The “Grit” Narrative, “Grit” Research, and Codes that Blind

The answer to Grant Lichtman’s Does “Grit” Need Deeper Discussion? appears to be an unequivocal yes—based on the exchange in the blog post comments, the Twitter conversations, and comments at my blogs on “grit.”

Those conversations have been illuminating for me; therefore, I want here to address several excellent ideas that have been generated.

First, I want to make a distinction that I think I have failed to make so far: We need to distinguish between the “grit” narrative and “grit” research. My concerns and most of my writing rejecting “grit” are addressing the “grit” narrative—one that is embedded in and co-opted by the larger “no excuses” ideology.

The “grit” narrative is central to work by Paul Tough as well as a wide range of media coverage of education, education reform, and specifically “no excuses” charter schools such as KIPP. In other words, the “grit” narrative is how we talk about what qualities lead to success (in life and school), what qualities children have and need, and how schools and teachers can and should inculcate those qualities.

In order to understand my cautions about the term “grit” as a narrative, I recommend that you consider carefully the responses to Richard Sherman’s post-game interview with Erin Andrews—responses that included calling Sherman a “thug” and racial slurs.

As Sherman has confronted himself, “thug” is “the accepted way of calling somebody the N-word nowadays.”

In other words, “thug” and GPA, as I have examined, are codes that blind because they are socially acceptable words and metrics that mask racial and class biases and prejudices.

The “grit” narrative is also a code that blinds since it perpetuates and is nested in a cultural myth of the hard-working and white ideal against the lazy and African American (and Latino/a) stereotype.

We must acknowledge that the “grit” narrative is primarily directed at—and the “no excuses” ideologies and practices are almost exclusively implemented with—high-poverty African American and Latino/a populations of students. And we must also acknowledge that the popular and misguided assumption is that relatively affluent and mostly white students and schools with relatively high academic achievement data are distinguishable from relatively impoverished and mostly African American and Latino/a students because of the effort among those populations (as well as stereotypes that white/affluent parents care about education and AA/Latino/a parents do not care about education)—instead of the pervasive fact that achievement data are more strongly correlated with socioeconomic status than effort and commitment.

Whether consciously or not, “grit” narratives and “no excuses” polices are classist and racist—again demonstrably so because neither are associated with white students in middle-class and affluent communities and schools.

The “grit” narrative states and implies that schools need to inculcate in impoverished African American and Latino/a students that same “grit” at the root of affluent and white student excellence (see the same stereotyping of teaching impoverished children the middle-class code in the flawed and discredited work of Ruby Payne)—misreading the actual sources of both the achievement and the lack of achievement (see below about scarcity and slack).

In fact, part of the “grit” narrative includes the assumption that successful students and people (read “white”) are successful primarily because they work hard; they earn their success. The flip side of this “grit” narrative is that unsuccessful students and people (read “African American” and “Latino/a”) are unsuccessful because they simply do not try hard enough. At its worst, the “grit” narrative is a socially acceptable way of expressing the lazy African American stereotype, just as Sherman exposed about “thug” as a socially acceptable racial slur.

The “grit” narrative is a racialized (and racist) cousin of the rugged individual myth that remains powerful in the U.S. The factual problem with the “grit” narrative and the rugged individual myth can be found in some powerful evidence that success is more strongly connected to systemic conditions than to the content of any individual’s character. Please consider the following:

  • Using data from Pew’s Economic Mobility Project, Matt Bruenig exposes the reality that ones privilege of birth trumps educational achievement (effort and attainment):

So, you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated. The disparity in the outcomes of rich and poor kids persists, not only when you control for college attainment, but even when you compare non-degreed rich kids to degreed poor kids!

Therefore, the answer to the question in the title is that you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.

