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

In his For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, Christopher Emdin confronts “classroom colonialism” (p. 14), and clarifies earlier in his Preface:

What I am suggesting is that it is possible for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to take on approaches to teaching that hurt youth of color….

I argue that there must be a concerted effort…to challenge the “white folks’ pedagogy” that is being practiced by teachers of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. (pp. viii-ix)


Among K-12 educators and the general public, terms such as “colonialism,” “critical pedagogy,” and even “racism” may seem merely academic—ideas teased out among scholars in their ivory towers. However, as Emdin carefully details and interrogates, vulnerable populations of students (mostly black, brown, and poor) as well as the teachers charged with serving those students experience daily the realities of “white folks’ pedagogy” that demands assimilation and compliance from those students.

For vulnerable populations of students, formal schooling at the K-12 levels, Emdin argues, is stunningly similar to “[t]he Carlisle School [that] employed a militaristic approach to ‘helping’ the Indigenous Americans assimilate to the white norm” (p. 4). Then and now, many educators participating in education-as-assimilation were and are motivated by good intentions (consider Teach For America core members today).

Emdin focuses his work on how all educators (including white folks who teach in the hood) should reconsider their views of race and social class while teaching the “neoindigenous,” his term for students of color and living in poverty who are currently the target of re-segregation in “no excuses” charter schools.

For White Folks arrives as more voices are pushing against education reform that claims to serve vulnerable populations while mis-serving them. Zoé Samudzi argues We Need A Decolonized, Not A “Diverse”, Education because “diversity agendas are hindrances rather than stepping stones to justice and equity.” And Joanne Golann explains about her extensive research embedded at a “no excuses” charter serving mostly black and poor students:

In a tightly regulated environment, students learned to monitor themselves, hold back their opinions, and defer to authority. These are very different skills than the ones middle-class kids learn—to take initiative, be assertive, and negotiate with authority. Colleges expect students to take charge of their learning and to advocate for themselves. One of the students I talk about in the article learned to restrain herself to get through, to hold herself back and not speak her mind. She ended up winning the most-improved student award in 8th grade for her changed behavior.

Golann also makes connections similar to Emdin’s:

Bowles and Gintis wrote this famous study where they were looking at the history of mass public education in the US. They argue that schooling expanded in large part to quell social unrest. You had these immigrant populations coming into the cities in the mid-nineteenth century, and Bowles and Gintis basically make the argument that factory owners and the professional class wanted a docile workforce. They wanted people who would be obedient and man these factories, and so they used schools as a way to socialize children to follow rules and show deference. Looking at the school I studied, I found the same behaviors but with a very interesting twist. In a new era of accountability, instead of creating workers for the factories, schools are creating *worker-learners* to close the achievement gap. Schools are emphasizing obedience because they need to create order to raise test scores and they see that as the way to social mobility. It’s the same behaviors but for a different purpose.

At the core of Emdin’s experiences as a student of color, a teacher of color, and a scholar as well as teacher educator is his antidote to the failures of both traditional education and the recent thirty years of education reform, reality pedagogy:

Reality pedagogy is an approach to teaching and learning that has a primary goals of meeting each student on his or her own cultural and emotional turf. It focuses on making the local experiences of the student visible and creating contexts where there is a role reversal of sorts that positions the student as the expert in his or her own teaching and learning, and the teacher as the learner. (p. 27)

Echoing and refining Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy concepts of teacher-student and student-teacher, Emdin carefully walks the reader through his own journey to embracing and practicing reality pedagogy while detailing in very concrete ways what this looks like in real classrooms with real students and teachers.

I could argue that Emdin’s book is a wonderful critical pedagogy primer, and that could mislead you into thinking his is just more of the “merely academic”—but this book certainly is not that.

This recommendation and review cannot adequately cover everything Emdin accomplishes—and I really don’t want to take away from educators and anyone who cares about education and children, especially vulnerable populations of children, reading carefully Emdin’s own words—but I want to highlight a few key reasons to consider carefully For White Folks:

  • First, Emdin’s reality pedagogy is both a call for embracing culturally relevant education with the neoindigenous and a powerful argument for the essential elements of how all teachers should teach all students.
  • This book in total is an outstanding entry point to confronting stereotypes about race and class while also stepping away from deficit perspectives about neoindigenous students as well as teaching and learning in general.
  • Emdin speaks to a possible revolution in education that rejects accountability built on standards and high-stakes tests in order to embrace holding everyone responsible for teaching children; this is about authentic and challenging student-centered education in the name of individual and community liberation.
  • Reality pedagogy seeks ways in which students and their teachers can form a classroom and school cosmopolitanism that is unlike the inequities of their surrounding communities, states, and country: “cosmopolitanism is an approach to teaching that focuses on fostering socioemotional connections in the classroom with the goal of building students’ sense of responsibility to each other and to the learning environment” (p. 105).
  • The many practical aspects of Emdin’s work forces teachers to reconsider daily practice with the neoindigenous and all students: instruction, content, evidence of student learning, technology, pop culture, and social media. I could also say this is a great methods primer, but again, that could be misleading.

