“Other People’s Children” v. “They’re All Our Children”

Optimism, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel—these are not my proclivities.

And while I wallow in the self-delusion that I am a Skeptic, the truth is that I have long ago slipped over into the abyss of cynicism.

There are moments, however, when I hope.

One such moment was during the Sandy Hook school shooting tragedy—when I wanted desperately to believe that President Obama’s call for seeing every child as “all our children” would resonate against the recurring din of gunfire killing children—but not only the uniquely American slaying of school children but the daily loss of mostly black and brown children and young adults to gunfire in the homes and streets of U.S. inner cities.

But that has not happened. Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer, Brown’s body left callously in the street—adding to the seemingly endless cataloguing of similar tragedies. And those tragedies are daily magnified by our collective refusal to see each death in the same way we would see the death of our own children, our collective refusal to see how “other people’s children” live, learn, and die is just as precious as if they were “all our children.”

So my cynicism is driven by the stark realization that if we cannot come together as a community over the shooting of “other people’s children,” how will we ever come together about the less dramatic but just as tragic conditions such as what we allow for the education of “other people’s children”?

The powerful phrase “other people’s children” comes from the work of Lisa Delpit, who confronts the inequity of educational opportunities for minority and impoverished children. Delpit highlights that marginalized students receive disproportionately test-prep and worksheet-driven instruction, unlike their white and affluent peers. While some have claimed her as a champion of traditional practice because her criticisms have included failures by progressives, Delpit counters:

I do not advocate a simplistic “basic skills” approach for children outside of the culture of power. It would be (and has been) tragic to operate as if these children were incapable of critical and higher-order thinking and reasoning. Rather, I suggest that schools must provide these children the content that other families from a different cultural orientation provide at home. This does not mean separating children according to family background [emphasis added], but instead, ensuring that each classroom incorporate strategies appropriate for all the children in its confines.

And I do not advocate that it is the school’s job to attempt to change the homes of poor and nonwhite children to match the homes of those in the culture of power [emphasis added]. That may indeed be a form of cultural genocide. I have frequently heard schools call poor parents “uncaring” when parents respond to the school’s urging, saying, “But that’s the school’s job.” What the school personnel fail to understand is that if the parents were members of the culture of power and lived by its rules and codes, then they would transmit those codes to their children. In fact, they transmit another culture that children must learn at home in order to survive in their communities.

Delpit’s call, however, must be distinguished from not only traditionalists but also popular but flawed programs such as those provided by Ruby Payne, who promotes uncritical teaching of middle class codes to impoverished students. Not grounded in research but driving professional development of teachers in many states across the U.S., Payne’s self-published workbooks and workshops speak to and perpetuate stereotypes of people in poverty and racial minorities. And as Monique Redeaux clarifies:

At first glance, this seems to be the message conveyed by Payne: poor students of color need to be explicitly taught the hidden rules or codes of the middle/upper class in order to be successful in school, work, etc. When examined more closely, this could not be further from the truth. Both terms, the “culture of poverty” (Payne) and the “culture of power” (Delpit) locate the problem in culture—but in different ways/places [emphasis added]. Although Payne and other “culture of poverty” advocates see the problem as residing with the cultural attributes of those living in poverty, the “culture of power” perspective suggests that the middle/upper class hold the power and key to institutional success, partly through their monopolization of educational skills, and that they do all they can to make sure that they and their offspring maintain that power.

When Delpit began her work on “other people’s children” she predicted that her purpose would be misunderstood. People criticized her for “vindicating” teachers who subjected students of color to isolated, meaningless, sub-skills day after day. However, what she was actually advocating when she referred to “skills-based instruction” was the “useful and usable knowledge that contributes to a student’s ability to communicate effectively in standard, generally acceptable literary forms” and she proposed that this was best learned in meaningful contexts. In other words, Delpit argued that both technical skills and critical thinking are essential: a person of color who has no critical thinking skills becomes the “trainable, low-level functionary of the dominant society, simply the grease that keeps the institutions which orchestrate his or her oppression running smoothly.” At the same time, those who lack the technical skills demanded by colleges, universities, and employers will be denied entry into these institutions. Consequently, they will attain financial and social success only within the “disenfranchised underworld.”

The key distinction between Delpit and Payne is the reason why [emphasis added] they believe students should be taught the “hidden rules.” Payne argues that their educational and economic success depend on their being able to conform to the rules of the middle/upper class. While Delpit, too, makes this argument, she does not believe that students should passively adopt an alternate code simply because it is the “way things are,” especially if they want to achieve a particular economic status. Instead, Delpit asserts that students need to know and understand the power realities of this country with the purpose of changing these realities.