  • In ScarcityMullainathan and Shafir present a compelling case that the same individual behaves differently in conditions of scarcity and slack. Scarcity occurs in impoverished lives and accounts for behaviors often misread by society as lazy, careless, or self-defeating. Slack is the space afforded by privilege and wealth, providing the context within which many people thrive and, ironically, within which behaviors described a “grit” can be valuable. In the “grit” narrative as well as in “no excuses” and high-stakes environments, scarcity is both ignored and intensified, creating contexts within which demanding “grit” is harmful and likely unproductive. Then seeking and creating slack for students (in their lives and in their schooling) instead of or preceding focusing on “grit” must occur if we genuinely support the component behaviors classified as “grit” (in the “grit” research).
  • Both the “grit” narrative and the rugged individualism myth focus an accusatory and evaluative gaze on the individual, leaving systemic forces that control individual behavior unexamined. The consequences of this misplaced attention—individuals and not system—are that students will learn not to try.

The above better characterizes why I reject the term “grit” as part of the “grit” narrative, but this now leaves us with the “grit” research, about many people reading the “grit” debate Lichtman’s blog have offered impassioned defenses.

Is it possible that the “grit” research has valuable and non-biased applications in classrooms for all types of students? Yes.

However, I believe our first step in rescuing the “grit” research is dropping the term. In my view, “grit” must go.

Next, we must shift when we privilege the component behaviors called “grit” and insure that our practices do not inadvertently teach students to avoid making deep and powerful efforts that are likely to fail.

As noted above, once students are afforded slack, and the playing field is leveled, “grit” may be a suitable focus for young people. This pursuit of slack requires that social policies address directly poverty and inequity in the lives of children.

This pursuit also means that high-stakes environments must end. Increasing pressure and raising demands in learning are counter to the slack necessary for any child to perform at high levels of engagement with the necessary risk and experimentation for deep learning to occur. Children must be physically and psychologically safe, and children need expert and loving encouragement that acknowledges the inherent value in effort (not linked to prescribed outcomes) in challenging and rich experiences.

The harsh and dehumanizing environments and policies in “no excuses” schools, then, as well as the high-stakes environments occurring in almost all K-12 public schooling are self-defeating (because they create scarcity and eliminate slack) for both raising student achievement and fostering the very “grit” many claim they are seeking in children.

Let me offer a brief anecdote from my years teaching high school in the 1980s and 1990s, well before anyone uttered the word “grit” (adding that I grew up in a home with a stereotypical 1950s father who was a hardass, no-excuses parent).

One day I heard students talking about failing a pop quiz in the class before mine. One student said he had read and even studied the night before, but failed the pop quiz. He then announced what he had learned from the experience: If he was going to fail any way, he declared, he wasn’t going to waste his time reading the assignment next time.

And here is where the “grit” narrative and “grit” research collide.

As long as the “grit” narrative is perpetuated and thus effort and engagement are idealized as key to certain outcomes and then as long as the real world proves to children and young adults that achievement is not the result of their effort, but linked to conditions beyond their control, the “grit” research creates a counterproductive dynamic in the classroom, one that frustrates and dehumanizes students and their teachers.

The real world in the U.S. today is no meritocracy. Confronting the rugged individual myth, instead of perpetuating it, then, allows teachers and students to feel purpose and agency in the need to continue seeking that meritocracy.

Further, once we decouple effort and the related behaviors associated with “grit” from predetermined outcomes, we can offer in school opportunities for students to discover the inherent value in effort itself, the inherent value in taking risks and committing ones self to an activity even though the outcome may be a failure.

The great irony is that we must slay the “grit” narrative (and discontinue the term) in order to honor a pursuit of equity and slack for all children so that what we know from the “grit” research can inform positively how we teach all children every day.

Until this happens, however, “grit” as a narrative within the “no excuses” ideology remains a code that blinds—masking the racialized and racist assumptions that “grit” implies about who is successful and why.


A Child’s Story: “Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not”

A child’s birthday should be a ritual of joy, a celebration of living as well as of being a child.

