Our Gladiator Culture: On “Grit,” Competition, and Saving Future Generations

my father moved through griefs of joy;…
his shoulders marched against the dark

“my father moved through dooms of love,” e.e. cummings

This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

“Good Bones,” Maggie Smith

While sitting in the ER with my father a few nights ago before he was admitted into the hospitals’ heart center—a few days after my mother’s stroke sending her to another, larger hospital 40-minutes away—I was reminded of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, a novel, among other things, about the abusive power imbalance between men and women.

Late in the novel, Celie explains to her sister Nettie: “Take off they pants, I say, and men look like frogs to me. No matter how you kiss ’em, as far as I’m concern, frogs is what they stay.”

The most powerful and imposing man in my life, my father, sat in the ER—stooped, shrunken, pot-bellied, tongue hanging out of his mouth and bowed head like an aged human-sized toad somehow in a wheelchair. My father has always been my physical and athletic superior, despite my being in my mid-50s and quite successful in my career and my athletic hobby; he has always cast a shadow, darkening my lingering insecurities and anxieties.

This morning, Father’s Day 2017, I visited my father still in the heart center after spending almost all my time at my mother’s side as the number of family members able to help has dwindled as the day-count grows. Although improved, frog-like and frail, my father declared to me: “Nothing is wrong with me. I need to go home.”

For some time now, his heart has been working at only about 33%, wearing him and his pacemaker out at an accelerated rate.

In times of great medical stress, when families are brought together, stories spring forth to stabilize the chaos and restore our delusion that we have some sort of control.

One of the many myths of my father: In high school, because of fights and sports (my father was a four-sport letterman and captain of his high school’s first state championship football team in the 1950s), by age 18, my father had a full set of false teeth. So many teeth had been knocked out, his dentist eventually pulled the remaining 10 or 12 one day.

After the procedure, my father played in a baseball game, prompting his father to track him down, trying to make him come home to rest.

Like him, my mother is a gendered twin of the fanatic 1950s template for self-sacrifice, rugged individualism, and blind faith in the whitewashed American Dream—the racialized lie about hard work paying off and good guys winning.

I believe I am not being hyperbolic to recognize that my parents lie now in hospitals, broken and frail, because they bought the hokum, the hard-work hokum that makes people define their dignity in how fervently they sacrifice themselves, in how they work moment by moment to prove they are not lazy, soft, or in any way dependent on others.

My parents passed onto me a neurotic work ethic; my father instilled in me an incredibly unhealthy obsession with being athletic as proof of my manhood.

Although I have been trying to ween myself off sports fandom, I remain often connected to the sports fanaticism of the U.S.—one most solidly grounded in college and pro football, the perfect metaphor for the gladiator culture that defines us.

Dragged kicking and screaming, college football and the NFL have begun paying lip-service to acknowledging that [gasp!] the sport is cruelly violent, that football players are turning their brains into mush because of the relentless concussions that are simply part of the game.

The stories linked to the concussion debate in football are powerful and disturbing because they reveal a subtext that also came to mind as I sat with each of my parents: pro football players, many retired, admit that they have and would continue to lie about concussion symptoms to remain on the field.

The gladiator culture of the U.S. is replicated exponentially in the NFL [1]—toxic and hyper-masculinity, anything necessary including sacrificing health and even life.

And while the NFL and football mania of the U.S. are disturbing, the most troubling reality is that our neo-work-ethic of the twenty-first century targets children, specifically black and brown children from impoverished backgrounds.

The “grit” and growth mindset movements have become (mainstream) socially acceptable ways to wink-wink-nod-nod that black, brown, and poor people are simply too lazy, unwilling to work themselves, like my dad and mom, into decrepitude for the 1%.

Frantic—we are a nation with a ruling class snowblinded by their own privilege and terrified they won’t have a servant class—the whitewashed American Dream for black, brown, and poor children.

The U.S. has devolved into a perverse and inverted gladiator culture with the 1% in the stands and the rest of us reduced to a dog-eat-dog existence, an artificial and unnecessary dog-eat-dog existence.

