More on Rejecting Growth Mindset, Grit

When I posted a recent study on growth mindset—Study finds popular ‘growth mindset’ educational interventions aren’t very effective—on my blog Debunked!, growth mindset advocates quickly bristled at the blog title, notably this Tweet:

Several patterns in the subsequent Twitter discussion are worth addressing in a format more detailed than Tweets.

First, I have been a consistent critic of both growth mindset and grit best captured in the following posts:

I immediately shared these posts as part of the discussion—often guided by Wormeli’s thoughtful and welcomed concerns about my stances.

Next, however, many advocates (mostly for growth mindset) offered typical rebuttals, including (1) arguments that both growth mindset and grit in practice are often counter to the intent of Carol Dweck  (growth mindset) and Angela Duckworth (grit), noting that both have raised concerns about those misuses and misconceptions, (2) chastising me for “conflating” growth mindset and grit, and (3) requesting practical alternatives to growth mindset and grit practices.

To the first point, I want to be clear that I am strongly aware of the gender problems inherent in me, a white male academic, challenging Dweck and Duckworth, including critiques that can be and have been viewed as attacking them personally.

I do think it is fair to address the character of those scholars advocating character education for children (see this on Duckworth, for example), but I also have taken care to monitor gender biases inherent in how we police women scholars versus men scholars.

But, while I am aware that both Dweck and Duckworth have raised concerns about the misuses of growth mindset and grit, I contend that both scholars have reaped a great deal of financial and professional capital from that misuse, primarily, and haven’t refused those profits. I find their cautions hollow, then.

I reject the second point—that I conflate growth mindset and grit—and recognize that growth mindset advocates often seek ways to distance themselves from the grit movement and that research has begun to challenge both growth mindset and grit research by Dweck and Duckworth, although far more challenging claims have been made against Duckworth’s research.

In short, I absolutely recognize that growth mindset and grit are not the same, and may not even be on the same level of validity and credibility as research.

However, while I do not conflate the two, I do highlight in my critiques that both are grounded in deficit ideologies: Both growth mindset and grit, I contend, mistake growth mindset/grit as the dominant or even exclusive quality causing success in student learning (ignoring the power of systemic influences) and then create an environment in which some students (too often black, brown, and poor) are defined in deficit terms—that they lack growth mindset/grit.

Yes, growth mindset and grit are unique approaches, but they share the failure of being complicit in deficit practices. And while the science of growth mindset may be more solid than the science of grit, both are prone to the problem of scientific racism—the failure to unpack “high-quality research” for biases.

Now, to the final point, I would recommend Paul Gorski’s work on equity practices, specifically this second edition which directly confronts both growth mindset and grit: Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap. Here, also, are some starting points with Gorski’s work:

Ultimately, then, I do reject growth mindset and grit, both as programs that are misused and thus harmful to the students who need formal education the most. I also see little room to justify the research behind either, or to excuse Dweck or Duckworth even when they raise cautions about the misuses.

My concerns are driven by an equity lens that recognizes and confronts the problems masked by narrow views of research and science as well as the myopia inherent in accountability that demands in-school-only approaches to teaching, testing, and reform that tend to be driven by bootstrap ideologies.

Teaching and learning as well as success and failure are incredibly complex. Often in education, our rush to find the key to success and failure in order to improve teaching and learning is ruined by a missionary zeal corrupted by biases—both of which must be confronted and resisted.

Growth mindset and grit fail as overzealous programs, and students are better served by equity practices couched in efforts to alleviate the systemic forces that shape how they live and learn regardless of their character.

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Education’s Fatal Flaw: “[T]he considerable gap”

In my upper-level writing and research course, Scholarly Reading and Writing in Education, students have been practicing critical discourse analysis of how media cover selected issues in education in order to compare that coverage to the research base on that topic.

They have recently submitted initial drafts of the major scholarly essay and are now drafting a public commentary drawn from the same analysis. One student in last evening’s seminar approached me with a question.

She was very concerned that her topic seemed to show a distinct disconnect between education policy and the research base, wondering if that was unique to her topic, and why that failure existed.

