The snow started in South Carolina on Tuesday, February 11, 2014, and when I woke up Thursday, February 13, the snow continued, laying down a powdery blanket on the ice crust formed with several intervening hours of heavy sleet Wednesday afternoon and evening.
This is unusual for the South. The whiteness hides where yards end and the road begins. It is a bit of an unfair characterization—everyone likes to laugh about how wintery weather paralyzes the South—but we are now pretty much frozen in time like the weather outside.
Recently I offered my flat tire story to explain how the conditions of privilege (slack) and poverty (scarcity) are powerful forces that drive human behavior—rejecting the cultural stereotype of poverty being the result of personal laziness.
If you don’t understand the nuance and weight of privilege and poverty, this snow storm should help.
For the salaried class in the U.S.—mostly people in privilege (slack)—when businesses close and the world of work comes to a halt, the response is “paid vacation.”
For the hourly class in the U.S.—mostly people confronted with scarcity or the possibility of scarcity—when businesses close and the world of work comes to a halt, the falling snow is sand in the hour glass of not getting paid. For the working poor and the working class, time is money.
The privileged are allowed to relax, sip coffee, read that book, and post witty stuff on Facebook.
People living in poverty, in scarcity, or on the very edge of scarcity watch the snow and feel their anxieties rise, the stress of knowing money is not being made, the fear that the snow and ice will cause something unexpected and expensive to happen (beyond their control).
So when those of us in privilege feel that electric shock of realization of something needed while we sit trapped in our homes, a realization pressed up against the reality that we cannot leave the house and will simply have to do without, we are being exposed briefly to the condition of living experienced by people in poverty, the working poor, and the working class every minute of their lives.
We have the privilege of imagining what that must be like.
People living in poverty don’t.
More than 50 years ago, Ellison was asked to speak about “‘these children,’ the difficult thirty percent,” the disproportionate challenges facing African American children in U.S. schools. Ellison’s discussion of language among African Americans, especially in the South, offers a powerful rejection of enduring cultural and racial stereotypes:
Some of us look at the Negro community in the South and say that these kids have no capacity to manipulate language. Well, these are not the Negroes I know. Because I know that the wordplay of Negro kids in the South would make the experimental poets, the modern poets, green with envy. I don’t mean that these kids possess broad dictionary knowledge, but within the bounds of their familiar environment and within the bounds of their rich oral culture, they possess a great virtuosity with the music and poetry of words. The question is how can you get this skill into the mainstream of the language, because it is without doubt there. And much of it finds its way into the broader language. Now I know this just as William Faulkner knew it. This does not require a lot of testing; all you have to do is to walk into a Negro church….
But how can we keep the daring and resourcefulness which we often find among the dropouts? I ask this as one whose work depends upon the freshness of language. How can we keep the discord flowing into the mainstream of the language without destroying it? One of the characteristics of a healthy society is its ability to rationalize and contain social chaos. It is the steady filtering of diverse types and cultural influences that keeps us a healthy and growing nation. The American language is a great instrument for poets and novelists precisely because it could absorb the contributions of those Negroes back there saying “dese” and “dose” and forcing the language to sound and bend under the pressure of their need to express their sense of the real. The damage done to formal grammar is frightful, but it isn’t absolutely bad, for here is one of the streams of verbal richness….
I’m fascinated by this whole question of language because when you get people who come from a Southern background, where language is manipulated with great skill and verve, and who upon coming north become inarticulate, then you know that the proper function of language is being frustrated.
The great body of Negro slang–that unorthodox language–exists precisely because Negroes need words which will communicate, which will designate the objects, processes, manners and subtleties of their urban experience with the least amount of distortion from the outside. So the problem is, once again, what do we choose and what do we reject of that which the greater society makes available? These kids with whom we’re concerned, these dropouts, are living critics of their environment, of our society and our educational system, and they are quite savage critics of some of their teachers.
What Ellison is rejecting is a deficit view of language as well as a deficit view of people living in poverty that blurs with racial prejudices. This deficit view is not some remnant of history, however; in fact, a deficit view of language and impoverished people is one of the most resilient and often repeated claims among a wide range of political and educational ideologies .
We know that low-SES kids tend to come to school with smaller vocabularies and less ‘schema’ than affluent kids, and both of these are correlated with (and probably caused by) poverty. Low-SES kids have heard far fewer words and enjoyed few to no opportunities for enrichment.
