What Would It Take to Turn Back the Wave of Behaviorism in American Education?

Public education policy these days is trapped in behaviorist thinking about rewards and punishments.  We have zero-tolerance charter schools that award demerits to children for failing to exhibit good posture, track the speaker, and even wear the socks that are part of the school uniform. We close or privatize schools for failing quickly to raise overall test scores, and we downgrade teachers in their formal evaluations for failing to raise their students’ test scores fast enough. Now the U.S. Department of Education says states must rate colleges of education by tracking whether their graduates, once they get hired as teachers, can produce students whose test scores rise quickly.

David Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and a fellow at the Learning Policy Institute, thinks our education policy’s reliance on behaviorist psychology is technocratic nonsense.  His article in Sunday’s NY Times explains why.

Kirp describes three research studies about interventions by teachers “to combat students’ negative feelings.  I’m dumb, some believe; I don’t belong here; the school views me only as a member of an unintelligent group.”

In one study, “sixth-grade students… (were) taught, in eight lessons that intelligence is malleable, not fixed, and that the brain is a muscle that grows stronger with effort.”  This kind of teaching “aims to change students’ mind-sets by showing them that their intelligence can grow through deliberate work.”

In a second study, when teachers wrote comments on the school work of African American male adolescents, no matter the other critiques on the students’ papers, the teacher explained: “she had high expectations and believed that, if the student worked hard, he could meet her exacting standards.”

In the third study, “sixth graders wrote about values that were meaningful to them, like spending time with their family and friends.”  Such assignments invite students “to situate themselves on the path to belonging or to connect with their values in a classroom setting.  The goals are to build up their resilience and prepare them for adversity.”

Kirp explains: “The impact, in all these studies, is greatest on black and Latino students. That makes sense, since as adolescents they are far more inclined to see teachers as prejudiced and school as a hostile environment. As these youths come to feel more secure they are likely to make a greater effort.  Success begets success… An unpublished study by social psychologists shows that the impact echoes years later.  African-American seventh graders who were asked to write about the most important value in their lives were propelled on an entirely different path from classmates who wrote about neutral topics… The reverberations persisted beyond high school.  These students were more likely to graduate, to enroll in college and to attend more selective institutions. Can this kind of intervention work on a grander scale?  A 2015 study conducted by researchers at Stanford and the University of Texas suggests so.”

Paul Tough has written extensively about character education.  In his recent book, Helping Children Succeed, Tough explains that research conclusively demonstrates the failure of behaviorist rewards and punishments:  “(W)e are mostly motivated not by the material consequences of our actions, but by the inherent enjoyment and meaning that those actions bring us….”  Teachers can motivate children to learn by meeting three basic human needs—for competence, for autonomy, and for relatedness.”  (p. 63)

In his wonderful little book, Why School?, Mike Rose, the education writer and teacher in the Graduate School of Education at UCLA, would attribute our adoption of behaviorism in the schools that serve our society’s poorest children to the way privileged policy makers stigmatize the poor: “Historian Michael Katz has detailed the ways we in the United States have stigmatized the poor through our definitions of them (for example, as undeserving or morally weak) and through the policies we establish to provide assistance to them, such as our narrow and punitive welfare system. Appearance, race, language, and neighborhood are intimately involved in this construction of the poor as different and inferior… The label ‘the poor’ itself becomes a categorial term freighted with deficiency…  If we are separated from a group not only physically but psychologically, then it becomes all the easier to attribute to them motives, beliefs, thoughts—an entire interior life—that might be deeply inaccurate and inadequate. And it is from those attributions that we develop both our personal and public policy responses to poverty.” (pp. 188-189)

We have David Kirp at Berkeley and Mike Rose at UCLA,  a body of academic studies on motivation theory, and Paul Tough a popular writer summarizing all of this. They all  contradict the behaviorism that dominates school policy today. Finally there is the liberation pedagogy of Paulo Freire, the philosopher of education who suggests that teachers must help students become the subjects of their own education, not merely objects manipulated by the behavior codes and high stakes tests of their schools: “To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. Once named, the world in its turn reappears to the namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming…  (S)aying that word is not the privilege of some few persons, but the right of everyone… If it is in speaking their word that people, by naming the world, transform it, dialogue imposes itself as the way by which they achieve significance as human beings.” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, p. 69)

Advertisements

Test Scores Poor Indicator of Students’ Life Outcomes and School Quality: New Consensus?

