School Climate & Safety Opinion

John Thompson: Game-Changers Go for the Grit

By Anthony Cody — November 21, 2013 3 min read
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Guest post by John Thompson.

The Hechinger Report’s Sarah Butrymowicz, in “Teachers Weigh In on How to Identify Grit,” explains that the word “Grit” has become an education buzzword. It is a term for character traits like perseverance and optimism or “zest” that is critical to student achievement.

Butrymowicz cites a report by the Gates-funded Educators 4 Excellence (E4E), “True Grit: The Game-changing Factors and People Lifting School Performance in Los Angeles,” which at least used the word “grit” in its title, although it gives no evidence that schools are building that quality. As she explains, their report starts with the assumption that the schools serving poor and minority children have grit because they’ve increased student performance by 40 points on a scale of 200 to 1000.

It takes a lot of grit to be brazen enough to claim that the E4E’s paper does anything other than use the words “True Grit” over and over, as it displays colorful photographs of attractive teachers and students, and state-of-the-art graphics to promote its agenda. It provides checklists that supposedly could be used for cultivating grit, but no evidence that these schools are attempting to do so. The only real conclusion that is supported by the evidence in the report is that someone decided it would be good public relations to repeatedly use the word “grit” in a paper that calls for more testing and for the union to capitulate to the LAUSD on staffing issues. Otherwise, how could those recommendations be justified in a paper that provides no evidence in support for either policy, and that has nothing to do with cultivating grit in students?

The E4E interviewed around 400 teachers and determined that five characteristics were associated with being True Grit schools. The only real pattern it shows is that about 2/3rds of the schools’ educators believe that it is important to have strong learning cultures and use data. On the other hand, two characteristic that were supposedly used to build grit - smarter systems and working with the community - were cited by as few as 23% and 20% of teachers. Are we supposed to conclude that the teachers at True Grit schools weren’t even gritty enough to embrace more than 3/5ths of the E4E agenda?

Also, it listed eight teachers in seven schools who helped write the report. Six of those schools (89%) include the words “academy,” “institute,” or “charter” in their names. So, if claiming to build grit is a game-changer, giving better names to troubled schools might also lift student performance ...

Butrymowicz then links to the work of Jordon Shapiro and Avi Kaplan who discuss the down side of using “grit” as a catch phrase. They note that the term can be spun as the path towards raising test scores, reducing your work week to 4 hours, or living off of real estate investments. Whether we use the words, “grit,” “social intelligence,” or “go-get-'em cowboy-individualism, we should remember that this sort of talk has been a part of the American mythos since Alexis De Tocqueville.

Kaplan adds that there is nothing wrong with “No Excuses” schools using the word and teaching students that failure isn’t doom.” It is wrong to use it to justify “one shot testing,” however, where “failure is ‘doom.’”

So, I embrace the work of Heckman, Duckworth, and Tough on grit. I welcome their emphasis on the socio-emotional. I never expected true believers in testing would merely see the light and embrace science-based policies, but I am still shocked by the E4E paper.

What do you think? Will “astroturf” groups like the E4E say anything in order to keep undermining teachers? Would we be better off with another word for “grit?” Or, will we listen to the balanced approach of journalists like Butrymowicz and Shapiro, and researchers like Kaplan?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.