When I posted a challenge to this deficit view, Labor Lawyer added this comment:
How about the seminal research outlined in Hart & Risley’s “Meaningful Differences”? Their research showed that there were significant differences in how low-SES parents and high-SES parents verbally interacted with their children + that the low-SES parents’ interactions were generically inferior, not just reflective of different vocabularies. The low-SES parents spoke less often to their children, used fewer words, used fewer different words, initiated fewer interactions, responded less frequently to the child’s attempt to initiate an interaction, used fewer encouraging words, and used more prohibitive words.
Two important points must be addressed about deficit views of language among impoverished people: (1) Ellison’s argument against a deficit view from 1963 is strongly supported by linguists, anthropologists, and sociologists, but (2) the flawed Hart and Risley study remains compelling, not because the research is credible (it isn’t), but because their claims match cultural assumptions about race and class, assumptions that are rooted in prejudices and stereotypes.
One powerful example of the popularity of a deficit view of language and poverty is the success of Ruby Payne’s framework of poverty books and teacher training workshops—despite a strong body of research refuting her claims and despite her entire framework lacking any credible research .
To understand the problems associated with deficit views of language and poverty, the Hart and Risley study from 1995 must be examined critically, as Dudley-Marling and Lucas published in 2009 .
Hart and Risley: Six African American Families on Welfare in Kansas City
Dudley-Marling and Lucas reject the deficit view of poverty and language, calling instead for an asset view. They note that deficit views place an accusatory gaze on impoverished parents, and thus, blaming those parents reinforces stereotypes of people in poverty and allows more credible sources of disproportionate failure by students in poverty and minority students to be ignored.
Since the political, social, and educational embracing of deficit views is commonly justified by citing Hart and Risley (1995) , Dudley-Marling and Lucas carefully detail what the study entails and how the claims made by Hart and Risley lack credibility.
First, Hart and Risley
studied the language interactions of parents and children in the homes of 13 upper-SES (1 Black, 12 White), 10 middle-SES (3 Black, 7 White), 13 lower-SES (7 Black, 6 White), and 6 welfare (all Black) families, all from Kansas City. Families were observed for one hour each month over a period of 2 1/2 years, beginning when children were 7–9 months old. (p. 363)
Dudley-Marling and Lucas stress:
What is particularly striking about Hart and Risley’s data analysis is their willingness to make strong, evaluative claims about the quality of the language parents directed to their children….
Many educational researchers and policy makers have generalized the findings about the language and culture of the 6 welfare families in Hart and Risley’s study to all poor families. Yet, Hart and Risley offer no compelling reason to believe that the poor families they studied have much in common with poor families in other communities, or even in Kansas City for that matter. The primary selection criterion for participation in this study was socioeconomic status; therefore, all the 6 welfare families had in common was income, a willingness to participate in the study, race (all the welfare families were Black), and geography (all lived in the Kansas City area). (pp. 363, 364)
In other words, Hart and Risley make causational claims based on a very limited sample, and those claims are widely embraced because they speak to the dominant culture’s assumptions about race and class, but not because the study’s data or claims are valid. Dudley-Marling and Lucas explain:
Conflating correlation with causation in this way illustrates the “magical thinking” that emerges when researchers separate theory from method (Bloome et al., 2005). Hart and Risley make causal claims based on the co-occurrence of linguistic and academic variables, but what’s missing is an interpretive (theoretical) framework for articulating the relationship between their data and their claims….
