After hearing Brian Williams do a segment at Education Nation with Paul Tough about teaching students “grit” — the subject of Tough’s new book called “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character” — I got a sinking feeling that “grit” is becoming the new watchword in school reform and we won’t hear the end of it (until a new watchword is found).

I imagined the Gates Foundation providing $1.25 million for this grant: For the purpose of working with members of the Measuring Grit in Students (MGS) team to measure how much ‘grit’ students display physiologically and emotionally and also to create standardized tests to measure how much ‘grittiness’ teachers are responsible for and whether there is a way to scale up the impartment of grittiness for use in schools everywhere.

Here’s an excellent piece that puts the new focus on grit in perspective, written by Katie Osgood, a teacher on a child/adolescent inpatient unit at a psychiatric hospital in Chicago. Her students attend all types of schools but most are from low-income minority neighborhoods. A longer version of this post first appeared on the website @ The Chalk Face.

By Katie Osgood

Over the past few weeks author and journalist Paul Tough and his new book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character,” have been making a splash in the world of education reform. The book has been highlighted in The New York Times, on NPR, and on various other news outlets. And Tough talked about “grit” at NBC News’ recent Education Nation Summit,

The book, which highlights the “character education” program at the KIPP charter schools, centers on the idea that critical non-cognitive skills, which he calls “character,” can be hindered due to poor parenting and the stresses of poverty but can be taught in school.

He argues that these skills are more important than the fixed idea of IQ and that schools should focus on developing skills like “grit (perseverance), self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, zest (enthusiasm), and curiosity.” And he points to research showing that these traits can be boosted in children if they have an attachment to their parents and are shielded from stress early in their lives.

( “GRIT” is a piece of perspective art made by Doyle Partners in conjunction with the New York Times. The actual piece itself is located in the KIPP Infinity Middle School in Manhattan.(From: ) )

How is This New?

I am not clear why there is so much hype about regarding Tough’s book. In the mental health field, clinicians and mental health workers have been teaching the skills Tough discusses for decades. The research on it is nothing new.

I work on a child/adolescent inpatient unit at a psychiatric hospital in Chicago, where we teach very similar types of social skills. (I refuse to call it “character” because that adds an implicit deficit understanding of children’s behavior.) As a trained special education teacher, I spent a large part of my education graduate program learning the direct instruction of social skills. Schools have emphasized social/emotional learning for as long as I have been a teacher.

Yet the KIPP charter school network is being hailed for its supposedly new “character education” program. To me, the biggest difference in what KIPP does and what happens at my hospital is that we teach these skills in a therapeutic context. That is, children spend the whole day discussing their personal lives, including abuse, trauma, neglect, violence, and home lives. We teach them ways to overcome frustration in the moment, so it does not blow up into aggression or self-harm. We connect their depression (lack of “optimism”), their feelings of hopelessness (lack of “grit”), and their anger (lack of “zest” or “self-control”) with their lives and then teach them ways to cope. We are always clear that these types of coping skills are intended as a momentary fix to get kids through difficult situations, but the real healing happens through the long process of directly dealing with the trauma by trained professionals.

KIPP’s Character Education and Social Justice

KIPP’s approach to character education is eerily divorced from the reality of inner city children’s lives. They teach and reinforce through praise, grading or punishment traits such as “grit, self-control, or optimism.” They even give out report cards to measure the unmeasurable “character” of children.

A majority of KIPP schools are middle schools, a time of development when children are first beginning to question the world around them, and some will undoubtedly rebel. And yet, KIPP’s curriculum is not based in social justice, in teaching students about oppression, racism, or class structures. Many inner city youth get angry when they begin to question the gross inequalities of their lives and realize something is off about the treatment of their communities by those in power. KIPP’s answer is lock-down. Tell young people to exhibit “self-control” or “grit” and to “work, hard, be nice.” There is no conversation about WHY the children (often rightfully so) are feeling the way they are. At KIPP, if you do not exhibit the correct “character” it is YOUR fault. And if you cannot just get over whatever it is that angers you, if you cannot or will not just “be nice,” well then there is the door.
The “no excuses” ideology drops hundreds of years of injustice in the lap of children.

To a social justice educator, KIPP’s approach will never address the broader needs of children and communities. Look at what happened during the Chicago teachers strike. Among the children who participated on the picket lines, at the rallies and the marches, something magical happened. Students did not need to be told to sit still and have “self-control,” but exhibited it naturally through the empowerment of fighting for justice. “Optimism” was authentic as students felt the excitement of finally having voice.

What is the value in teaching children to be able to sit for hours, to have the “grit” to finish that tedious task or long test? Why not create curriculum that is so engaging and relevant that children discover a joy in learning? No instruction on “grit” is needed when students are empowered and engaged. “No excuses” pedagogy is rooted in obedience and submission, in breaking children’s spirit, while social justice pedagogy empowers and uplifts using that spirit as an asset.

Poverty Matters, but Poverty Doesn’t Matter?

Tough does talk about a few semi-promising programs in Chicago such as An Ounce of Prevention, a program aimed at supporting teen mothers; One Goal, a program designed to get students into and through college; and Youth Advocate Programs, or YAP, a group which gives intensive mentorship to the most at-risk children. These programs, especially an Ounce of Prevention, are fundamentally anti-poverty programs. This type of intervention can be powerful, but they are band-aids, and often very expensive band-aids. Giving mentors to youth involved with gangs, drugs, and violence is a positive step, but it does not change the underlying structures of racism, segregation, and oppression which led neighborhoods to fall prey to those social ills in the first place.

During a recent talk in Chicago, Alex Kotlowitz (author of books like “There are No Children Here” and the director of the documentary
“The Interrupters
”) asks Tough about these structural problems:

Kotlowitz: So I read this book, and one of my fears, in some ways, is that people will read this book and think…all kids need is some ‘pluck’, some ‘grit,’ and they can get themselves out of there [poverty]. Does it in turn ignore/neglect, those larger structural issues that are clearly so important to these communities…?

Tough: Yes, those kinds of neighborhoods could use all kinds of structural change…But I also really believe that education, maybe not the education we have right now, but education can reverse things very quickly. That if a kid grows up in that neighborhood and gets the right kind of support, the right kind of intervention, they can end poverty for themselves, um, right away, and it doesn’t have to take a huge change for the whole neighborhood. [emphasis mine]

Tough ends by saying, “Talking about giving kids the skills they need to succeed is the right conversation to be having.”

Tough echoes the arguments of the corporate education reform movement. You can hear the whisper of “poverty is not destiny” often on the lips of Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, Joel Klein, Geoffrey Canada, and of course embedded in the KIPP philosophy. He gives the elite and powerful the ultimate excuse to do nothing about structural problems of poverty. No need to invest in desegregation or jobs programs, or to increase worker rights, or end the criminalization of our nation’s black and Hispanic youth. We do not need to address the savage inequalities in school funding. Nor is there any discussion about where the massive amounts of funds for these intervention programs will come from, especially in light of most states’ cuts to mental health and education services.

Who Controls the Conversation about Character?

Tough begins his book talking about how poverty creates obstacles in children’s lives, but never allows himself to say that we should combat that poverty directly. He toys around the edges, citing programs that do the work of anti-poverty programs, but then still ends on teaching “grit” in no-excuses charter schools as the ultimate answer.

And he never acknowledges the many beautiful, powerful character traits that low-income children already possess, such as loyalty, passion, a strong sense of justice, quick reactions in times of difficulty, and the ability to fight for what is right. Sometimes that “bad attitude” is a justifiable distrust of authority, especially white authority. Sometimes that lack of “zest” is appropriate given the mental health state of the student.

I would rather have a community-based, social-justice curriculum, which instead of ignoring oppression and trauma, confronts it directly. KIPP’s standardized curricula do not allow for the beauty and range of human possibility.

But on one thing, Tough is correct. He speaks about the need for character education in affluent communities.

I do not think they need “more adversity,” as he argues, but rather they need to be taught empathy, justice, and solidarity in order to go out and refuse to participate in a social system which concentrates all the wealth in the hands of an elite few. They should be taught of privilege, oppression, and the legacy of racism. They need to fight against a system which allows racism and segregation to continue uncontested. They should be inspired to humbly join the communities in our inner-cities in their fight for social justice.

The struggle for equality? Now THAT’s the kind of character education I’m interested in discussing…