Teaching “Grit,” Blaming the Poor, and Undermining the Public Will to Address Poverty

Our preoccupation in American education with character formation defined as “grit” is integral to our culture’s rock-solid belief in the myth of the American Dream.  It doesn’t matter that economists today are documenting rigidifying inequality with the rise of incomes at the top, wage stagnation for families in the middle, and deepening poverty and segregation among those at the very bottom. It doesn’t matter that Nobel Prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz explains: “There’s no use in pretending. In spite of the enduring belief that Americans enjoy greater social mobility than their European counterparts, America is no longer the land of opportunity.” (The Price of Inequality, p. 265)  And it doesn’t matter that last year Robert Putnam published a whole book about the increasing rigidity of social stratification in America: “Graphically, the ups and downs of inequality in America during the twentieth century trace a gigantic U, beginning and ending in two Gilded Ages, but with a long period of relative equality around mid-century… In the early 1970s, however, that decades-long equalizing trend began to reverse, slowly at first but then with accelerating harshness… (I)n the 1980s the top began to pull away from everyone else, and in the first decades of the twenty-first century the very top began to pull away even from the top.  Even within each major racial/ethnic group, income inequality rose at the same substantial rate between 1967 and 2011, as richer whites, blacks and Latinos pulled away ….”  (Our Kids, pp. 34-35)

Despite these economic realities, however, and even though most of us know that some people face overwhelming challenges, we sustain a contradiction by holding fast to our belief in the American Dream.  Heather Beth Johnson, a sociologist, and her team of researchers interviewed hundreds of people about their understanding of the rags to riches story.  Here is a typical transcript of one of those interviews: “*Interviewer: ‘Do you think there are some ethnicities, races, groups in this country that are more disadvantaged than others?’  *Responder: ‘Yeah.’  *Interviewer: ‘So you think there are certain groups… as a whole that have a harder time making it today?’ *Responder: ‘Sure. Definitely.’  *Interviewer: ‘Okay, now, what about the American Dream? The idea that with hard work and desire, individual potential is unconstrained… everyone gets an equal chance to get ahead based on their own achievement?’  *Responder: ‘That’s a very good definition.’ *Interviewer: ‘Do you believe that the American Dream is true for all people and that everybody does have an equal chance?’  *Responder: ‘Yes. Everybody has an equal chance, no matter who he or she is.’” (The American Dream and the Power of Wealth, pp. 146-147)

We pin our hopes on social mobility through hard work and desire. It is an especially appealing myth in an era when we know that addressing the problems of inequality, poverty, segregation, and massive inequity of school resources would be very difficult and very expensive. Yesterday for the NY Times, Kate Zernike reported on an effort in a handful of California school districts to teach “grit” and to make standardized tests evaluate whether students are learning and schools are teaching the character skills thought to contribute to success in life:  “As reward for minutes without misconduct, they win prizes like 20 seconds to kick their feet up on their desks or to play rock-paper-scissors.  And starting this year, their school and schools in eight other California districts will test students on how well they have learned the kind of skills like self-control and conscientiousness… ones that might be described as everything you should have learned in kindergarten but are still reading self-help books to master in middle age.”

Paul Tough, in his 2012 book How Children Succeed, lauded the idea that schools should focus on strengthening character.  He profiled the work of Angela Duckworth and her scale of character traits that included: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity. (p, 76)  Duckworth herself is reported in yesterday’s NY Times piece, however, to oppose the idea of testing character: “‘I do not think we should be doing this; it is a bad idea,’ said Angela Duckworth, the MacArthur fellow who has done more than anyone to popularize social-emotional learning…. She resigned from the board of the group overseeing the California project, saying she could not support using the tests to evaluate school performance.”

Proponents of character education are defending such testing based on an ironic perversion of a provision of the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, that adds one additional element in addition to standardized achievement test scores that states can choose themselves, but which they must submit to the U.S. Department of Education as part of their school evaluation plan. The outcomes-based No Child Left Behind never considered the vast disparities in opportunity created by inequitable school funding, for example, or inequitable access to guidance counselors or inequitable class size.  During the reauthorization process last year, the National Education Association lobbied hard for the addition of an Opportunity Dashboard as part of federally mandated school evaluation. The compromise with a conservative Congress, however, resulted in the addition of only one factor from the proposed dashboard that states could choose to add when they submitted their data to the U.S. Department of Education.  Here is how NEA describes what that extra factor is intended to be: “For the first time in ESEA’s long history, the Every Student Succeeds Act requires that…. (t)o help ensure resource equity and opportunity for all students… state-designed accountability systems must include at least one ‘dashboard’ indicator of school success or student support—for example, access to advanced coursework, fine arts, and regular physical education; school climate and safety; discipline policies; bullying prevention; and the availability of counselors or nurses.”  California’s experiment with making that one extra factor a student’s score on a standardized character education test is a wacky and dangerous perversion of the law.

Of course, apart from the matter of whether character traits should be tested and schools judged by the results, there are the controversial strategies some schools are already using to “teach” character.  We have heard a lot this month about misguided practices being used to “build character” in no-excuses charter schools.  It has become known that in NYC, at Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charters, staff are taught that when a student cries, it means the child is paying attention and is more likely to shape up. We watched a video in which a Success Academy teacher berated a first-grade child and ripped up the student’s paper—a disciplinary technique, we were to assume, would strengthen character.  And then we learned from the child’s mother about her horror as she watched the video in which the teacher insulted her child in front of the child’s peers and undermined her daughter’s confidence.  Also well known is the behavior code used to teach character in KIPP (Knowledge is Power) charter schools, where students are expected to SLANT: Sit up—Listen—Ask and Answer questions—Nod—Track the speaker.

In the 2014 revision of his classic, Why School?, Mike Rose added an extra chapter, “Being Careful About Character,” in response to Paul Tough’s book and to what Rose surmised might be a dangerous educational strategy.  He warns: “When the emphasis on character is focused on the individual attributes of poor children as the reason for their subpar academic performance, it can remove broader policies to address poverty and educational inequality from public discussion… (W)e have to be very careful, given the political tenor of our time, not to assume that we have the long-awaited key to helping the poor overcome the assaults of poverty.  My worry is that we will embrace these essentially individual and technocratic fixes—mental conditioning for the poor—and abandon broader social policy aimed at poverty itself.”

Rose continues: “We have a long-standing shameful tendency in America to attribute all sorts of pathologies to the poor… We seem willing to accept remedies for the poor that we are not willing to accept for anyone else.  We should use our science to figure out why that is so—and then develop the character and courage to fully address poverty when it is an unpopular cause.” (Why School?,  2014 Revised Edition, pp. 112-115)

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9 thoughts on “Teaching “Grit,” Blaming the Poor, and Undermining the Public Will to Address Poverty

  1. The “grit myth” is a false idol still adored by so many in America. As long as this is held in such high esteem, poverty and injustice will continue to increase. This idea of picking yourself up by your own bootstraps continues to ignore that more and more of this nation’s citizens have lost the only pair of boots they used to own. As George Carlin put it, “To believe in the American Dream, you have to be asleep.”

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