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Kiss My Grit

By Nancy Flanagan — November 12, 2012 3 min read
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Sassy title aside, it’s not my intention to contribute to the already-considerable mountain of post-election ed-policy antagonism.

But--I’m still torqued about grit. Yes, grit, the amazing new research topic-cum-magic formula for Good That Schools Could Do (If Only They Weren’t Failing).

A couple of blogs ago, I admired Katie Osgood’s Paul Tough is Way Off Base, and Stop Saying Grit piece--which identifies “grit” as just another trending soundbite, the next big thing in education. The kind of meme around which you could build a week-long media blabfest, not to mention a whole lot of curricula, grading templates, books, radio shows and grant opportunities.

And then--I heard from Paul Tough himself. He was polite, but wanted to know just why I thought he was off-base. He seemed to doubt I had actually read his book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character.

The answer to that is yes. You could hardly help knowing about the book if you were paying attention to education this year; it was the Superman of 2012. Everyone on TV and in the MSM was chattering about the astonishing new revelation that grit mattered more than endless measurement of students’ retrievable knowledge. Tough was everywhere. I bought the book and read it--and agreed with his basic premise that determination always trumps test scores. I especially liked the last section of the book (about which we haven’t heard much), where Tough writes about the misguided thrust of current education policy.

Personally, I think grit--courage and tenacity--is a very real thing in life success. It’s a huge part of why a student who was a complete academic washout in the 7th grade could now own his own millions-sold realty business, while students who aced their ACTs now find themselves with six-figure loans and no job after they run out of degrees to earn--cases from my personal teaching experience.

But--is this news? Should Grit 101 be a required subject--or is it something you learn by example and experience, over time? Should we really be grading kids on their character? There is a lot of effusive language around this idea--that kids need to hear about their failings, to foster perseverance--but I have a problem with just who’s doing the judging here, making precise numeric determinations about students’ integrity. If your mother works two jobs to feed you and keep the lights on, isn’t that grit? Is trying hard--even succeeding--in school more important than trying hard in life?

“Grit” has also been part of the conversation around effective teaching--specifically, which Teach for America corps members would “succeed” (read: raise scores) in tough schools. The irony of noveau-gritty high-achievers who teach for two years, then leave to pursue entrepreneurial projects in education, seems to have been lost. Personally, I admire teachers who hang around, good times and bad, and pursue school improvement, seeing their teaching as important, worthy, more valuable than serial entrepreneurism. (I stole that phrase from Tough.) Isn’t that grit, too?

Tough makes the assumption that intellectual challenge, what he calls “thinking hard about mistakes,” and embedded character education are rare in the traditional public schools that 85% of American children attend. He says garden-variety teachers seem to think their mission is merely conveying information (perhaps he saw the cartoon conveyor belt in Superman).

Even if that were true--and I don’t think it is-- that concept doesn’t come from teachers’ deep-seated beliefs about the purpose of education. It comes from increasingly thin, data-driven, market-based ed policy. Public school teachers have been actively discouraged from building caring communities, rewarding persistence over time, let alone the deep intellectual work of disciplinary application and exploration, or pursuit of students’ passions. Furthermore--character education was established in public schools long before charter chains decided it was a good idea.

Tough and I agreed to disagree. He did not respond to my invitation to dialogue on this blog.

Driving home tonight, I heard a story on NPR about homeless veterans, and how difficult it is for them to access the modest VA disability payments and services to which they’re entitled. As a society, we have failed those who put their lives on the line for our protection: soldiers. Soldiers who have shown extreme grit, in making the decision to join the military, and in bravely serving their country.

Individual grit is a good thing. But without a compassionate society and open opportunity, it’s only half the equation.

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