Rachel sits in class on her eleventh birthday in Sandra Cisneros‘s “Eleven,” however, feeling many things except joy:

Only today I wish I didn’t have only eleven years rattling inside me like pennies in a tin Band-Aid box. Today I wish I was one hundred and two instead of eleven because if I was one hundred and two I’d have known what to say when Mrs. Price put the red sweater on my desk. I would’ve known how to tell her it wasn’t min instead of just sitting there with that look on my face and nothing coming out of my mouth. (p. 7)

Even before her day turns against her, Rachel has offered a glimpse of her world, the life she brings with her each day to school:

And maybe one day when you’re all grown up maybe you will need to cry like if you’re three, and that’s okay. That’s what I tell Mama when she’s sad and needs to cry. Maybe she’s feeling three. (p. 6)

On this day of her turning eleven, Mrs. Price, her math teacher, discovers a red sweater, and when the teacher asks for its owner, Sylvia Saldivar says the sweater is Rachel’s. The teacher adds she has seen it on Rachel so she “takes the sweater and puts it right on [Rachel’s] desk” (p. 7).

In a voice that almost isn’t a voice, Rachel tries to explain that the sweater isn’t hers, but to no avail “[b]ecause she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not,” Rachel recognizes (p. 7).

Rachel struggles with her rising powerlessness and anger, crying and prompting the teacher to reprimand her:

“Now, Rachel, that’s enough,” because she sees I’ve shoved the red sweater to the tippy-tip corner of my desk and it’s hanging all over the edge like a waterfall, but I don’t’ care.

“Rachel,” Mrs. Price says. She says it like she’s getting mad. “You put that sweater on right now and no more nonsense.”

“But it’s not—”

“Now!” Mrs. Price says. (p. 8)

The sweater stinks. It itches. Rachel soon crumbles for everyone to see, a nightmare in the world of childhood:

That’s when everything I’ve been holding in since this morning, since when Mrs. Price put the sweater on my desk, finally lets go, and all of a sudden I’m crying in front of everybody. I wish I was invisible but I’m not. I’m eleven and it’s my birthday today and I’m crying like I’m three in front of everybody. I put my head down on the desk and bury my face in my stupid clown-sweater arms. My face all hot and spit coming out of my mouth because I can’t stop the little animal noises from coming out of me, until there aren’t any more tears left in my eyes, and it’s just my body shaking like when you have the hiccups, and my whole head hurts like when you drink milk too fast. (p. 9)

And then, Phyllis Lopez claims the sweater—adding insult to Rachel’s embarrassment. But “Mrs. Price pretends like everything’s okay” even though, for Rachel, “it’s too late,” her birthday has been ruined (p. 9).

While it may be compelling to read “Eleven” as a powerful narrative of a child’s ruined birthday, it is important not to ignore how Cisneros offers us all important messages about how schools and teachers impact the children they are intended to serve, how teachers often become calloused and hurtful especially as they fail to recognize the frailty and humanity of each child.

Here, then, are some lessons from the story:

  • Children do not and cannot leave their lives behind when they walk through the doors of a school or a classroom. To pretend that they can is dehumanizing and hurtful.
  • How a child feels about the world and her/himself is at least as important if not more important than what a child thinks about the world. Emotions should not be ignored or marginalized as “childish.” A child’s affective and cognitive selves are dialogic and inseparable.
  • The authoritarian teacher is the failed teacher.
  • “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard,” cautions Arundhati Roy in her 2004 Sydney Peace Prize lecture.
  • All education should begin with the child, and then always hold the dignity of each child sacred.

Rachel knows a certain sadness in her home, and on her eleventh birthday, her teacher, her peers, and her school make her want to disappear, force her deny herself and her childhood:

I’m eleven today. I’m eleven, ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, and one, but I wish I was one hundred and two. I wish I was anything but eleven, because I want today to be far away already, far away like a runaway balloon, like a tiny o in the sky, so tiny-tiny you have to close your eyes to see it. (p. 9)

Every child that we teach needs our relentless love and patience because childhood is a frail becoming that leads to this thing we call adulthood, which we fail each time we allow ourselves to be callous to the laughter or tears of a child—especially when we do so in the name of education.

