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.

How strict is too strict?

How Strict Is Too Strict? asks Sarah Carr in The Atlantic.  Many high-performing urban charter schools “share an aversion to even minor signs of disorder,” she writes. Critics say students — most are black and Latino — face harsh discipline for low-level misbehavior.

Many parents “appreciate the intense structure, but only if they also come to trust the mostly young educators who enforce it,” writes Carr.

From the moment Summer Duskin arrived at Carver Collegiate Academy in New Orleans last fall, she struggled to keep track of all the rules. . . . She had to say thank you constantly, including when she was given the “opportunity”—as the school handbook put it—to answer questions in class. And she had to communicate using “scholar talk,” which the school defined as complete, grammatical sentences with conventional vocabulary. . . .

. . . Teachers issued demerits when students leaned against a wall, or placed their heads on their desks. (The penalty for falling asleep was 10 demerits, which triggered a detention; skipping detention could warrant a suspension.) . . . The rules did not ease up between classes: students had to walk single file between the wall and a line marked with orange tape.

Students wear a school uniform. Hats, sunglasses and “bling” are banned.

Summer was 14. It felt like elementary school.

Parents are very concerned about student behavior, writes Carr. “The margin for error is much smaller in black communities, especially for black boys,” Troy Henry, a New Orleans parent, told her.

But there’s been pushback from high school students.

Summer—who had received countless demerits and three out-of-school suspensions in her first semester as a freshman—was among the roughly 60 students who walked over to a nearby park wearing orange wristbands that read LET ME EXPLAIN. In a letter of demands she helped write, the teenagers lamented, “We get disciplined for anything and everything.”

High on their list of complaints were the stiff penalties for failing to follow the taped lines in the hallways, for slouching, for not raising their hands with ramrod-straight elbows. “The teachers and administrators tell us this is because they are preparing us for college,” the students wrote. “If college is going to be like Carver, we don’t want to go to college.”

Carver has modified its rules and decided to end out-of-school suspensions. Other charters also are rethinking strict discipline policies and reducing suspensions.

The changes came too late for Summer, who transferred to a low-performing magnet school.

“Restoring order and discipline” has helped New Orleans’ schools improve dramatically, writes Greg Richmond on Education Post. “From 2007 to 2013, the share of students reading and doing math at “proficient” levels surged from 37 percent to 63 percent in New Orleans. From 2005 to 2011, the high school dropout rate declined from 11.4 percent to 4.1 percent.”

‘No excuses’ schools try to cut teacher stress

“No excuses” charter schools hire young idealists, work them very hard and expect many to burn out and leave after a few years.  That’s the old model, writes Sara Neufeld in The Atlantic. Some charters are providing more support and shorter work hours to keep young teachers on the job.

James Cavanagh is 22 years old, fresh out of the University of Delaware. With his degree in elementary education, he could have gotten a job anywhere—and he chose to teach at one of the most demanding public schools in America.

His college buddies were hired at schools with mid-afternoon dismissals and two and a half months of summer vacation. For not much more pay, Cavanagh worked nearly all of August and this fall is putting in 12-hour days, plus attending graduate school.

In exchange, he gets to be a part of one of the nation’s top charter schools, North Star Academy in Newark, where poor, minority students routinely outperform their peers in wealthier ZIP codes on standardized tests. And he’s getting extensive support designed to make him both effective and eager to stick around.

He gets to school by 6:15 am and usually goes home at 6:30 pm when the building shuts down. On Monday nights and Saturdays, he takes graduate education classes.

However, when another fifth-grade math teacher returns from maternity leave this month, Cavanagh “will go from teaching three 1.5-hour classes a day to one class and spend the other periods working with students individually and in small groups,” writes Neufeld. North Star tries to give new teachers a lighter schedule. 

YES Prep, a network of 13 high-performing charters in Houston, doesn’t have a long school year, she writes. Instead, students get a chance to attend “the types of summer camps, wilderness expeditions and international travel opportunities enjoyed by their middle class peers.”

