices on KIPP) was also reinforced by Whitman’s article that included, for example, American Indian Public Charter School (AIPCS), Oakland, CA, along with a KIPP school in a broader endorsing of “no excuses” charter schools.

Landsberg (2009) captured for me why the “no excuses” model was deeply troubling:

Students, almost all poor, wear uniforms and are subject to disciplinary procedures redolent of military school. One local school district official was horrified to learn that a girl was forced to clean the boys’ restroom as punishment.

So my first request of Mathews and other KIPP advocates is that they offer clarification on the initial associations between KIPP and other “no excuses” charter schools: If that association is flawed, are advocates in part to blame for that association? And if KIPP, either in those early associations or more recently, has distanced themselves from those associations, will KIPP and its advocates please detail that for critics and the public?

Here, then, is my central problem with KIPP advocacy and their criticism of KIPP critics. My criticism of KIPP is one example of my larger rejecting of “no excuses” and “grit” narratives and practices (please see “No Excuses” and the Culture of Shame: Why Metrics Don’t Matter). And I am not in any way concerned about KIPP outcomes because I refuse to fall into the trap of allowing the ends to justify the means. The claims of “miracles” associated with outcomes are discredited, and ultimately, I am not interested in test scores, graduation rates, or college admittance rates decontextualized from how children are being treated in the schools each day.

I appreciate and accept Mathews’s direct evidence from KIPP schools in DC, and accept his evidence of changes and hope that the success is valid and potentially illustrative of education reform more broadly.

But in his brief critique of KIPP critics, Mathews does not offer any evidence about my primary concern about how students are treated [2]—a concern that I do not limit to KIPP but to any and all schools (I reject zero-tolerance policies, for example, and their disproportionate and negative influence on urban schools and students).

A second request is that KIPP leaders and advocates help those of us criticizing KIPP for direct and indirect connections to “no excuses” and “grit” narratives and practices with what I believe are legitimate concerns based on, I admit, secondary evidence [3].

Here, then, are my remaining concerns:

  • When Gary Rubinstein accepted the KIPP invitation to visit actual schools, his responses to that visit and my interpretation of his visits do not change my position. Thus, visiting KIPP isn’t necessarily going to end criticism, but if Rubinstein’s impressions are misleading, I’d like some clarifications.
  • The public narrative around KIPP is based on embracing an authoritarian and highly structured model for high-poverty and minority students. Public schools have failed high-poverty and minority students in terms of disproportionate discipline and academic policies, including expulsion, suspension, failure, and retention; it appears by the evidence that KIPP and other “no excuses” charter schools mirror those failures instead of alleviating them. The school-to-prison pipeline and the school-as-prison dynamic are key elements of the larger mass incarceration era; KIPP’s association with strict discipline, high attrition, and selectivity are problematic for those of us who wish to break those cycles.
  • Public and charter schools are experiencing an increase in segregation of students by race and class; KIPP appears to be a part of that troubling pattern, again not a solution.
  • A powerful reinforcement of both my criticism of charter schools implementing “no excuses” and “grit” narratives and policy as well as my direct criticism of KIPP schools is Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope. Like Whitman’s Education Next piece, Carr associates KIPP charter schools in New Orleans with other non-KIPP charter schools. As well, she details how KIPP and the other “no excuses” charters do in fact practice the sort of discipline policies about which I am critical: (1) a strict discipline code that includes SPARK (Carr, p. 11) and SLANT (making and maintaining eye contact, shaking hands, and other highly regimented behavior demands on students), (2) the Bench as as shaming discipline technique (Carr, p. 23), (3) a demanding culture that stresses “no excuses” for teachers and students (Carr, pp. 42-43), focusing almost exclusively on minority students from poverty (and not being implemented in white or affluent schools), and (4) depending so heavily on structure and external rewards that students falter once they enter college and have those elements removed (Carr, p. 188).
  • KIPP, specifically in its relationship with Teach for America (see Waiting for “Superman” and Carr), contributes directly and indirectly to several harmful and inaccurate claims about teaching and education: teaching quality is primarily a function of being demanding and not of experience or expertise (although this appears true only when dealing with high-poverty minority students since white and affluent students tend to have experienced and certified teachers), and public schools are failing because of corrupt unions (although non-union states n the U.S., mostly in the South, are routinely ranked at the bottom of educational quality).