SOTU 2014: Orwellian Educational Change under Obama Continues

Orwellian Educational Change under Obama: Crisis Discourse, Utopian Expectations, and Accountability Failures

Paul L. Thomas

Furman University

“It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. . . .[T]he slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts,” Orwell (1946) warns in “Politics and the English Language.” Few examples are better for proving Orwell right than political language addressing the education of children in the U.S. But, as Orwell adds, “If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration.”

Barack Obama personifies the power of personality in politics and the value of articulating a compelling vision that resonates with many voters in the US and other global citizens. For Obama’s presidential campaign, the refrain that worked was driven by two words and concepts, “hope” and “change.” From healthcare, to war, to education reform, however, the Obama administration is proving that political discourse is more likely to mask intent—just as Orwell warned through his essays and most influential novel 1984, the source of the term “doublespeak” that characterizes well Obama’s and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s public comments on education reform. They mask the programs promoted and implemented by the Department of Education.

Beginning with the Reagan administration and perpetuated by Obama’s presidency are patterns of public speeches—crisis discourse and Utopian expectations—and educational policy that began with 1983’s “A Nation at Risk,” accelerated through Goals 2000, and codified without much critical concern as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) under George W. Bush and Secretary of Education Paige (Schmidt & Thomas, 2009).

Here, I will explore the neoliberal assumptions driving the language and policies related to education that came from the Obama administration and guided by Duncan. The examination will unpack Duncan’s speeches and the realities of the ideologies the administration supports through policy and public messages. The dynamic established through crisis discourse about the public education system, combined with Utopian expectations for those schools, helps mask the neoliberal assumptions embedded in what Freire (1998) calls “the bureaucratizing of the mind”: “The freedom that moves us, that makes us take risks, is being subjugated to a process of standardization of formulas, models against which we are evaluated” (p. 111).


See also (which is being re-issued as an updated edition soon):


Thomas, P.L. (2011). The educational hope ignored under Obama: The persistent failure of crisis discourse and utopian expectations. In P. R. Carr & B. J. Porfilio (Eds.), The phenomenon of Obama and the agenda for education: Can hope audaciously trump neoliberalism? (pp. 49-72). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Thomas, P.L. (2011). Orwellian educational change under Obama: Crisis discourse, Utopian expectations, and accountability failures. Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education, 4(1), 68-92.

What We Know (and Ignore) about Standards, Achievement, and Equity

Calling for, establishing, and implementing high (or higher) standards has been a part of U.S. public education at least since the 1890s when the Committee of Ten called for higher standards for high schools to prepare students for college.

The more recent accountability era built on standards (and multiple versions of revised standards) and high-stakes tests (and multiple versions of those tests) began in the 1980s.

Common Core as a reform initiative is a federalization, then, of that state-based accountability paradigm; there is noting in the Common Core initiative that distinguishes it from the state-based approach except for unsubstantiated and untested claims that the standards and tests are superior to the state versions.

Since we have had a standards-based accountability system for three decades, we have ample evidence of the relationship between the presence and quality of standards and their impact on achievement and equity.

In Research-based options for education policymaking, Mathis (2012) highlights what we know about standards, achievement, and equity.

First, Mathis notes the larger context of Common Core and their potential for reform:

The actual effect of the CCSS, however, will depend much less on the standards themselves than on how they are used. Two factors are particularly crucial. The first is whether states invest in the necessary curricular and instructional resources and supports, and the second concerns the nature and use of CCSS assessments developed by the two national testing consortia. (1 of 5)

Key here are several important points: (1) Common Core standards are not and cannot be separated from implementation or the related high-stakes tests, and (2) nothing in the Common Core initiate guarantees that implementation and testing will be any different than what has occurred over the previous thirty years of state-based accountability.