The discourse of “scientifically based research,” which equates the scientific method with technique, has led to a body of research that is resistant to meaningful (theoretical) critique. Hart and Risley’s conclusions about the language practices of families living in poverty, for example, are emblematic of a discourse of language deprivation that
seems impervious to counter evidence, stubbornly aligning itself with powerful negative stereotypes of poor and working-class families. It remains the dominant discourse in many arenas, both academic and popular, making it very difficult to see working-class language for what it is . . . or to be heard to be offering a different perspective. (Miller, Cho, & Bracey, 2005b, p. 153)
[T]hey are establishing a norm thoroughly biased in favor of middle- and upper-middle-class children. This common-sense rendering of the data pathologizes the language and culture of poor families, reflecting harmful, long-standing stereotypes that hold the poor primarily responsible for their economic and academic struggles (Nunberg, 2002). (p. 367)
The accusatory blame, then, focusing on impoverished parents is a powerful and detrimental consequence of deficit views of poverty and language, as Dudley-Marling and Lucas add:
Blaming the poor for their poverty in this way leaves no reason to consider alternative, systemic explanations for poverty or school failure. There is, for example, no reason to wonder how impoverished curricula (Gee, 2004; Kozol, 2005; Oakes, 2006), under-resourced schools (Kozol, 1992), and an insufficiency of “high-quality” teachers in high-poverty schools (Olson, 2006) limit the academic performance of many poor students. Nor is there any reason to consider how the conditions of poverty affect children’s physical, emotional, and neurological development and day-to-day performance in school (Books, 2004; Rothstein, 2004). Recent research in neuroscience, for example, indicates that the stresses of living in poverty can impair children’s brain development (Noble, McCandliss, & Farah, 2007). But most Americans do not easily embrace systemic explanations for academic failure. In our highly individualistic, meritocratic society, it is generally assumed that academic underachievement is evidence of personal failure (Mills, 1959). (p. 367)
That deficit views of language and poverty remain compelling is yet another example of a research base being discounted because cultural beliefs offer pacifying blinders:
Rolstad (2004) laments that “linguistically baseless language prejudices often underlie [even] well-designed, well-conducted studies” (p. 5). Linguistic research conducted within theoretical and anthropological linguistics and sociolinguistics that demonstrates the language strengths of children from non-dominant groups “has had virtually no impact on language-related research elsewhere” (Rolstad, 2004, p. 5). The deficit-based research of Hart and Risley, with all of its methodological and theoretical shortcomings, has been more persuasive than linguistic research that considers the language of poor families on its own terms (e.g., Labov, 1970; Heath, 1983; Michaels, 1981; Gee; 1996; see also Michaels, 2005), perhaps because Hart and Risley’s findings comport with long-standing prejudices about the language of people living in poverty (Nunberg, 2002). (pp. 367-368)
Continuing, then, to cherry-pick one significantly flawed study in order to confirm cultural stereotypes reveals far more about society and education in the U.S. than it does about children living and learning in poverty.
Despite many well-meaning educators embracing this deficit view as well as Hart and Risley’s flawed study, seeking to help students from impoverished backgrounds acquire the cultural capital associated with the dominant grammar, usage, and vocabulary is actually inhibited by that deficit view:
Finally, Hart and Risley draw attention to a real problem that teachers encounter every day in their classrooms: children enter school with more or less of the linguistic, social, and cultural capital required for school success. However, we take exception to the characterization of this situation in terms of linguistic or cultural deficiencies. Through the lens of deficit thinking, linguistic differences among poor parents and children are transformed into deficiencies that are the cause of high levels of academic failure among poor children. In this formulation, the ultimate responsibility for this failure lies with parents who pass on to their children inadequate language and flawed culture. But, in our view, the language differences Hart and Risley reported are just that—differences. All children come to school with extraordinary linguistic, cultural, and intellectual resources, just not the same resources. (p. 369)
A larger point we must confront as well is that all efforts to describe and address any social class as monolithic is flawed: Neither all affluent nor all impoverished children are easily described by what they have and don’t have. In fact, social classifications and claims about a culture of poverty are equally problematic as deficit views of poverty and language .
Just as Ellison confronted, U.S. society and schools remain places where minority and impoverished children too often fail. Much is left to be done to correct those inequities—both in society and in our schools—but blaming impoverished and minority parents as well as seeing impoverished and minority children (no longer invisible) as deficient stereotypes behind a false justification of research has never been and is not now the path we should take.
“I don’t know what intelligence is,” concludes Ellison in his lecture:
But this I do know, both from life and from literature: whenever you reduce human life to two plus two equals four, the human element within the human animal says, “I don’t give a damn.” You can work on that basis, but the kids cannot. If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then I will not only drop my defenses and my hostility, but I will sing your praises and help you to make the desert bear fruit.
Continuing to embrace a deficit view of poverty and language is to embrace a desert that will never bear fruit.
 The source of this blog post is a comment on a post at Education Week, but deficit views of language by social class, notably the standard claim that children in poverty speak fewer words than children in middle-class and affluent homes, are common and not unique to the blog post identified here.
 Please see this bibliography of scholarship discrediting Payne’s framework. See also:
Thomas, P.L. (2010, July). The Payne of addressing race and poverty in public education: Utopian accountability and deficit assumptions of middle class America. Souls, 12(3), 262-283.
 See Dudley-Marling, C., & Lucas, K. (2009, May).Pathologizing the language and culture of poor children.Language Arts, 86(5), 362-370.
 Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore: Brookes.