Ascend charters in Brooklyn have cut the academic day by 45 minutes, to eight hours, while giving teachers a raise. “Middle school students stay for homework help from local college students, followed by enrichment activities such as karate, dance and African drumming that are typically led by community members and partner organizations so teachers can go home,” writes Neufeld.

Boston: No excuses, high performance

Boston has the highest-performing charter schools in the country, writes MATCH founder Michael Goldstein on Flypaper. Why? Boston has lots of elite colleges, talented people — and the highest proportion of “authentic” adherents to the “No Excuses” model.

CREDO studies have identified top charter cities, measured in “days of learning.”

Two-thirds of Boston charters are “No Excuses” schools, writes Goldstein. Sharing a common philosophy, the schools share ideas and talent.

The Charles Sposato Graduate School of Education (SGSE), embedded at Match Charter Schools, provides teachers to all the No Excuses charters in Boston. SGSE is able to train rookie teachers whose students go on to get unusually high value-added numbers. . . . The message: “Here is what will be expected of you in a No Excuses school. That job is not right for everyone, but if it’s the one you want, we’ll help you practice, practice, practice to become good in that context.”

. . . Will Austin from Uncommon teaches a rookie teacher about effective math instruction; that teacher, in turn, takes a job at KIPP; now Uncommon’s ideas have moved to KIPP; and so forth. When Kimberly Steadman of Brooke teaches literacy to a rookie teacher, even fellow instructors (from other charter schools) perk up and jot down notes.

New York City, New Orleans, D.C., and Los Angeles charter students show large gains on CREDO studies because of No Excuses charters, writes Goldstein. “Boston outperforms these cities is because it has even more.”

A ‘no excuses’ school day

A Day in the Life of a No Excuses Charter School Student is highly regimented and repressive, writes Sarah Goodis-Orenstein on the Center for Teaching Quality site. After four years teaching English at a “no excuses” charter in Brooklyn, she switched to a more progressive charter school. She blogs at Making Room for Excuses.

At 7:40, the first period teacher rolls her cart in and immediately begins to issue commands. “Aside from two pencils, and your IR book in the top left corner of your desk, your desk should be cleared. As soon as you get your classwork packet, begin on your Do Now. You have 3 minutes.” A timer is set and placed under the document camera, and any students not on-task within thirty seconds are first reminded to get started, and then issued a demerit, sometimes privately, sometimes publicly.

Class proceeds to enfold in a highly-systematic structure with a review of the warm-up, some sort of mini-lesson, some sort of guided practice, and a chunk of independent practice before the exit ticket is collected. Packets in hands high over their heads, the teacher snaps, and the last page is signaled to be torn from the staple in a crisp sound of unison tearing.

The teacher bustles out as the next teacher and her cart rolls in, ideally with less than 1 minute wasted in this transition, a transactional cost that, over the course of the year, equates to literal days of wasted learning.

Mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks  of 10 or 15 minutes are “the only opportunities for unbridled conversation,” she writes. “Otherwise, during and between classes, students’ voices are to be ‘off’ unless specific accountable talk procedures or partner share expectations have been put into place.”

Students learn “that rigidity and compliance are predictors of success, and that imagination and interpersonal skills are of nominal use,” Goodis-Orenstein concludes. “They also likely learn that school is boring, that it has little relevance to their lives, or in the case of my last school, it is a place where white ladies try to control Black and Latino children.”

And, yet, no excuses schools narrow the achievement gap, giving students choice in life they wouldn’t have otherwise. And they tend to have long wait lists.

The softer side of KIPP

KIPP schools aren’t militaristic or joyless — much less “concentration camps — write Alexandra M. Boyd, Robert Maranto and Caleb Rose in Education Next.

We found that schools that begin by establishing a culture of strict discipline, in neighborhoods where violence and disorder are widespread, ease off once a safe, tolerant learning environment is secured.

KIPPsters live up to the “work hard, be nice” slogan, but they “also play hard when the work is done,” they write after visiting 12 schools in five states. Despite the strong academic focus, the schools “make time for band, basketball, chess, prom, and any number of clubs.”