If and when these concerns above are not applicable to KIPP specifically, I extend an invitation to KIPP leaders and advocates to set the record straight, and I offer my support when they do. I will apologize and join in with setting that record straight.

That I haven’t visited KIPP schools doesn’t discount my ability to raise concerns about large and evidence-based examples of how almost all types of schools are mis-serving children. In all of the issues above, I also criticize public education (re-segregating of schools, inequitable discipline policies, inequitable teacher assignment, tracking—just to name a few concerns).

But since much of my direct criticism of KIPP is based on secondary evidence, I must ask: Is Carr misguided in her depiction of KIPP in New Orleans, or is that situation unlike many or even some KIPP schools, such as the ones visited by Mathews in DC?

I think we all need to know and then remain vigilant about painting any set of schools with too wide a brush.

I also want to stress that Mathews’s concern about hyperbole is important because that hyperbole is unlikely to benefit either advocates or critics. KIPP leaders and advocates depend on the “miracle” school myth as much as critics depend on provocative prison [4] or concentration camp comparisons. I suspect both sides would be wise to set such hyperbole aside.

For my role in criticizing KIPP, I want to stress that I am not as concerned about criticizing any specific type of school as much as I am about exposing where we fail and calling for ways to reform all education so that we are more likely to address inequity in the lives and schools of children.

In that quest, I have no right or desire to misrepresent KIPP, but as I have detailed above, I have ample evidence that KIPP schools are one part of a set of large and pervasive problems that are not unique to KIPP.

I plan to take up Mathews on his invitation to visit some KIPP charter schools when I am in DC this fall, and I hope KIPP leaders and advocates will accept my invitations here to address my remaining concerns and not misrepresent my claims (as Education Next allowed) or simply discount my concerns since I have yet to walk the halls of a KIPP school.

References

Landsberg, M. (2009, May 31). Spitting in the eye of mainstream education. Los Angeles Times online. Retrieved 29 June 2009 from http://articles.latimes.com/2009/may/31/local/me-charter31

Whitman, D. (2008, Fall). An appeal to authority. Education Next, 8(4). Retrieved 29 June 2009 from http://educationnext.org/an-appeal-to-authority/

[1] Again, for the record, the Education Next article misrepresented me three times in the opening, and when I contacted a co-author, Bob Maranto, he admitted in an email exchange the article was unfair, promising to correct the piece and never following through on that promise. The ugliest and demonstrably untrue aspect of that piece was the charge “critics fear that disadvantaged parents do not know enough to choose wisely, or else do not have their children’s best interest at heart,” which my body of work directly disputes and about which I directly alerted Maranto that I in no way hold that position.

[2] Mathews notes that his Work Hard. Be Nice. does address discipline and his rebuttal to KIPP critics.

[3] I have direct experience with local public and charter schools that practice “no excuses” ideology and narratives, but openly acknowledge, that since no KIPP schools are in my area, I haven’t visited the KIPP schools in Arkansas or DC (or elsewhere). I don’t believe, still, that disqualifies me from rejecting “no excuses” and “grit” narratives and practices; as well, my criticism of KIPP within that larger concern is only unfair if KIPP isn’t embracing and practicing both. As I discuss above, the evidence I have suggests KIPP is a part of that larger dynamic.

[4] And let’s not ignore that Michel Foucault and Giles Deleuze have offered substantial examinations of why all schools and prisons are comparable.

The “Grit” Narrative, “Grit” Research, and Codes that Blind

The 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 conversations, and comments at my blogs on “grit.”

Those conversations have been illuminating for me; therefore, I want here to address several excellent ideas that have been generated.

First, I want to make a distinction that I think I have failed to make so far: We need to distinguish between the “grit” narrative and “grit” research. My concerns and most of my writing rejecting “grit” are addressing the “grit” narrative—one that is embedded in and co-opted by the larger “no excuses” ideology.