 Please consider the following works in order to confront a wide range of problems associated with class and poverty:
Return of the Deficit, Curt Dudley-Marling
The Myth of the Culture of Poverty, Paul Gorski
The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching, Martin Haberman
One legacy of Ronald Reagan’s presidency is his being tagged the Teflon president, as Patricia Schroeder explained:
As a young congresswoman, I got the idea of calling President Reagan the “Teflon president” while fixing eggs for my kids. He had a Teflon coat like the pan.
Why was Reagan so blame-free? The answer can be found in the label that did stick to him — “The Great Communicator.”
Reagan’s ability to connect with Americans was coveted by every politician. He could deliver a speech with such sincerity. And his staff was brilliant in playing up his strengths. They made sure the setting for any speech perfectly captured, re-emphasized and embraced the theme of that speech. And, let’s be honest, Reagan told people what they wanted to hear.
Teflon is, I believe, an apt metaphor for the protective veneer of privilege and power. As Mullainathan and Shafir detail, individual behavior tends to reflect powerful contexts such as abundance and slack or scarcity, and thus, those living in abundance and experiencing slack live much as Reagan lead since nothing sticks to the Teflon of privilege and power.
Let me offer a brief example.
Since I hold a salaried position as a tenure professor (all of which have been attained from effort built on statuses of privilege), if I drive down the highway to work one morning and hit something in the road, resulting in a ruined tire, I simply call in, cancel class, buy a new tire with my credit card, and then go on with my day. As well, my next paycheck will not reflect that morning in any way.
If I were an hourly employee driving a car on its last leg and having no credit card (or more likely, one that is maxed out with little hope of paying more than the minimum next month), that same morning would be quite different, and once I missed work, my paycheck would be reduced as well—as my ability to get to work for days may be in jeopardy if I cannot somehow acquire a new tire.
The slack that comes with privilege and power (whether or not the person earns or deserves either) is a Teflon coating that allows many conditions that constitute the burdens of poverty to slip right off the privileged and powerful.
I want to transpose the Teflon metaphor onto another context, as well, related to the key figures leading the education reform movement built on an accountability/standards/testing model.
Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and a wide assortment of political leaders (notably governors and superintendents of education) have some important characteristics in common: most have no background in education, many grew up and were educated in privileged lives and settings (such as private schools with conditions unlike the reforms they promote), many with children send those children to schools unlike the reforms they promote, and few, if any, suffer any real consequences for their misguided claims or policies. This crop of education reformers are Teflon reformers.
When Gates poured money and his influence into small school projects and then pulled the plug (a project that proves more about misunderstanding research than education reform), all the schools and stakeholders were left holding the bag, but Gates just shifted into “blame the teachers” mode and is investing his money and influence with the same gusto as before . Education is his hobby, and nothing sticks to Gates while he is playing the game because of the Teflon coating provided by his enormous wealth (built on his privileged background).
The narratives around Duncan and Rhee are little different; they thrive on serial political appointments (often irrespective of the quality of their performance at any position ) and that their “leadership” skills (which they argue trumps experience and expertise in the filed that are leading ) are transportable from venture to new venture. But neither suffers any real career consequences as Teflon reformers.
Who does suffer the consequences of narratives, claims, and policies coming from Teflon reformers?
Students and teachers—who also represent two levels of relative powerlessness, sharing, however, a state of scarcity created by the high-stakes elements of the reform movement built on accountability.
Students and teachers also share a similar response to that scarcity combined with their powerlessness, fatalism .
For teachers, the self-defeating characteristics of that fatalism are captured in the current implementation of Common Core, which, as with all the preceding waves of new standards and tests, are imposed on teachers, not called for, designed by, or directed by teachers.
SC represents how caustic Teflon reform and teacher fatalism are for effective implementation of policy and practices. As is typical across the U.S., administrators, teachers, professional organizations, and unions nearly universally and without criticism accepted CC as a matter of course (an example of professional fatalism).
The standard line was that no one in any of those groups could stop or change CC from happening, thus they all felt compelled to implement CC as best as possible—including professional organizations explicitly saying they could not challenge CC as they had a duty to help teachers implement CC, again because no one could stop the implementation.
Now that many teachers have been given a great deal of training and a tremendous amount of CC-related materials have been purchased, SC is taking a predictable Tea Party turn against CC. Governor Nikki Haley has identified dumping CC as part of her re-election campaign and Tea Party motivated parents have begun to challenge directly schools for implementing CC.