Emdin’s For White Folks is often a confessional memoir in which Emdin speaks to his own experiences as a black male student rendered invisible, but who became an agent of “white folks’ pedagogy” when he began to teach. Much of this book is about his transformation that has become teacher education and teaching as activism—activism in the name of neoindigenous and all students.

In his brief conclusion, Emdin shares his own touchstones for teaching, and in one he strikes a note we cannot, we must not ignore:

The way that a teacher teaches can be traced directly back to the way that the teacher has been taught. 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 [bold emphasis added]. (p. 206)

Recommended Companion Texts

Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap (Teachers College Press, 2013), Paul Gorski

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, Howard Zinn

NOTE: As I read, I found myself stuck at the beginning of Chapter 1 because my copy of For White Folk is an early printing that names the narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as Bigger Thomas, who is actually the main character in Richard Wright’s Native Son. After I posted about Emdin’s book on the NCTE Connected Community, I heard from another ELA teacher concerned about the error. I reached out to Emdin, who explained this was an editorial error to be corrected in newer printings. Please don’t let this mistake distract from Emdin’s great work and scholarship.

Day on Diversity at the University of South Carolina

I am participating as a discussion leader and speaker for a day on diversity at the University of South Carolina 14 April 2016. Below are my notes which may be of value to some addressing race and class in both social and educational contexts.

University of South Carolina

April 14 1:30 pm

Svec. M., & Thomas, P.L. (2016). The classroom crucible: Preparing teachers from privilege for students of poverty. In A.L. Hurst & S.K. Nenga (Eds.), Working in class: recognizing how social class shapes our academic work. Landham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

April 14 6 pm

“How do we look at systemic issues of equity in institutional settings?”

20 minutes

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

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education, Chris Emdin

Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School, Kathleen Nolan

Hope Against Hope, Sarah Carr

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

No Caste Here? Toward a Structural Critique of American Education, Daniel Kiel


In his famous dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, Justice John Marshall Harlan argued that in the United States, there was “no caste here.” Justice Harlan was rejecting the idea that American society operated to assign preordained outcomes to individuals based upon classifications, including racial classifications. This Article questions whether Justice Harlan’s aspirational assertion accurately reflects contemporary American education. Identifying: (1) multiple classification mechanisms, all of which have disproportionate racial effects, and (2) structural legal, political, and practical impediments to reform, the Article argues that the American education system does more to maintain the nation’s historical racial hierarchy than to disrupt it. This is so, the Article suggests, despite popular agreement with the casteless ideal and popular belief that education can provide the opportunity to transcend social class. By building the framework for a broad structural critique, the Article suggests that a failure to acknowledge and address structural flaws will preclude successful comprehensive reform with more equitable outcomes.


Racism, classism

deficit perspectives (word gap, achievement gap, grit)


Accountability v. equity — academics and discipline policies

Are Racially Inequitable Outcomes Racist?

Among what may seem to be marginally related policies and conditions, these all have one startling thing in common—grade retention, school discipline, NCAA athletics, incarceration, “grit,” “no excuses,” zero-tolerance, high-stakes testing (such as the SAT and ACT), charter schools and school choice—and that commonality is observable racially inequitable outcomes that are significantly negative for blacks.

My own experiences with exploring and confronting race and racism through my public writing has shown that many people vigorously resist acknowledging racism and will contort themselves in unbelievable ways to avoid accepting facts and data that show racism exists.

Common responses include “I am not a racist,” “I am sure the people who started X didn’t intend to be racist,” “White people experience racism too,” and “Everyone has the same opportunities in this country.”

And while I continue to compile a stunning list of ways in which racial inequity and racism profoundly impact negatively black people, resistance to terms such as “white privilege” and “racism” remain robust.

In the wake of the NCAA Final Four, Patrick Hruby has attempted a similar tactic I have used in order to unmask the racial inequity in college athletics by carefully working readers through the evidence in order to come to an uncomfortable conclusion about the financial exploitation of college athletes (money-making sports being disproportionately black) by the NCAA and colleges/universities (leadership and those profiting being overwhelmingly white) along racial lines:

Understand this: there’s nothing inherently racist about amateurism itself. And there’s no reason to believe that its defenders and proponents—including current NCAA president Mark Emmert—are motivated by racial animus….