The “grit” narrative is central to work by Paul Tough as well as a wide range of media coverage of education, education reform, and specifically “no excuses” charter schools such as KIPP. In other words, the “grit” narrative is how we talk about what qualities lead to success (in life and school), what qualities children have and need, and how schools and teachers can and should inculcate those qualities.

In order to understand my cautions about the term “grit” as a narrative, I recommend that you consider carefully the responses to Richard Sherman’s post-game interview with Erin Andrews—responses that included calling Sherman a “thug” and racial slurs.

As Sherman has confronted himself, “thug” is “the accepted way of calling somebody the N-word nowadays.”

In other words, “thug” and GPA, as I have examined, are codes that blind because they are socially acceptable words and metrics that mask racial and class biases and prejudices.

The “grit” narrative is also a code that blinds since it perpetuates and is nested in a cultural myth of the hard-working and white ideal against the lazy and African American (and Latino/a) stereotype.

We must acknowledge that the “grit” narrative is primarily directed at—and the “no excuses” ideologies and practices are almost exclusively implemented with—high-poverty African American and Latino/a populations of students. And we must also acknowledge that the popular and misguided assumption is that relatively affluent and mostly white students and schools with relatively high academic achievement data are distinguishable from relatively impoverished and mostly African American and Latino/a students because of the effort among those populations (as well as stereotypes that white/affluent parents care about education and AA/Latino/a parents do not care about education)—instead of the pervasive fact that achievement data are more strongly correlated with socioeconomic status than effort and commitment.

Whether consciously or not, “grit” narratives and “no excuses” polices are classist and racist—again demonstrably so because neither are associated with white students in middle-class and affluent communities and schools.

The “grit” narrative states and implies that schools need to inculcate in impoverished African American and Latino/a students that same “grit” at the root of affluent and white student excellence (see the same stereotyping of teaching impoverished children the middle-class code in the flawed and discredited work of Ruby Payne)—misreading the actual sources of both the achievement and the lack of achievement (see below about scarcity and slack).

In fact, part of the “grit” narrative includes the assumption that successful students and people (read “white”) are successful primarily because they work hard; they earn their success. The flip side of this “grit” narrative is that unsuccessful students and people (read “African American” and “Latino/a”) are unsuccessful because they simply do not try hard enough. At its worst, the “grit” narrative is a socially acceptable way of expressing the lazy African American stereotype, just as Sherman exposed about “thug” as a socially acceptable racial slur.

The “grit” narrative is a racialized (and racist) cousin of the rugged individual myth that remains powerful in the U.S. The factual problem with the “grit” narrative and the rugged individual myth can be found in some powerful evidence that success is more strongly connected to systemic conditions than to the content of any individual’s character. Please consider the following:

  • Using data from Pew’s Economic Mobility Project, Matt Bruenig exposes the reality that ones privilege of birth trumps educational achievement (effort and attainment):

So, you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated. The disparity in the outcomes of rich and poor kids persists, not only when you control for college attainment, but even when you compare non-degreed rich kids to degreed poor kids!

Therefore, the answer to the question in the title is that you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.

  • In ScarcityMullainathan and Shafir present a compelling case that the same individual behaves differently in conditions of scarcity and slack. Scarcity occurs in impoverished lives and accounts for behaviors often misread by society as lazy, careless, or self-defeating. Slack is the space afforded by privilege and wealth, providing the context within which many people thrive and, ironically, within which behaviors described a “grit” can be valuable. In the “grit” narrative as well as in “no excuses” and high-stakes environments, scarcity is both ignored and intensified, creating contexts within which demanding “grit” is harmful and likely unproductive. Then seeking and creating slack for students (in their lives and in their schooling) instead of or preceding focusing on “grit” must occur if we genuinely support the component behaviors classified as “grit” (in the “grit” research).
  • Both the “grit” narrative and the rugged individualism myth focus an accusatory and evaluative gaze on the individual, leaving systemic forces that control individual behavior unexamined. The consequences of this misplaced attention—individuals and not system—are that students will learn not to try.

The above better characterizes why I reject the term “grit” as part of the “grit” narrative, but this now leaves us with the “grit” research, about many people reading the “grit” debate Lichtman’s blog have offered impassioned defenses.

Is it possible that the “grit” research has valuable and non-biased applications in classrooms for all types of students? Yes.

However, I believe our first step in rescuing the “grit” research is dropping the term. In my view, “grit” must go.

Next, we must shift when we privilege the component behaviors called “grit” and insure that our practices do not inadvertently teach students to avoid making deep and powerful efforts that are likely to fail.

As noted above, once students are afforded slack, and the playing field is leveled, “grit” may be a suitable focus for young people. This pursuit of slack requires that social policies address directly poverty and inequity in the lives of children.

This pursuit also means that high-stakes environments must end. Increasing pressure and raising demands in learning are counter to the slack necessary for any child to perform at high levels of engagement with the necessary risk and experimentation for deep learning to occur. Children must be physically and psychologically safe, and children need expert and loving encouragement that acknowledges the inherent value in effort (not linked to prescribed outcomes) in challenging and rich experiences.

The harsh and dehumanizing environments and policies in “no excuses” schools, then, as well as the high-stakes environments occurring in almost all K-12 public schooling are self-defeating (because they create scarcity and eliminate slack) for both raising student achievement and fostering the very “grit” many claim they are seeking in children.

Let me offer a brief anecdote from my years teaching high school in the 1980s and 1990s, well before anyone uttered the word “grit” (adding that I grew up in a home with a stereotypical 1950s father who was a hardass, no-excuses parent).

One day I heard students talking about failing a pop quiz in the class before mine. One student said he had read and even studied the night before, but failed the pop quiz. He then announced what he had learned from the experience: If he was going to fail any way, he declared, he wasn’t going to waste his time reading the assignment next time.

And here is where the “grit” narrative and “grit” research collide.

As long as the “grit” narrative is perpetuated and thus effort and engagement are idealized as key to certain outcomes and then as long as the real world proves to children and young adults that achievement is not the result of their effort, but linked to conditions beyond their control, the “grit” research creates a counterproductive dynamic in the classroom, one that frustrates and dehumanizes students and their teachers.

The real world in the U.S. today is no meritocracy. Confronting the rugged individual myth, instead of perpetuating it, then, allows teachers and students to feel purpose and agency in the need to continue seeking that meritocracy.

Further, once we decouple effort and the related behaviors associated with “grit” from predetermined outcomes, we can offer in school opportunities for students to discover the inherent value in effort itself, the inherent value in taking risks and committing ones self to an activity even though the outcome may be a failure.

The great irony is that we must slay the “grit” narrative (and discontinue the term) in order to honor a pursuit of equity and slack for all children so that what we know from the “grit” research can inform positively how we teach all children every day.

Until this happens, however, “grit” as a narrative within the “no excuses” ideology remains a code that blinds—masking the racialized and racist assumptions that “grit” implies about who is successful and why.

Civil Rights Issue of Our Time?

While the credibility of challenges leveled at the current education reform agenda—such as commitments to Common Core or the rise of “no excuses” charter schools—is often called into question throughout social and mainstream media, I see little to no questioning of political mantras of education crisis, utopian expectations for schools, and the consistent refrain of education reform being the civil rights issue of our time.

In fact, even reports coming from the USDOE show that if education reform is the civil rights issue of our time, the policies are certainly not doing what is needed to combat the demonstrable failures of the public school system.

Problem #1: Discipline in schools remains incredibly inequitable by race:

Disparate Discipline Rates and Arrests and Referrals to Law Enforcement

Disparate Discipline Rates and Arrests and Referrals to Law Enforcement

[click to enlarge]

Problem #2: Discipline in schools is inequitable by gender, complicating inequity by race:

Discipline Boys vs. Girls and A Look at Race and Gender: Out-of-School Suspensions

Discipline Boys vs. Girls and A Look at Race and Gender: Out-of-School Suspensions

[click to enlarge]

Problem #3: Access to advanced courses and retention rates are inequitable by race:

GandT.suspension

Access to Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) Programs and Retention Rates

[click to enlarge]

Problem #4: Teacher assignment and compensation are inequitable by race:

Teacher Assignments: First and Second Year Teachers and Teacher Salary Differences