Currently, we already know some things about implementation and testing related to Common Core:

  • Every state adopting Common Core is also using high-stakes tests, committing to either of two companies charged with creating those tests. There is no mechanism in the Common Core initiative to insure that the standards will not become “what is tested is what is taught”—which is exactly what did happen to all standards at the state levels, which is what must happen when any set of standards are linked to high-stakes tests and punitive consequences for that data.
  • Despite calls for a need to have a common set of standards for the entire nation (a call that has never been verified by evidence), the Common Core is being implemented in a wide variety of ways across the states. If “common” is really our goal (and I suspect it isn’t a worthy goal), it is not happening—even with the tests since they come from two different companies.
  • Common Core implementation is costing states millions and even billions of dollars—with no evidence of their quality, no vetting by educators, no guarantee that this version of standards and tests will be any less a failure than the ones that have come before.

So what do we know about standards and achievement?:

There is, for example, no evidence that states within the U.S. score higher or lower on the NAEP based on the rigor of their state standards. [4] Similarly, international test data show no pronounced tests core advantage on the basis of the presence or absence of national standards. [5] Further, the wave of high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has resulted in the “dumbing down” and narrowing of the curriculum. [6]

It bears emphasizing that there is no correlation between the presence or quality of standards and student achievement, and that high-stakes testing has created a dynamic in which we ask less of students not more.

At the very least, Common Core implementation should not move forward until clear mechanisms are in place to insure that this round of standards and testing does not replicate the history of standards and testing so far.

As of now, no such guarantees exist. None.

So what do we know about standards and equity?:

As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself. [13]

As I have noted above about no safeguards that Common Core and the related tests will impact achievement any differently than all the other standards and tests before, there is absolutely nothing in the Common Core initiative that addresses equity—which remains the greatest problem facing education, school, and teacher impact on student achievement.

With Common Core, African American, Latino/a, and impoverished students will continue to be disproportionately funneled into test-prep courses with high student-teacher ratios and inexperienced as well as un-/under-certified teachers

With Common Core, African American and Latino boys will continue to be disproportionately suspended and expelled.

With Common Core, African American, Latino/a, and impoverished students will continue to be disproportionately blocked from advanced courses.

Standards-based reform has never and will never address equity. Common Core is no different.

Since Common Core as a reform initiative in no way offers solutions to identifiable problems with student achievement and equity, we must stop that train, get off, and try something new.

Some are calling for a pause button. I urge delete.

Notes (retaining original report numbering)

[4] Whitehurst, G, (2009, October 14). Don’t forget curriculum. Brown Center Letters on Education, #3, 6. Washington, DC: Brown Center on Education Policy, Brookings Institution. Retrieved February 11, 2010, from

Bandeira de Mello, V. D., Blankenship, C., & McLaughlin D. (2009, October). Mapping state proficiencies onto NAEP scales: 2005-2007. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved March 20, 2010, from

[5] Kohn, A. (2010, January 14). Debunking the case for national standards: one size fits all mandates and their dangers. Retrieved January 13, 2010, from

McCluskey, N. (2010, February 17). Behind the curtain: Assessing the case for national curriculum standards, Policy analysis 66. Washington: CATO Institute. Retrieved February 18, 2010, from

[6] Robelen, E. (December 8, 2011) Most teachers see the curriculum narrowing, survey finds (blog post). EdWeekOnline. Retrieved October 2, 2012, from

Wisconsin Center for Educational Research. (1999, Fall). Are state-level standards and assessments aligned? WCER Highlights, 1–3. Madison, WI: Author.

Amrein, A. & Berliner, D. (2002). High-stakes testing, uncertainty, and student learning. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 10(18). Retrieved October 4, 2012, from

Shepard, L. (2000). The role of assessment in a learning culture. Educational Researcher, 29(7), 4–14.

Phillip Harris, Bruce M. Smith,B. M. & Harris, J. (2011) The Myths of Standardized Tests: Why They Don’t Tell You What You Think They Do. