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.

Luck is for suckers!

Quvenzhane Wallis stars as Annie the 2014 remake.

The new Annie has a “fantastic set of core values,” writes Greg Forster on Jay Greene’s blog.

After the opening scene, Annie is racing out of school to get somewhere she needs to be on time. Her friends call out: “Hope you make it!” “We’ll cover for you!” “Good luck!” And to this last statement she turns around and shouts back: “Luck is for suckers!”

. . . The basic message of this movie is: “Yes, life often sucks, but if you work hard and have guts, you can get ahead. Once you do, remember that you need people, too.” And we can’t have too much of that these days.

When the Daddy Warbucks character, renamed Will Stacks, takes Annie on a helicopter ride above the city, she asks how he became “king of the city.”

Stacks: I don’t think I’m the king of anything. I just work my butt off. The harder I work, the more opportunities I have. In life you have to play the hand you’re dealt, no matter how bad the cards are.

Annie: What if you don’t have any cards?

Stacks: You bluff.

Stacks sings a song about how anyone can get ahead if they work hard and have “heart.” That may oversell the efficacy of a good work ethic, concedes Forster. Not everyone will be helicopter-rich by working hard. But he likes it anyhow.

Annie is “all the more Annie for being black,” he concludes. “Who has more right to sing It’s a Hard Knock Life? And who has had more occasion to learn that life means looking toward Tomorrow by faith rather than by sight?”

Inside a Chinese test-prep school

Students leave Maotanchang High at the end of a 16 1/2-hour day. (Photo: Sim Chi Yin/VII, New York Times)

Rural Chinese parents pay for their children to attend high-pressure test-prep schools like Maotanchang High, reports the New York Times Magazine. Students must pass the gaokao test — the sole criterion for university admission — or face a life of manual  labor, like their parents.

Yang Wei starts his first class at 6:20 am and finishes his last class at 10:50 pm, writes Brook Larmer.  After taking the Sunday morning practice test, he gets three hours of freedom. He shares a tiny room with his mother, who quit her garment-factory job to support him in his final years.

. . . the pressure to start memorizing and regurgitating facts weighs on Chinese students from the moment they enter elementary school. Even at the liberal bilingual kindergarten my sons attended in Beijing, Chinese parents pushed their 5-year-olds to learn multiplication tables and proper Chinese and English syntax, lest their children fall behind their peers in first grade. “To be honest,” one of my Chinese friends, a new mother, told me, “the gaokao race really begins at birth.”

Unemployment and underemployment is rising among new college graduates in China. Yet, “the competition is fiercer than ever,” says Jiang Xueqin, an assistant vice principal at Tsinghua University High School. “And rural students are getting left behind.”

Perhaps nobody on campus is more motivated — and exhausted — than Maotanchang’s 500 teachers, whose jobs hinge on their students’ success. Base salaries for teachers are two to three times as high as China’s normal public-­school wages, and bonuses can easily double their incomes. For each student who gets into a first-tier university, the six-member teacher teams (a head teacher and five subject teachers) share a $500 reward.

. . . The head teachers’ schedules are so grueling — 17-hour days monitoring classes of 100 to 170 students — that the school has decreed that only young, single men can fill the job. The competition to hang onto these spots is intense. Charts posted on the walls of the faculty room rank classes by cumulative test scores from week to week. Teachers whose classes finish in last place at year’s end can expect to be fired.

On campus, decorative rocks bear the school’s motto: “We don’t compete with intelligence but with hard work!”

Yang was “ecstatic” to qualify for a second-tier regional university. His childhood friend, Cao, failed the gaokao. Days later, Cao “left their home village to search for migrant work in China’s glittering coastal cities,” writes Larmer. “He would end up on a construction site, just like his father.”

Those who can afford it try to go to high school and/or college in the U.S.

Korean kids are #1 in unhappiness

South Korea’s hard-working children lead the world in academic performance — and in unhappiness, according to a new survey.

Twenty-seven countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) plus Romania, Latvia and Lithuania surveyed their children’s sense of satisfaction with their lives.

South Korean children reported heavy pressure to do well in school and long study hours.

Next week, 600,000 students will take the annual college entrance exam, “with places in prestigious schools and a pathway to a secure job at a top corporation on the line.”

When the test is held on Nov 13, the country’s stock market will open an hour later, office openings will be delayed to ensure students don’t get stuck in traffic, and the central bank will delay its interest rate-setting meeting by one hour.

Dutch, Icelandic and Finnish children are the happiest, according to the survey.

How to get students to work harder

High standards mean nothing — except another chance to fail — unless students believe they can learn, write Thomas Toch and Susan Headden, both of the Carnegie Foundation, in The Atlantic.

“Students who doubt their academic abilities, or question whether students with their particular backgrounds belong at their schools, frequently fall behind or fail at school — regardless of their innate intelligence or the quality of the teaching they receive,” they write.

However, it’s possible to raise students’ confidence — and their effort.

In a recent study, 7th-graders at a middle-class, racially diverse New England public middle school were told to write an essay on a personal hero.

The teachers graded the essays the way they typically would, adding routine critical comments like “unclear,” “give examples,” and “wrong word.”

