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

John Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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