And yet, while the NCAA’s intent is color-blind, the impact of amateurism is anything but. In American law, there is a concept called adverse impact, in which, essentially, some facially neutral rules that have an unjustified adverse impact on a particular group can be challenged as discriminatory….Similarly, sociologists speak of structural racism when analyzing public policies that have a disproportionately negative impact on minority individuals, families, and communities. State lottery systems that essentially move money from predominantly lower-class African-American ticket buyers to predominantly middle-and-upper-class white school districts fit the bill; so does a War on Drugs that disproportionately incarcerates young black men; so does a recent decision by officials in Maricopa County, Arizona, to drastically cut the number of presidential primary polling stations in and around Phoenix, which unnecessarily made voting far more difficult for the residents of a non-white majority city.

Big-time college sports fall under the same conceptual umbrella. Amateurism rules restrain campus athletes—and only campus athletes, not campus musicians or campus writers—from earning a free-market income, accepting whatever money, goods, or services someone else wants to give them. And guess what? In the revenue sports of Division I football and men’s basketball, where most of the fan interest and television dollars are, the athletes are disproportionately black.

And herein lies the problem with refusing to equate racially inequitable outcomes with racism.

Hruby’s detailed unmasking of the NCAA comes also during the troubling rise of Trump in presidential politics—another marker for how many scramble to find any cause other than racism.

Trump’s rise is not exclusively the result of overt and unexamined racism, but a significant amount of his success is easily traced to a wide spectrum of racism.

However, from the rise of Trump to the so-called popularity of charter schools to the school-to-prison pipeline and to the spread of third-grade retention policies, all of these and more are fueled by racism because racism, we must acknowledge, is most insidious when it isn’t overt, when the racist person or the racist act is unconscious, unacknowledged.

The impact of racism in NCAA sports, as Hruby details, is the elegant racism Ta-Nahisi Coates unpacked when Donald Sterling became the NBA’s face for oafish racism (along with Clive Bundy in popular culture).

What has occurred in the U.S. since the mid-1960s is an end to placard racism, the end of “White Only” signs on bathroom and restaurant doors.

What has not occurred in the U.S. yet is an end to seeing black boys as significantly older than their biological ages, an end to tracking black children into segregated schools and reductive courses, an end to incarcerating black men—and this is a list that could go on for several pages.

Racial (and class) equity will never occur in the U.S. until the white power structure admits that racially inequitable outcomes are in fact racist.

White privilege is a powerful narcotic that numbs white elites to the harm that privilege causes black and brown people, but it is also a powerful narcotic that pits poor whites against black and brown people because poor whites believe their whiteness gives them the chance at great wealth held by only a few.

That the NCAA maintains a structure within which black athletes produce wealth enjoyed almost exclusively by white elites is an undeniable fact and a startling example of the elegant racism eroding the soul of a free people—an elegant racism eating at the roots of public education, the judicial system, the economic system, and nearly ever aspect of the country.

Racially inequitable outcomes are racist, and this must be admitted in order to be confronted and then to be eliminated.

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

Political leaders and the mainstream media feed two enduring claims to the public, who nearly universally embraces both: Doing well in school and attaining advanced education are essential to overcoming any obstacles, and the key to succeeding in school is grit, effort and perseverance.

Education appears significant within race, but not the avenue to overcoming racism. Well educated blacks earn more than less educated blacks, but blacks and whites with the same education reflect significant race disparities favoring whites (Bruenig, 24 October 2014):


Rarely do we admit stunning data on race/education inequity. Blacks with some college have similar employment opportunities as whites with no high school diploma (Closing the Race Gap):

Table 2 copy

But certainly effort (grit and perseverance) matters more than simple accidents of a person’s birth? Actually, no (Bruenig, 13 June 2013):

Fig 11


educationandmobilityWe are left, then, with having to admit that the evidence is overwhelming that these are baseless cultural myths (possibly ideals we should aspire to, but certainly not the state of our society): Doing well in school and attaining advanced education are essential to overcoming any obstacles, and the key to succeeding in school is grit, effort and perseverance.

Grit and education narratives serve as veneer for white and wealth privilege.

Anthony Cody has now confronted the relentless and uncritical mainstream media fascination with grit in his The Resilience of Eugenics, linking claims about the importance of grit, the ability to identify students with grit, and the push to instill grit in certain students (brown, black, and impoverished, mainly) with Eugenics.