Her question came during the workshop time after we had read and discussed a recent public commentary of mine on school safety and the threat of gun violence as a model for their commentaries. I noted that her observation was accurate, and that it was not simply her topic, but common across all of public education—as I noted in my commentary that challenges popular school safety measures not supported by research

Coincidentally, I came across the next morning a Twitter thread about the broader failure in education to embrace progressivism:

While progressivism in education (often linked directly to John Dewey) has been routinely blamed for causing educational failure, as Alfie Kohn has addressed, the reality is that education has failed progressivism:

The rarity of this approach, while discouraging to some of us, is also rather significant with respect to the larger debate about education. If progressive schooling is actually quite uncommon, then it’s hard to blame our problems (real or alleged) on this model. Indeed, the facts have the effect of turning the argument on its head: If students aren’t learning effectively, it may be because of the persistence of traditional beliefs and practices in our nation’s schools.

Kohn’s analysis is a mere decade old, and if anything, his observations have intensified as the U.S. continues to double-down on traditional and technocratic practices such as standards and high-stakes testing.

However, if we look back to 1942, Lou LaBrant exposed the exact same dynamic grounded in a public outcry over low literacy among men enlisted in the military:

Within the past ten years we have made great strides in the teaching of purposeful reading, reading for understanding (the kind of reading, incidentally, which the army and navy want). Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of “new methods,” “progressive schools,” or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book. (p. 240)

However, LaBrant completely discredits the blame:

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs.

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States. (pp. 240-241)

Just 5 years later, LaBrant penned what would become a refrain of her six-plus decades as an educator: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87).

“[T]he considerable gap” between policy/ practice and research has, then, defined public education throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries.

Again, as I confront about fortifying schools against gun violence and the research base on those so-called safety measures, practices such as grade retention and even corporal punishment [1] remain policy all across the U.S. despite decades of evidence overwhelmingly rejecting their use. Grade retention, for example, has been formally refuted by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), yet states continue to adopt grade retention based on high-stakes tests for third graders.

As LaBrant challenged decades ago, literacy today is failing students because policy remains anchored to discredited practices and ideologies such as the “word gap,” reading programs, leveled texts, isolated phonics and grammar instruction, and test-prep.

Possibly one of the most troubling examples of this phenomenon is the relentless and bi-partisan obsession with charter schools, especially the abusive practices found in so-called “no excuses” charters. As this review details,

A report, Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap, finds that, though charter schools on average perform no better than traditional public schools, urban “no-excuses” charter schools—which often use intensive discipline to enforce order—demonstrate promising results. It recommends that these schools and their practices be widely replicated within and outside of the charter school sector. We find three major flaws with this conclusion.

This endorsement of “no excuses” charter schools, again, simply ignores the broader research base that cautions against charter schools broadly and “no excuses” practices more specifically.

So, as I answered my student’s insightful question, I noted a few important ways to understand “the considerable gap” between policy/practice and research.

First, educators—unlike doctors and lawyers, for example—have never controlled the field of education. Public education has always been hostage to partisan politics and mind-numbing bureaucracy.

Let me caution here that I am not making a narrow Libertarian swipe at “government” schooling—since we are government—but acknowledging that just as education has failed progressive and critical theory and practice, public institutions have mostly failed the promise of democratic government because of partisan politics and bureaucracy.

Next, and related, the evidence vacuum that exists in the dynamic between political leaders and the public, again, can be witnessed in the school safety debate. Politicians both speak to and perpetuate public misconceptions about fortifying school—the public’s irrational trust in armed police on campuses, surveillance cameras, and metal detectors (all of which have been shown to make schools more dangerous, not safer).

But that same evidence vacuum occurs throughout the adoption and implementation of education policy.

LaBrant’s 1947 unmasking of “the considerable gap” ends with her imploring English teachers and NCTE:

This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium. Before we, either as individuals or as a Council, experiment with methods of doing specific things or block out a curriculum, let us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources, and study the answers thoughtfully. (p. 94)

As teachers strike across the U.S. in 2018, let’s us carry LaBrant’s message forward because the only hope that exists for our schools and the students they serve is to close the gap by allowing teachers as professionals to practice our field guided by the evidence too long ignored by the political bureaucracy that has defined public education for more than a century.