According to Education Next, “Jay P. Greene is endowed chair and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.” This Arkansas “Department of Education Reform” epitomizes the far-right think tank posing as a university department. For years, Greene has been at the center of education “reform” orthodoxy, and yet today he is questioning one of its primary tenets—the use of short term test score gains as the primary measure of school improvement.  While federal policy in education as prescribed in the new Every Student Succeeds Act continues to prescribe annual testing and the requirement that states develop plans to turn around schools that can’t quickly raise scores, there seems to be growing consensus in the academic world about problems with accountability that is purely test-based.

Here is what Professor Greene posted on his blog on Tuesday:  “I’ve written several times recently about how short term gains in test scores are not associated with improved later life outcomes for students. Schools and programs that increase test scores quite often do not yield higher high school graduation or college attendance rates. Conversely, schools and programs that fail to produce greater gains in test scores sometimes produce impressive improvements in high school graduation and college attendance rates, college completion rates, and even higher employment and earnings. I’ve described at least 8 studies that show a disconnect between raising test scores and stronger later life outcomes.” Greene devotes the rest of his post to describing a new study that replicates these findings.

Greene concludes: “It’s time that people start paying a lot more attention to this pattern of a disconnect between short term test score gains and long term life outcomes. We can’t just dismiss this pattern as a fluke… If we think we can know which schools of choice are good and ought to be expanded and which are bad and ought to be closed based primarily on annual test scores gains, we are sadly mistaken.  Various portfolio management and ‘accountability’ regimes depend almost entirely on this false belief that test scores reveal which are the good and bad schools. The evidence is growing quite strong that these strategies cannot properly distinguish good from bad schools and may be inflicting great harm on students.”

Paul Tough’s new book, Helping Children Succeed, describes educational research that confirms Greene’s concerns about test-based accountability.  Tough explains the research of Kirabo Jackson: “What he found was that some teachers were reliably able to raise their students’ standardized-test scores year after year… But Jackson also found that there was another distinct cohort of teachers who were reliably able to raise their students’ performance on his non-cognitive measure.  If you were assigned to the class of a teacher in this cohort, you were more likely to show up to school, more likely to avoid suspension, more likely to move on to the next grade… Jackson found that these two groups of successful teachers did not necessarily overlap much.” (pp. 69-70)  Tough is describing teachers and schools that build intrinsic motivation and that attend to challenging students, connecting them with other students, and building autonomy. And Tough describes schools that are supportive, not punitive: “When kids feel a sense of belonging at school, when they receive the right kind of messages from an adult who believes they can succeed and who is attending to them with some degree of compassion and respect, they are then more likely to show up to class, to persevere longer at difficult tasks, and to deal more resiliently with the countless small scale setbacks and frustrations that make up the typical student’s school day.” (p. 73)

This week  the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado released a policy brief that cautions about condemning schools that continue to struggle rapidly to raise test scores even as they are in the midst of concerted reform and turnaround.  NEPC’s brief warns:

“Attempts to dramatically turn around schools to show quick improvements in student outcomes are often counterproductive, resulting instead in school conditions associated with persistently low performance. Many quick school turnarounds, like those initiated via the federal School Improvement Grant program, were associated with unintended, negative outcomes such as high teacher turnover, large numbers of inexperienced teachers, administrative instability, poor school and classroom climate, and socioeconomic segregation.”

NEPC instead endorses comprehensive reforms that address the multifaceted issues that are known to affect test scores: “Part of the challenge in turning around schools is that outside-of-school factors likely account for twice as much of the variance in student outcomes as do inside-of-school factors. Accordingly, the community schools approach—one of the most prominent and research-based approaches to sustained reform—addresses the academic, social-emotional, and health needs of children as well as the capacity to systemically meet these needs in communities of concentrated poverty.”