Cody’s argument has deep roots among many of us who have argued for quite some time that charter movements such as KIPP and grit arguments are not sound educationally, scientifically, or ethically. In fact, we have demonstrated that this entire package of narratives and policies is essentially racist and classist.

Update: Social Class, Home Status, and Education

Matt Bruenig has examined David Brooks’s claims about social class and stereotypes/prejudice, and thus offers even more evidence for the points above.

Bruenig’s first subhead is important for framing:

It is indeed the case that social mobility in the US is very low. This is easiest to see by looking at class-based education disparities, given that education is meant to be the thing that leads to social mobility.*

College attendance rates map directly on to parental income, with only 20% of the poorest children in college at age 19 compared to 90% for the richest children.

But the formula that Bruenig reveals, especially in chart form, is central to clarifying that accident of birth tends to trump significantly effort; life status of adults is built on access, opportunity, and privilege (or disadvantage): Home status leads to educational access and thus ultimately to adult status. [*My argument is that instead of crediting educational attainment as the key to adult success, educational attainment is a marker for home privilege, the valid source of adult success.]

Consider then the evidence:

Bruenig concludes: “Quite naturally then, even for reasons beyond these, a child’s eventual position in the social structure is heavily linked to that of their parents.”

Update 2: U.S. as “self-perpetuating class system”

Matt Bruenig’s Where Is Educational Mobility the Highest? continues to add evidence to the claims made above.

Bruenig’s key points supported by international comparison data:

As regular readers know by now, social mobility in the US is largely a myth perpetuated for political legitimation….

In reality, we live in a self-perpetuating class system where the children of the rich mostly go on to rule over the children of the poor….

So it’s clearly possible not to use education to retrench class. The question is whether we want to actually do what it takes to make that happen.

Please note his charts.

Update 3: Economic and judicial racism

Matt Bruenig from 24 September 2014:

As you can see, white families are much wealthier than black and hispanic families at every education level. More than that, all white families, even those at the lowest education level, have a higher median wealth than all black and hispanic families, even those at the highest education level. The median white family with an education level below high school has a net worth of $51.3k, while the median black and hispanic family with a college degree has a net worth of $25.9k and $41k respectively.

Max Ehrenfreund reports:

Although there were negligible differences among the racial groups in how frequently boys committed crimes, white boys were less likely to spend time in a facility than black and Hispanic boys who said they’d committed crimes just as frequently, as shown in the chart above. A black boy who told pollsters he had committed just five crimes in the past year was as likely to have been placed in a facility as a white boy who said he’d committed 40.

More recent statistics from the Department of Justice show that the juvenile justice system has continued to treat black boys more harshly. Although the overall number of cases in juvenile court has declined sharply since 2008, blacks still account for a third of cases in juvenile court, far more than their share of the population.

See the interactive chart.

Update 4: College doesn’t equal equity

Discrimination in the Credential Society: An Audit Study of Race and College Selectivity in the Labor MarketS. Michael Gaddis


Racial inequality in economic outcomes, particularly among the college educated, persists throughout US society. Scholars debate whether this inequality stems from racial differences in human capital (e.g., college selectivity, GPA, college major) or employer discrimination against black job candidates. However, limited measures of human capital and the inherent difficulties in measuring discrimination using observational data make determining the cause of racial differences in labor-market outcomes a difficult endeavor. In this research, I examine employment opportunities for white and black graduates of elite top-ranked universities versus high-ranked but less selective institutions. Using an audit design, I create matched candidate pairs and apply for 1,008 jobs on a national job-search website. I also exploit existing birth-record data in selecting names to control for differences across social class within racialized names. The results show that although a credential from an elite university results in more employer responses for all candidates, black candidates from elite universities only do as well as white candidates from less selective universities. Moreover, race results in a double penalty: When employers respond to black candidates, it is for jobs with lower starting salaries and lower prestige than those of white peers. These racial differences suggest that a bachelor’s degree, even one from an elite institution, cannot fully counteract the importance of race in the labor market. Thus, both discrimination and differences in human capital contribute to racial economic inequality.

Key point:

Overall, these results suggest that employers strongly value a degree from an elite university but also discriminate against candidates with black names. An additional area of inquiry is how these variables work together. For instance, can black candidates close the gap with white candidates when they have a degree from an elite university compared to a degree from a less selective university?

In figure 3, I examine total employer responses across race and college selectivity. These results suggest a tiered pattern of responses: White candidates with a degree from an elite university have the highest response rate (17.5 percent), followed by black candidates with a degree from an elite university (12.9 percent) and white candidates with a degree from a less selective university (11.4 percent),11 and finally black candidates with a degree from a less selective university have the lowest response rate (6.5 percent).12 Thus, a white candidate with a degree from an elite university can expect an employer response for every six résumés submitted, while an equally qualified black candidate must submit eight résumés to receive a response; white candidates with a degree from a less selective university need to submit nine résumés to expect a response, while a similar black candidate needs to submit 15 résumés to receive a response.

Race elite college

Update 5: Access to good jobs

access to good jobs race gender

Update 6: How Black Middle-Class Kids Become Poor Adults

income race

Update 7: The best way to nab your dream job out of college? Be born rich

be rich

Update 8: For the Poor, the Graduation Gap Is Even Wider Than the Enrollment Gap

Rich and poor students don’t merely enroll in college at different rates; they also complete it at different rates. The graduation gap is even wider than the enrollment gap.

vantage of wealth in college

See also Postsecondary Attainment: Differences by Socioeconomic Status

edu attainment distribution SESShocking new research confirms: It’s a great time to be a white guy in America (and a bad time to be anyone else), Sean McElwee

racial lens

deep disparities

Update 9: Why rich kids do better than smarter, less advantaged kids: ‘opportunity hoarding’

birth lottery

See the research cited: Downward mobility, opportunity hoarding and the ‘glass floor’

Update 10: Why Didn’t Higher Education Protect Hispanic and Black Wealth?, William R. Emmons and Bryan J. Noeth

College-educated families usually earn significantly higher incomes and accumulate more wealth than families headed by someone who does not have a four-year college degree. The income- and wealth-boosting effects of education apply within all racial and ethnic groups. Higher education may also help “protect” wealth, buffering families against major economic and financial shocks and mitigating adverse long-term trends. Based on two decades of detailed wealth data, we conclude that education does not, however, protect the wealth of all racial and ethnic groups equally.

Compared to their less-educated counterparts, typical white and Asian families with four-year college degrees withstood the recent recession much better and have accumulated much more wealth over the longer term. Hispanic and black families headed by someone with a four-year college degree, on the other hand, typically fared significantly worse than Hispanic and black families without college degrees. This was true both during the recent turbulent period (2007-2013) as well as during a two-decade span ending in 2013 (the most recent data available).

race edu income

Update 11: The Data Are Damning: How Race Influences School Funding, Gillian B. White

race and school funding

Update 12: Why are working class kids less likely to get elite jobs? They study too hard at college, Henry Farrell [EDIT: It’s a rigged game.]

rules of the game

Update 13: Black unemployment is significantly higher than white unemployment regardless of educational attainment | Economic Policy Institute

black unemployment

Update 14: Still think America is the “land of opportunity?” Look at this chart.

Not only that, but the earnings gap between poor and rich college-educated kids is huge, and it grows over the course of a career. Right after college, poor kids earn about two-thirds as much as rich kids, on average. But by mid-career, the typical college grad from a rich family is earning close to $100,000, while the grad from a poor family is making around $50,000.

college less poor

Update 15: Poor white kids are less likely to go to prison than rich black kids

rich black poor white prison

Update 16: A Detailed Look At How Complex Equal Pay Day Really Is

gender wage gap by race

Update 17: Black Harvard graduates have the same shot at a job call-back as white state college grads


For both the races tested, there was a difference of about 6 percentage points between the response rates for graduates of state schools and those of elite schools. But that gap widens to 11 percentage points when you compare white elite college graduates to black graduates from the state schools. And it narrows to just 1.5 percentage points, within the margin of error, between white state school graduates and black graduates of prestigious schools.

University of Michigan sociologist S. Michael Gaddis, who conducted the study, expected a gap between elite and state colleges, he tells Quartz, and he expected a gap between black and white applicants overall. He did not expect, however, to see that even among elite schools’ graduates, there was a big gap between whites and blacks.

“If we really think that education is the great equalizer, then someone who reaches the pinnacle of that system…should be rewarded pretty equally,” Gaddis says. “I would have been surprised, to be honest with you, to see no gap at all. But to see that the gap for Harvard and the other elite applicants was basically the same was very discouraging.”