Then the researchers randomly attached one of two sticky notes to each essay. . . Half of them received a bland message saying, “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.” The other half received a note saying, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them”—a comment intended to signal teachers’ investment in their students’ success.

. . . Among white students, 87 percent of those who received the encouraging teacher message turned in new essays, compared to 62 percent of those who got the bland note. Among African American students, the effect was even greater, with 72 percent in the encouraged group doing the revision, compared to only 17 percent of those randomly chosen to get the bland message. And the revised essays received higher scores from both the students’ teachers and outside graders hired for the study.

The encouraging note had the largest effect on black students who’d previously trusted teachers the least, concluded researchers. They believed the critical feedback was a sign the teacher cared.

Praising students regardless of their performance is counter-productive, says psychologist Carol Dweck. It suggests effort doesn’t matter.  Students who develop a “growth mindset,” the belief that hard work leads to improvement, are more likely to succeed, she argues.

Latino, African American, and first-generation students often fear they “don’t belong” in college. At the University of Texas in Austin and an elite private university, these students earned more credits and earned higher grades if they received messages encouraging a growth mindset and a sense of belonging.

Paying poor kids to go to school

Can You Fight Poverty by Paying Kids to Go to School? asks Glenn Thrush on Politico.

A Memphis experiment is paying low-income parents and their teens for working full-time, getting medical check-ups, going to school, taking a college entrance exam and the like.

A student who compiles an acceptable school attendance record gets $40 a month, showing up for an annual dental or medical check-up means a $100 check, grades are monetized ($30 for an A, $20 for B, $10 for a C) and taking a college entrance exam like the ACT gets you a $50 check. Parents are also rewarded: Adults get a $150 monthly bonus, up to $1,800 a year, simply for working full-time.

Even supporters admit they’re a bit dubious, as when the caseworkers administering the program in Memphis pointedly asked me why they couldn’t get a little extra cash for being responsible grown-ups. “No joke. I could use an extra $150 a month for showing up at work,” one of them told me. “Do you really think our clients are that much worse off than we are?”

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg paid millions of dollars of his own money to fund an experiment in cash transfers in 2007. Despite meager results, Memphis is trying the idea, funded by the city, federal grants and Bloomberg’s philanthropy.

New York City’s experiment offered “large, intermittent payouts for big achievements instead of more frequent rewards for smaller achievements that would give families a greater sense of forward progress,” writes Thrush.

Students could earn $300 to $350—big money for a family earning $25,000 a year—for passing their standardized assessment tests in the fourth and eighth grades, or a whopping $600 for annual subject-based high school tests known as Regents Exams. But as incentives go, they were too big, too delayed. . . . Other mistakes seem obvious in retrospect; offering a kid $50 for obtaining a library card doesn’t mean they’ll use it take out a book—especially if they are already reading below grade level.

. . . education incentives “had few effects” on the academic performance of school-age children who received the cash, according to MDRC’s 2013 report.

The program “worked best as a boost for students already moving in the right direction, rather than a lever for digging the poorest of the poor out of their deep hole,” writes Thrush.

In Memphis, it was hard to recruit families, says Coasy Hale, who works for Memphis HOPE, one of two organizations picked to counsel clients and deliver program materials. People thought it was a scam. “They were like ‘Who is really going to pay us to do stuff we should already be doing anyway?”

Once enrolled, parents split into two distinct groups: “One segment of parents was highly motivated to earn rewards and pushed their kids in school, and an equally large group tuned in and out, and did just the bare minimum to get a few checks.”

. . . most poor people have parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents who received some form of government assistance and they tended to view the new rewards system as just another entitlement that would come and go. “People don’t really have to worry about food or housing. They go from crisis to crisis but they basically can survive,” says Gwen Price, whose staff at Porter-Leath oversees the other 300 Memphis families in the program. “They figure my mother got by, and I’ll get by, so why change?”

Counselors try to help the lowest-income families improve their planning and time management skills. But “it’s been a slog,” writes Thrush.

Cash transfers may help the “hardest-working poor” stabilize their lives, but do little for people who wouldn’t get their kids to school without a bribe.

I reported on welfare reform when I worked at the San Jose Mercury News. I met poor people whose lives could be transformed if someone gave them a reliable car.  (I gave a bicycle — with a lock and helmet — to a poor Vietnamese family who were thrilled. One of my daughter’s high school friends had abandoned the bike at our house when he got his driver’s license.) And there are poor people who need a lot more than money.

Los Angeles may bribe people to vote in municipal elections.  The Ethics Commission has voted to recommend a study of offering cash — perhaps as a lottery prize worth up to $50,000 — to boost turnout. 

Make it really hard for kids to fail in school

To prepare “difficult” students for the real world, make it “really hard to fail,” argues Dr. Allen Mendler, an education consultant, on Edutopia’s blog.

An effective practice is to “appreciate and focus on the student’s strengths rather than emphasizing and punishing shortcomings such as lateness, lack of productivity, and disruptive behavior,” Mendler writes.

But critics say that’s preparing students to be fired.

Grading for progress rather than achieving a “group-based standard” also doesn’t work in the real world, critics say.

