Friday, February 16, 2018

America Can’t ‘Grit’ Its Way Out of Poverty and Racism by Renegade Teacher

Why are my students poor?

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist“- Dom Helder Camara [1]
Here are two hard facts about growing up in America:
  • 15 million (21%) of children grow up beneath the poverty line. [2]
  • The median White household wealth is $134,000 while the median Black household wealth is $11,000. [3]
As someone who has taught many impoverished and Black students, these two facts stay with me. On the one hand, as a teacher, I know it is right to push kids to persevere and be resilient no matter what life throws at them. On the other hand, I oftentimes feel like the game is already rigged.
I circle back to one question: why are millions of students subjected to poverty and racism everyday? I have already reflected on these issues in previous  posts. but I am still searching for answers.
Especially from White Republican acquaintances, the pushback I get is that underprivileged students need to work harder. “Yeah, it sucks what life has given them, but when will they stop making excuses?”
Urban charter school zealots take the “no excuses” mindset one step further; they immerse themselves in a magic world of pop psychology aphorisms and relentless positivity, seeming to focus solely on micromanaging every aspect of broken kids’ lives in order to cure them of their plight while somehow ignoring the ills of the world around them.
I am conflicted. I want to believe in the magic of the individual rising above abject poverty. But I am now a veteran witness to many kids getting expelled from school, I have found various former ‘good’ students becoming fathers and mothers soon after they leave my classroom, and I have gone to a funeral of one of the good kids- who did everything right and still found himself dead by a bullet at 18 years old on the East side of Detroit- wrong place, wrong time, they said. It is just so clear to me in my head that there is much more to student results and achievements than the individual merits or skills of the students themselves.
Thus, it was with cynicism and doubt that I entered Angela Duckworth’s book, “Grit” in order to grapple with my own wonder about how to inspire others to succeed. I wanted to read this book to see if I was missing something. Maybe there’s a part of me that wants to put aside inconvenient facts about society and believe in the cult of personal responsibility and meritocracy. Her book has been a staple of the corporate education reform package, utilized by magic factories such as KIPP and Teach for America.

What I like in “Grit”

The teacher in me loves Angela Duckworth’s “Grit.”
“Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another[4]
– Angela Duckworth
How can you not agree with that statement? I would encourage any parent, teacher, friend, or individual to approach their life or their inspiration on others’ lives with the mindset of unlocking potential through hard work and grit.
Duckworth defines grit as a mixture of passion and perseverance, essentially valuing hard work and dedication over raw intelligence. [5] “Grit” as she defines it involves a person working relentlessly to achieve a “unifying goal,” a life’s passion worthy of tremendous practice and dedication. [6]
What are worthwhile “unifying goals” for peoples’ lives? Duckworth peppers her book with stories of ‘gritty’ people such as Pete Carroll (coach of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks), Jamie Dimon (CEO of Chase Bank), Bill McNabb (Vanguard Investment Group), Judd Apatow (director of movies such as The 40 Year Old Virgin), and Wendy Kopp (CEO and founder of Teach for America…I’ll return to her shortly). Duckworth uses a plethora of name dropping and examples to allow the reader to imagine grit as an attribute that can justify pursuing anything you want to pursue.
So how does one become a ‘gritty’ person and join the ranks of Dimon, Carroll, and the others?
Simple: interest, practice, purpose, and hope. [7]
This formula seems easy, but the way Angela Duckworth describes it, practice in particular requires a lot of sacrifice and overcoming hurdles. To be a gritty person, you have to not give up, you have to stick with your pursuits, and you have to set specific benchmarks in order to achieve those goals.
Hard work, perseverance, resilience, hope, grit. These are all values I try to instill in my students on a daily basis. I totally agree with Duckworth that hard work and perseverance lead to better individual outcomes than just being naturally ‘smart.’
Duckworth ends her book by saying that genius should be defined as “working toward excellence, ceaselessly, with every element of your being.” [8] I so want that to be true- I want to believe that everyone’s actions represent their own identity, but I have seen too much to believe this. From my experience, the only way to force-feed grit to broken populations is through severe oppression.

Why should we accept poverty as a given?

