It’s becoming clear that the American Dream is increasingly a myth, that America is not really a meritocracy, and that it’s become virtually impossible to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” these days if you are very poor. The Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz describes today’s America: “The simple story of America is this: the rich are getting richer, the richest of the rich are getting still richer, the poor are becoming poorer and more numerous, and the middle class is being hollowed out… Disparities in household income are related to disparities in wages and in wealth and income from capital—and inequality in both is increasing.” (The Price of Inequality, 2012, p. 7)
Among poor children, income inequality is reinforced by unequal access to education and our society’s fragmented and uneven attempts to do anything about it. Sociologist Karl Alexander and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University explain the results of a longitudinal study that has tracked the lifetime trajectory of students who were first graders in Baltimore in 1982. Alexander and his colleagues remind us that for students they call “the urban disadvantaged,” social mobility has always been lacking and our attempts to assist children sporadic and inadequate: “There is no simple or single solution to children’s academic challenges. Rather, small influences accumulate to produce large and lasting consequences… We believe that help at strategic points could boost prospects for more of the urban disadvantaged to get ahead through school. For disadvantaged children, however, the school improvement agenda typically is served a la carte or piecemeal. Many reforms have been tried and some of them hold great promise, but as a society we have yet to implement those reforms systematically in concert and with a sustained commitment.” Alexander and his colleagues suggest that if we did all of the following and did them systemically, it might make a significant difference: provide high quality preschool; address the residential segregation that defines hypersegregated, hyperpoverty neighborhoods; reduce class size; provide engaging summer and after-school programs; ensure well-qualified, well-prepared and well-compensated teachers in the poorest communities; ensure challenging standards and curricula with instructional scaffolding to ensure that children can achieve what is expected; integrate schools economically; and make classrooms respectful of all cultures and the needs of all kinds of parents. (The Long Shadow, 2014, pp. 178-179).
Sociologist Patrick Sharkey explains that economic inequality too often tracks race: “(B)eing raised in a high-poverty neighborhood is extremely rare for whites… but is the norm for African Americans. Among children born from 1955 through 1970, only 4 percent of whites were raised in neighborhoods with at least 20 percent poverty, compared to 62 percent of African Americans. Three out of four white children were raised in neighborhoods with less than 10 percent poverty, compared to just 9 percent of African Americans. Essentially no white children were raised in neighborhoods with at least 30 percent poverty, but three in ten African Americans were. These figures reveal that African American children born from the mid-1950s to 1970 were surrounded by poverty to a degree that was virtually nonexistent for whites.” (Stuck in Place, 2013, pp. 26-27)
Focusing on families in the white middle class during the decades Alexander and Sharkey describe, Robert Putnam explains: “Though it might seem natural to label them ‘self-made,’ in many unnoticed ways they benefited from family and community supports that are nowadays less readily available to kids from such modest backgrounds. They grew up in an era when public education and community support for kids from all backgrounds managed to boost a significant number of people up the ladder…. Those supportive institutions, public and private, no longer serve poorer kids so well.” Putnam notes that today’s inequality makes it difficult for those who are not poor to see and understand how poverty is experienced: “Because of growing class segregation in America, fewer and fewer successful people (and even fewer of our children) have much idea how the other half lives. So we are less empathetic than we should be to the plight of less privileged kids.” (Our Kids, 2015, pp 229-230)
Maybe it is because our society is so segregated by economics as well as race, and maybe it is partly partly because older Americans remember the post WWII years when white families at least experienced more social mobility, many seem drawn to books like Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed, the 2012 best seller about saving poor black children through character education. If overcoming structural poverty seems too difficult and too expensive for our society to undertake, maybe we can help poor children overcome their disadvantages by teaching grit and determination. Tough quotes the academic research of Angela Duckworth, who developed a grit scale to measure students’ determination. The students with more grit did better at the National Spelling Bee and were less likely to drop out of West Point. How Children Succeed is a feel-good book and its theory has served as the justification for a lot of behaviorist charter schools that focus on toughening children up, but it contains no ideas for ameliorating structural poverty and growing inequality.
Mike Rose, the education writer and professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education, just posted a new piece on his own blog (and also as a guest post in Valerie Strauss’s column) decrying “grit” as a solution to educational inequality: “One of the many frustrating things about education policy and practice in our country is the continual search for the magic bullet…. One such bullet is the latest incarnation of character education, particularly the enthrallment with ‘grit,’ a buzz word for perseverance and determination… I worry about the limited success of past attempts at character education and the danger in our pendulum-swing society that we will shift our attention from improving subject matter instruction… And I fear that we will sacrifice policies aimed at reducing poverty for interventions to change the way poor people see the world.”
Rose has also read Angela Duckworth’s research, and he gives Duckworth and her colleagues credit for honesty about the qualifications and limitations of their study; they did not oversell their theory: “The studies are correlational, so do not demonstrate causality… But Duckworth and her colleagues did something that in retrospect was a brilliant marketing strategy, a master stroke of branding—or re-branding. Rather than calling their construct ‘perseverance’ or ‘persistence,’ they chose to call it ‘grit.’ Can you think of a name that has more resonance in American culture? The fighter who is all heart. The hardscrabble survivor. True Grit. The Little Train that Could. Grit exploded. New York Times commentators, best-selling journalists, the producers of This American Life, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, educational policy makers and administrators all saw the development of grit as away to improve American education, and more pointedly, to improve the achievement of poor children, who, everyone seemed to assume, lacked grit.”
Rose is certainly not opposed to character traits of discipline and perseverance: “Let me repeat here what I’ve written in every other commentary on grit. Of course, perseverance is an important characteristic.” He points out, however, that the victims of our latest “grit” fad are the very children who, it is assumed, will be the beneficiaries of programs in character education: “Regardless of disclaimers, the primary audience for our era’s character education is poor kids. As I and a host of others have written, a focus on individual characteristics of low-income children can take our attention away from the structural inequalities they face… I realize that what grit advocates want is to help young people better cope with such hardship… But if as a society we are not also working to improve the educational and economic realities these young people face, then we are engaging in a cruel hoax, building aspiration and determination for a world that will not fulfill either.”
Rose concludes: “It is hard to finish what you begin when food and housing are unstable, or when you have three or four teachers in a given year, or when there are few people around who are able to guide and direct you. It is equally hard to pursue a career with consistency when jobs available to you are low-wage, short-term and vulnerable, and have few if any benefits or protections… Personality psychology by its disciplinary norms concentrates on the individual, but individual traits and qualities, regardless of how they originate and develop, manifest themselves in social and institutional contexts.” Justice must be systemic; it cannot be achieved one child at a time by schools that emphasize the development of grit.