Visit the elderly of this country, worn down by the demands that they work hard and depend on no one.

Look into their faces and if you can their eyes.

This is the future we are demanding of “other people’s children.”

But it is also a future we can reject, choosing instead an ethic of community and compassion.

As I look at my parents—discardable white working class Americans—I think that they deserved better, despite their own culpability in our whitewashed American Dream.

On this awful Father’s Day 2017, I would prefer above all else to be on the couch with my granddaughter, who yesterday kept imploring me “Wake up, Papa!” as I tried to doze between sessions with my mother, as she snuggled against me, her futon.

I know she deserves better—as does every single child having come to this planet and country by no choice of their own.

“This place could be beautiful,/right? You could make this place beautiful”—a haunting image of everything that I wish for this world in a poem by Maggie Smith that confesses:

The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.

On this awful Father’s Day 2017, I have kept much from my father and my mother in ways substantial and indirect.

But there is no way to justify the lies we tell children—that they fail to work hard enough, that they are somehow not good enough unless they act as if they do not matter, that they should shut up and suck it up.

Few things are worth fighting for, but one is to keep every child from the gladiator’s ring, to promise every child if not a beautiful world, at least the possibility of one.


[1] In the same way the NFL promotes the great lie that the U.S. is a meritocracy:

Despite this, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell rejected on Friday the idea that any kind of blackballing was taking place. He called the NFL “a meritocracy,” saying, “If they see an opportunity to get better as a football team, they’re going to do it. They’re going to do whatever it takes to make their football team better. So, those are football decisions. They’re made all the time. I believe that if a football team feels that Colin Kaepernick, or any other player, is going to improve that team, they’re going to do it.”

Easter 2017 Reader: Grit, Poetry, Educational Rankings, Poverty

Grit

Forget Grit. Focus on Inequality, Christine Yeh (Education Week)

Grit is an easy concept to fall in love with because it represents hope and perseverance, and conjures up images of working-class individuals living the “American dream.” However, treating grit as an appealing and simple fix detracts attention from the larger structural inequities in schools, while simultaneously romanticizing notions of poverty….

Perhaps this idea of grit resonates with so many people who believe in the popular American adage that if you work hard and pull yourself up by your bootstraps, then you can achieve anything. This belief unfortunately, assumes that individuals have the power, privilege, and access to craft their own futures, regardless of circumstance and systemic barriers.

Statistics on educational access consistently reveal vast differences in resources in affluent versus poor neighborhoods. Predominantly white, middle- and upper-income school districts tend to spend significantly more money per student than the districts with the highest percentages of marginalized students. Our poorest schools also tend to have large class sizes, unsafe school transportation, damaged and outdated facilities, and high staff turnover. All of these conditions directly contribute to low educational outcomes and underscore the link between access to school resources and improvements in students’ success. Schools that focus on grit shouldn’t ignore structural inequities because they assume that regardless of your race, class, or social context you can still triumph.

Telling children ‘hard work gets you to the top’ is simply a lie, Hashi Mohamed (The Guardian)

What I have learned in this short period of time is that the pervasive narrative of “if you work hard you will get on” is a complete myth. It’s not true and we need stop saying it. This is because “working hard, and doing the right thing” barely gets you to the starting line. Furthermore, it means something completely different depending on to which context you’re applying this particular notion. So much more is required.

I have come to understand that the systems that underpin the top professions in Britain are set up to serve only a certain section of society: they’re readily identifiable by privileged backgrounds, particular schools and accents. To some this may seem obvious, so writing it may be superfluous. But it wasn’t obvious to me growing up, and it isn’t obvious to many others. The unwritten rules are rarely shared and “diversity” and “open recruitment” have tried but made little if any difference.

Those inside the system then naturally recruit in their own image. This then entrenches the lack of any potential for upward mobility and means that the vast majority are excluded.