Update 18: Job Growth Among Men Improves: Nearly 2 Out of 3 Jobs Added in the 4th Quarter of 2016 Went to Men


Current Unemployment Rates for Black Men and Women Comparable to Unemployment Rates for White Men and Women at the Bottom of the Recession

Figure 2 shows the annual average unemployment rates for men and women aged 16 and older by race and ethnicity at the start of the recession, at the end of the recession, and for 2016. Black and Hispanic women and men have higher unemployment rates than White women and men in each period. Unemployment rates remain higher in 2016 than in 2007 for most groups. Only Black men have an unemployment rate in 2016 comparable to 2007, but the unemployment rate in 2016 remains more than twice as high for Black men (9.1 percent) compared to White men (4.4 percent). After seven years of recovery, Black men’s unemployment rate is comparable to White men’s unemployment rate (9.4 percent) at the official business cycle trough. Similarly, Black women’s unemployment rate in 2016 (7.8 percent) is comparable to the unemployment for White women (7.3 percent) at the low point in the current business cycle.

Update 19: The Asset Value of Whiteness: Understanding the Racial Wealth Gap


Update 20: The Asset Value of Whiteness: Understanding the Racial Wealth Gap, Amy Traub, Laura Sullivan, Tatjana Meschede, and Tom Shapiro

Racial inequality in wealth is rooted in historic discrimination and perpetuated by policy: our analyses show that individual behavior is not the driving force behind racial wealth disparities. Typical black and Latino households that attend college and live in two-parent households still have much less wealth than similarly situated white households. Black and Latino households that include a full-time worker have much less wealth than white households with a full-time worker, and only slightly more wealth at the median than white households where the only person employed works part time. Differences in spending habits also fail to explain wealth disparities between black and white households.

See also: This is the one big reason American blacks are poorer than whites

We are well past time to confront these issues, and thus, I offer below links to a significant body of work building our case against grit:

March #Educolor Chat – Grit and Rigor

My posts on “grit”:

NPR Whitewashes “Grit” Narrative

Shiny Happy People: NPR, “Grit,” and “Myths that Deform” pt. 2

The Poverty Trap: Slack, Not Grit, Creates Achievement

The “Grit” Narrative, “Grit” Research, and Codes that Blind

Misreading “Grit”: On Treating Children Better than Salmon or Sea Turtles

Kids Count on Public Education, Not Grit or “No Excuses”

Learning and Teaching in Scarcity: How High-Stakes ‘Accountability’ Cultivates Failure

An Open Apology, with Explanations: Math, Behaviorism, and “Grit”

Snow Blind: “Trapped in the Amber of This Moment”

From Ira Socol:

Paul Tough v. Peter Høeg – or – the Advantages and Limits of “Research”

“Grit” Part 2 – Is “Slack” What Kids Need?

“Grit” – Part 3: Is it “an abundance of possibility” our kids need?

Grit Part 4: Abundance, Authenticity, and the Multi-Year Mentor

Angela Duckworth’s Eugenics – the University of Pennsylvania and the MacArthur Foundation

From Katie Osgood:

Ignoring Mental Health in the Grit Debate

And (please see the discussion thread):

Does “Grit” Need Deeper Discussion?

Note Living in Dialogue post from Lauren Anderson, EdWeek Editor’s Note, and comments:

Lauren Anderson: Grit, Galton, and Eugenics

And a consideration of Anderson:

Grit and Galton; Is psychological research into traits inherently problematic? Cedar Rienar


I Think a MacArthur Genius Is Wrong About ‘Grit,’ John Warner

Got Grit? Dena Simmons

Media Fail, 10,000 hours, and Grit: The Great Media-Disciplines Divide, pt. 2

In his The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists: Why the APS Observer Needs Peer Review When Summarizing New Scientific Developments [1], K. Anders Ericsson makes several key points about how the mainstream media present disciplinary knowledge to the public, focusing on Malcolm Gladwell’s misleading but popular 10,000 hour rule.

Ericsson’s key point includes:

Although I accept that the process of writing an engaging popular article requires considerable simplification, I think it is essential that the article does not contain incorrect statements and misinformation. My primary goal with this review is to describe several claims in Jaffe’s article that were simply false or clearly misleading and then discuss how APS might successfully develop successful methods for providing research summaries for non-specialists that are informative and accurately presents the major views of APS members and Fellows. At the very least they should not contain factually incorrect statements and avoid reinforcing existing misconceptions in the popular media.

Through the Gladwell/10,000 hour rule example, Ericsson provides an important argument relevant to the current (and historical) public debate about school quality, teaching and learning, and education reform.

Much in the same way Gladwell has misrepresented research (which is typical within the media), and how that has been uncritically embraced by the media and public (as well as many if not most practitioners), a wide array of issues have received the same fate: learning styles, “grit,” collaborative learning, progressive education, charter schools, school choice, language gap, and so on.

Even when a claim or practice has a kernel of research at its source, popular oversimplification (often by journalists, but practitioners as well) and then commercialization/politicizing (creating programs and policies through publishers, “star” advocates, and legislation) significantly distort that research.

Education Has Failed Research, Historically

John Dewey represents an odd paradox in that he is possibly the most mentioned educator in the U.S. (either as the source of all that is wrong in education or idealistically cited as all that is right about how school could be), despite the reality that Dewey is mostly misunderstood and misrepresented; and thus his philosophy, progressivism, remains mostly absent in U.S. public schools.

Dewey can be blamed, in part, for this reality because he refused on principle to allow his experiments in education to be carefully catalogued because he believed no educational practice should be come a template for others.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, Lou LaBrant, a vigilant progressive educator, spent much of her career practicing and advocating for progressive literacy instruction, but LaBrant also confronted the many instances of how progressivism was misrepresented.

Broadly, and early, LaBrant recognized the public confusion about progressivism:

Two adults speak of “progressive education.” One means a school where responsibility, critical thinking, and honest expression are emphasized; the other thinks of license, lack of plans, irresponsibility. They argue fruitlessly about being “for” or “against” progressive education. (LaBrant, 1944, pp. 477-478)

But she also confronted how progressivism was mostly distorted in its application. LaBrant’s criticisms still reflect why education has failed research, and why research has not failed education.

Credible educational research-based philosophy, theory, and pedagogy are often corrupted by oversimplification.

In 1931, LaBrant published a scathing criticism of the popularity of the project method, an oversimplification of Dewey that resulted in students doing crafts in English class instead of reading or writing:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. (p. 245)

Credible educational research is often corrupted by commercialization/politicizing, reducing that research to misguided programs/legislation.

“[L]anguage behavior can not be reduced to formula,” LaBrant (1947) argued (p. 20)—emphasizing that literacy growth was complicated but flourished when it was child-centered and practical (for example, in the ways many privileged children experience in their homes because one or more of the parents are afforded the conditions within which to foster their children’s literacy).

By mid-twentieth century, LaBrant (1949) had identified the central failure of teaching reading: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).

For at least 80-plus years since LaBrant fought this fight, the same patterns of media, political, public, and practitioners failing educational research have continued

Oversimplification, Commercialization/Politicizing: Recovering the Evidence

The list is incredibly long, too long to be exhaustive here, but consider the following: sloganism (“Work hard. Be nice.”), silver-bullet ideologies (“grit,” 10,000-hour rule), miracle schools (KIPP), evidence-based programs (Dibbles, 4-block, 6-traits), common sense claims and policy absent evidence (Common Core), and trendy legislation (3rd-grade retention policies as reading policy, merit pay) as well as politicized government reports (National Reading Panel).

Each of these can be traced to some kernel of research (sometimes robust bodies of research, and sometimes cherry-picked research), but all of these represent a current and historical fact: Education has failed research, but research has not failed education.

When educational research is reduced to scripts or programs/legislation, that knowledge base is invariably distorted, corrupted—as Ericsson details well above.

Journalists, politicians, and commercial education entities have all played a fundamental and crippling role in this reality; thus, as Ericsson argues, educators, scholars and researchers must not allow the fate of educational research to remain primarily in the wrong hands.

We have a public and professional obligation to confront these oversimplifications as well as the commercialization/politicizing of educational research. And we must do this through our public work that speaks to those failures and the public simultaneously.

As LaBrant and Ericsson reveal, unless we take that call seriously, we too are part of the reason education continues to fail research.


LaBrant, L. (1949). A genetic approach to language. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT.

LaBrant, L. (1947). Um-brel-la has syllables three. The Packet, 2(1), 20-25.

LaBrant, L. (1944, November). The words they know. The English Journal, 33(9), 475-480.

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). MasqueradingThe English Journal, 20(3), pp. 244-246.

For Further Reading

U.S. and Education Reform Need a Critical Free Press

My Open Letter to Journalists: A Critical Free Press, pt. 2

NPR Whitewashes “Grit” Narrative

Shiny Happy People: NPR, “Grit,” and “Myths that Deform” pt. 2

How I Learned to Distrust the Media (about Education)

My (Often Painful) Online Education

[1] See original and downloadable link to the paper here.

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

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

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

There are moments, however, when I hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Charter Sham Formula: Billionaires + Flawed “Reports” + Press Release Media = Misled Public

Late in 2013, I shared my own experience with the disaster capitalism tactics employed by the Walton-funded Department of Education Reform (University of Arkansas), asking: For the Record: Should We Trust Advocates of “No Excuses”?