Teacher Assignments: First and Second Year Teachers and Teacher Salary Differences

[click to enlarge]

Problem #5: School discipline policies such as zero tolerance policies are racially inequitable and parallel to the current era of mass incarceration disproportionately impacting African American males:

There is abundant evidence that zero tolerance policies disproportionately affect youth of color. Nationally, black and Latino students are suspended and expelled at much higher rates than white students. Among middle school students, black youth are suspended nearly four times more often than white youth, and Latino youth are roughly twice as likely to be suspended or expelled than white youth. And because boys are twice as likely as girls to receive these punishments, the proportion of black and Latino boys who are suspended or expelled is especially large.  Nationally, nearly a third (31 percent) of black boys in middle school were suspended at least once during the 2009–10 school year. Part of this dynamic is that under-resourced urban schools with higher populations of black and Latino students are generally more likely to respond harshly to misbehavior. (p. 3)

As I have stated before, if education reform is the civil rights issue of our time, federal and state reform agendas would end zero tolerance policies, eradicate “no excuses” ideologies, and stop retention practices—as well as address the measurable inequities by race, class, and gender marring public schools in the U.S.

GUEST POST: Let’s Nurture Inner-Directed Students and Ignore the “No Excuses” Crowd, John Thompson

Let’s Nurture Inner-Directed Students and Ignore the “No Excuses” Crowd

John Thompson

Early in my career, Latifa taught me an important lesson about the teaching of noncognitve skills.  Latifa’s dress-for-success style and leadership made it easy to forget her unhappy childhood in foster homes.  When she got up, shut both doors, and walked to the front of the classroom, it was my time to take a seat in a desk.  Latifa often did this when she and her classmates were angry about something at school that offended their senses of fairness.  Once they had their say and articulated solutions, Latifa would reopen the doors so I could get back to teaching Government standards.

When participating in our discussions, I drew upon my decade living in a neighborhood in the middle of the “Hoova” set of the Crips street gang turf, as well as lessons learned from students, counselors, therapists, and fellow teachers at an alternative school for juvenile felons. I also drew on techniques for getting along with people gained from extensive hitch-hiking, roughnecking in the oil fields, and lobbying Oklahoma legislators. Yes, I drew on eclectic real-world experiences to help mentor students.  No, I did not impose some primitive KIPP-style cognitive behavioral model.

Yes, my inner city students drew on diverse experiences and, yes, they wrestled with many issues that were no different than suburban kids raised in two-parent families.  No, I don’t believe that many affluent classrooms had as many survivors of extreme trauma.

Yes, I used my generation’s vocabulary, as I coached students on making sense of the world from their generation’s perspective.  I recounted the theme of “the Lonely Crowd” and instructed them on the distinction between “other-directed” versus “inner-directed” persons.  I presented my belief that adults needed to help young people develop an internal locus of control. I offered my opinion that a key purpose of schooling is helping to nurture creative insubordination.

No, I did not push “grit,” “true grit,” or a John Wayne value system. Back then, the term of art was “character education.”  That name bothered me more than today’s word, “grit.” I had bigger concerns, however, than the label that we attached to the qualities which we now call “the socio-emotional.”

By the way, often it was a dispute over our school’s periodic enforcement of the dress code that sparked our confabs. During these spasms of “No Excuses” for their outer appearances, my students and I discussed the best ways to respond.  We knew that the “this too shall pass” nature of these crackdowns would soon reinsert itself. I would volunteer that the dress code isn’t my priority, but supporting my colleagues is.  I would spell out my desire for a balance between supporting my students, while fulfilling my job’s responsibility.  We’d discuss how to deal with the rules as a team until the enforcement frenzy burned out.

Students voiced their anger about the system’s priorities. Untucked shirt tails wasn’t seen as the key to overcoming the effects of generational poverty and the legacies of Jim Crow. They also articulated their pain, being treated as objects to be ordered around.  And, as David said, “I don’t feel whole without my hat …”

Yes, David’s expression of his divided consciousness prompted a serious discussion.  Yes, some themes we had learned from studying Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin were recalled. No, we didn’t tell him to just conform and grit it out.