Check out Neoliberalism: A Concept Every Sociologist Should Understand, Peter Kaufman (Everyday Sociology)

The end result of neoliberal ideology, Monbiot continues, is that we are led to believe in the myth of the self-made person:

“The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped to secure it. The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances. Never mind structural unemployment: if you don’t have a job it’s because you are unenterprising. Never mind the impossible costs of housing: if your credit card is maxed out, you’re feckless and improvident. Never mind that your children no longer have a school playing field: if they get fat, it’s your fault. In a world governed by competition, those who fall behind become defined and self-defined as losers.”

See Also

Failing Still to Address Poverty Directly: Growth Mindset as Deficit Ideology

SchoolED Podcast: Paul Thomas on Grit, Slack, and the Effects of Poverty on Learning

UPDATED (Again): Grit, Education Narratives Veneer for White, Wealth Privilege

“Grit” Takes another Hit (with Caveats)

Rejecting “Grit” While Embracing Effort, Engagement

Poetry/ National Poetry Month 2017

Perspective | Poet: Why I would never tell a student what a poem means, Sara Holbrook (The Answer Sheet/ Washington Post)

A few months ago I wrote an essay, “I Can’t Answer These Texas Standardized Test Questions About My Own Poems,” in which I questioned those of unknown academic distinction who anonymously compose proficiency test questions. Many teachers wrote to tell me that they too are unable to answer these vaguely written test questions being used to evaluate their students. One teacher reported that her kids had to endure 17 days of testing this year. Considering there are only about 20 days of school in a month and that every test requires preparation on the devices and manner of testing, that’s a lot of lost instructional time.

Parents wrote. I did a few television interviews and radio programs. It was my 15 minutes. Additionally, I took some heat from a (very) few academics who jumped to inform me that authors do not own the meaning of a poem, it is up to literary critics to make this determination. Good grief.

It was not my intent to kick off an argument on of the relative merit of learned literary analysis. I’ll leave that to those with letters after their names. But friends, parents, educators, learned folks, please remember, middle-schoolers are not just short college sophomores. They are not lit majors. These are kids like Paul. Kids who are often grappling with a world of unseen and sometimes unspeakable challenges.

See Also

Investigating Poetry Because We Love It (and Our Students)

In Defense of Poetry: “Oh My Heart”

“So We must meet apart”: #NationalPoetryMonth 2017 and My Journey with Emily Dickinson

Educational Rankings

Are South Carolina schools really the worst in the nation?, Cindy Landrum (Greenville Journal)

Furman University education professor Paul Thomas said the education ranking is far less about education than socioeconomics.

“This ranking is a direct reflection of political negligence,” he said. “Our schools don’t legislate. It’s not like our schools are without any fault, but how schools function is a reflection of political leadership. South Carolina is failing our children, not our children are failing school.”

U.S. News & World Report used 11 metrics to measure a state’s education ranking, including college and high school graduation rates and standardized test scores. Three of the six pre-kindergarten-12 categories are test scores (ACT and National Assessment of Educational Progress), while the others are high school graduation rates, pre-K quality, and preschool enrollment. South Carolina ranked high in quality of its public pre-kindergarten program, but ranked low in test scores and college readiness.

“Schools in South Carolina and the U.S. reflect the inequities of communities, the failure of our policies, and as a result, they are ineffective as mechanisms of change,” Thomas said.

At least 60 percent of test scores are correlated with out-of-school factors such as parental education levels, poverty, hunger, mobility, lack of health care, safety, and community resources, he said. Only 10 percent to 15 percent of test scores can be traced to teacher quality.

Thomas said it has been known for decades that poverty and inequity are the greatest hurdles for children learning. But instead of addressing the problems, instead grade-by-grade standards are changed and students tested.

“Our states have social and educational pockets of poverty,” Thomas said. “Food and home insecurity directly contribute to low academic output, and once they get into school, we make horrible decisions. High-poverty children are sitting in larger classes with early-career and uncertified teachers. We do the exact opposite of what we should be doing.”

See Also

South Carolina Ranks First in Political Negligence

Poverty

America’s Shameful Poverty Stats, Sasha Abramsky (The Nation)

But there’s a deeper significance to the numbers: how they compare with the figures from recent decades. The percentage of people in poverty is roughly the same as in 1983, in the middle of the Reagan presidency, as well as in 1993, at the end of twelve years of Reagan/Bush trickle-down economics. A far higher portion of the population lives in poverty than was the case in the mid-1970s, after a decade of investment stemming from Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty; and far more live in poverty today than did at the end of Bill Clinton’s eight years in office—years in which the earned-income tax credit was expanded, unemployment was kept to near-historic lows, and poverty rates fell significantly.

That our poverty numbers have risen to such a high level exposes the fact that as a society, we are choosing to ignore the needs of tens of millions of Americans—as we have done for much of the period since the War on Poverty went out of fashion and the harsher politics of Reaganism set in. These ignored Americans include kids like the ones I interviewed in Los Angeles, forced to choose between applying to college or dropping out of school and getting dead-end jobs to support parents who had lost not only their jobs but their homes, too. They include the elderly lady I met outside Dallas, who was too poor to retire but too sick to take the bus to her work at Walmart. Her solution? She paid her neighbors gas money to drive her to a job that paid so little she routinely ate either 88-cent TV dinners or went to bed hungry. They include, too, the residents of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward I met in 2011, who, six years after Hurricane Katrina, were still living in appalling conditions in a largely obliterated community.

See Also

the world

 

Allegory of the Life Jackets

In Randlandia—people of the Pearl Clan and the Onyx Clan—each morning all the children gathered at the Great Pool for Lessons.

Once, the Tribe of Rosewater—a nomadic people without clans—wandered into Randlandia, and since Lessons at the Great Pool were an honored Tradition of Randlandia, the Tribe of Rosewater was invited to gather and watch.

Children of the Pearl Clan arrived in bathing suits and Life Jackets, slipping into the water and swimming about gracefully and quickly as if this is what they were meant to do.

Children of the Onyx Clan came to the Great Pool with bathing suits only, no Life Jackets—and they gathered in a tight bobbing mass, treading water as the children of the Pearl Clan darted and glided here and there around the Great Pool.

A member of the Tribe of Rosewater asked a member of Randlandia, smiling with pride as they watched the Lessons, “What do you do for the children of the Onyx Clan?”

“What do you mean?” came the blank reply.

“That these children must tread water while the children of the Pearl Clan have Life Jackets,” explained the member of the Tribe of Rosewater in a voice filled with compassion.

“Let me show you,” followed with a finger upraised. “Children of the Onyx Clan, what have you learned?”

In unison and loudly while treading water dutifully, the children of the Onyx Clan chanted, “Treading water is not an excuse!”

The Randlandian beamed with pride and added: “We are instilling grit in the children of the Onyx Clan so that they too someday can glide through the water as effortlessly as these children of the Pearl Clan!”

“But—” stammered the member of the Tribe of Rosewater, “but that is cruel and unfair.”

And this was the day new words were brought to the people of Randlandia by the Tribe of Rosewater—”cruel” and “unfair.”

Failing Still to Address Poverty Directly: Growth Mindset as Deficit Ideology

Reporting in Education Week, Evie Blad explains:

Having a growth mindset may help buffer students from low-income families from the effects of poverty on academic achievement, researchers found in a first-of-its kind, large-scale study of 168,000 10th grade students in Chile.

But poor students in the study were also less likely to have a growth mindset than their higher-income peers, researchers found.

Similar to the popularity of “grit” and “no excuses” policies, growth mindset has gained a great deal of momentum as a school-based inoculation for the negative impact of poverty on children.

The binaries of growth and fixed mindsets are often grounded in the work of Carol Dwek, and others, who defines each as follows:

According to Dweck, “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.”…

Alternatively, “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment,” writes Dweck.

However, the media, the public, and educators often fail to acknowledge two significant flaws with growth mindset: (1) the essential deficit ideology that focuses all of the blame (and thus the need for a cure) in the individual child, and (2) the larger failure to see the need to address poverty directly instead of indirectly through formal education.

First, then, let’s consider deficit ideology [1], as examined by Paul Gorksi:

Briefly, deficit ideology is a worldview that explains and justifies outcome inequalities— standardized test scores or levels of educational attainment, for example—by pointing to supposed deficiencies within disenfranchised individuals and communities (Brandon, 2003; Valencia, 1997a; Weiner, 2003; Yosso, 2005). Simultaneously, and of equal importance, deficit ideology discounts sociopolitical context, such as the systemic conditions (racism, economic injustice, and so on) that grant some people greater social, political, and economic access, such as that to high-quality schooling, than others (Brandon, 2003; Dudley-Marling, 2007; Gorski, 2008a; Hamovitch, 1996). The function of deficit ideology, as I will describe in greater detail later, is to justify existing social conditions by identifying the problem of inequality as located within, rather than as pressing upon, disenfranchised communities so that efforts to redress inequalities focus on “fixing” disenfranchised people rather than the conditions which disenfranchise them (Weiner, 2003; Yosso, 2005).

Any person’s success or failure can be traced to a number of factors, but in the U.S., our blind faith in the rugged individual defaults to ascribing credit and blame at least initially if not totally to the individual’s character traits such as “grit” and a growth mindset.

Student X is successful because of Quality A, and thus, Student Y’s failure is due to a lack (deficit) of Quality A; therefore, formal education must instill Quality A into Student Y.

This formula is compelling, again, because of our cultural myths, but also because the formula is manageable and seemingly efficient—and since efficiency is at the core of how we design and run schooling, the media, the pubic, and most educators fail to step back critically in order to reimagine how to deal with students holistically and generatively instead of through the traditional deficit model.

As a simple but representative example, most of us have taken a paper-and-pencil test in our schooling, one on which the teacher marks answers wrong with an X and then calculates our grade at the top of our papers—as in “100 – 30 = 70.”

This process is the deficit ideology that starts with every student having 100 and then defines that student’s learning on the test by what is missed, what is lacking.

One way to flip this ideology is to recognize that all students actually begin each assessment with 0 (no work has been done), and then the grade should be built on what learning and understanding the student demonstrates: simply checking the accurate responses and then giving credit for those positives.

The entire traditional approach to formal education in the U.S. is a deficit ideology, but the hyper-emphasis on children living in poverty, and black/brown students and English language learners, has increased the power of deficit approaches through growth mindset, “grit,” and “no excuses.”

Consequently, we routinely demand of children in the worst situations of life—through no fault of their own—that they somehow set aside those lives when they magically walk into school and behave in ways (growth mindset, “grit”) that few adults do who are also burdened by forces more powerful than they are.

Despite the enduring power of the rugged individual and meritocracy myths, the burden of evidence shows that privilege (race, class, and gender) continues to trump effort and even achievement in the real world: less educated whites earn more than more educated blacks, men earn more than equally educated women, and so forth.

But research also refutes the claims of growth mindset and “grit” that achievement is primarily the result of the character of the individual. The same person, in fact, behaves differently when experiencing slack (privilege) or scarcity (poverty).

As Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir detail extensively, living in scarcity (poverty) drains a person of mental capacities the same as being sleep deprived; therefore, the solution to “buffer students from low-income families from the effects of poverty on academic achievement” is to address poverty directly instead of trying to “fix” the students who are victims of that poverty.

In other words, if we relieve children of food insecurity, home transience, etc., we are likely to find that those students in poverty who appeared to lack “grit” and growth mindset would then demonstrate those treasured qualities.

We are currently misdiagnosing growth mindset and “grit” (as deficit ideologies) as causal characteristics instead of recognizing them as outcomes of slack (privilege).

The deficit ideologies of formal schooling—particularly those (growth mindset, “grit”) targeting impoverished and black/brown students—are the entrenched indirect approaches to alleviating poverty criticized by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967:

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 [emphasis added]. 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 [emphasis added] by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

Ultimately, teaching disenfranchised and struggling students growth mindset and “grit” come from, mostly, good intentions that are tragically trapped in deficit ideologies.

The great and tragic irony of growth mindset advocates is that they are also victims of deficit ideologies—as they focus their “scornful gaze” on poor children and children of color.

And just as we have allowed coded racism such as “thug” to replace the now taboo racial slur “nigger,” we are embracing deficit ideology cloaked as scientism to label students as lacking growth mindset and “grit” to mask the very ugly suggestion that these children are simply lazy.

Let us embrace instead as educators a redirected focus—as Gorski implores:

Hegemony is a difficult thing to break. In order to break it, we must consider our own complicity with it and our socialization for compliance. We must avoid the quick fix and the easy answer. We must bare the price of refusing compliance, knowing that by looking up, by training our gaze toward the top of the power hierarchy, we might strain our necks, not to mention our institutional likeability, more so than we do when we train it downward, where we pose no threat to the myths that power the corporate-capitalist machine. But if we do not break hegemony, if we do not defeat deficit ideology, we have little chance of redressing, in any authentic way, its gross inequities. This, we must realize, is the very point of the redirected gaze: to ensure and justify the maintenance of inequity and to make us— educators—party to that justification and maintenance.

The social and educational inequities in the U.S. must be our targets for repair—not our students. And thus, we are left with a dilemma confronted by Chris Emdin: “The time will always come when teachers must ask themselves if they will follow the mold or blaze a new trail. There are serious risks that come with this decision. It essentially boils down to whether one chooses to do damage to the system or to the student.”


[1] See also Dudley-Marling, C. (2007). Return of the deficit. Journal of Educational Controversy, 2(1).

What Is the Agenda?: More Propaganda without Evidence

Yet more public relations propaganda about Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood from the Post and Courier—this time with a little extra ugliness not-so-subtly framing the article.

The “no excuses” charter school playbook is in full force as the article opens by focusing on the school’s selection process for teachers: you see, the real problem with schools is teachers who don’t care, who don’t try, and who embody the soft bigotry of low expectations:

“You’d think that those would be pretty simple questions,” Campbell said. “If you’re in education, you should assume that all kids can learn. But there’s a lot of implicit bias in teachers that we’ve found (toward) kids in poverty, kids of color.”

Trigger: “bad” teacher myth.

And then, while suggesting teachers are too often racists, the racism inherent in these sorts of takeover strategies is slipped in; you see, the other problem is poor black children need to be trained:

Brentwood’s high standards start with behavior. Campbell said teachers instruct students in how to walk in the halls, how to act in the cafeteria and even how to sharpen a pencil.

“They get four lessons on the playground before they’re allowed to touch any equipment,” Campbell said.

Trigger: “grit” narrative.

But all this is old hat—the nasty “grit” and “no excuses” model—and the real ugliness is saved for the end:

Founder and CEO of Meeting Street Schools Ben Navarro also addressed some concerns raised by education activists, who have been unsuccessfully filing Freedom of Information Act requests with the district to see all of the funding sources at Brentwood. They have also objected to the school’s special waivers from South Carolina’s teacher employment protection laws. He said his school had more oversight than most others, as Postlewait sits on Brentwood’s executive committee.

“What is the agenda of people doing the attacking? Is it about adults?” Navarro said.

That’s right, lazy bigoted teachers, poor black children in need of character training, and education activists with agendas—that’s what wrong with public education and serving high-poverty minority children.

Actually, methinks he doth protest too much.

If there is an agenda, we should suspect it is with those who haven’t provided the data.

The article gives a hint that Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood is making its grand claims of unusual success based on MAP scores—but there is no way to confirm if those claims and that data are really about anything exceptional.

The real story here is buried in the middle of the article:

Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood also offers what Campbell calls “wraparound services,” including a full-time speech therapist and a behavior interventionist. To maintain a racially diverse teaching staff, Meeting Street recruits teachers at historically black colleges and universities.

Part of the Meeting Street strategy also has to do with money. At Brentwood, Meeting Street Schools currently pitches in about $4,000 per student on top of the district’s $9,900 in per-pupil funding. The district’s partnership with Meeting Street Schools will reach a “sunset” after Burns and Brentwood have both expanded to the fifth grade, at which point the district will have to figure out how to fund the programs itself.

As I have been documenting [1], we know that money makes a difference when addressing high-poverty populations of students, we know that “miracle” schools almost always prove to be mirages, we know that charter schools who claim success usually benefit from student attrition and underserving high-needs populations (ELL and special needs students), and we know that small-scale success may be impossible to scale to all public schools.

What we don’t know is how or if any of this is relevant about Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood.

What we do know is that a lot of press release propaganda continues to roll out while the data that would settle the issue do not.

If “What is the agenda?” is good for educational advocates, it is certainly essential for those positioned to benefit from big claims and hedging on allowing third-party examinations of the full body of evidence.


[1] Don’t Trust Invested Advocates in Edureform WarsQuestions for the P&C about School Closure, TakeoverMore Questions for The Post and Courier: “Necessary Data” or Press-Release Journalism?

“Grit” Takes another Hit (with Caveats)

David Denby’s The Limits of “Grit” in The New Yorker offers further evidence that the “grit” train is slowly but surely being derailed.

Paul Tough, journalist, and Angela Duckworth, scholar, have been central to the rise of “grit” as a silver-bullet in education reform—mostly targeting high-poverty racial minority students in “no excuses” charter schools. Both Tough and Duckworth have recently begun pack pedaling slightly as they release new books, Tough’s second on teaching children in poverty and Duckworth’s first on her highly celebrated “grit,” which was a hit as a TED talk and garnered her a MacAuthur Genius grant.

While the “grit” train was gaining steam among politicians, the media, and edureformers, several educators and scholars raised significant concerns about the essential racist and classist elements of “grit” research, the “grit” narrative, and why both are so politically powerful and popular with the public.

“Grit” is receiving another boost directly from Tough’s and Duckworth’s books—and the PR masked as journalism both have been afforded through their own public writings and numerous interviews at many of the most prestigious news sources.

However, an unintended consequence of Tough and Duckworth boosting the “grit” train through soft back pedaling has been a rise in substantive push back; for example consider:

The quality of Duckworth’s research as well as the essential value of “grit” has been fairly strongly refuted now, even in the mainstream media who love the whole “grit” charade (however, we must note, that nearly no one in that push back or the mainstream media is willing yet to acknowledge the racism and classism driving this train).

So Denby’s challenge to Duckworth and “grit” is very welcomed, but also deeply problematic.

Denby strikes first at the essential choice Duckworth has made:

Other social scientists, looking at the West Point situation and many others that Duckworth considers, might have called grit a “dependent variable”—one possible factor in a given experimental situation affecting many other factors. But Duckworth decided that grit is the single trait in our complex and wavering nature which accounts for success; grit is the strong current of will that flows through genetic inheritance and the existential muddle of temperament, choice, contingency—everything that makes life life.

“Grit,” Denby rightfully argues, is grossly over-exaggerated by Duckworth and the cult of “grit” in “no excuses” education reform. Success comes from a complicated matrix of causes—and we must acknowledge that often those competing for success are all very “gritty” as much as we must acknowledge that a tremendous amount of success in the U.S. is the combination of dumb luck within the larger advantages of privilege: Many less “gritty” privileged folk are more successful than more “gritty”  people burdened by poverty, racism, and sexism.

Denby builds, I think, to a damned fine conclusion: “Duckworth—indifferent to class, race, history, society, culture—strips success of its human reality, and her single-minded theory may explain very little.”

This dynamic is the result of so-called hard science that strips and masks through the false allure of objectivity and quantification combined with social norms and biases that remain invisible to the privileged class.

There are thousands and thousands of examples, but the unwarranted rise of Duckworth’s “grit” is also akin to how the media almost alway get science wrong; consider The Irony of Believing Humans Use Only 10% of Their Brains.

