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Forget Grit. Focus on Inequality.

Why is grit at the center of the national ed. debate?

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As we approach the final months of the school year, grit continues to be a national obsession. This so-called quality of grit refers to persistence toward a long-term future goal and has been received by many as a possible panacea for the racial and economic disparities in public schools.

Grit is an easy concept to fall in love with because it represents hope and perseverance, and conjures up images of working-class individuals living the “American dream.” However, treating grit as an appealing and simple fix detracts attention from the larger structural inequities in schools, while simultaneously romanticizing notions of poverty.

This past year has been an eventful one for the notion of grit. Along with the high-profile release of two grit-centric books (Angela Ducksworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance and Paul Tough’s Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why), one study cast doubt on the importance of grit. “Much Ado about Grit: A Meta-Analytic Synthesis of the Grit Literature” by Marcus Crede and colleagues analyzed 88 separate studies on grit and raised three main concerns: The effect sizes in Duckworth’s research were inaccurately presented to appear larger, the influence of grit has been overstated, and the characteristic grit is not much different from the concept of conscientiousness—a concept already well-known and well-researched by psychologists.

—Getty

In a email exchange with NPR in which she responded to these criticisms, Angela Duckworth agreed that, although the statistics in her paper were factually accurate, the language was such that the effect of grit could be misconstrued as greater than it actually was. Secondly, she also agreed that the impact of grit is actually in the “small to medium” range. And finally, when asked to comment on whether or not grit was unique from the notion of conscientiousness she acknowledged that grit was indeed in the same “family” as conscientiousness.

As I consider the future of grit in schools, I keep coming back to a visit I had at a local public school where a teacher lectured his students about the importance of following through on a goal, even if it wasn’t interesting. He bragged about students who memorized thousands of words and as a result won a local spelling bee. “These students showed grit, that’s why they won,” he told his students. What that teacher failed to say is that not all things are worth sticking with. Do we really want to teach our children to focus on memorization and tedious tasks for the sake of developing grit? Or do we want to teach students to explore, question, and engage in meaningful experiences that pertain to their lives?

So why is grit at the center of the national education debate?

Perhaps this idea of grit resonates with so many people who believe in the popular American adage that if you work hard and pull yourself up by your bootstraps, then you can achieve anything. This belief unfortunately, assumes that individuals have the power, privilege, and access to craft their own futures, regardless of circumstance and systemic barriers.

"Schools need to build their own type of grit—that is, a long-term investment and goal, a stick-with-it-ness—to serve all students."

Statistics on educational access consistently reveal vast differences in resources in affluent versus poor neighborhoods. Predominantly white, middle- and upper-income school districts tend to spend significantly more money per student than the districts with the highest percentages of marginalized students. Our poorest schools also tend to have large class sizes, unsafe school transportation, damaged and outdated facilities, and high staff turnover. All of these conditions directly contribute to low educational outcomes and underscore the link between access to school resources and improvements in students’ success. Schools that focus on grit shouldn’t ignore structural inequities because they assume that regardless of your race, class, or social context you can still triumph.

To be sure, there have been many examples of poor students possibly using their grit to overcome the greatest of odds—such as unstable housing, our troubled foster care system, and community violence. And there are probably advantages for teaching students to persevere and stick with a goal while facing challenges and obstacles. However, the responsibility of a great education should not be placed on the individual student to achieve through grit. Rather, schools need to build their own type of grit—that is, a long-term investment and goal, a stick-to-itiveness—to serve all students, but especially those in the margins.

Educators need to resist the temptation to hyper focus on singular qualities—such as grit, self-esteem, or IQ—as quick cure-alls for our nations’ education problems and identify meaningful changes that tackle discrepancies in student resources. We don’t want to teach grit as a skill without making larger systemic and contextual changes in schools that promote equitable conditions for success.

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Where should schools focus their attention for historically marginalized students?

Numerous educational research studies demonstrate that schools that provide culturally relevant curriculum—including books by authors of color, critical explorations of histories and social movements, and school-based programs that creatively foster positive identities and cultural empowerment—dramatically increase students’ engagement in school, bonding with teachers, and academic achievement. These practices work because students feel connected and represented as a meaningful part of school, and subsequently they develop a focus on future goals. These ideas may not conform to the recent movements on character education and, more specifically, on teaching grit, but they do embody the lives and stories of many targeted and vulnerable communities. The notion of grit has certainly spurred important discussions about the nonacademic experiences and skills we want our students to have, but it has often obscured the very conditions that created educational inequities in the first place.

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