Teaching ‘grit’

Teaching “grit” — resilience, persistence, conscientiousness — is the topic of an Education Week roundtable.

Teaching non-cognitive skills blames the victim, writes Darnell Fine, a “multicultural educator who facilitates creative writing and education seminars, as well as social justice workshops.” Low-income kids shouldn’t have to adopt middle-class values, he argues.

The teaching of non-cognitive skills pushes a socialization process that homogenizes students into the mainstream culture if they want to “succeed.” These skills send cultural messages on how a student exhibits “good behavior.” They are built upon mainstream beliefs and values that could prove to be culturally irrelevant. Are low-income students therefore “bad” when they don’t assume mainstream society’s cultural ethos?

I hope Fine’s students enjoy being poor because they’re likely to stay that way.

Alison Wright, a math teacher, takes a more pragmatic approach to teaching her students to learn from mistakes, persist etc.

Last week, I gave a short 10-question quiz in my Algebra 2 class. Student A and Student B both received a score of 6/10. Student A looked at the paper, rolled her eyes, threw the quiz on the floor, and loudly complained that the assessment was unfair and “shouldn’t count.” Student B, on the other hand, read my comments, reworked the problems to find her mistakes, and then after class asked to set up an after-school meeting so we could go over the assessment together and discuss her study habits.

She wonders how she can help Student A “improve her motivation, self-efficacy and overall academic drive.”

“Self-efficacy” or “efficacious thinking” means the belief that what a person does makes a difference. If I do the homework and pay attention in class, I’ll learn something. If I study for the test, I’ll do better on it. Kids taught they’re the helpless victims of social injustice will see no point in working hard in school or even showing up every day. Why exhibit “good behavior” when you have no chance to “succeed.”

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  1. It makes me crazy when a certain kind of liberal refers to positive values such as grit and persistence as “middle class” and implies that these traits are not valued by the parents of poor children. I have no problem teaching non-cognitive skill like these to my students because I know that I am reinforcing the values they are taught at home.

    The majority of poor people work full time. Many work multiple jobs. They are not poor because they or their children have bad values. They are poor because wages have stagnated to the point that a person can work 70 hours a week at or near minimum wage and still be desperately poor. They are poor because 80% of the people in the US struggle to get by on only 7% of our nation’s wealth. It was not always this way. The United States is increasingly coming to resemble a third world country in which most of the wealth is concentrated into the hands of a tiny few. What does it mean that six Americans (the Walmart heirs) have more money the the bottom 30% of Americans combined? That kind of disparity used to be found only in nations like India or Afghanistan.

    • According to this Forbes writer, anyone who has $10 and no debt has more wealth than the poorest 25% of Americans combined. That is, 25% of the population had zero or negative equity (in 2011).

      • I’m not sure that it’s fair to count the people with 0 equity as the ‘poorest.’ Most of the ‘poor’ don’t have a lot of debt… they just don;t have income either..they depend on the government for sustenance.

        Meanwhile, a lot of middle class people have zero equity when you consider their mortgage and student loans. Month to month, they’re fine. They have enough saved for a middling sized crisis, but…. they may have a large mortgage (bigger than the current value of the house) and student loans which put their actual equity at 0 or below.

        But we wouldn’t consider those people worse off than the jobless in the ghetto.

    • “What does it mean that six Americans (the Walmart heirs) have more money the the bottom 30% of Americans combined?”

      It means that if you’ve got grit, persistence and luck you might end up a zillionaire which, if your first paragraph is a clue, is a proper outcome.

      I don’t find anything even slightly reprehensible about the fortune John Walton amassed. There was no coercion involved and the efficiency and competitiveness of Walmart has measurably improved the lives of everyone but most especially the poor. That’s rather more then can be said for all the social justice proponents taken together along with all the welfare programs as well.

  2. Diligence, persistence and conscientiousness are embodied in the Puritan work ethic. In combination with the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, its virtues were explicitly taught for generations and enabled the success of uncounted Americans. The explicit rejection of same, over the past 40 years, has not created notable success. Coveting – even demanding – the fruits of others’ labor has brought neither happiness nor peace.

