Progressives say ‘grit’ is racist

The Knowledge is Power Program – better known as KIPP – has reason to celebrate. In 20 years KIPP has ...
At KIPP charter schools, students are encouraged to develop “grit.” 

“Grit” is racist, according to some progressive educators, reports Ed WeekEduCon 2.7, a conference for “progressive” educators interested in digital learning, included a discussion titled “Grit, Galton, Eugenics, Racism, Calvinism.”

“We keep [hearing] this narrative that the only way children in poverty are going to succeed is by working harder than their peers who are middle class,” said Pamela Moran, the superintendent of the 13,000-student Albemarle County public schools, in Virginia.

To avoid the “terribly racist” consequences of “the grit narrative,” schools and districts should create abundant supports for disadvantaged students, said Ira Socol, Moran’s assistant director for educational technology and innovation, who co-led the discussion.

For example, Albemarle County schools provide a computer for each student with apps and digital tools such as “text-to-speech and voice-dictation software to help struggling students with reading and writing assignments,” reports Ed Week.

Instead of “no excuses,” students are given “flexibility and forgiveness. . . . when it comes to things like homework and class attendance.”

“The attitude is that if a child feels [he or she] can’t be in class, it’s probably for a reason, and we can help them, rather than say, ‘The kid has to be miserable and get through it,'” Socol said. “Wealthy people take ‘mental-health days’ all the time.”

Enabling disadvantaged students to get through school without learning reading, writing or a work ethic strikes me as pretty darned racist. There’s a phrase for that: “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Angela Duckworth’s research shows that certain traits — persistence in pursuit of goals, resilience in the face of obstacles — raise students’ odds of school and college success. Grit may be more important for kids who face more obstacles, but Duckworth never suggested it’s only for the poor– or that it’s the only thing they need.

The idea that “grit” is “racist” is “the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen,” writes Harry Wong in comments. “Hard work” works, he writes. It always has.

Immigrant families who come to America, from Haiti, Bosnia, and Ethiopia . . .  come steeped in the importance of family, respect for others, and the value of hard work. Their accomplishments make our schools look good. They understand that there are no short cuts to success. They come from cultures that stretch back for centuries that value ambition, dedication, diligence, commitment, integrity, determination, fortitude, constancy, responsibility, steadfastness, drive, and perseverance.

I think he’s the Harry Wong.

An Elephant Mom protects her young

In the time of the Tiger Mother, Priyanka Sharma-Sindhar strives to be a protective, nurturing, supportive elephant mom, she writes in The Atlantic.

Sharma-Sindhar grew up in India, where children aren’t reprimanded in the first five years, she writes. “I can’t recall a time when I cried and a grown up didn’t come to console or hold me.” She slept with her mother till she was five.

The phrase I would hear in almost every home we visited during my childhood was some version of ‘Let the kids enjoy themselves.’ They have the rest of their lives to be grown up. And the social fabric of our world supported them. We would go to the fanciest of restaurants with our parents and run around and play tag. No one would stop us—not the managers, not the other diners. It was normal. Soon enough, the servers would join in. It was lovely.

Her elephant mom was a doctor.

I failed a Hindi test when I was in fifth or sixth grade, and I remember going to her, teary-eyed, with my results—and hearing her tell me that it didn’t matter. There were many more tests ahead. As I sobbed in her lap, she stroked my hair, hugged me, and told me there would be another test, and I could pass that one. (I did get the annual proficiency prize for Hindi a year later at the same school.)

Now, she’s raising her own daughter in the U.S. Other parents think she’s coddling her, failing to teach “grit” and resilience.

‘Forget the diploma’ or the GED

Penelope Trunk was asked to provide career coaching to a 19-year-old dropout with no formal job experience. When the girl was kicked out by her aunt — after fleeing an abusive stepfather and prostitute sisters — Trunk took her into the family.

Forget about earning a diploma or a GED, Trunk is advising Kate.

Kate told me, “I was good at school… Well. When I went. I didn’t really go enough to be good at school. But I would have been good.”

