The title of veteran educator Linda Nathan’s new book is long — “When Grit Isn’t Enough: A High School Principal Examines How Poverty and Inequality Thwart the College-For-All Promise” — but it goes a long way to explaining what she is writing about. Nathan challenges five key assumptions that have driven modern school reform and explains why they are ultimately empty promises.
Each is tackled in a chapter: “Money Doesn’t Have to Be an Obstacle,” “Race Doesn’t Matter,” “Just Work Harder,” “Everyone Can Go to College,” and “If You Believe, Your Dreams Will Come True.” Drawing from interviews with many students, she explains why these notions have helped fueled inequity in the U.S. public education system, and she uses her own experiences as an educator to show why she believes that the arts should be central to children’s education.
The title refers to the “grit” movement in education, an emphasis on teaching and even measuring students’ perseverance and passion, which became part of the movement in education toward social-emotional learning. In this edited Q&A I did with Nathan about her book, she explains why she first embraced the movement and then came to reject it.
Nathan, who worked in Boston’s public schools for 38 years, is the first executive director of the nonprofit Center for Artistry and Scholarship, which fosters arts-immersed schools, and she oversees programs, including the Creative Learning Schools Project as well as the Perrone-Sizer Institute for Creative Leadership in partnership with the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She also works closely with the leadership of Conservatory Lab Charter School to support its development as a national model of project-based learning and arts immersed education.
She previously was the founding head of the Boston Arts Academy, the city’s only public high school for the arts, as well as co-principal of Fenway High School for 14 years. She taught before in Boston and Puerto Rico.
Q. Why did you write this book?
A. I’m angry. I’m angry at what’s happened to so many of my kids. I’ve been in public education for 40 years and the lack of understanding in this country about what it really takes to break through the barriers astounds me. Call it systemic racism. Call it a disregard for first-generation kids, black and brown and poor kids. Call it a misguided belief that “grit” will get you through.
I started interviewing my amazing kids and learning from them about their journeys. And then the book started to evolve. I started to hear the beliefs/assumptions that frame the book and I wanted to understand their almost mythological power in our country. Of course I want policymakers, folks in higher ed and folks in preK-12, to read the book and get shaken and commit to change.
I am still working with public schools, and I run a leadership institute now as well. We have to do better. Our very democracy depends on it.
I believe deeply that we can actually teach anti-racism. And we must. Testing has gotten in the way of so much of what we need to do to make our schools better. Too many consider student voice/agency “soft” but actually that is the way our students will engage in school. That’s the way their school muscles will get exercised. I am so dismayed at what many of our schools have become. (And of course I have a million examples of great schools and great leaders — but the norm is uninspiring.)
I want us to stop putting the college flags on the doors (pet peeve I know) as if all our kids will go to college. What about putting the flags of the first company or store we worked for? Our kids need excellent career and technical education. I wrote this book to say that loudly and clearly. We can create excellent career and tech ed programs. I was doing so in the ’80s. We can do it again.
Money matters. Race matters. Grit talk makes me angry. We have to stop making everything about the individual.
Q. Tell me a little about your school and the challenges you face as an educator and administrator.
A. The school that I drew the interviews from was Boston Arts Academy (BAA). I was the founding headmaster in 1998 (Boston’s first and only visual and performing arts public high school) and served as HM until 2013. I was the co-principal of Fenway High School for 14 years before that (I also talk about that school in one of the chapters). And I was a teacher in Boston and San Juan, Puerto Rico, before that. All told, in Boston public schools for 38 years!
One of the promises of BAA was that it would serve as an antidote to the racist reputation of the city from its years of court-ordered busing. As an audition-based arts high school, we would draw from all neighborhoods and all socioeconomic classes and all racial, ethnic and linguistic groups. And we did and do. (I am currently a trustee of this public school and I am so proud of it!) So few urban schools are integrated across race and class, but BAA actually is! That in and of itself is wonderful! My first book, “The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test,” is a description of the school and how we established shared values, an overarching framework that we called “habits” of the graduate and also many of the challenges I faced during my 14 years there.
The challenges I faced as an educator — during all my years — are many of the ones I write about now: a deep belief in the smartness, if you will, of my students, and the brilliance and hard work of my teachers within a now-narrow accountability system that cares more about ranking and sorting kids and schools and not actually thinking about how one teaches young people who may come with limited English skills or from communities that have been besieged by drugs and violence and lack of economic opportunities.
We can’t “no excuse” our way out of the way we have ravaged our education budgets or our cities, and the way education has become synonymous with test scores.
So the biggest challenges for me have always been how to create schools where what matters is that students are deeply engaged in what I call “making and doing” — something that the arts teach us how to do — the actual creation of knowledge and material. I am interested in schools that respond to the actual challenges that young people come in the door with and not just what some curriculum guide says kids must know. I actually trust most teachers. And I believe that the arts should be central to all kids’ learning. That’s been the biggest challenge; the arts are now an aside in almost all schools.
I’m now associated with Conservatory Lab Charter School — an elementary school where kids do music EVERY day for an hour. It’s wonderful, wonderful to see. But we will never be measured on the kids’ musical abilities, only their math and English scores.