We are confronted, then, with the continuing rise in programs funded by the government and supported by a wide range of political, public, and media ideologies and interests that submit only “other people’s children” to teachers produced by alternative pathways (such as Teach For America, but also copycats) and to school structures (usually charter schools, labeled “public” but functioning within a market dynamic) and policies driven by “no excuses” ideologies (such as KIPP, but also numerous copycats) demanding “grit.”

Yet, affluent children, mostly white, find themselves in classrooms with low class size, experienced and qualified/certified teachers, and rich curricula often not linked to the standards-of-the-moment or high-stakes testing—and do not find themselves disproportionately retained, suspended, expelled, or shot while unarmed walking down the street.

Our education dilemma is a subset of our greater cultural dilemma—one that pits our traditional commitments to the rugged individual, Social Darwinism, and consumerism against our potential moral grounding in community and cooperation.

No child should need to depend on the choices her/his parents make, and no parents should be faced with making choices about those foundational things that all humans deserve—one of which is access to the exact same conditions for learning and living that the privileged among us have before them.

Today, the U.S. remains a dog-eat-dog culture that perpetuates and allows one world for “other people’s children” that would never be tolerated for “my child.” A great moral lapse of our time is that we refuse to act in ways that prove “they’re all our children.”

Who Are We? We Are the Resistance

Diane Ravitch’s post about the debate over the Gates moratorium includes a comment from John Thompson that deserves close attention:

In a note to me, John Thompson pointed out that our side, which doesn’t have a name, cherishes the clash of ideas. The “reformers” march in lockstep (my words, not Thompson’s) in support of test-based accountability for students and teachers, Common Core, and school choice. Our side, whatever it is called, is more interesting, more willing to disagree, readier to debate and to think out loud.

Throughout the gradually intensifying high-stakes accountability era in education that began in the early 1980s, educators and students have mostly been done to and ignored or silenced. As a result of this partisan political dynamic, educators, scholars, and researchers have been pushed almost exclusively into a reactionary mode.

As I have noted recently (here and here), the media tend to give the political reformers the first word—which implies that first word, although not supported by evidence or experience, is most credible—and then frame “our side,” as Ravitch and Thompson call us, as “critics” or even “anti-reformers.”

Nothing, in fact, could be farther from the truth as many on “our side,” myself included, entered education as reformers.

This distorted dynamic in which the inexpert are rendered the experts, “reformers,” and the expert are rendered mere “critics” inspired the new volume I have co-edited (with Brad J. Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, and Paul R. Carr), Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity.

The central premise of the volume is that two broad camps of reformers exist: “No Excuses” Reformers (the current partisan political movement including Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, and others) and the Social Context Reformers (the group I’d call “our side”).

Here, I want to offer an excerpt from the introduction to the volume above as a call to “our side”—we are the resistance and we must be named and then we must take over the public debate instead of simply being always second to the table.

Introduction: Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity

by Brad Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, Paul R. Carr, and P.L. Thomas, Editors

Asked to explain the many competing narratives of the religions of the world, comparative myth/religion scholar Joseph Campbell told Bill Moyers (1988) that he did not reject religion, as some scholars have, but instead reached this conclusion: “Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck to its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble” (p. 56).

As a number of education scholars and historians have noted (Berliner & Biddle, 1996; Bracey, 2004; Kliebard, 1995; Ravitch, 2010, 2013; Tienken & Orlich, 2013), public education in the US has suffered a long history of crisis narratives about the state of schools , narratives which have been coupled with a never-ending call for reform. The last thirty years of accountability-driven reform have been based on standards and high-stakes tests. Standards were initially generated by states; however, there is now a move toward national standards known as the Common Core. High stakes assessments have followed a similar trajectory, situated first at the state level and now based on Common Core. During this past three decades, two competing narratives have emerged, what we label “No Excuses” Reform (NER) and Social Context Reform:

“No Excuses” Reformers insist that the source of success and failure lies in each child and each teacher, requiring only the adequate level of effort to rise out of the circumstances not of her/his making. As well, “No Excuses” Reformers remain committed to addressing poverty solely or primarily through education, viewed as an opportunity offered each child and within which (as noted above) effort will result in success.