So, I thank Paul Thomas and Lelac Almegor for reminding me about those wonderful experiences. Thomas has long criticized the work of Angela Duckworth, Paul Tough, and James Heckman and their support of KIPP’s pedagogy.  He now adds a link to Almegor’s “The Inherent Flaws in Character Education.” Almegor astutely writes in opposition to the current emphasis on character education that sounds “like a magic wand. Working kid by kid and school by school, we can fix what is wrong with our historically struggling student populations while implicitly laying the blame on the students or their parents or their communities.”

If I read them correctly, there are two issues.  The first is rooted in the conversation which grew heated in the 1960s when Patrick Moynihan used the phrase “a culture of poverty.” Sometimes that debate was a nuanced academic dispute; other times it was an avoidable conflict dividing liberals from ourselves. Conservatives got a kick out the fights between the various wings progressives, but there were important scholarly points to be made. I also agree with Paul Tough that these disputes were a part of “liberal posttraumatic shock” for supposedly losing the War on Poverty.

The second issue involves recent research on the socio-emotional, and the unfortunate term “grit,” which are being coopted by reformers “No Excuses” schools, it seems to me, are teaching an other-directed value system and doing so in the name of inner-directedness. To paraphrase Karen Lewis, accountability hawks are claiming that their schools liberate poor children so they can become Masters of the Universe, when they are actually training students to become Walmart greeters. Only in our Orwellian education reform era, could behaviorist indoctrination to pass bubble-in tests be branded as the cultivation of qualities such as adaptability and empathy.

On this issue, again, Almegor provides a wise explanation. At his school, “we do character education not because our children are disadvantaged but because they are children. It belongs within our school building not because nobody else is doing it, but because everyone does it. Our school is a part of our community and so we share in its responsibilities.”

He notes that teaching character should be about “being more independent, assertive, and persistent, but often it is not.” He observes:

We are not trying to fix them so they are more like middle-class kids. We are trying to get them ready to compete from behind. But some of it isn’t about character at all, only the appearance of it. When we teach a kid to give a firm formal handshake, we are not strengthening his character. We are teaching him how to translate his strength into a language that people in power will understand.  

It seems to me, however, that most non-reformers will read the research of Duckworth, Heckman, and Tough as incompatible with accountability-driven reform. Their criticism of achievement tests, and their inability to predict success in school and in life, applies equally to standardized testing. Even those who believe that school choice is a key to improving schools, I suspect, would prefer Almegor’s approach to character education to KIPP’s structure. Or, they would at least choose Almegor’s nurturing over a competitive, top down approach to produce higher “outcomes,” i.e. test scores. I have to believe that parents prefer the already huge and growing social science on the need for high-quality early education over the drill and kill school of reform.

So, I have to wonder why Thomas, Almegor, and others are so upset that some scholars and reformers overuse the word grit.  Are they afraid that reformers will do something crazy like impose bubble-in testing and test prep on young children?  Seriously, Gary Rubenstein’s “My Daughter’s Kindergarten Common Core Workbook” shows the extremes to which reformers will go.

As during the battles over the “culture of poverty,” we in the progressive tradition have no choice but to live by our values and debate ideas in public.  It is tricky to do so in an era when reformers are likely to take any concept or word and turn it into a weapon to advance their agenda. But, it is the price we play for being committed to democratic education for all. Our job is preparing kids for an Open Society.

End Zero-Tolerance Policies: A Reader

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

Review: Police in the Hallways: Confronting the “Culture of Control,” P. L. Thomas

The School-to-Prison Pipeline, Journal of Educational Controversy (vol. 7, issue 1, Fall/2012-Winter 2013)

Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children, Sarah Carr

New Schools, Old Problems [Review: Hope Against Hope], P. L. Thomas

Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era

Truthout TV Interviews P.L. Thomas About the New “Jim Crow” Era of Education Reform

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

Henry Giroux on the “School to Prison Pipeline”

The Mis-education of the Negro, Carter Godwin Woodson

Arresting Development • Zero Tolerance and the Criminalization of Children, Annette Fuentes

Misreading “Grit”: On Treating Children Better than Salmon or Sea Turtles

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:

WHS basketball jr year

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