I think what she means by that is that she is curious and smart. Which is definitely true. It’s just that when kids don’t have a consistent place to live, they don’t have a reliable way to get to school. . . . she stayed with kids who were expelled which made it even harder to get to school.

Trunk believes she can help Kate “get jobs to figure out what she likes to do.” If she wants to go to college, she can say she was homeschooled and explain “how she spent her childhood worrying where her next meal will come from, and where she will sleep next.”

Both employers and colleges know that the GED is for kids who couldn’t get through the system. . . . The GED is a distraction from your real purpose as an almost-twentysomething, which is to explain why you are special and different and will make a good employee or a good student and most of all, a good member of the community you’d like to be a part of.

Kate does not need any seal of approval from a high school or a testing center.

Employers don’t like to hire people who couldn’t handle high school, even with a GED. They like people who show up every day.

Unless Trunk has very good connections, Kate will have trouble finding a job. Without a diploma or GED, she won’t qualify for a Pell Grant to cover college costs. Colleges don’t give scholarships for survival skills — not without proof of academic competence.

I’d recommend lying. Teach Kate to claim she was homeschooled in the conventional sense and that she’s employed as a nanny for Trunk’s kids.

She can use free online resources to assess and improve her academic skills, then take a community college class to redefine herself as a college student. When she figures out what she wants to do . . . It will be hard, but not impossible.

Can schools build character?

“Performance character” strengths — qualities such as prudence and drive — lead to success in school and work, concludes a Brookings study, The Character Factor.

“Family income and maternal education are positively associated with higher levels of performance character strengths,” the study concludes. That is, the children of educated, middle-class mothers tend to be better at deferring gratification, working toward a long-term goal and persisting in the face of obstacles.

Brookings has posted essays on character and opportunity, such as Ross Thompson on how chronic adversity leads to self-regulatory problems.

Brookings researchers want policymakers to pay attention to the “cultivation” of character skills, notes Robert Pondiscio. What does that mean? “Character value-added measures?”

A figure in the report is headlined “Drive and Prudence Matter as Much as Book Smarts for HS Graduation” (“Book Smarts?” Seriously, Brookings?), but the bar graph clearly shows “high reading skills” matter a lot more.

“Schools need no additional reasons to short-shrift academics,” Pondiscio writes. Telling “fad-prone” educators that grit trumps academics “wouldn’t be prudent.”

KIPP boosts academics, but not character

KIPP schools do a great job of teaching academics, but the stress on character education isn’t producing students with more “grit,” persistence, self-control or other character strengths,  writes Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor.

KIPP charters — primarily middle schools — recruit low-income, minority students. In addition to “factors proven to bolster academic success (high expectations, parental involvement, time spent on instruction),” KIPP schools try to develop “seven character strengths — zest, grit, self-control, optimism, curiosity, gratitude, and social intelligence,” writes Steinberg.

Mathematica study compared students whose families had applied to a KIPP middle school but lost out in the lottery to students who’d won the KIPP lottery. If KIPP kids have more motivated parents, so do the children in the control group.

 . . . KIPP students outperformed the comparison children on numerous measures of achievement, across a range of subject areas. KIPP students also spent more time on homework. . . .

However . . . the KIPP children showed no advantage on any of the measures of character strengths. They weren’t more effortful or persistent. They didn’t have more favorable academic self-conceptions or stronger school engagement. They didn’t score higher than the comparison group in self-control. In fact, they were more likely to engage in “undesirable behavior,” including losing their temper, lying to and arguing with their parents, and giving teachers a hard time. They were more likely to get into trouble at school. Despite the program’s emphasis on character development, the KIPP students were no less likely to smoke, drink, get high, or break the law. Nor were their hopes for their educational futures any higher or their plans any more ambitious.

While nearly 90 percent of former KIPP students enroll in college, only a third earn a degree. That’s triple the graduation rate of students from comparable disadvantaged backgrounds, but far below KIPP’s expectations.

Ryane Burke, assistant principal at KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory Academy, leads sessions in mindful movement to help students stay focused and energized.  - See more at: http://www.kipp.org/careers/kipp-team-and-family#sthash.rDwbdhNJ.dpuf

Ryane Burke, assistant principal at KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory Academy, leads sessions in mindful movement to help students stay focused and energized.