I detailed reasons why the answer is clearly “No”: the funding determines the claims in the so-called reports (see Pulling a Greene: Why Advocacy and Market Forces Fail Education Reform [Redux]), the nasty and unmerited swipes misrepresenting my view of children and parents in poverty (swipes I directly refuted but were allowed to remain in print; see For the Record noted above), and the racist/classist underpinnings of the practices practiced among “no excuses” charters (see Criticizing KIPP Critics).

But billionaires buying the appearance of credible scholarly research on education reform would not go very far without the blind allegiance of press release journalism (see HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE).

And all of those factors combined reveal the Charter Sham Formula: Billionaires + Flawed “Reports” + Press Release Media = Misled Public.

That formula is business as usual, regretfully, and one of the most recent and egregious examples can be found at The Post and Courier (Charleston), a frequent contributor to misinforming the public due to a failure to examine the credibility of reports: A bigger bang for school bucks:

An increasing number of parents who shop around before choosing a school for their children are opting for charter schools because they like the academic environment. But they might not be aware that those same schools also are giving the public a bigger bang for their buck than traditional schools.

Research at the University of Arkansas shows that charter schools in 30 states are neck-and-neck with traditional schools on eighth grade standardized tests. But they achieve those scores for significantly less money.

Imagine what they might do if charter schools were funded equitably.

Or better yet, imagine what we could do in our public schools if the mainstream media didn’t continue to follow blindly the lead of billionaires determined to dismantle those schools.

About that “Research at the University of Arkansas,” which the P&C could have easily found by just googling, let’s consider a critique by Bruce Baker, Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, who first notes the flaws in similar claims found in an earlier report about charter schools from the same source:

The University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform has just produced a follow up to their previous analysis in which they proclaimed boldly that charter schools are desperately uniformly everywhere and anywhere deprived of thousands of dollars per pupil when compared with their bloated overfunded public district counterparts (yes… that’s a bit of a mis-characterization of their claims… but closer than their bizarre characterization of my critique).

I wrote a critique of that report pointing out how they had made numerous bogus assumptions and ill-conceived, technically inept comparisons which in most cases dramatically overstated their predetermined, handsomely paid for, but shamelessly wrong claims.

That critique is here:

The previous report proclaiming dreadful underfunding of charter schools leads to the low hanging fruit opportunity to point out that even if charter schools have close to the same test scores as district schools – and do so for so00000 much less money – they are therefore far more efficient. And thus, the nifty new follow up report on charter school productivity – or on how it’s plainly obvious that policymakers get far more for the buck from charters than from those bloated, inefficient public bureaucracies – district schools.

After detailing the repeated flaws in the report cited as credible by the P&C, Baker concludes:

Yes – that’s right – either this is an egregious display of complete ignorance and methodological ineptitude, or this new report is a blatant and intentional misrepresentation of data. So which is it? I’m inclined to believe the latter, but I guess either is possible.

Oh… and separately, in this earlier report, Kevin Welner and I discuss appropriate methods for evaluating relative efficiency (the appropriate framework for such comparisons)…. And to no surprise the methods in this new UARK report regarding relative efficiency are also complete junk. Put simply, and perhaps I’ll get to more detail at a later point, a simple “dollars per NAEP score” comparison, or the silly ROI method used in their report are entirely insufficient (especially as some state aggregate endeavor???).

And it doesn’t take too much of a literature search to turn up the rather large body of literature on relative efficiency analysis in education – and the methodological difficulties in estimating relative efficiency. So, even setting aside the fact that the spending measures in this study are complete junk, the cost effectiveness and ROI approaches used are intellectually flaccid and methodologically ham-fisted.

But if the measures of inputs suck to begin with, then the methods applied to those measures really don’t matter so much.

To say this new UARK charter productivity study is built on a foundation of sand would be offensive… to sand.

And I like sand.

No, charter schools are not offering a bigger bang for school bucks. In fact, charter schools are often nearly identical to public schools in both strengths and weaknesses (including the return of resegregation in both).

What is getting a bigger bang for the bucks? The Walton family and a wide assortment of other billionaire/edu-reformers.

What is providing that bang? The mainstream media that have chosen press release journalism because googling* is simply too much to expect, I suppose.

* Or just follow Bruce Baker (@SchlFinance101), Shanker Institute (@shankerinst), and NEPC (@NEPCtweet) on Twitter.

NOTE: See how corrosive these reports are as they become part of how the public responds to critical examinations of education and education reform: comment at AlterNet.