Equity & Diversity

Is ‘Grit’ Racist?

By Benjamin Herold — January 24, 2015 6 min read
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“Grit” has in recent years captivated the imagination of educators and policymakers, leading many to embrace the idea that schools should seek to cultivate in their students a set of personality traits demonstrated by researchers to be closely tied to academic and personal success.

Increasingly, though, critics are offering a different take, arguing that grit is a racist construct and has harmed low-income students by crowding out a focus on providing children with the supports they deserve and the more-flexible educational approach enjoyed by many of their more affluent counterparts.

That view was on full display Saturday at EduCon 2.7, a progressive education-technology conference being held in Philadelphia.

“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.

“We have to think about our own cultural biases, why grit appeals to us, and why we want to focus on it in our schools,” she said.

Moran, who has been recognized for her work building a district culture focused on digital learning, and Ira Socol, the Albemarle district’s assistant director for educational technology and innovation, led a discussion at EduCon titled “Grit, Galton, Eugenics, Racism, Calvinism.”

In addition to their critique, Moran and Socol argued that technology can be a valuable tool for cultivating a more appropriate type of resiliency in students, by providing them the resources, options, and “slack” they might otherwise lack.

The duo’s presentation represented a direct attack on the work of Angela Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania professor who was recognized with a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award in 2013 for her pioneering research.

Duckworth’s findings have been popularized by writers such as Paul Tough, who wrote the hugely popular 2012 book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Institutions such as KIPP, the national network of charter schools for at-risk students (formally known as the Knowledge Is Power Program),have incorporated the cultivation of grit into their efforts.

“I’m sorry my work is perceived in that light. It certainly isn’t intended as such,” Duckworth wrote in an emailed response to a request for comment by Education Week. “I don’t believe we’ve ever written a single word that would suggest we are ignorant of structural problems, including poverty.”

Proponents of Duckworth’s research say the concept of grit is really just about setting long-term goals and working hard in pursuit of those goals. Nothing in the research of Duckworth and her colleagues precludes recognition of the societal forces that also limit opportunities for some students, they say, and nowhere do the researchers advocate that the cultivation of grit should be focused primarily on low-income students and children of color.

Criticism that Duckworth’s research is grounded in the eugenics movement, which holds that certain racial groups are more likely than others to exhibit desirable traits, is misguided, supporters say. (For background on this back-and-forth, see this guest opinion blog by Lauren Anderson, an assistant professor of education at Connecticut College, which was published by Education Week Teacher in March 2014, as well as the discussion that followed in the comments. Through an academic associate, Duckworth declined to respond to that piece.)

At EduCon, a group of 40 or so educators and students from across the country sought to add nuance to the critique of grit leveled by Moran and Socol.

“It’s up to us how we use these tools. There is value in the idea of grit, but not much value in how it is being abused,” said David Lenowitz, the executive director of How I Decide, a nonprofit based in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. that focuses on improving youth decision-making.

Some of those in attendance expressed concern that grit, as it is defined in Duckworth’s research and enacted in many schools, is solely focused on traditional measures of academic success, such as good grades and regular attendance. Other researchers, for example, have raised questions about whether the personality traits studied by the UPenn researchers support the development of creativity.

Moran also argued that children from difficult circumstances often demonstrate considerable grit in their day-to-day lives, but those students’ strengths are often not recognized by educators.

And many at EduCon also contended that inside schools, grit is frequently, and wrongfully, conflated with compliance (e.g., completing homework assignments, paying attention in class, or taking standardized tests seriously.)

“If you just push the idea of grit, you avoid a conversation about, ‘To what end?’” said Larissa Pahomov, an English teacher at Science Leadership Academy, the magnet high school in Philadelphia that hosts the annual conference.

In order to avoid the “terribly racist” consequences of “the grit narrative,” said Socol, the Albemarle County administrator, schools and districts should focus on creating an environment of “abundance,” especially for students of color and children from circumstances of poverty.

“There’s [grit], and then there’s the ability to get back up with the help of people around you, which is what the wealthy always do,” said Socol in an interview prior to the conference. “The trick is in how you build a community around [students] and help them find the tools that will help them solve their problems.”

Socol said examples of such efforts in Albemarle County schools include a 1-to-1 student-computing initiative that focuses on providing students with a variety of apps and digital tools (e.g, text-to-speech and voice-dictation software to help struggling students with reading and writing assignments); a district-led effort to provide broadband access in students’ homes and communities; and a mindset that students need flexibility and forgiveness, rather than a “no-excuses” mandate, 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.”

Moran dismissed concerns that such a philosophy represents its own type of bigotry, in the form of low expectations for students from difficult circumstances.

“Sure, I want kids who are resilient,” she said. “I also want children who feel safe in school, who feel their teachers are looking out for them, and who believe schools are providing them with flexibility and opportunity versus telling them to pull themselves out of poverty by their bootstraps.”

This post has been updated with comment from Angela Duckworth.

Photo: Albemarle County Superintendent of Schools Pamela Moran in a 2012 photo. Ms. Moran presented at the EduCon 2.7 ed-tech conference in Philadelphia on January 24, 2015: --Melissa Golden for Digital Directions

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.