Monday, March 10, 2014

True 'grit'

The next of my fellow academics who mentions the word "grit" to me is going to feel the wrath of my electric sander on their behind. This latest in a long line ed clich├ęs, has become the buzzword du jour of the no-excuses, corporate school reformers like University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth, who claim that grit is the critical ingredient to academic success. The notion was popularized in Paul Tough's book, How Children Succeed and has become the 2014 version of telling poor kids to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. 

Thanks to Pedro Noguera and Anindya Kundu for this gritty response the other day on MSNBC.
More often than not, we discuss disparities in student performance in isolation from other factors that contribute to them, such as inequity in per pupil spending. If instead of posing the problem as an “achievement gap” which reinforces the idea that individual effort is the key factor determining differences in outcomes, we acknowledged it as an “opportunity gap,” we might do much more to address the disparities that limit the ability of children to learn.
Social science research has consistently shown that public school students with higher-income parents are likelier to attain higher levels of education than their lower-income peers. The United States continues to have the highest income inequality among first-world nations, and all the grit in the world will not change that. -- "Why students need more than ‘grit’".
KIPP charter in New Orleans
If Duckworth's name sounds familiar to readers of this blog, it's because I mentioned her in a post last December which focused on her boss, Martin Seligman, director of Penn's Positive Psychology Center, and the guru behind KIPP Charter Schools. Seligman's positive-psychology experiments were also used by the Bush Administration to develop its so-called advanced interrogation techniques used at Guantanamo.

These behavior-modification theories, now being applied to the field of ed reform as well as GITMO's torture chambers, have little in common with the philosophy of  John Dewey and other progressives who often focused on encouraging intellectual freedom and fostering creative intelligence, self-discipline, and social ethic necessary for students to find a meaningful and productive place within both their local community and the world. It was largely these ideas which drove the early small-schools movement of the 1990s.

That's not what the new grit-ists have in mind.


  1. Mike,
    It was great meeting you at the NPE Conference.
    How ironic that the representatives of the very institutions that create these barriers of racism and inequality are the same ones telling those forced behind those barriers to grit their teeth and bare it. It just a grittier version of turn the other cheek. Or KIPP's "Work Hard and Be Nice" mantra which reminds me of the slogan embedded over the gateway to the German concentration camps, "Arbeit macht frei". "Work makes (you) free." I prefer, "Free your mind and the rest will follow."


  2. Hi Professor Klonsky,

    I don't think Tough is presenting grit as some kind of equalizer or cure-all for what ails the system. His argument is that these non-cognitive (character) traits are better predictors of future success than IQ. And since these traits are more malleable than IQ, shouldn't educators help develop them in their students? This doesn't mean grit your teeth and bear it like the above commenter mentioned. Tough acknowledges the achievement gap, but in a system that is not going to change overnight, these kids have to be given the tools to break out of the cycle. Grit doesn't guarantee anything, but it definitely helps. And why can't what Tough is advocating go hand in hand with Dewey's philosophy? I think they can join forces and be effective.

    You can hear Paul Tough talk about some of his findings in an old episode of This American Life:

    Grit-ists unite!


  3. Thanks for the Tough Talk, Elijah. I'm always elated when one of my students responds to one of my blog posts.

    You make a good point re. non-cognitive "character" traits vs. I.Q. (whatever that is) as predictors of future "success" (whatever that is).

    I hope you consider all this in the context of what public education is (should be) all about. For example, is it all about sorting and tracking children at an early age to send the top performers to college, the middle to job market and the low to prison or the street? Lots of our language and metaphors surround these questions.

    I hope you will also take into account how all this has become part of curriculum's code language for race and class. I mean why are "we" trying so hard to predict future success in this race to the top and who are we sending where?

    Another question to consider is, if teaching "grit" is so important, why aren't the grit-ists including it in their own kids' schools?

    As for Dewey, above all he was a democratic educator who once wrote: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”

    As far as I can see, the "grit" or character-building curriculum is something being advocated for "other people's children."

  4. Elijah,
    Check out "The Grit Narritive..." at


Agree? Disagree? Let me hear from you.