It Takes More Than Grit
You’ve probably been hearing a lot about “grit” lately, thanks to Paul Tough’s bestselling book, How Children Succeed. Grit is the will to persevere in the face of obstacles that Tough says is essential to success. Emily Hanford, a reporter for American RadioWorks, shares a nuanced perspective on the concept of grit in a piece on the EdSource website. Emily writes:
“I started reading the research on grit as part of a reporting project at the YES Prep charter school network in Houston. YES was founded in 1995 with the goal of getting poor and minority students to graduate from college. Many of them work full time while going to school – and they still have to take out loans. Some are helping support their families by paying bills or taking care of younger siblings or grandparents. If they hit a snag with financial aid or have difficulty getting through a class, they don’t have a parent with college experience to help them figure out what to do. Some students say their families are expecting them to fail.
The ones who overcome these challenges may have a lot of grit, but they tend to get a lot of help too. YES data shows that the students most likely to complete college go to schools where there are good support services and often a concerted effort to encourage and retain poor and minority students. YES tries to get its students to go to these schools. YES has also stepped up its own support services by hiring two people to work full-time on helping students stay in college. YES teachers and staff recognize that getting low-income, first-generation kids through school takes time and money. They are interested in grit as one of the many things their students need to make it in a world where low-income kids have to work harder to get what more privileged people often take for granted.
I worry not everyone will see it this way. The idea that low-income kids need more grit fits neatly into a familiar narrative that poor people don’t work hard enough. When Mitt Romney made his comments about the 47 percent to a roomful of wealthy donors, he also noted that he and his wife had given away their inheritances and earned everything ‘the old-fashioned way, and that’s by hard work.’ But someone like Mitt Romney, or me, has all kinds of advantages that help us gain a level of security and success regardless of how gritty we are.
The research on grit and other noncognitive skills has the potential to change education for the better, away from a narrow focus on test results and toward a fuller understanding of what it takes for people to be successful. But grit can’t be an excuse for not investing in support that low-income students need to be on a more level playing field with their higher-income peers. And grit shouldn’t be used to blame poor kids if they do fail. As one YES staff member said to me: ‘We don’t want to downplay the significance of these kids being born into situations that are unjust and then if they don’t make it, accuse them of not being gritty.’” (Read more here.)
Emily’s right. I worry that “grit” is becoming a trendy way to explain the whole of a student’s success or failure—”He didn’t graduate from college? He must not have had enough grit.” There’s so much more that goes into the achievement of a milestone like college graduation—an achievement that is, in practical terms, much harder for some than for others.