[1] The list of ideologies and practices that represent “the considerable gap” is far too long to include in the discussion above, but here are many of the key ones worth recognizing: “grit,” growth mindset, merit pay, VAM, standards, and high-stakes testing. Please refer to the Categories in the right menu for posts related to each of these.

Beware Adversity Porn

With the current high-profile coverage of Stormy Daniels in mainstream media, the public is bombarded with subtle (“adult-film star”) and not-so-subtle (“porn-star client”) attempts to slut-shame Daniels through her profession in the porn industry.

This obsession with Daniels, reducing her always to porn star in order to keep our eyes on here and not Trump, reveals much about the inherent sexism and Puritanical love-hate relationship with sex that characterize Americans.

While the evidence is not as clear as many think about the dangers of pornography, something else insidious confronts the U.S. in our media and pop culture—adversity porn.

ESPN’s E:60 episode, “Letterman,” offers but one example of what I mean by adversity porn:

As TJ Cotterill reported when the episode premiered in 2015:

The first-year Lincoln coach said the inner-city schools – one in Tacoma, the other Los Angeles – share similar issues with drug abuse, poor grades, low incomes and single-family homes. Only Lincoln has a support system that didn’t exit at Bernstein.

But his endeavor to change Bernstein’s culture – symbolized though emotional letters of love he asked parents to write to his team’s players that they were surprised with and read on their own before the team’s practice – will be featured at 5 p.m. PDT Wednesday on ESPN’s “E:60.”

Viewers meet and come to empathize with several boys and men of color who all share some highlighted characteristics—the absent father, socio-economic hardship, struggles to succeed in traditional settings such as school.

In one moment, a featured boy at half-time of a football game implores his teammates to play like inner-city players; he is shouting, much as the coach, who the episode stresses has a similar background to his players, does throughout footage of his coaching.

This is adversity porn, the romanticizing of people who find themselves in adversity and then demonstrate the nearly super-human will to scream at and fight their way above that adversity.

The Coach plays the role of “I have overcome” and proceeds to be the savior for the boys and their parents, who are framed as passively negligent or unaware until the coach asks them to write letters to their sons.

Designed to be inspiring, adversity porn such as this (and examples can be found almost daily across the U.S.) depends on and perpetuates some ugly messages about people of color and people trapped in poverty; they are flawed people who need to be changed, and that problem is cloaked in code (“culture”).

Adversity porn accomplishes what much of mainstream media and pop culture sell constantly by keeping the public gaze on individuals, those who bend to adversity and those who somehow rise above adversity.

But isn’t this just a feel-good story about these boys, their coach, and their families?

The “feel-good” part is the problem because it is the soma, the Novocaine that numbs us to the real problem that adversity porn helps avoid—the adversity itself.

Adversity porn is about flawed people, and it normalizes the outliers who seem to overcome adversity. Adversity porn matches well the urge to turn our schools into fortresses instead of addressing the larger gun culture that threatens our students’ safety.

This is our rugged individualism myth that is both a lie and a distraction.

Of course, heroic and exceptional people are compelling. We love the gods of our mythologies and the superheroes of our Marvel and DC universes.

But those expectations imposed onto all humans serves only to erase any recognition of our shared and individual humanity. To live in adversity is shamed, and then to fail at rising above that adversity is more shame.

Adversity porn’s focus on the individuals and not the adversity is its ultimate corrosive influence.

New stories that acknowledge and unmask the adversity and then create hero narratives about the people in privilege who use their privilege to end the adversity, not to shame and “fix” the people who are victims of adversity—this is what we need.

No white saviors or white-savior stand-ins, no finger wagging at parents who labor under the weight of poverty, no romanticizing abusive behavior (screaming, berating) and toxic masculinity masked as “tough love.”

“Porn,” broadly, represents that which we are in some compelling and possibly even obsessive way drawn to, attracted to. The porn content itself may not be the problem, but the obsession and the distorting impact that obsession produces are likely the real problems.

Adversity porn creates overly simplistic pictures of the people trapped in adversity; then it callously ignores the adversity itself, sending a deformed message about the fatalism of adversity and the lottery that is surviving or thriving.

Ultimately, adversity porn argues that we need to instill in people trapped in adversity the grit and tenacity to overcome, but a more humane goal would be to seek ways to end the adversity itself, a goal that may be less sexy because it would require the sort of grit we demand of the poor and oppressed in those with privilege who rest on the fact of adversity themselves.

Changing the Odds So No Child Has to Overcome Them

There are several challenging, and therefore uncomfortable, scenes in Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later (2007); however, when I show this documentary in my courses, few students recognize those scenes as either challenging or uncomfortable.

At one point, several black men from the Little Rock, Arkansas community are gathered outside the school, and they speak directly about the need for blacks to take care of their own, clean up their own communities. These men directly mention the damage of black-on-black crime (which is about the same as white-on-white crime, although the latter is almost never mentioned).

Throughout the documentary, as well, a number of black students confront how hard they work and how some of their fellow black students simply do not try—echoing a rugged individualism and personal responsibility narrative that a white teacher/coach and her white golf team members express.

I use these scenes as teachable moments about the negative impact of respectability politics on marginalized groups:

What started as a philosophy promulgated by black elites to “uplift the race” by correcting the “bad” traits of the black poor has now evolved into one of the hallmarks of black politics in the age of Obama, a governing philosophy that centers on managing the behavior of black people left behind in a society touted as being full of opportunity. In an era marked by rising inequality and declining economic mobility for most Americans—but particularly for black Americans—the twenty-first-century version of the politics of respectability works to accommodate neoliberalism. The virtues of self-care and self-correction are framed as strategies to lift the black poor out of their condition by preparing them for the market economy.

…Today’s politics of respectability, however, commands blacks left behind in post–civil rights America to “lift up thyself.” Moreover, the ideology of respectability, like most other strategies for black progress articulated within the spaces where blacks discussed the best courses of action for black freedom, once lurked for the most part beneath the gaze of white America. But now that black elites are part of the mainstream elite in media, entertainment, politics, and the academy, respectability talk operates within the official sphere, shaping the opinions, debates, and policy perspectives on what should—and should not—be done on the behalf of the black poor.

Respectability politics works in conjunction with seemingly innocuous narratives (rugged individualism, lifting yourself by your bootstraps, personal responsibility) to keep the accusatory gaze on individuals and away from systemic inequity. In other words, political and economic elites are more secure if the majority of people believe all success and failure are primarily determined by individual traits and not by privilege and disadvantage beyond most people’s control.

This semester that discussion has coincided with Laura Ingraham attempting to publicly shame LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” a not-so-clever self-promotion for one of Ingraham’s vapid books.

Along with Kevin Durant’s heated response, James (see video in the link above) stressed, “We will definitely not shut up and dribble.”

Watching James, however, and listening carefully present us with the dangers of his “defeating the odds” motivation (listen to about minutes 1:50-2:15), his own powerful and impressive rise to being King James.

I am not criticizing James, however, and fully support his response, refusing to shut up and dribble.

But a message that suggests anyone can or should be able to achieve what an outlier, James, has achieved is ultimately harmful, speaking through and to the most corrosive aspects of respectability politics.

This call to teach children to beat the odds, in fact, is shared all along the political spectrum from right to left.

The ultimate flaw in a beat-the-odds mentality is, again, that it suggests success and failure lie mostly or solely in the individual, a matter of choice and effort—like having “grit,” a growth mindset, or a positive attitude (all ways to fix inadequate children).

This is a terrible message for children especially since success and failure are mostly determined by systemic forces—except for rare outliers—and the message allows those with the power to change the odds to escape accountability.

LeBron James, I believe, is right about his importance as a role model, as a stellar example of what black success looks like despite the odds being unfairly against him in the form of racism and economic inequity.

And as long as we as a society choose to ignore the odds, choose to allow racism, sexism, and classism to exist, I suppose we should find humane and supportive ways to encourage children to work so that a few of them may hit the life lottery and beat the odds.

But to be blunt, that’s a pretty shitty cop-out for the adults who could, in fact, change the odds so that no child has to overcome them.

It is ultimately a heartless and ugly thing to see children as lacking the drive to beat odds that shouldn’t exist in the first place.

It is political cowardice and public negligence to remain fatalistic about the odds as we watch those odds destroy the hopes and dreams of our children.

If anyone should shut up, that would be Ingraham and her entire cadre of right-wing know-nothings who shovel the very worst narratives that help guarantee those odds will remain in their favor.

And as we listen to James instead, let’s resist demanding that he or any so-called racial minorities somehow erase racism and then begin to demand that those who benefit the most from the odds use those privileges to dismantle those odds.

That, I know, is a powerful ask, but it is one that certainly holds more credence than asking children to be superhuman because we have James dribbling across our flatscreen TVs.

The Outlier Fallacy: Keeping Our Accusatory Gaze on Individuals, and Not Systemic Inequity

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and a celebrity—both of which speak to his exceptional talents, especially in the context of being a black man in the U.S.

In many ways, Tyson is the anti-Sheldon (the fictional nerd genius of The Big Bang Theory), and his celebrity as a scientist serves as a powerful model against corrosive racist stereotypes.

I am but a redneck with a doctorate (EdD) that most in the hard sciences, like Tyson, would brush aside, and my scholarship and public work as a social scientist also land me squarely well below the credibility bar against Tyson’s stature as a hard scientist and celebrity.

None the less, I must offer a friendly rebuttal to Tyson on a recent Tweet:

To which I replied:

Despite his status as an astrophysicist, his wealth of knowledge as a scientist, Tyson’s celebrity, I fear (much as is the case with Oprah), has clouded his better sensibilities.

The celebrity class in the U.S. often uses that celebrity to hold forth well beyond their areas of expertise (see as the king of this practice, Bill Gates). And Tyson very well could have good intentions here, and I concede he may not deserve being held liable for the codes of his Tweet (How many read “broken childhoods” as code for “living in poverty” and/or “single-black-parent home”?)

Tyson’s public is rife with those who cling to successful blacks who reinforce their racism: OJ Simpson, Ben Carson, Bill Cosby, Clarence Thomas, Charles Barkley, to name a few.

And so Tyson is holding forth as a Great American Winner, and winners often believe that the primary cause of their success is in their own character and effort; winners, in other words, are apt not to consider the role of the rules in their winning—notably rarely considering that the rules could be unfairly tilted in their favor.

So there are two fundamental flaws in Tyson’s Tweet: First is the implication that in the U.S. we are not already focusing on “those who succeed in spite”; and second, “those who succeed in spite” are outliers, and thus, both in the hard sciences and the social sciences more problematic than the potential source of understanding human behavior.

Tyson’s suggestion is trapped within the rugged individualism/bootstrap myths of the U.S. and then speaks to the same—but coming from Tyson, his argument feeds some nasty racial and racist narratives as well (If only we could inculcate in all blacks the character and effort that the black winners [outliers] have…).

People who succeed have character traits that trump people who fail—goes the narrative. And thus, all we need to do is fix those people who do not succeed.

This outlier fallacy fails as science, but it also keeps the accusatory gaze on individuals. While Tyson suggests we focus on winners instead of losers, either option is flawed in that it allows systemic forces to be ignored even though systemic forces (not individual qualities) are often the primary cause of outcomes.

Let’s recalibrate Tyson’s Tweet just a bit to see the problem: Why don’t we study black men who do not find themselves in the criminal justice system instead of studying black men who are incarcerated to understand criminalization?

This proposal, of course, puts the gaze entirely on black men, and fails to recognize the first level problem—the criminal justice and policing systems in the U.S. are significantly inequitable for black Americans.

If our goal is equity and social justice for people trapped in poverty and for so-called racial minorities in the U.S., as well as seeking ways to support children better who are living broken childhoods, Tyson’s musing ignores how we already are failing both goals and promotes an outlier fallacy driven by the white gaze, something fostered among the winners who cannot allow themselves to question the rules that created their winning.

Especially in this time of Trump, seeking equity and justice cannot afford a celebrity class blinded by its celebrity. “Those who succeed” and “those who don’t succeed” are not the sources of where our gaze should be; those are outcomes driven by a game that is rigged.

Let’s reconsider the rules of that game and not the participants, whether they succeed or not.

Scholarship, “Lived Reality,” and “the Validity of a Thing”

In the beginning of my experiment as a public intellectual, I was a lowly high school English teacher who on occasion had a letter to the editor in the Herald-Journal (Spartanburg, SC).

These brief efforts at speaking to a general public as an informed voice taught me some valuable and enduring lessons—one of which included feedback from that general public.

My letters to the editor prompted long, rambling messages on my phone answering machine and incoherent typed letters mailed to my home and the high school where I taught.

Many of the phone messages were irate retired people who proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they had no real understanding of Social Security or the workings of government and the free market. The typed letters (some on manual typewriters) were often single-spaced with almost no margins and punctuated with slurs and threats.

One frequent letter writer opened his diatribe with “Dear African American Homosexual”—all meant as slurs, and none accurately identifying me.

These early experiences with being misunderstood and ineffective were mostly interactions with anonymous and angry readers.

Eventually, mostly because I moved to higher education after earning my doctorate (although only a lowly EdD), I have been afforded a larger stage—Op-Eds in local, state, and national publications as well as a well-read personal blog, invited public and university-based talks, and a substantial collection of published work.

Responses to my public claims, now, are typically not as often public, but those responses continue to teach me valuable lessons—mostly how often and how easily words and claims can be misunderstood and even work in ways that are the opposite of my intent.

Here I want to examine two experiences, one from 2014 and another recent, that help shape who I seek to be as a person, a writer, a teacher, and a scholar.

First, some context.

As a redneck from rural South Carolina who had working-class parents, attended state universities, and has embraced critical pedagogy as my scholarly self, I am regularly marginalized in scholarly and academic contexts because of those identities; my writing is brushed aside as “polemics,” and my Southern drawl is noted with passive-aggressive disdain.

In personal spaces with family and friends as well as in my public writing and speaking, I am there marginalized as “just a scholar”—another pointed-headed intellectual with no real-world experience.

Let me stress here that as a white man with an advanced degree and a prestigious position at a universities, I am acknowledging these experiences but in no way suggesting they are nearly as consequential as simply being a woman, a person of color, or gay (for example). This is not a whine-fest, but I am trying to discuss the challenges of navigating public spaces as a perceived scholar.

Several years ago, I was invited to speak at the University of Arkansas by good friends who are professors there; I had written a book on poverty, and they were kind enough to ask me to speak at a week-long focus on poverty and education.

The University of Arkansas happens also to be home to a Walton-funded graduate department that is staffed by faculty who universally reject my scholarly perspective, and in some cases, me specifically.

Based on that talk, some of those antagonistic professors mentioned me in a piece for Education Next. In their defense of “no excuses” ideologies (specifically KIPP charter schools, both of which I reject), they openly mischaracterized me in order to discredit me:

Like all charter schools, KIPP schools are chosen by parents, but critics fear that disadvantaged parents do not know enough to choose wisely, or else do not have their children’s best interest at heart. Leaving aside whether the critics patronize the people of color KIPP schools serve, we propose that KIPP and similar schools are not nearly as militaristic as critics, who may have never been inside them, fear.

Recently, Andre Perry has confronted that charter advocates tend to smear critics of charter schools as “against parental choice,” something I have examined critically as well.

Even though I am skeptical of most charter and choice advocates, I learned an important lesson, and was confronted with a real dilemma: How do I challenge charter schools and “no excuses” ideologies in the context of black, brown, and poor families voluntarily choosing them?

Michelle Alexander offered me a solution in her confronting of The New Jim Crow:

This last point – that African Americans seem to support both the war on crime and “no excuses” charter schools – presents the most problematic aspect of charges that mass incarceration and education reform are ultimately racist, significant contributions to the New Jim Crow.

For example, Carr reports that African American parents not only choose “no excuses” charter schools in New Orleans, but also actively cheer and encourage the authoritarian policies voiced by the schools’ administrators. But Alexander states, “Given the dilemma facing poor black communities, it is inaccurate to say that black people ‘support’ mass incarceration or ‘get-tough’ policies” because “if the only choice that is offered blacks is rampant crime or more prisons, the predictable (and understandable) answer will be ‘more prisons.’ ” (p. 210)

New Orleans serves as a stark example of how this dynamic works in education reform: Given the choice between segregated, underfunded and deteriorating public schools and “no excuses” charters – and not the choice of the school environments and offerings found in many elite private schools – the predictable answer is “no excuses” charters. (Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era)

As a result, I now try to frame my rejecting of charter schools and “no excuses” by clarifying that all parents regardless of social class or race deserve high-quality schools without need to choose or compete; I also confront directly how choice advocates tend to embrace a false choice (as exposed by Alexander).

My second example happened just yesterday on Twitter when Angela Dye and I interacted about the “word gap,” which I have often rejected.

I consider Dye a comrade, virtual colleague, and someone whose public voice informs my own; in those ways, this experience was not like the one above, but it forced me once again to confront how good intentions are not enough, especially when that intent is perceived as silencing or ignoring the exact people I seek to support.

Several of Dye’s comments are powerful checks on how I have examined the “word gap”:

This Twitter moment also serves to prove John Warner’s point about the value of social media.

Dye’s challenges asked me to reconsider how my work perpetuated the voice of a scholar that uses research to “invalidate” “lived reality”—especially since I in no way sought to have that impact.

Just as I have afforded a fuller context to my rejecting charter schools and “no excuses,” I must seek ways to examine the “word gap” with Dye’s powerful concerns in mind.

Rejecting the “word gap,” I must clarify, is not rejecting the lived reality of significant and consequential differences among the social classes in terms of literacy. Yes, people living in poverty are denied access to and marginalized by privileged language.

Too often formal education works to perpetuate that equity gap resulting in the so-called “word gap” that works as a term and in reality similar to the “achievement gap.”

This lived reality in which some people due to race and social class are excluded from life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness through formal gatekeeping of who has access to privileged language and who does not, I think, is what Dye is speaking for and through.

So as I navigate still how to express more clearly why I reject the “word gap” as a term and how it works against marginalized and vulnerable populations, I offer two contexts for what I am rejecting.

First, Virginia Eubanks confronts in The Digital Poorhouse:

The most marginalized in our society face higher levels of data collection when they access public benefits, walk through heavily policed neighborhoods, enter the health care system, or cross national borders. That data reinforces their marginality when it is used to target them for extra scrutiny. Groups seen as undeserving of social support and political inclusion are singled out for punitive public policy and more intense surveillance, and the cycle begins again. It is a feedback loop of injustice.

And, Annette Lareau unpacks in Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (see online)

The differences are striking….

Neither the approach of concerted cultivation or the accomplishment of natural growth is without flaws. Both have strengths and weaknesses [emphasis added]. Middle-class children, for example, are often exhausted, have vicious fights with siblings, and do not have as much contact with their extended families as working-class and poor children. But when children enter institutions such as schools and health care settings, the strategy of middle-class child rearing of concerted cultivation is far more in compliance with the current standards of professionals than is the approach of the accomplishment of natural growth. There are signs that middle-class children gain advantages, including potentially in the world of work, from the experience of concerted cultivation. Working-class and poor children do not gain this benefit.

Therefore, I argue that the “word gap” fails for the following reasons:

  • Literacy is reduced and distorted to quantifying vocabulary (data collecting) as the sole proxy for literacy. Literacy is far more complex.
  • That use of data serves to frame poor children and their parents as having incomplete or inadequate literacy and idealizes middle-class and affluent literacy without acknowledging that this imbalance is an issue of power.
  • The “word gap” keeps the evaluative gaze on children and their parents (how to give the children more vocabulary and how to blame poor parents for literacy-deficient homes) and allows education and education reform to remain focused on “fixing” children and their parents and in-school reform only while ignoring the larger and more powerful social inequities reflected in schools and homes.
  • Research confirming the “word gap,” notably by Hart and Risley, is compelling not because of the quality of the research but because it confirms race and class biases in both conservative and liberal narratives. Media/journalists, pundits, and the public rush to cite Hart and Risley for reasons that must be unpacked—even as we acknowledge the inequities of literacy correlated with social class.

Because of an uncritical embracing of the “word gap” as a concept (not the acknowledging of the inequity of literacy among social classes), vulnerable populations of students have been mis-served through reductive vocabulary drill-and-kill, narrow high-stakes testing, and the lack of political will to address their access to rich literacy in their homes, communities, and schools (experiences afforded middle-class and affluent children that results in their identifiable vocabulary differences).