Steinberg believes character education is not the best way to develop students’ self-regulation. Other approaches include: meditation, yoga, aerobic exercise and “cognitive behavioral programs, such as those used to help children learn impulse control.”

Some KIPP schools do use these techniques.

Anti-KIPP: All grit, no morality

KIPP’s grit-heavy character education has three major problems, writes Jeffrey Aaron Snyder, a Carleton education professor, in the New Republic.

The first is that we do not know how to teach character. The second is that character-based education is untethered from any conception of morality. And lastly, this mode of education drastically constricts the overall purpose of education.

KIPP focuses on seven character strengths—grit, zest, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity — which KIPP believes predict success in “college and life.” Founder David Levin  aims for “dual purpose” instruction to reach both academic and character goals, he says in his online course.

But KIPP’s list of character strengths is “devoid of value judgment,” Levin told Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed. “The inevitable problem with the values-and-ethics approach is that you get into, well, whose values? Whose ethics?”

KIPP’s values are “relentlessly focused on individual achievement rather than “good and evil or citizenship and the commonweal,” complains Snyder.

. . . the key virtues taught during the nineteenth-century were piety, industry, kindness, honesty, thrift, and patriotism. During the Progressive era, character education concentrated on the twin ideas of citizenship and the “common good.” . . . In the 1960s and 1970s, meanwhile, character education focused on justice and working through thorny moral dilemmas. Today’s grit and self-control are basically industry and temperance in the guise of psychological constructs rather than moral imperatives.

. . . This is “tiger mother” territory here — a place where the “vulgar sense” of success prevails.

KIPP’s mission is to help students —  95 percent are African American or Latino — get “into and through” college.  That’s “laudable,” Snyder concedes. But really . . . “Educators who have embraced performance character seem to live in a world where their students are more likely to win a Nobel Prize than earn a living as a beautician, electrician, or police officer.”

We may not know how to teach character, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Perhaps few students will go on to win Nobel Prizes, but that doesn’t mean the school should give up on preparing students for success in college. The future electricians, police officers, teachers and accountants will need that — not just the future nuclear physicists.

I do think that KIPP should consider adding citizenship to its list of character strengths. And stop worrying about whose values the schools are promoting. These are the values of the parents who choose KIPP as their “tiger” school. They want their kids to succeed, however “vulgar” that may seem to others. If they wanted a school that saw their kids as future beauticians, they have other options.

Beware of parenting advice

new parenting study shows that “if American parents read one more long-form think piece about parenting they will go fucking ape shit,” reports The New Yorker.

Susan Waterson, a professor of behavioral psychology at the University of Massachusetts, interviewed 127 families about “articles that begin with a wryly affectionate parenting anecdote, segue into a dry cataloguing of sociological research enlivened with alternately sarcastic and tender asides, and end with another wryly affectionate anecdote that aims to add a touch of irony or, failing at that, sentimentality.”

Paul Nickman, 45, was taking a coffee break at his Visalia, California, law office when he began to leaf through an article about the importance of giving kids real challenges. “They mentioned this thing called grit, and I was like, ‘O.K, great. Grit.’

Then I started to think about how, last year, I’d read that parents were making kids do too much and strive too hard, and ever since then we’ve basically been letting our kids, who are 10 and 6, sit around and stare into space.”

Nickman called his wife and started to shout, “Make the kids go outside and get them to build a giant wall out of dirt and lawn furniture and frozen peas!” He added, “Get them to scale it, and then make them go to the town zoning board to get it permitted, but don’t let them know it was your idea!”

He was discovered some time later standing in a fountain outside a European Waxing Center, rending his clothes.

Every style of parenting produces miserable adults, reports The Onion. “Despite great variance in parenting styles across populations, the end product is always the same: a profoundly flawed and joyless human being,” reported the California Parenting Institute. “The study did find, however, that adults often achieve temporary happiness when they have children of their own to perpetuate the cycle of human misery.”