At KIPP McDonogh 15, a combined elementary and middle-school building in New Orleans’s French Quarter, the middle-school principal played music, and students and staff danced down the hallways as they moved from one class session to another. In the elementary school a floor below, some teachers took this concept a step further, using a lively musical transition from one lesson to another.

On most Friday afternoons, the New Orleans school schedules “celebration.” Students with no behavior demerits compete in a lottery for the chance to hit any teacher or administrator with a cream pie. A few days after researchers saw a popular third-grade teacher “pied,” a professor at the American Educational Research Association’s conference — a mile away — denounced KIPP as a “concentration camp.”

KIPP Blytheville College Preparatory School (BCPS) in Arkansas celebrated Geek Week in March culminating with Pi Day, on March 14 (3.14). A 6th-grade girl won the Pi Challenge by reciting 158 digits of pi. Then three teachers and three students smashed pie plates of whipped cream into each other’s faces.

It’s a concentration camp with music, dancing, pi and pie.

There aren’t enough whites to go around

School segregation remains a reality: “74 percent of African Americans still attend majority nonwhite schools, compared to just over 76 percent in the late 1960s,” writes The Nation‘s Greg Kauffman.

But there’s a demographic reality to consider, responds Matthew Yglesias in Slate. U.S. schools are running low on white kids.

Non-Hispanic whites were 54 percent of the under-18 population in 2010, compared to 74 percent in 1980, according to the Census Bureau. Furthermore, among kids under the age of 5, non-Hispanic whites are a minority.

Meanwhile, the white people are not distributed evenly across the country. You’re not going urban minority kids to Maine and Idaho or the Texas panhandle so that they can attend more integrated schools. Nor are we about to ban the practice of rich people (who are disproportionately white) from sending their kids to private schools.

So you’re going to face a situation where most schools are majority-minority and the vast majority of minority kids are in majority-minority schools and there’s not going to be anything you can do about it other than try to make those schools be really good schools.

We can’t integrate our way to better school performance, agrees Sara Mead. That includes socio-economic integration, the dream of “smart liberal school reformers in recent years.” Like whites, middle-class students from two-parent families are in short supply and not evenly distributed.

The challenge is to design schools to meet the needs of low-income, minority students. The no-excuses model adopted by some urban charter (and Catholic) schools can make a difference. Are there other models with evidence of success?

Teaching the ABCs of self-control

Schools are teaching the ABCs of self-control to help disadvantaged students succeed, reports the Washington Post.  The story starts at D.C. Prep Public Charter School, a “no excuses” school for students in grades four through eight.

The children do not speak in the hallways or classroom unless spoken to by a teacher. They navigate the hallways single file. Throughout their eight-hour school day, they bring to each class charts on which they record, as the teachers decree, behaviors, both good and bad, listed on a key. This key lists 26 behaviors, A through Z. Failure to meet any of them results in detention.

Students serving in-school suspension wear green mesh pinnies over their navy-blue polo shirts and leave the classroom last. They are not allowed to speak for the day and nobody speaks to them.

Ibby Jeppson, DCP’s director of resource development, said students need to understand the “expectations of the broader culture” they hope to enter.

In an e-mail, Jeppson says that the message needs to be clear to students and parents alike: “The small-stuff expectations are linked to important life skills: being on time, being dependable and being there every day, dressing appropriately.”

. . . “Research shows that willpower and self-discipline are stronger predictors of success than pure intellectual talent,” Jeppson says.

Others schools have turned to character-based education, “mindfulness meditation” and “social emotional learning” to teach self-control, reports the Post.  It’s all part of the campaign to build persistence, resilience and “grit.”

A 2012 documentary, Room to Breathe, describes an attempt to calm a troubled San Francisco school by teaching meditative breathing and body and mind awareness. 

“No excuses’ students struggle in college

“No excuses” charter schools send most or all of their low-income, minority students to college. But do “no excuses” students graduate from college? In Education Next, Robert Pondiscio looks at what charter schools are doing to improve their graduates’ college graduation rates.