While some states are also seeking to drop CC, others are simply renaming the standards. But in SC, the consequences of this churn created by Teflon reform policies and partisan backlashes against CC impact primarily teachers—trapped within demands for them to implement CC—and students who are bridging the years between their being taught and tested under one set of standards and soon to be taught (although some may have to mask that the lessons are CC-based) and tested under yet another.
For teachers, their own fatalism against the power of Teflon reform has resulted in low morale and scattered CC implementation (directly contradicting a central call for CC as a way to standardize what is taught across the U.S.).
Both Teflon reform and teacher fatalism doom any reform efforts in our schools. Teflon reformers continue to prosper despite the credibility of their claims or the outcomes of their policies.
And at the bottom of this power chain are students, themselves fatalistic.
This research is based on a basic and controversial assumption about accountability. Quoting from Wikipedia, Wormeli states that accountability “implies a concern for the welfare of those with whom one works” (“Accountability” 16 ). This definition carries the message that “I’m here to help you along, to help you grow.” It implies that teachers are learner advocates and have a responsibility to help students grow as learners, just as students have a responsibility to demonstrate their growth as learners: It’s mutual accountability. This form of mutual accountability focuses on achievement—that is, we practice accountability when we focus on actual achievement and not on nonacademic factors, and we teach accountability when we demand that students show their real learning and growth. It sounds simple, but it gets complicated.
In contrast to mutual accountability, Wormeli notes, an alternative and more familiar definition of accountability values threat over concern (i.e., advocacy) for others….This is the ‘caughtya’ and ‘gotcha’ mentality,” and grading “is one of the default tools teachers use to play the ‘gotcha’ game.” When we play the gotcha game, according to Wormeli, “There is no growth in accountability within the student that will carry over to the next situation” (“Accountability” 16). Students learn to do whatever it takes to get the grade. (pp. 74-75)
Teflon reform along with with teacher and student fatalism have combined to create the exact failed accountability exposed by VanDeWeghe and Wormeli.
The current accountability paradigm embraced and perpetuated by Teflon reformers ignores the importance of mutual accountability as well as investment by all stakeholders in both the policies and the consequences of those policies.
When Teflon reformers are neither mutually accountable nor personally invested, their policies create fatalistic, and thus, ineffective teachers—in the same way that students become fatalistic (and learn less or simply check out of the learning opportunities) when teachers are above the accountability and thus not mutually invested in learning with students.
For education reform to work, we need to reject Teflon reformers for the sort of leadership accountability highlighted by Wormeli:
There is an old story about ancient Roman engineers and accountability. It says that whenever they were constructing an arch, the engineer who designed it stood directly underneath the center of the arch as the capstone was hoisted into position. He had worked hard, took responsibility, and knew his competence was true. It was the ultimate accountability if his design failed. (p. 25)
And thus, Wormeli concludes:
Accountability by its nature requires the interaction of others in our work. Individually, we are not, but together we are, accountable. (p. 26)
Together must include those leaders who rise above the Teflon veneer of authority and stand beside us, investing and risking in collaboration.
 For those unfamiliar with the history of Gates’s small schools focus and then shift to teacher quality (and if you jump to the assumption that my comments above are mere ad hominem), I offer the following reader (and suggest this exact pattern will occur again after teacher quality and Common Core fall as flat as small schools appeared to do to Gates):
- Bill Gates And His Silver Bullet (2008)
- The Small Schools Myth (2010)
- Why Did the Gates Small-High-Schools Program Fail? Well, Actually It Didn’t (2010)
- Bill Gates’ School Crusade (2010)
- Bill Gates’ troubling involvement in school reform (2010)
- The Bill Gates problem in school reform (2011)
 Rhee has suffered little if any career fail-out from “eraser-gate,” and Duncan attained in part his appointment as Secretary of Education on a mirage, the Chicago “miracle” (replicating the same misleading rise of Rod Paige to Secretary based on the debunked Texas “miracle”).
 This is the inherent problem with Teach for America, which is primarily a leadership organization, not an education organization.
 See Freire.
 See Rick Wormeli’s Accountability: Teaching through Assessment and Feedback, Not Grading
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 Scarcity, Mullainathan 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.
Many, if not most, wars have failed to salvage victory from the inherent destruction war brings.
All wars leave collateral damage in their wake.
A big picture message offered in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is that the war on drugs, a key part of the larger era of mass incarceration, has devastated the lives and futures of African American males in ways that are nearly incomprehensible. That collateral damage, as well, has been disproportional—accentuated by the fact that AA and whites use illegal drugs in the same percentages but AA shoulder the burden of punishment.