  3. I think that it’s safe to say that anyone working 70 hours a week has plenty of diligence, persistence and conscientiousness. It’s the McDonald’s Corporation that has determined that an individual making minimum wage could work that many hours and still be in poverty. The level of inequality we are seeing today is something new. In 1956, the real purchasing power of the minimum wage was much higher than it is now. In the 1950’s, the average compensation for a CEO was around 20 times that of an ordinary worker. Today average CEO pay is over 400 times that of the average worker. Canada has surpassed the United States in GDP. It is worth noting that in Canada the current average CEO pay is 20 times that of the average worker, just as it used to be in the United States. Inequality in the United States is now much closer to what we see in Mexico. Inequality and wage stagnation are even reaching into traditionally middle class jobs. Pay for engineers has been flat for a decade, even as CEO’s have insisted that we must let more foreign engineers into the country because they can’t afford American engineers. We could easily afford American engineers if wages were not so radically out of whack in the United States.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      What you say about min wage would be more useful if you acknowledged that min wage jobs are almost always the second or third wage earner in a household. But if you insist, taking a billion from some ratbastard CEOs would jump the pay of how many engineers if each got a $50k raise? Then what would you do next year?
      Still, envy is a hell of a useful political tool.

    • Cranberry says:

      Canada has not surpassed the US in GDP. It sits at #11, the US at #1. The US GDP was 8X as large as Canada’s, as of 2012.

      In GDP per capita, the US still leads. It sits at # 14, Canada at #19.

  4. Actually raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour would lift half of the working poor out of poverty http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/20/10-minimum-wage_n_3474024.html

    Since the average CEO in the US makes 475 times the pay of the average worker every single year, it would actually be quite easy to increase the wages of Americans with engineering degrees. This is called supply and demand, and it is what happens when the economy is not rigged. The reason that wages for engineers have flat-lined is because the wealthy have lobbied politicians to flood the market with low wage engineers.

    Try talking to someone who actually lived in the 1950’s. There was nothing like the extreme inequality that we see now, and the economy was booming.

    • Raising the minium wage only means that businesses would hire fewer people; it’s an economic fact. Historically, ithe minimum wage was a union demand to prevent people – disproportionately blacks and young people – from working for lower wages. Businesses need to make a profit to survive (unlike government) and they can’t do it by paying unskilled and low-skilled workers more than they are worth.

      Yes, the economy was booming, but the 50s-60s were a historical abberation, in that Europe and Japan had not yet rebuilt their manufacturing capacity after the devastation of WWII. The US could set high prices because there was no competition, and could afford to pay high wages for unskilled work. (By about 1970, that changed.)Taxes were low. There was also no big-government spending on welfare and housing; almost everyone in my town was poor but everyone worked. Charity was strictly private. Health insurance was a major medical policy to cover significant hospitalizations and illnesses; people paid cash for doctor visits, x-rays for broken arms, lab tests for strep throat and medications.

      Yes, I lived in the 50s, when most of the technological advances we take for granted didn’t exist or were limited to the affluent. Few people in my town had clothes dryers, let alone dishwashers, no one had more than one car, no one had A/C in their house, many houses were heated by wood and coal, and most people had no TV.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      Ray. That is only if each worker is considered a household.
      Secondly, if engineers were paid more, the stuff they do would cost more, thus having an impact on the buying–especialy the poorest–public.
      Some years ago, a guy wrote a book generally hostile to Walmart. So, in an admission against interest, he noted that, when Walmart shows up, grocery prices drop by about 15% in the area, thus providing an extra six weeks’ food for the poor. And that’s not counting the self-anointed elites’ smug shopping at Whole Paycheck Foods.
      Very important economic principle, TANSTAAFL.

    • Actually, it wouldn’t, because we determine the poverty line based on median income. So if those people were no longer poor, a different group would be poor. The poor will always be with you, especially if we define them as a certain percentage of the population.

    • The reason that wages for engineers have flat-lined is because the wealthy have lobbied politicians to flood the market with low wage engineers.

      So, question for you, Ray. Are you for inequality or against it? Is it truly OK to raise the wages of American engineers and leave those Chinese and Indians poor by engaging in protectionism? Is this not also creating inequality? Or, does that not matter because the people getting the raw deal are “those people”?

  5. Research shows that raising the minimum wage does not increase unemployment. http://www.raisetheminimumwage.com/pages/job-loss

    During the 1950’s, it was not uncommon for a man to raise a family of four children on his salary alone while his wife worked full time as a homemaker. Ordinary people paid less in taxes because tax rates were more fair.

    If high inequality is such a good thing, Canadians should have a lower net worth. Does anyone think that high inequality nations like Afghanistan or India are a model that the US should follow?