Because of an uncritical embracing of the “word gap” as a concept (not the acknowledging of the inequity of literacy among social classes), poor children and families are characterized primarily through deficit lenses that ignore their literacy strengths that simply do not match privileged literacy.

Because of an uncritical embracing of the “word gap” as a concept (not the acknowledging of the inequity of literacy among social classes), the barriers to literacy, academic, economic, and judicial equity remain mostly unexamined—out of sight, out of mind.

By confronting scholarly debates about the “word gap,” Dye has exposed the problematic relationship among scholarship, “lived reality,” and “the validity of a thing.”

I must do a better job with that dynamic if I want to be the sort of voice for social equity and justice that I seek to be.

UPDATE

Angela Dye has taken the exchange above and examined how our Twitter interaction confronts a tension around public discourse and elements of power and privilege; see Pissing on My Pee.


For Further Reading

What These Children Are Like, Ralph Ellison

If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?, James Baldwin

Rejecting Growth Mindset and Grit at Three Levels

As the academic year began at my university, I was confronted with how the very worst of K-12 public education reform continues to creep upward, engulfing higher education.

In this case, growth mindset was central to the faculty keynote address, prompting me to resist an outburst in front of my colleagues. I did, however, weigh in on social media, including Facebook—where a few faculty were intrigued and reached out by email.

Last week, then, we held a faculty discussion on growth mindset, and of the three panelist, I was the only one calling for at least a skeptical view if not an outright rejection of the concept (along with grit, which was mentioned in the keynote but not central to the presentation).

For simplicity and clarity, I want to outline here briefly (since I have written extensively about both growth mindset and grit; see the Categories here on the blog) why I call for skepticism and even rejecting the practices associated with the terms.

At the first level, I question the ideological motivation for doing research to find the source of success and failure within individuals—assuming that individual character and behaviors are primarily or solely the source of both success and failure.

As a colleague noted during comments after the keynote, this is a “very American” way of thinking; and I would add, a flawed view of the relationship between human behavior and social forces.

Here, I recommend Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, and argue that social forces are primary to human behaviors. I also call into question the rush to characterize what is success and failure—since a tremendous amount of both outcomes are more strongly correlated to a person’s environment of birth than any accomplishments by the person.

At the second level, I am cautious about the quality of growth mindset and grit research as valid, and that caution is grounded in the first level—both concepts fit well into American myths about rugged individualism and the Puritan work ethic; thus, even so-called dispassionate researchers are apt to see no reason to challenge the studies (although some have begun to unpack and question Angela Duckworth’s studies on grit).

Scarcity, mentioned about, is a compilation of powerful studies that make a case unlike what most Americans believe about success and failure: those living in scarcity struggle because of the scarcity (think poverty), and those living in slack are often successful because of the slack. This work has not been embraced or received the celebrity of growth mindset and grit because it works against our narratives.

Privileged researchers blinded by their own belief in American myths as well as trust in their own growth mindset and grit, I fear, are not apt to challenge research that appears even to a scholar to be obvious.

The third level is the most damning since growth mindset and grit speak to and reinforce powerful cultural ideologies and myths about meritocracies and individual character—ones that are contradicted by the evidence; and thus, growth mindset and grit contribute to lazy and biased thinking and assumptions about marginalized groups who suffer currently under great inequities.

K-12 applications of growth mindset and grit have disproportionately targeted racial minorities and impoverished students, reinforcing that most of the struggles within these groups academically are attributable to deficits in those students, deficits linked to race and social class.

All three levels, then, are born in, protected by, and prone to perpetuate race and class stereotypes, and as a result, work against inclusive pedagogy and culturally relevant pedagogy.

Finally, stepping back from these levels, I also remain skeptical of growth mindset and grit because they are very difficult to disentangle from deficit perspectives of students and from monolithic, thus reductive, views of identifiable groups by race, class, gender, or educational outcomes.

Instead I endorsed what Paul Gorski argues about equity literacy principles:

Equity literate educators recognize and draw upon the resiliencies and other funds of knowledge accumulated by poor and working class communities, reject deficit views that focus on fixing marginalized students rather than fixing the conditions that marginalize students, and understand the structural barriers that cheat some people out of the opportunities enjoyed by other people.