The era of mass incarceration and the war on drugs are evidence of the nightmare of codifying behavior as illegal as a context for punishment. Is it possible that the legalizing of marijuana in Colorado represents a move away from the “war” approach to recreational drugs—a recognition, again, almost a century after the failure of prohibition?
Laws and wars, then, define the lines between combatants and the conditions of criminality; those lines and conditions, easily shifted, determine who matters, and who does not.
As the public discourse rises about the 50th anniversary on the war on poverty, we are being asked if the war on poverty worked and if we need a new war on poverty. These are the wrong questions, especially the latter.
In my work on ignoring poverty in the U.S., I raise the possibility that contemporary political strategies surrounding poverty include the paradox of constantly mentioning and highlighting poverty in order to ignore it. Over the past decades, “poverty” is repeatedly on the lips of political leaders and in the pronouncements of the mainstream and “new” media.
Yet, childhood poverty in the U.S. continues to rise, that childhood rate remains at the bottom of international comparisons, and the gap between the top 1% and everyone else in the U.S. grows.
Has the war on poverty worked? No.
But the problem with that one-word answer is that despite abundant evidence that some social programs do alleviate poverty (prompting many to say the war on poverty has worked as an argument for more and direct social intervention), the failure is that we have been conducting a war.
Ending poverty in the U.S. requires community, not war.
If we as a people genuinely wish to end poverty, genuinely believe in equity for every human regardless of her/his coincidences of birth, we must first set aside the war approach (as we must with the war on drugs and the era of mass incarceration).
That first step must then create a spirit of community that ends what truly was occurring during the war on poverty—a war on the people trapped in poverty.
Behind the political rhetoric of the war on poverty lies a cultural myth in the U.S. that individuals are to blame for their lot—that somehow those people with the least (and sometimes no) political capital are causing the exact forces that trap them.
A commitment to community over war acknowledges, as Kristof does, basic political facts:
The best example of how government antipoverty programs can succeed involves the elderly. In 1960, about 35 percent of older Americans were poor. In 2012, 9 percent were. That’s because senior citizens vote, so politicians listened to them and buttressed programs like Social Security and Medicare.
In contrast, children are voiceless, so they are the age group most likely to be poor today. That’s a practical and moral failure.
I don’t want anybody to be poor, but, if I have to choose, I’d say it’s more of a priority to help kids than seniors. In part, that’s because when kids are deprived of opportunities, the consequences can include a lifetime of educational failure, crime and underemployment.
The war on poverty fails as long as it remains a war, and not a moral imperative among a community of people.
Ending poverty must no longer be trivialized, then, as political expediency—the consequences of creating through state and federal policy a war on poverty. That approach can become only a running tally of manufactured winners and losers.
As we end the war on poverty as our primary approach, as we end the war on people trapped in poverty by no longer blaming them for their situations or for the broader facts of poverty and inequity, and as we commit instead to community and the moral imperative of ending poverty, we must also end the empty claim that schools primarily or alone can eradicate poverty—a jumbled message advocated within a larger commitment to “big business.”
As we confront 50 years of war waged on poverty, we must be sure to acknowledge the collateral damage—the stereotype of the welfare queen, that misrepresents people living in poverty but reflects the classism and racism tarnishing our democracy, shredding the fabric of human kindness and dignity.
As we confront 50 years of war waged on poverty, we must be sure to name and see the very real consequences of addressing poverty mainly as it impacts those with political, cultural, and economic capital; ending childhood poverty through direct social commitments, then, is an announcement that poverty and inequity are inexcusable in a free society, and not merely a partisan political talking point.
As we confront 50 years of war waged on poverty, we must admit that mass incarceration and accountability-based education reform contribute to and do not address the plight of poverty. An end to the punitive war on poverty must be joined with ending equally flawed approaches to punitive legal and educational policies.
As we confront 50 years of war waged on poverty, we must push aside the passive radical mask we use to honor a Martin Luther King Jr. facade allowing that war on poverty to exist; instead, we must champion the radical anti-war King, whose messages near the end of his life called for a direct end to poverty:
In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike.
Up to recently we have proceeded from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils:
- lack of education restricting job opportunities;
- poor housing which stultified home life and suppressed initiative;
- fragile family relationships which distorted personality development.
The logic of this approach suggested that each of these causes be attacked one by one. Hence a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities to furnish tools for better job opportunities, and family counseling to create better personal adjustments were designed. In combination these measures were intended to remove the causes of poverty.