Academic reforms—beyond the social and health reforms that surround children in a wraparound Community School—also take time: “Research offers strong caution against claims of miraculous school change.  Instead, changing a school’s culture and practices in sustainable ways that improve student learning takes years of commitment by all the stakeholders in the school… Effective schools have stable leaders who support teachers…. Effective schools have teacher leadership that’s distributed through the school and that facilitates a continuous improvement cycle…. Effective schools meaningfully engage families and the community.”

The NEPC brief concludes: “Policies that demand rapid school turnaround largely ignore the complexity of reforming schools for sustainable improvement and also ignore out-of-school factors such as poverty, race, and systemic funding disparities. These mistakes arise, in part, from an imbalanced focus on test scores that can be gamed to show temporary and shallow improvements.  Instead, policies should look to a broad range of appropriate interim indicators to assess whether a school is improving.”

All this research points to the need for a radical shift in America’s domestic policy agenda. Our society will be required to reverse tax policy that has slashed public education budgets across many states and also to invest in the institutions, including public schools, that serve America’s poorest children living in concentrated and sometimes extreme poverty across our urban centers.

Paul Tough’s New Book—Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why

Paul Tough’s new book, Helping Children Succeed, is important in a number of ways.  I recommend that you read it, but before I tell you why, I want to offer a couple of cautions. In the first place, Tough’s way of addressing the challenges for poor children is excessively clinical—defined almost medically as the “toxic stress” that results from a childhood in a poor family or neighborhood.  He then prescribes the cure.

Second, and probably more bothersome, Tough is a technocrat.  His interest is in fixing things, and he imagines a toolbox: “For educators, this framework suggests that there are two toolboxes that are most effective to turn to when you’re trying to create an environment conducive to positive student mindsets.  The first toolbox has to do with relationships: how you treat students, how you talk to them, how you reward and discipline them.  The second has to do with pedagogy: what you teach, how you teach it, and how you assess whether your students have learned it.”  If Tough were a teacher, he might think a little differently about working with children, finding a way to connect with them and a way to be supportive, particularly to be kind and gentle with children who may have been damaged.  And Tough might affirm that teachers are taught about ways to work with children as part of their training.  He would recognize that one can look for some of this wisdom inside the schools and the expertise of the people who work there; one doesn’t have to rely exclusively on special model programs being invented here or there, though some of these model programs are, of course, helpful.

Having named those reservations, however, I think this is an important book, as it is evidence that Paul Tough has undergone a transformation in the way he thinks about what needs to happen to improve schooling in America. Tough acknowledges that growing and intensifying poverty are primary problems for too many of America’s children and explains that children living in poverty now make up more than half of the children in our public schools: “Helping poor kids succeed is now, by definition, the central mission of American public schools and, by extension, a central responsibility of the American public.  It is a responsibility we are failing to meet.”  Disparities in achievement between privileged and poor children, “are growing despite the fact that over the past two decades, closing the test-score gaps between affluent and poor children has been a central aim of national education policy as embodied in President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law and President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program… (T)hey have led to little or no improvement in the performance of low-income children as a whole.” (pp. 1-2)

Tough explains that the development of grit—perseverance, conscientiousness, self-control, and optimism—was the subject of his previous and immensely popular book, How Children Succeed.  Tough believes that helping children overcome adversity must be one of the accomplishments of their schooling, but in his new book, through an exhaustive report on the literature of educational psychology and on neurological brain development among infants and toddlers, he shows that the schools that serve our society’s poorest children are doing exactly the wrong things to support these children.