As I was reading the book, so many questions popped into my head about factors that impact student achievement and peoples’ life outcomes. Where is the mention of systems of oppression? Poverty, racial segregation, War on Drugs? What about the impact of history on today? What about luck? What about ethics? What about the fact that some peoples’ individual ambitions and hard work may spawn morally reprehensible corporations or achievements? What about shared goals? What about sharing things? What about happiness?
My mind pans to the faces of students I have known through the years in Detroit. In particular, I think about some of the kids I’ve come across who have gone through so much and stood so tough from their experiences. Yet, they don’t qualify as ‘gritty’ by Angela Duckworth’s definition. They may take two public buses to get to school every day, but they forget to turn in assignments and regularly fall asleep in class. They babysit their siblings or work to feed their families, but they don’t stick with the same hobby nor practice for years. Worse, they give up easily, and they feel uninspired by their academic work due to crumbling school environments. They don’t have parents who support such ‘gritty’ habits because their parents are busy working multiple jobs to feed their families or were imprisoned in the War on Drugs. They eat unhealthy foods (in and out of school), they attend schools with inexperienced and ineffective teachers, and they go home to chaotic home environments (all of this caused by and reinforced by poverty). This is not to even mention the asthma , the lead poisoning from the walls , and the highest violence rate in an American city , or the White flight from the inner cities. No, my students are not hopeful for the world. Taking one look around Detroit and Donald Trump’s America, would you blame them?
Perhaps Angela Duckworth’s “Grit” has merit to a parent with stable financial resources and access to great schools, but is this really an instructive manual for a country where 21% of students grow up in poverty? Or the city of Detroit where 87%  of children know someone who has been killed or wounded by gun violence? Those problems are far more impairing of student success and achievement than a lack of hard work. To me, Angela Duckworth needed to address the systemic forces that intersect with personal ambition and achievement, and it’s very telling that she did not choose to do so (instead, she lionized bankster Jamie Dimon, the same Jamie Dimon who led Chase Bank to mislead investors in the buildup to the 2008 financial crisis).

Angela Duckworth’s ‘Gritty’ Educators: Teach for America and KIPP

Then, there’s Angela Duckworth’s fascination with the corporate education reformers. She highlights Teach for America Founder and CEO Wendy Kopp, calling her a “paragon of grit,” explaining how Duckworth actually studied TFA and found that optimistic teachers had more ‘grit,’ and in turn got their students to achieve more. [9]Furthermore, Duckworth highlights the KIPP charter school network, the nation’s largest charter network, which she highlights for praising effort and learning over natural talent [10].
In turn, corporate ed reformers have made grit a central part of their gospel. In fact, KIPP worked with Angela Duckworth to create a character development framework that they utilize in their schools.
Teach for America and KIPP are basically fighting for the same things I am fighting for in my public school classroom: so what is my problem with them?
Regarding Teach for America, I am just going to drop this Onion Article here.
Volunteer Teacher: My year volunteering as a teacher helped educate a new generation of of underprivileged kids!
Elementary School Student: Can we please, just once, have a real teacher?
Bleeding heart college kids dropping in for two years to become teachers only de-professionalizes the profession while leaving behind underwhelming results. Any true teacher knows that experience is an essential ingredient to effective pedagogy- by the time Teach for America teachers start to gain that expertise, they move on to law school or the corporate world.
As for KIPP, they have positive academic results…but…
“I’ve seen about four teachers have complete nervous breakdowns…After two years, you become physically ill. Your body breaks down- you can’t take it anymore.”[11]
“Students are managed largely through bullying, screaming, and personal insults. At my previous (traditional public) school teachers did not raise their voice ONCE during the course of the year. At (the KIPP school where this teacher worked) it was ubiquitous. “
“If you don’t tuck in your shirt, if you space out for a minute and don’t track your teacher with your eyes, if your binder is messy, you lose points. If you lose enough points, you are not allowed to go on field trips or be a part of the graduation ceremony.” [12]
This is oppression on the level of the Indian boarding schools of the early 1900s that sought to assimilate Native Americans into White cultural life, but ended up causing harm. I believe these stories of KIPP: I have also participated in charter schools (not KIPP) and seen the oppressive cultures that they instill on students. I wrote this article about my experiences.
Furthermore, according to a study by Professor Gary Miron at Western Michigan, some 40% of Black males from KIPP Schools leave between grades 6-8.
Miron found that about 15% of all students leave each year from KIPP , compared with 3% in the local traditional public schools; oh yeah, and KIPP students receive about $5,000 a year per pupil through private donations IN ADDITION to regular public funding. [13] This is not only oppressive, but it is an unscalable model for education turnaround.
Would Angela Duckworth be proud of that attrition? Do teachers and students who cannot and do not want to survive in such oppressive environments just not have enough grit?

We Owe it To The Future To Fight Poverty and Racism

My mind races back to the students I have seen fail. The students of mine I have seen expelled after letting their rage boil over into violence, the various students I have seen on the local news in handcuffs, and the previously mentioned former student who had his life taken from him on the streets of Detroit.
If you put those same individuals with parents who had stable incomes, schools with nurturing and encouraging environments, and all the trappings of the suburban bubble, they would have a far greater chance to succeed.
We owe it to these students to not only instill passion and perseverance, but to create a society where grit is possible- where the American Dream is within reach. White, Black, Brown- we all deserve quality public schools. We owe it to our young people to abandon the myth that people have complete control over their lives; it is oppressive to victim-blame people into believing that they have full responsibility over their outcomes, and this mentality ultimately advantages the wealthy ruling class. It is good for individuals to gain responsibility, but that needs to be balanced with a hard look at systemic issues that prevent the poor and disenfranchised from being able to have the gritty success that Angela Duckworth idealizes.
Angela Duckworth dropped a James Baldwin quote in her book, so I will end this post with one of my own:
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”- James Baldwin
For an individual looking to achieve something great, Grit is an extremely useful diagram of what to do, far more useful than the usual trope, “you’re so smart.”
But for our greater American society, this is no blueprint. And as Baldwin inspires us, we must face our own monsters (poverty and racism) in order to change them.

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