KIPP is the largest and best known of a class of charter-management organizations (CMOs) that includes Achievement First, YES Prep, Uncommon Schools, Mastery, Aspire, and others. This group shares a set of familiar characteristics: more and longer school days, with a college preparatory curriculum for all students; strict behavioral and disciplinary codes; and a strong focus on building a common, high-intensity school culture. Classrooms and halls are awash in motivational quotations and college banners, typically from the alma maters of the inevitably young, hard-charging teachers who staff the schools. The signature feature is high behavioral and academic expectations for all students, the vast majority of whom are low-income, urban black and Hispanic kids.

Both KIPP and YES Prep track their graduates and report on how well they’re doing. One third of former KIPP middle schoolers have graduated college within six years — four times the average for disadvantaged students, but way below KIPP’s goals.

Black graduates of YES Prep average 1556 in reading, writing and math on the SAT, “far above the national average of 1273 for African Americans, and significantly higher than the 1500 national average for all students.” All graduates have passed at least one AP class. Less than 5 percent of YES Prep grads require remediation in college. Yet the six-year graduation rate is only 41 percent .

 “It wasn’t the academic piece that was holding our kids back,” notes senior director of college initiatives at YES Prep Donald Kamentz. “What we found hands down was it was the noncognitive piece—that tenacity, that grit—that allowed kids to harness those skills and persist when they faced difficulty.”

“What we’ve found with the ‘whatever it takes’ or ‘no excuses’ mentality is that it was very teacher-driven and less student-driven,” says Kametz, acknowledging this is a controversial line of thought in his own halls. A typical No Excuses approach might involve giving demerits or detention for missed assignments or turning in work that’s not “neat and complete.” Kamentz questions whether this tough-love approach helps create the self-advocacy in students they will need to be successful in college. “It’s the largest gaping hole with our kids in college,” he says. “They will constantly say, ‘You structured my life so much that I had to do very little thinking and structuring myself.’”

The no-excuses charters are trying to develop ways to strengthen students’ perseverance, “growth mindset” and grit. Some send  “posses” of students to “right-match” colleges that provide mentoring to first-generation-to-college students. (I love Pondiscio’s phrase: “in helicopter parentis.”)

KIPP, which started with middle schools, is adding elementary and high schools to strengthen academic preparation. The network also is following its alumni through college to help them cope with academic and social challenges. Now there are 1,000 KIPP graduates in college. In a few years, there will be 10,000. KIPP hopes to raise the college graduation rate to 75 percent, as high as students from upper-income families. The short-term goal is a 50 percent graduation rate.

Parents’ choice: diversity or the suburbs?

Young Aidan or Amelia will start kindergarten soon. Urban gentrifiers must decide: Do we send the kids to a diverse urban school where some of their classmates will be poor and need lots of teacher attention? Or do we move to the boring suburbs where all our kids’ classmates will come from educated families? Facing that decision as a Washington D.C. resident, Fordham’s Mike Petrilli wrote The Diverse Schools Dilemma, which looks at the risks and benefits of schools with socioeconomic diversity.

Though whites make up half of public school students, 87 percent attend majority-white schools. Even in cities, “neighborhood schools still tend to be segregated by class, if not by race,” Petrilli tells the Washington Post. In the Washington D.C. area, less than 3 percent of white public school students attend schools where poor children are the majority, according to Petrilli.

Charter schools, which draw from wider areas, are an option for parents who want to stay in the city. Some of D.C.’s most popular charters are very diverse. But high-performing charter schools often adopt a “no excuses” culture that turns off middle-class parents.

“Many of the charters have uniforms and a rigid discipline code,” he said. “It’s not a culture that celebrates a lot of individualism, personal style or autonomy, the kinds of things that middle-class parents may want. So there are significant differences and cultural clashes that take place.”

Some cities use “controlled choice” to integrate schools by socioeconomic status, but it’s controversial.

Petrilli made a common choice: He moved to Bethesda, Maryland. At his son’s elementary school, 1 percent of the children are low-income, 2 percent are black and 5 percent are Hispanic.

Last month, I visited a wildly diverse charter school in Grand Rapids — lots of poor kids, some of them from African refugee camps, all colors and creeds. A white mother told me she’d chosen the school, in part, for its diversity. I was surprised. People talk about the wonderfulness of diversity, but their choices usually tell a different story.