Zero tolerance discipline does not toughen children as its adherents insist, but instead further damages trust and confidence among the students who are likely to feel isolated and alienated: “Most American schools today operate according to a philosophy of discipline… (based) on a belief that schools would be safer and more effective if they allowed for ‘zero tolerance’ of violence, drug use, and other misbehavior….  In 2010, more than a tenth of all public high school students nationwide were suspended at least once.”  In the context of the neuro-biological research Tough describes, “it’s hard to argue that an out-of school suspension will do much to improve that student’s ability to self-regulate.  What it will do, research suggests, is make it more likely that the student will struggle academically.” (pp. 54-55)

Tough thoroughly explains that research conclusively demonstrates the failure of behaviorist rewards and punishments—whether incentivizing good teachers with bonuses or frightening them by publishing their VAM ratings—whether presenting gifts to high achieving students or punishing them for poor behavior or academic achievement.  Incentives and punishments are poor motivators.  “(W)e are mostly motivated not by the material consequences of our actions, but by the inherent enjoyment and meaning that those actions bring us….”  Teachers can motivate children to learn by meeting three basic human needs—for competence, for autonomy, and for relatedness.”  (p. 63)  Instead, in the context of high-stakes testing and accountability, here is how most schools in the poorest communities are forced to operate: “When children run into trouble in school, either academically or in the realm of behavior, most schools respond by imposing more control on them, not less, further diminishing their fragile sense of autonomy.  As students fall behind their peers academically… they feel less and less competent.  And when their relationship with their teacher is wary or even contentious, they are less likiely to experience the kind of relatedness that… powerfully motivate(s) young people.” (p. 64)

What about identifying and evaluating teachers according to their students’ standardized test scores?  Tough cites researcher Kirabo Jackson: “What he found was that some teachers were reliably able to raise their students’ standardized-test scores year after year…But Jackson also found that there was another distinct cohort of teachers who were reliably able to raise their students’ performance on his non-cognitive measure.  If you were assigned to the class of a teacher in this cohort, you were more likely to show up to school, more likely to avoid suspension, more likely to move on to the next grade… Jackson found that these two groups of successful teachers did not necessarily overlap much….” (pp. 69-70)

Sometimes Tough’s adherence to reporting the research seems a little extraneous, when human instinct and compassion would reach the same conclusion, but maybe in these times when school “reform” has gone so far astray, one must prove the obvious.  He concludes a section on motivation this way: “When kids feel a sense of belonging at school, when they receive the right kind of messages from an adult who believes they can succeed and who is attending to them with some degree of compassion and respect, they are then more likely to show up to class, to persevere longer at difficult tasks, and to deal more resiliently with the countless small-scale setbacks and frustrations that make up the typical student’s school day.” (p. 73)  In the book’s last chapters, Tough profiles programs that help students with anger management and self control and that support teachers with particular techniques for de-escalating conflicts, helping students develop autonomy and control over their own learning, creating activities that strengthen relationships through discussion and group activities, and providing students opportunities to experience competence while doing challenging work—practices many of us remember from our best teachers.

Given Tough’s reach as a writer, his argument is absolutely essential for challenging widespread political support for test-based accountability and the strict and punitive environments where many of our society’s most vulnerable children drill the basic material that will appear on their standardized tests.  Tough argues for a philosophy of public education that would help all children develop a sense of belonging and purpose.

My main bone to pick with Tough, however, is his focus on “fixing” individual children at school rather than demanding that our society address the mass of challenges in the lives of the children he describes.  In a recent interview, Tough told Jennifer Berkshire: “(T)he reason that I’m drawn to educational interventions with kids is that they have the potential to be the fastest, most effective and efficient way of improving opportunity and mobility in our country, without having to do grand social re-engineering.”  I believe that lets the rest of us off the hook for pretending we live in a good society when the lives of many children are dominated by injustice.

In the 2014 revision of his classic, Why School?, the education professor and writer Mike Rose added an extra chapter, “Being Careful About Character,” in response to Paul Tough’s previous book, How Children Succeed.  Rose 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…(C)an you imagine the outcry if, let’s say, an old toxic dump were discovered near Scarsdale or Beverly Hills, and the National Institutes of Health undertook a program  to teach kids strategies to lessen the effects of the toxins but didn’t do anything to address the dump itself?” (Why School?,  2014 Revised Edition, pp. 112-115)

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)

Personal Grit Won’t Do It; We Must Address Structural Inequality

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.