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      Ray. I lived then. Amongn other things, the hoped-for standard of living was considerably lower. About where the average poor family is these days.
      Don’t know about more fair, but the taxes certainly were lower.
      The term “two-car garage” had the overtone of conspicuous consumption. Vacations were usually either visiting relatives or staying home and going to amusement parks and on picnics, or if there were lakes nearby, fishing and swimming.
      When I got to college my freshman year, guys who brought their own desk lamps were considered to have thought ahead and spent some money. One or two guys on the floor had a record player.
      I could go on, Ray, but the reality is different than you would like.
      When I was getting min wage of $1.85, learning a trade and how small business worked and so forth, gas was thirty cents. The taxes on gas these days are, depending on where you are, up to twice that.

      • The buying power of the median income in the 1950’s was well above the current poverty line. Because the minimum wage was higher, people in 1956 would not work 70 hour weeks and still be in poverty.

        If inequality is such a wonderful thing, then the Mexican economy must be heaven on earth as opposed to the terrible conditions in Canada. The United States already has a level of inequality that is closer to Mexico than to Canada. I am amazed by people who look upon the inequality found in third world countries as a model for the United States.

    • Research shows no such thing.

      A job is only worth what someone’s willing to pay to have it done.

      Any other arrangement is coercive in nature including the misnamed “minimum wage”. The true minimum wage is, and always will be, zero dollars which is what you earn if you don’t have a job. The minimum wage, which is your new, best friend, ensures that lots of people who might otherwise be working get nothing.

      But hey, so what? They really only exist so you can feel heroic performing your unrequested, and damaging, championing on their behalf.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        Well, Allen, there could be “misinformed”, and there could be Cloward-Piven.
        Used to be, you wouldn’t think of things like C-P. Too outrageous. Nobody would do that. Today, it would be imprudent not to consider the possibility.
        As to net worth, did Canada have the CRA?

        • Both misinformation and coercion, whether by staged crisis or by guys with guns, self-correct by the operation of the free market although the corrective action doesn’t necessarily occur when those subject to the misinformation and coercion would prefer it happen.

          Misinformation’s corrected by the introduction of accurate information, for which there’s a premium in an atmosphere of misinformation and coercion always leads to lower economic efficiency, i.e. poverty.

          People don’t like to be poor so an unorganized consensus inevitably builds against those who benefit from the coercion.

          That’s why the Waltons don’t garner anywhere near the hatred and envy the likes of Ray believes they ought too. It’s widely understood that the wealth of the Waltons didn’t come via coercion and in fact is the reward for improving everyone’s quality of life.

          • Richard Aubrey says:

            Grover Norquist–wrong on immigration–said there is the free stuff coalition and the leave-me-alone coalition. There is the Heather has Two Mommies coalition and Heather has Two Hunters Coalition. Just a slight implication there.
            Speaking of immigration, Ray, what do you think of importing ten million plus of low-skill workers to exert downward pressure on the current low-skill worker cohort? Would that be the same as for engineers, or would it be different just because?

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      There is research showing that some minimum wage increases have not caused additional unemployment in some places at some times. There has been more research showing that it has.

      Of course, everyone agrees that raising the minimum wage to $100 an hour would cause lots of job loss. The empirical question is how much a $1 or $2 or $5 increase would. Some “living wage” proposals get into that latter range, and anyone who thinks an increase of that magnitude would have no effect on employment is tragically mistaken.

      Raising the minimum helps some people–those who keep minimum wage jobs or are hired into them–and hurts some people–people who are let go or, much more common, never get hired in the first place.

      Megan McArdle thinks the latter suffer more. I tend to agree.


      • Typically when demand for labor is so high that the minimum wage is superfluous is when raising the minimum wage doesn’t result in unemployment. But of course once the economy regresses to the mean those folks at the bottom of the wage scale are gone.

        All this “living wage” nonsense serves only to divert from the fact that a job has a certain value and if the value of the job is less then the wage that has to be paid the job won’t be filled.

        But if you look at the larger context a minimum wage is damaging to the economy as a whole.

        All those jobs that aren’t filled means the economy will expand at a slower rate for the obvious reason that worthwhile work has been artificially priced out of the market courtesy of a minimum wage.

  6. Michael E. Lopez says:

    First off, I absolutely HATE the word “grit” in the educational context. I’d never choose to use it myself, because it smacks of blackboxing — giving a name to a very complex process or thing without doing anything to explicate its function or nature. (Think Underpants Gnomes, labelling Step 2 as “grit”.)