While none of these remedies in itself is unsound, all have a fatal disadvantage. The programs have never proceeded on a coordinated basis or at a similar rate of development.
- Housing measures have fluctuated at the whims of legislative bodies. They have been piecemeal and pygmy.
- Educational reforms have been even more sluggish and entangled in bureaucratic stalling and economy-dominated decisions.
- Family assistance stagnated in neglect and then suddenly was discovered to be the central issue on the basis of hasty and superficial studies.
At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.
In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.
I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income….
We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.
A war on poverty is an indirect and piecemeal approach to poverty. As King implored, we need a direct plan to end poverty, requiring a new commitment to community and an end to social policies as war.
A central aspect of my blog about Classroom Teaching Experience and Whose Voice Matters highlights that the silencing of teachers is a subset of the silencing of women. That post followed my claim that teaching is an invisible profession.
Since posting that blog, I have read A Feminist Critique of Marx by Silvia Federici, which in part asserts the invisibility of women in Marx’s analysis of capitalism:
At the center of this critique is the argument that Marx’s analysis of capitalism has been hampered by his inability to conceive of value-producing work other than in the form of commodity production and his consequent blindness to the significance of women’s unpaid reproductive work [her emphasis] in the process of capitalist accumulation. Ignoring this work has limited Marx’s understanding of the true extent of the capitalist exploitation of labor and the function of the wage in the creation of divisions within the working class, starting with the relation between women and men.
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From the above, Federici’s first point about scarcity invites a reading of Scarcity (Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir) as well as considering how scarcity in the lives of people trapped in poverty as a consequence of a market economy that pools wealth in a small number of people at the top impacts every aspect of their lives, including their ability to learn.
Seeking gender, race, and class equity cannot be separated from the need for wholesale workers’ solidarity—a solidarity that requires teachers to envision themselves as workers and to embrace the status of worker as a noble possibility for free people.
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:
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Problem #2: Discipline in schools is inequitable by gender, complicating inequity by race:
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Problem #3: Access to advanced courses and retention rates are inequitable by race:
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Problem #4: Teacher assignment and compensation are inequitable by race:
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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.
The evolution of my fully understanding formal education began when I was very young and learning moment by moment at the feet of my mother, who taught my sister and me to play canasta (a complicated two-deck card game related to rummy) and love Dr. Seuss well before we started first grade.
Of course, I thought I knew something about school after 16.5 years that culminated in my undergraduate degree, and then I began to teach. That led to another delusion about my understanding formal schooling—until I became a father.
By third grade, my daughter was teaching me lessons about school I had only come to understand at the edges. One of those lessons involved her class reading The Miracle Worker in their textbook. I watched my daughter being taught the passive radical myth (which I have connected with Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Jesus; and also explored in the ways Pat Tillman’s life and death have been manipulated)—Keller reduced to a caricature of simplistic moral lessons aimed at feeding children in the U.S. the myths that deform (see Paulo Freire).
Helen Keller, however, was someone quite different—a true radical in thought and action. Below is an updated reposting of a blog from June 29, 2012, exploring the power in Keller’s voice, one marginalized, ignored, silenced.
Helen Keller could not attend the 1906 meeting of Association for Promoting the Interests of the Blind. In a letter, Keller implored Mark Twain to speak on her behalf: “But, superfluous as all other appeals must seem after you and Mr. Choate have spoken, nevertheless, as I am a woman, I cannot be silent, and I ask you to read this letter, knowing that it will be lifted to eloquence by your kindly voice.”
In these words echo Keller’s ironic awareness of the invisibility of women who are silenced.
About the need for advocacy for the blind, Keller wrote in part:
To know what the blind man needs, you who can see must imagine what it would be not to see, and you can imagine it more vividly if you remember that before your journey’s end you may have to go the dark way yourself. Try to realize what blindness means to those whose joyous activity is stricken to inaction….The seeing man goes about his business confident and self-dependent. He does his share of the work of the world in mine, in quarry, in factory, in counting room, asking of others no boon, save the opportunity to do a man’s part and to receive the laborer’s guerdon. In an instant accident blinds him. The day is blotted out. Night envelops all the visible world. The feet which once bore him to his task with firm and confident stride stumble and halt and fear the forward step. He is forced to a new habit of idleness, which like a canker consumes the mind and destroys its beautiful faculties. Memory confronts him with his lighted past. Amid the tangible ruins of his life as it promised to be he gropes his pitiful way. You have met him on your busy thoroughfares with faltering feet and outstretched hands, patiently “dredging” the universal dark, holding out for sale his petty wares, or his cap for your pennies; and this was a man with ambitions and capabilities.