So I return to my biggest challenge: trying to get the world to see that we need a large vision for public education. Yes, we want all kids to read etc. . . . but we have allowed this testing craze to create some of the narrowest curriculum I’ve seen in decades.
Other challenges I have faced: having kids that are undocumented and cannot go to college. That is the worst. Or even kids who do have “paper” but cannot go because the money just isn’t there. Those stories just don’t get told and I have tried to.
Q. Your book is titled “When Grit Is Not Enough.” What did you make of the movement to instill and assess “grit” in young people?
A. ARGH! So when I first read Paul Tough’s book I was intrigued, and we did some work at BAA with thinking about the traits he discusses there.
But as I began to visit more schools and talk to my alums who were incredibly “gritty,” I became actually disgusted with the “movement.” It is a movement, for the most part, “owned and operated” by white folks and executed onto black and brown bodies.
Of course you don’t get ahead without determination and persistence, and it’s one of the reasons I’m such an arts advocate. That’s what you learn in the arts: how to practice, how to work together, how to persist through difficult scenes, lines, choreography, etc. . . . but this notion that “if we show grit by having strict behavioral codes/rules, all will be well” is ridiculous.
I’ve seen so many schools now — all black/brown kids and majority white teachers — where this 1950s kind of discipline rules. Again . . . it’s good to look people in the eyes, it’s good to sit up, it’s good to pay attention, but the example I write about in the book in a NON-no-excuses school, where the level of dialogue/discussion was so high and kids were in all manner of “repose,” proves to me that these somewhat oppressive conditions are NOT the only way to have an engaging classroom. Of course teachers need and want order, but all this “hugs and bubbles” stuff has taken it too far. Silent cafeterias? I have seen LOTS of that. What is that about?
I always go back to this: Would I want my own kids in this school? Hard to say “yes” for many of these “no-excuses” gritty-type schools. Yes, I know they have good test results. (They also do a pretty good job of making sure that they kids who can’t live by the grit rules don’t stay in the school), but I go back to my earlier points: School must also be about getting along, learning to work with those giggling boys and learning that there are different ways of expressing oneself.
I’ve seen too many boys (especially black/brown boys) suffocated by what has become grit pedagogy. Kids need to jump and play and yell and run. Of course not in the classroom all the time, but we must ensure that there are multiple methods to reach and teach our students. I think this “movement” needs to be curbed and I am pleased that even some of the “worst” offenders are now questioning their tactics.
Q. If you could advise Betsy DeVos on education policy, what are the most important things you would tell her?
A. This is what I’d say:
Dear Secretary DeVos:
We will never test our way to equality. The mass amounts of data we are now poring over only show us that all this testing has not done much to improve our schools.
Of course we need standards and some way to measure results, but we have gone too far.
Ted Sizer had it right. Read “Horace’s Compromise” and “Horace’s School” — again (I hope you have already read them once). Ted argued for minimal testing — the floor — not the ceiling, so to speak. Read “Horace’s Hope.”
Read Vito Perrone’s “A Letter to Teachers” to understand the ways in which we need to protect this profession. Teachers cannot be the “whipping posts” for every issue that ails society. Teachers need unions that will protect them when and if they need to speak out. Don’t try to destroy teachers’ vehicles for leadership development. Look at how Finland professionalized teaching in the last 30 years. They made teaching a profession that was hard to get into (recruited from top of the university class) and gave teachers a lot of autonomy in what they teach and how they organize their classrooms. They made teachers some of the highest paid in the country. These are lessons that we can all learn from. I know we are a large heterogeneous country and not a small homogeneous one, but if you go with an open mind you will see that there are really lessons that we can incorporate here. I was fortunate enough to visit and I came back filled with ideas.
For instance: Every child has a rich arts, music and woodworking education — just to mention a few. I believe you could encourage all schools to offer a rich and creative curriculum. Right now if you grow up poor or in the city, you can also be guaranteed you will not receive education in music, visual arts, theater, dance or creative writing. I think this is a travesty. You could use your bully pulpit to exhort schools to stop eliminating the arts.
I know you are very interested in how business can help our schools. You might look at the Swiss system to see how they are providing apprenticeships for a large percentage of the population. This is something we could implement.
Now back to this county: I believe parents should have good options, but the choice system you have helped create in Michigan has led to the destruction of too many public schools. Competition has not served us well. It has not improved schools. It is great for professional sports. But we have seen that competition only advantages those who know how to “work the system” and disadvantages most others. We cannot keep exacerbating gaps between the haves and have-nots. This should be a real focus of your work.
For-profit schools have been a disaster for too many. I hope you can read my book to hear how badly my students were hurt by these schools. This is no way to run a public education system. They should be outlawed.
Finally, integration matters. I worry that too many of our schools are becoming resegregated and that young people will have fewer and fewer opportunities to work with children who may come from different backgrounds, economically, racially, linguistically, ethnically. We need many opportunities for young people to come together while in school and get to know one another. School may be the only place where we can provide these kind of experiences.
It’s important that we make policy decisions that will help our students and schools thrive.