Sure, let ‘em all be winners

Do Our Kids Get Off Too Easy? asks Alfie Kohn in the New York Times. In a column adapted from The Myth of the Spoiled Child, he defends “participation” trophies for all — if we must have competitions with winners and losers. “Grit” lovers who think kids should earn rewards and honors want children to be miserable now to prepare for the miseries of adulthood, Kohn believes. They think children shouldn’t “be allowed to feel good about themselves” without “tangible accomplishments.” Conditioning approval on children’s behavior is a big mistake, he argues.

 (According to research), when children feel their parents’ affection varies depending on the extent to which they are well behaved, self-controlled or impressive at school or sports, this promotes “the development of a fragile, contingent and unstable sense of self.” Other researchers, meanwhile, have shown that high self-esteem is beneficial, but that even more desirable is unconditional self-esteem: a solid core of belief in yourself, an abiding sense that you’re competent and worthwhile — even when you screw up or fall short.

I think Kohn confuses parents’ unconditional love of their children with the world’s opinion of other people’s children. If Mom and Dad love their kids only when they score the winning goal or ace the test, that’s a serious problem. Children need to feel lovable.

But kids who grow up thinking that everything they do — however ordinary — will be cheered by non-family members are going to be very frustrated adults. And they won’t have the grit to deal with frustration and keep on going.

Outside your family, who think you’re wonderful just the way you are, the world is just not that into you.

When I was an adolescent, I found it comforting that the world did not revolve around me. It was less responsibility.

Career-tech for all

At a high school in southern Georgia, career-tech ed is for everyone, writes James Fallows in The Atlantic. Camden County High School, located near a huge naval base, sends about 60 percent of graduates to postsecondary education or training.

In 2001, the graduation rate was only 50.5 percent. Now that is up to 85 percent. What happened?

CCHS was divided into six “academies.” After a year in Freshman Academy, all students choose one of the five career-tech academies. While they take the normal academic subjects, they also get an introduction to the world of work. Some will go from high school to the workforce or the military, but many will go to community college or to four-year colleges and universities. 

In the “law and justice” curriculum, which is part of the Government and Public Service Academy, a former Navy-Kings Bay NCIS official named Rich Gamble trains students in conducting mock crime investigations, and preparation for testimony in court.

On the day we were there, he had staged a mock robbery, in which the perp grabbed a cashbox from an office, ran through the hallways, and dumped the box as he was escaping. . . . Gamble divided his students into three teams to investigate the crime — making plaster casts of footprints (below), taking evidence, filing reports, preparing a case. “We emphasize a lot of writing,” he said. “I give them issues where they have to defend themselves, in very few words, because courts don’t like you to waste words.”

In the Engineering and Industrial Technology Academy, students design, build and sell small houses, do welding and electrical work and run an auto-repair shop that handles county vehicles.

In the Health and Environmental Sciences Academy, students were preparing for certification tests by administering care to dummies representing nursing-home patients.

Students also can choose Business and Marketing and Fine Arts.

Success relies on grit, Rachel Baldwin, the school’s career instructional specialist, tells Fallows. “I think you are more likely to learn grit in one of these technical classes. The plumber who has grit may turn out to be more entrepreneurial and successful than someone with an advanced degree.”

‘Grit’ helps teachers too

Grit isn’t just for students. Gritty teachers are more effective in high-poverty schools, concludes a new study in Teachers College Record, by Penn researchers Claire Robertson-Kraft and Angela Duckworth. New teachers with higher levels of “perseverance and passion for long-term goals”  (aka “grit”) were less likely to quit and more likely to be rated effective, notes Ed Week.

Raters scored 461 novice teachers’ resumes to evaluate multi-year persistence.

The highest score of 6 might go to a gritty teacher who was a “member of the cross-country team for four years and voted MVP in senior year” and was also  “founder and president for two years of the university’s Habitat for Humanity chapter.” The unnamed teacher-training organization that provided the data for the study is now using a version of this rating system as one of multiple tools to help make hiring decisions.

The study used the teacher-training group’s assessment of effectiveness, which was based on several different measures of student achievement.