It is because we know that these ambitions and capabilities can be fulfilled that we are working to improve the condition of the adult blind. You cannot bring back the light of the vacant eyes; but you can give a helping hand to the sightless along their dark pilgrimage. You can teach them new skill. For work they once did with the aid of their eyes you can substitute work that they can do with their hands. They ask only opportunity, and opportunity is a torch in the darkness [emphasis added]. They crave no charity, no pension, but the satisfaction that comes from lucrative toil, and this satisfaction is the right of every human being.
This message of empathy and advocacy speaks beyond the turn of the twentieth century and beyond the challenges confronting the blind. In the twenty-first century, Americans are not fully human unless they are workers first. Without work, Americans struggle to have adequate and affordable health care, to feel basic dignity or security.
In the twenty-first century, people and children increasingly trapped in poverty are the targets of derision and marginalization as this country has maintained a war on the poor and not on poverty.
Those Who Will Not See: The Privileged
Let’s imagine, now, Keller’s words rewritten to address the advocacy needed for adults and children trapped in poverty:
To know what the poor person needs, you who are privileged must imagine what it would be not to privileged, and you can imagine it more vividly if you remember that before your journey’s end you may have to go the dark way yourself. Try to realize what poverty means to those whose joyous activity is stricken to inaction….The privileged man goes about his business confident and self-dependent. He does his share of the work of the world in mine, in quarry, in factory, in counting room, asking of others no boon, save the opportunity to do a man’s part and to receive the laborer’s guerdon. In an instant accident impoverishes him. The day is blotted out. Night envelops all the visible world. The feet which once bore him to his task with firm and confident stride stumble and halt and fear the forward step. He is forced to a new habit of idleness, which like a canker consumes the mind and destroys its beautiful faculties. Memory confronts him with his lighted past. Amid the tangible ruins of his life as it promised to be he gropes his pitiful way. You have met him on your busy thoroughfares with faltering feet and outstretched hands, patiently “dredging” the universal dark, holding out for sale his petty wares, or his cap for your pennies; and this was a man with ambitions and capabilities.
It is because we know that these ambitions and capabilities can be fulfilled that we are working to improve the condition of people trapped in poverty. You cannot bring back the light of the vacant eyes; but you can give a helping hand to the poor along their dark pilgrimage. You can teach them new skill. For work they once did with the aid of their opportunity you can substitute work that they can do with their hands. They ask only opportunity, and opportunity is a torch in the darkness. They crave no charity, no pension, but the satisfaction that comes from lucrative toil, and this satisfaction is the right of every human being.
The U.S. is not a land of opportunity, but a land of privilege begetting privilege at the expense of the impoverished and the swelling working class and working poor. The privileged berate public institutions, such as universal public education, and the people who dedicate their lives to public service, such as the teachers in those schools.
The privileged rail against universal health care and day care because they were raised with both and maintain both regardless of their behavior.
The corporate consumer culture has tied all basic elements of human dignity—an income, retirement, health care, security—to employment rendering a hard day’s labor essentially a kind of twentieth-century wage-slavery.
American workers are shackled to their status as workers, a condition that benefits mostly the owners, the bosses, the privileged.
If American workers were provided the basic dignities of being human independent of their work, those workers would have autonomy—something historically afforded by unions and tenure (the anathemas of corporate consumerism)—they would have voice, they would have the authentic freedom and choice flippantly championed by the privileged.
Keller’s impassioned plea about the need for empathy at the foundation of advocacy speaks to the same empathy needed against the arrogance of privilege that has corrupted the American character and the American Dream.
“Perhaps, after all, America never has been discovered. I myself would say that it had merely been detected,” mused Oscar Wilde.
America remains a shining possibility, but it is destined to remain only a possibility as long as those with power continue to lead but refuse to see that the true character of a country’s people is revealed each day among that country’s workers and the conditions of their labor.
As a science fiction (SF) fan, partial to dystopian SF, and writer, I would have a great novel on my hands if this weren’t simply the way things are.
How to create a real-world dystopia:
- Identify “privilege” as “achievement” using a mechanism that you label “scientific” and “standard.”
- Use “achievement” to create the authority class.
Sounds easy, but some may call this outlandish. So let me offer a visual:
And for those who enjoy the power of the word, let me offer this:
Dystopias are hard to see when you live in one—just as fish have no idea what “water” means.