And here is the problem with Denby’s takedown of “grit”; therefore, let’s return to how Denby lays out his critique.

“This snowballing effect among school reformers can’t be understood,” Denby explains, “without recognizing a daunting truth: We don’t know how to educate poor children in this country. (Our prosperous students do fine on international tests.)”

As I have posed already, instead of Duckworth’s “grit,” we should be focusing on the well researched concepts of scarcity and slack. We in fact do know a great deal about the negative consequences of scarcity (poverty, stress) on adults and children, and we also are well aware of the advantages of slack (privilege).

But to Denby’s finer point, we also know how to educate children burdened by poverty. Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap by Paul Gorski and For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too by Christopher Emdin are two recent books that are far more credible than Tough and Duckworth but also represent that educators do in fact know how to educate poor and racial minority children.

Lisa Delpit has been making this case for some years as well: Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom and “Multiplication Is for White People”: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children, for example.

And there are now decades of educators and scholarship on culturally relevant pedagogy, often grounded in the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings.

So, yes, Denby, your unpacking of “grit” is on track, but you are way off about what we know about educating poor children.

The truth is, as Dave Powell explains,

We tend to think that everyone has a valid opinion on education, up to and including people who are running for president, but I can’t think of another class of people that is less attuned to the day-to-day challenges of teaching than presidential candidates are.

Political leaders, the public, and the media will not listen to the educators and scholars who know what we must do, and leaders do not have the political will to do what we know we must do.

Period.

Ironically, further on, Denby turns to Tough (easily an equally key figure in making “grit” popular with Duckworth) and Malcolm Gladwell to unmask Duckworth.

Again, Tough is an edujournalist, and his books and so-called expertise are parts of the problem. We should be buying Gorksi’s and Emdin’s books, interviewing them, and then building policy on their work.

Gladwell is cited for his popularizing the 10,000-hour rule. But Denby fails to recognize that Gladwell and others in the media fumbled the 10,000-hour rule in much the same way as Duckworth has “grit.”

The key researcher behind the 10,000-hour rule found in Gladwell’s book and public work has carefully refuted how Gladwell and the media have misrepresented what the research reveals. See The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists: Why the APS Observer Needs Peer Review When Summarizing New Scientific Developments by K. Anders Ericsson.

In short, Tough and Gladwell are journalists who do not have the expertise on education or poverty that does exist in academia.

So while I appreciate Denby’s often incisive critique of Duckworth and the cult of “grit,” I  must caution that this critique also too often fails for the same reasons that created the “grit” circus to begin with—just as we have seen with people using only 10% of their brains and the 10,000-hour rule.

Ultimately, there are many reasons to reject the cult of “grit,” but let’s hand the stage properly to Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Gorski, Emdin, Delpit, and Ladson-Billings—along with dozens of educators and scholars who in fact know what must be done and how to serve the most vulnerable students among us.

Defund the “Grit” Industry: Alternatives to Tough and Duckworth

Once edujournalist Paul Tough and “grit”-genius Angela Duckworth realized their significant contributions to the “grit” industry were gradually being unmasked, they discovered ways to cash in on backpedalling (slightly) to keep the train rolling.

Regretfully, many very good people have praised Tough and Duckworth for their much-too-late and way-too-little—somehow ignoring the incredible damage that has been done to vulnerable populations of students—and even recommend Tough and Duckworth’s “new” books.

Please, I beg of you, do not forgive and forget, and especially do not fund further the “grit” industry.

Let me offer instead a few alternatives:

Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

9781250056115

[See also George Saunders’s Allegory of Scarcity and Slack]

Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap, Paul Gorski

51w731ediwl-_sy344_bo1204203200_

[See also Recommended: Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty, Paul C. Gorski]

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, Christopher Emdin

978-080700640-5

[See also Christopher Emdin Confronts “White Folks’ Pedagogy”: “whether one chooses to do damage to the system or to the student”]