Social Context Reformers have concluded that the source of success and failure lies primarily in the social and political forces that govern our lives. By acknowledging social privilege and inequity, Social Context Reformers are calling for education reform within a larger plan to reform social inequity—such as access to health care, food security, higher employment along with better wages and job security. (Thomas, 2011b)

A powerful but generally ignored irony of the accountability era involves No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which rhetorically codified the use of “scientifically based research” in education. The problem presented by NCLB is that three decades of evidence on the most popular and dominant reforms implemented by NER advocates and political leadership—grade retention, charter schools, school choice, value added methods of teacher evaluation, merit pay, Teach for America, high-stakes testing, and standards—have failed to support the effectiveness of these policies.

When faced with the competing narratives of NER and SCR, then, the public, the media, and political leaders must face the research-base, and consider the degree to which false narratives an ideological myths have been imbued within NER as well as the relevance and importance of SCR narratives to seek out more bone fide evidence-based directions. Importantly, trends within the US have also had varying levels of influence elsewhere, and most international jurisdictions now have significant educational policy related to standards, testing, assessment and accountability. For this reason, the US context I particularly important for understanding neoliberalism and globalization at a broader level, encompassing many of universal concerns, such as social inequalities, accessibility, societal focus to education, differentiated outcomes, and the role of teachers. Ultimately, we find this debate to be fundamental in relation to democracy, and the place of education within a democracy (Carr, 2011).

Obama’s Failed Hope and Change

Writing in 1976 about the bicentennial, novelist John Gardner (1994) challenges the 20th century angst “that the American Dream is dead” (p. 96):

The American Dream, it seems to me, is not even slightly ill. It’s escaped, soared away into the sky like an eagle, so not even a great puffy Bicentennial can squash it. The American Dream’s become a worldwide dream, which makes me so happy and flushed with partly chauvinistic pride (it was our idea) that I sneak down into my basement and wave my flag….

That idea—humankind’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—coupled with a system for protecting human rights—was and is the quintessential American Dream. The rest is greed and pompous foolishness—at worst, a cruel and sentimental myth, at best, cheap streamers in the rain. (p. 96)

Gardner continues, addressing “majority rule” as “right even when it’s wrong (as often happens),”

because it encourages free men to struggle as adversaries, using established legal means, to keep government working at the business of justice for all.

The theory was and is that is the majority causes too much pain to the minority, the minority will scream (with the help of the free press and the right of assembly) until the majority is badgered or shamed into changing its mind….

It’s true that the system pretty frequently doesn’t work. For decades, pollsters tell us, the American people favored gun control by three to one—law-enforcement officials have favored it by as much as nine to one—but powerful lobbies and cowardly politicians have easily thwarted the people’s will. (p. 97)

About three decades later, voters in the U.S. elected the first bi-racial (often called simply African American) president in the country’s history. At the time, some voted for Barack Obama primarily because the election was an important, symbolic moment for the U.S.; some bought his message of hope and change. Others remained skeptical that the Democratic Party establishment would allow a true champion of liberal and progressive ideas to assume the mantle of U.S. President. The sophisticated and compellingly influential rhetoric employed by Obama for two years before being elected, presenting “hope” and “change” as not only desirable but, more importantly, entirely achievable, laid the groundwork for an important juxtaposition between hegemonic forces and the will of the majority of people, who wanted a more humane, social justice-based orientation to public services and government (Carr & Porfilio, 2011b).

As public educators, academics, and scholars have discovered (Carr & Porfilio, 2011b), Obama is not progressive he portrayed himself to be, much less the socialist that libertarians and Tea Party advocates claim. In fact, Obama’s education policies are an extended version of the No Child Left Behind accountability agenda begun under George W. Bush. The Obama education agenda has been committed to neoliberalism, not democracy, not justice for all, not protecting human rights:

Barack Obama personifies the power of personality in politics and the value of articulating a compelling vision that resonates with many voters in the US and other global citizens. For Obama’s presidential campaign, the refrain that worked was driven by two words and concepts, “hope” and “change.” From healthcare, to war, to education reform, however, the Obama administration is proving that political discourse is more likely to mask intent—just as Orwell warned through his essays and most influential novel1984, the source of the term “doublespeak” that characterizes well Obama’s and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s public comments on education reform. They mask the programs promoted and implemented by the Department of Education. (Thomas, 2011a)

Despite Gardner’s soaring optimism, the media is culpable in this failure to commit to the hope and change that was so eloquently and vociferously presented by Obama and his administration.

A powerful and disturbing example of how the Obama administration, through the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Arne Duncan, masks the neoliberal agenda (see Hursh, 2011, and Carr & Porfilio, 2011a) behind civil rights rhetoric and crisis discourse is an exchange between civil rights leaders calling for the removal of Duncan and Obama’s reply. Civil rights leaders include in their call the following:

National Journey for Justice Alliance demands include:

  • Moratorium on school closings, turnarounds, phase-outs, and charter expansions.
  • Its proposal for sustainable school transformation to replace failed, market-driven interventions as support for struggling schools.
  • Resignation of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. (Ravitch, 2013a)

With Obama’s signature prominent at the end of his letter to Ed Johnson, the President replied, his language no longer masking his agenda. Obama is resolute in his commitment to “provid[ing] our children with the world-class education they need to succeed and our Nation needs to compete in the global economy.” Not once in this two-page response does Obama mention democracy, or any of the ideals embraced by Gardner above. Obama, instead, offers “cheap streamers in the rain”:

Our classrooms should be places of high expectations and success, where all students receive an education that prepares them for higher learning and high-demand careers in our fast-changing economy….

In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, students grow up more likely to read and do math at their grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form stable families of their own…. (Ravitch, 2013a)

The message is clear that education is a mechanism for building a competitive workforce; nothing else seems to matter. Obama’s focus on education as training for workers is disturbing, but his relentless commitment to competition and punitive accountability policies in education is highly problematic against democratic goals and the pursuit of equity.

Throughout the response, Obama mentions Race to the Top twice, invokes “competition” three times, and twice endorses “reward” structures for raising teacher and school quality. But let’s not forget the crisis: “America’s students cannot afford to wait any longer.” Even this crisis is driven by economic diction, “afford.” The emphasis is clearly in the workforce, business, employment and training, and not on citizenship, social justice, critical engagement and democracy.

More than 30 years ago, Gardner (1994) argues: “The lie on the American left is this: that the American theory promised such-and-such and has sometimes not delivered, whereas We Deliver. The truth—a metaphysical truth, in fact—is that nobody delivers” (p. 99). With Obama’s neutered education agenda before us as part of three continuous decades of failed accountability policies (Thomas, 2013), Gardner’s analysis seems prophetic. Despite Gardner’s rejecting cynicism (“But the myth of the mindless patriot is not worse than the myth of the cynic who speaks of America with an automatic sneer” [p. 98]), George Carlin, comedian and social critic, appears to have a more accurate view of the American Dream:

But there’s a reason. There’s a reason. There’s a reason for this, there’s a reason education sucks, and it’s the same reason it will never, ever, ever be fixed.

It’s never going to get any better, don’t look for it, be happy with what you’ve got.

Because the owners, the owners of this country don’t want that. I’m talking about the real owners now, the big owners! The Wealthy… the real owners! The big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions.

Forget the politicians. They are irrelevant. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice! You have owners! They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought, and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the state houses, the city halls, they got the judges in their back pockets and they own all the big media companies, so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear….

They want more for themselves and less for everybody else, but I’ll tell you what they don’t want:

They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests. (Shoq, 2010)

This isn’t simply biting social satire. This isn’t easily discounted cynicism. Obama’s education policies and his neoliberal agenda are solid proof that Carlin, not Gardner, is right: “It’s called the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

Table of Contents

Introduction: Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity Brad Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, Paul R. Carr, and P.L. Thomas, Editors Part 1: Social Reform for Equity and Opportunity 1. Defying Meritocracy: The Case of the Working-Class College Student Allison L. Hurst 2. Reforming the Schooling of Neoliberal, Perpetual Zombie Desire William Reynolds 3. The Pseudo Accountability of Education Reform: Injustice by (False) Proxy Randy Hoover 4. Teacher Education and Resistance within the Neoliberal Regime: Making the Necessary Possible Barbara Madeloni and Kysa Nygreen Part 2: School-based Reform for Equity and Opportunity 5. Changing the Colonial Context to Address School Underperformance in Nunavut Paul Berger 6. An Injury to All? The Haphazard Nature of Academic Freedom in America’s Public Schools Robert L. Dahlgren, Nancy C. Patterson and Christopher J. Frey 7. Educating, Not Criminalizing, Youth of Color: Challenging Neoliberal Agendas and Penal Populism Mary Christiankis and Richard Mora Part 3: Classroom-based Reform for Equity and Opportunity 8. Pedagogies of Equity and Opportunity: Critical Literacy, Not Standards P. L. Thomas 9. YouTube University: How an Educational Foundations Professor Uses Critical Media in His Classroom Nicholas D. Hartlep 10. Developing a User-Friendly, Community-Based Higher Education Rebecca Collins-Nelsen and Randy Nelsen 11. Transcending the Standard: One Teacher’s Effort to Explore the World Beyond the Curriculum Chris LeahyConclusion: Learning and Teaching in Scarcity P. L. Thomas

References

Berliner, D.C., & Biddle, B.J. (1996). The manufactured crisis: Myths, fraud, and the attack on America’s schools. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Bracey, G. (2004). Setting the record straight: Responses to misconceptions about public education in the U.S. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Campbell, J., & Moyers, B. (1988). The power of myth. New York: Doubleday.

Carr, P. R. (2011). Does your vote count? Critical pedagogy and democracy. New York: Peter Lang.

Carr, P.R., & Porfilio, B.J. (2011a). The Obama education file: Is there hope to stop the neoliberal agenda in education? Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education, 4(1), 1-30. https://journal.buffalostate.edu/index.php/soe/issue/view/11

Carr, P.R., & Porfilio, B.J. (2011b). The Phenomenon of Obama and the agenda for education: Can hope audaciously trump neoliberalism? Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Gardner, J. (1994). Amber (get) waves (your) of (plastic) grain (Uncle Sam). On writers and writing. New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Hursh, D. (2011). Explaining Obama: The continuation of free market policies in education and the economy. Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education, 4(1), 31-47. https://journal.buffalostate.edu/index.php/soe/issue/view/11

Kliebard, H. M. (1995). The struggle for the American curriculum: 1893-1958. New York: Routledge.

Ravitch, D. (2013a, August 25). Civil rights groups call for Duncan’s ouster [Web log]. Diane Ravitch’s blog. Retrieved from http://dianeravitch.net/2013/08/25/civil-rights-groups-call-for-duncans-ouster/

Ravitch, D. (2013b). Reign of error: The hoax of the privatization movement and the danger to America’s public schools. New York, NY: Knopf.

Ravitch, D. (2010). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Shoq. (2010, September 25). George Carlin on the American Dream (with transcript) fernandadepaulag@aol.com [Web log]. shoqvalue.com. Retrieved from http://shoqvalue.com/george-carlin-on-the-american-dream-with-transcript/

Thomas, P.L. (2013, August 19). What we know now (and how it doesn’t matter) [Web log]. the becoming radical. Retrieved from http://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/what-we-know-now-and-how-it-doesnt-matter/

Thomas, P.L. (2011a). Orwellian educational change under Obama: Crisis discourse, Utopian expectations, and accountability failures. Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education, 4(1), 68-92. Retrieved from https://journal.buffalostate.edu/index.php/soe/issue/view/11

Thomas, P. L. (2011b, December 30). Poverty matters!: A Christmas miracle. Truthout. Retrieved from http://truth-out.org/news/item/5808:poverty-matters-a-christmas-miracle

Tienken, C.H., & Orlich, D.C. (2013). The school reform landscape: Fraud, myth, and lies. Landham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Education.

Listening to a Teacher from a “No Excuses” Charter School

Valerie Strauss has raised a key problem with the education reform movement in the U.S.: The central experts in the education system, teachers, are essentially ignored.

I have a long history now of rejecting the charter school movement and the “no excuses” ideology that is driving many charter schools. Because of my position, I have been criticized for not visiting KIPP schools and I have detailed why that falls short against my central point about the racism and classism inherent in “no excuses” ideology.

So I want to offer a connection between my position on charters and “no excuses” with listening to a teacher.

I received an unsolicited email from a teacher who has recently taught in a “no excuses” charter school; this is the teacher’s central point:

Their system does not work. Their philosophy is to teach the kids over extended hours at school. We taught from 8:00-4:00 every day. The teachers have added responsibilities on top of those hours. Then most children went to after school care where they continued teaching and received dinner [1]. Guess what our report card score is? It’s an F.

The children were worn out all the time. The parents expected us to take care of the children no matter what. One day I had a parent not pick up their child and I was expected to stay at school until their parents came for their child. After calling every number I had, no one arrived to pick him up until 7:15 at night.

I have never seen such chaos in all my years of teaching.

Disillusioned, this teacher has moved to a different school, but I find the story and impressions hit on exactly what is wrong with “no excuses” ideologies: the unnecessarily harsh school environments for students and teachers, the remaining disconnect among all the stakeholders, and the inevitable negative consequences of relying on accountability metrics to determine if a school is successful or not.

If you still feel compelled not to listen to me, then at least listen to this teacher.

[1] Please consider this in the context of the teacher’s experience: A Few More Points About Charter Schools And Extended Time

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 later, 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.