    The “grit” that is needed is not the grit of putting one’s self to work at flipping burgers 70 hours a week. That’s just endurance. A plow horse has that sort of grit. Strength and endurance are admirable traits — but they’re not what we’re talking about when we talk about the grit that “poor people need.”

    Fine is right that what is at play here is a sort of values-colonialism. It has nothing to do with grit. It has to do with what students… what children are taught to recognize as valuable. How they are taught to respond to certain types of authority. What they are taught to value in relationships.

    There *are* different ways of living, different ways of looking at the world, different ways of perceiving value. If there is any truth to value at all (and I recognize that there may not be) then it will follow that some ways of looking at the world will be more accurate than others. Some may even be BETTER than others. I take it that a lot of that analysis will depend on what sorts of creatures we are — but it’s not my intent to get into a discussion of Aristotelian functionalism.

    There’s no question that what some people have in mind is a sort of “missionary” work into the inner cities, into the sordid hybrid of tribal criminal culture and mass media that has become the culture of so many in our underclass.

    The only questions are how drastic the measures are people willing to engage in to perform it (are we going to simply take children away from parents?) and, ultimately, whether this sort of missionary work is a bad thing or not.

    I find myself surprised at how ambivalent I feel about it. Allison Wright gives her example in such a way that it naturally paints the second student in a more sympathetic light. But what if the test was unfair? What if the first student is recognizing that school is a silly, soul-crushing, obnoxiously facist, inefficient waste of his or her time?

    That might be true even at the same time that it’s true that learning Algebra 2 really is something valuable.

    • I have not problem acknowledging that some values are better than others. I simply point out that most poor people have values that are not very different from the values of the middle class. The great majority of poor families are not part of a “sordid…criminal culture”. They are honest and hard working. Are you really going to suggest that engineering salaries have flat-lined because people with engineering degrees have “bad values”?

      • Michael E. Lopez says:


        First off, if you’re going to quote, please do it honestly. I did not reference a “sordid… criminal culture.” I referenced a “sordid hybrid of tribal criminal culture and mass media that has become the culture of so many in our underclass”. Those other words are important, and taking them out changes the meaning of the phrase; a “criminal culture” is the culture of actual criminals — what I was talking about is the gang-influenced media culture that one sees on display in certain reality TV shows, and celebrated in various media.

        I don’t know whether the “majority” of “poor families” belong to the hybrid that I’m talking about. (We can debate elsewhere about where to draw the line on “poor”, although the fact that you’re apparently willing to put engineers in there makes me skeptical that such a discussion would be useful.) But I know that a lot of them do. I live in a fairly nice suburb, and I see it among even the so-called “middle class” children: a strong valuing of trappings and swagger and a misguided (in my opinion) sense of personal honor and interpersonal respect.

        And finally, let me answer your question with a question. Do you REALLY THINK that the discussion about grit in education has anything to do with the sorts of people who become *engineers*, no matter how mediocre their pay scales?

        • Richard Aubrey says:

          The guy working seventy hours a week is, in a sense, forced to do it. If he does not, his income suffers immediately. In the example given, neither student is forced to study or improve by the picture of an immediate loss of something valuable. Among other things, student A doesn’t think grades are valuable enough to do something about hers.
          OTOH, Asian kids frequently do, which is a function of family expectations.
          “Unfair” coming from an adolescent means “I don’t like it,” not that it’s actually unfair, and student B seemed okay with the quiz’ fairness.
          The seventy-hour worker may be showing grit and student B is, also, but they’re different kinds.
          Keep in mind that one of the memes of education is, “achieve [insert desired level of education here] and you’ll earn [insert amount] more by the time you retire. That’s kids. You know, with the undeveloped brain and the deficient future time orientation. Commission salesmen, otoh, get their reward for effort at the end of the month. So we give adults short effort-reward time and kids we promise the longest imaginable.
          They are going to need a boot in the southern exposure from time to time and the Asian culture seems to know how to do it.

  7. Elizabeth says:

    People like Darnell are not only foolish, they are dangerous. People become/stay middle class because of their values. And Ray, the majority of “poor” people are not working 70-hour weeks at minimum wage. Look at the statistics – the poor work way fewer hours than the non-poor. Minimum wage is an entry-level wage. It is the wage for young and part time workers. If it is raised significantly, all you will end up with is with an even higher youth unemployment rate.