School isn’t like the workplace, Mendler argues. Students have to go to school and take courses in subjects they may not like or be any good at. In the real world, workers can specialize.

“Make it really hard for students to fail school,” he writes. “Not impossible, just really hard!”

Do what you can to impart important life skills such as a solid work ethic, promptness, patience, and getting along with others. Have rules and, as much as possible, “logical” consequences for unacceptable behavior. (For example: “Work needs to be completed. You can do it in class with others, at home, or during recess.”)

. . . I am far more likely to motivate an uninterested student with poor attendance to show up, and therefore make it more likely that she will pass my class and graduate, by telling how much we missed her during her absence rather than by giving her a zero on missed assignments.

School success doesn’t always predict success in life, he concludes. Of course, school failure usually does predict future failure.

Anxious Tunisians, math-mellow Dutch

Tunisian 15-year-olds are the most math-phobic, writes  Matt Phillips in The AtlanticArgentina, Brazil and Thailand are next on the “math anxiety” list compiled by the OECD as part of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests.

U.S. students are less anxious than the OECD average, though not as math-mellow as the Danes and the Dutch.

In the high-scoring Asian countries, there’s no particular pattern. Japanese kids are anxious, Singapore is moderately anxious, Shanghai is a hair above the median.

Math anxiety correlates with poor performance, writes Phillips. “Some believe this is because the mind is so occupied with worrying about math that it has less bandwidth” to solve problems.

“Combining a manageable amount of worry” with perseverance and a strong work ethic seems to work the best, according to an OECD analysis.

Why Asian (Jewish, Cuban, etc.) kids excel

A cultural superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control  help people from some cultures excel in school and business, write “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua and husband Jed Rubenfeld in The Triple Package. Their triple-threat cultures are: Cubans, East Asians, Indians, Jews, Lebanese, Mormons, Nigerians and Persians.

People in these groups believe their culture is exceptional, but as individuals they need to prove themselves, write Chua and Rubenfeld. These cultures cultivate self-discipline and impulse control.

The book has been criticized for ignoring the immigrant effect: Nigerians, Indians, Lebanese and Persians who make it to the U.S. tend to be educated, ambitious, relatively successful people. They’re so smart they figured out how to get here. Miami’s pre-Mariel Cubans also were more middle-class than average.

All this reminds me of Joel Kotkin’s 1994 book, Tribes: How Race, Religion and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy.

A new study looks at high-achieving children of low-income Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants who “lack middle-class cultural capital.” These families “use ethnicity as a resource to construct and support a strict ‘success frame’ that helps the poor and working class override their disadvantages.”

Chinese immigrant parents often are educated and speak English, said one of  the study’s authors, UC-Irvine sociologist Jennifer Lee. However, Vietnamese immigrants’ children do well in school and careers even when their parents have little education or money.

That’s where expectations comes in – or what the paper calls, quoting its interview subjects, the understanding that “A is average and B is an Asian fail.” 

Parents search for the best schools and lobby for their children to be placed in advanced classes. If they can’t afford tutoring, they turn to ethnic organizations and churches to provide a free or low-cost “shadow education.”

If success is measured by doing better than the previous generation, then Mexican-Americans are the most successful, Lee writes in Time.

Duncan: Demand more of kids

U.S. parents need to demand more of their children, writes New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. We’re raising a generation of slackers, he writes.

“Teachers are held to impossible standards” and students aren’t held accountable at all, complained a seventh-grade English teacher in the Washington Post‘s Answer Sheet.

I set my expectations high, I kept my classroom structured, I tutored students, I provided extra practice and I tried to make class fun. … (The principal) handed me a list of about 10 students, all of whom had D’s or F’s. . . . I walked her through my grade sheets that showed not low scores but a failure to turn in work — a lack of responsibility. I showed her my tutoring logs, my letters to parents, only to be interrogated further.

Eventually, the meeting came down to two quotes that I will forever remember as the defining slogans for public education: “They are not allowed to fail.” “If they have D’s or F’s, there is something that you are not doing for them.” . . .  I suppose I was not giving them the answers. I was not physically picking up their hands to write for them. I was not following them home each night to make sure they did their work on time. I was not excusing their lack of discipline.

A high school teacher in Oregon told Friedman she used to have one or two students per class who wouldn’t do the work. Now it’s 10 or 15.  Expectations keep sliding. A failing student said, “You don’t seem to realize I have two hours a night of Facebook and over 4,000 text messages a month to deal with. How do you expect me to do all this work?”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan gave a “feel-bad” speech to the National Assessment Governing Board’s Education Summit for Parent Leaders.

In 2009, President Obama met with President Lee of South Korea and asked him about his biggest challenge in education. President Lee answered without hesitation: parents in South Korea were ‘too demanding.’ Even his poorest parents demanded a world-class education for their children, and he was having to spend millions of dollars each year to teach English to students in first grade, because his parents won’t let him wait until second grade. … I [wish] our biggest challenge here in the U.S. was too many parents demanding excellent schools.

South Korea probably has the most intense education parents in the world. But what about U.S. parents? Are they failing to demand excellent schools? Raising low achievers with high self-esteem?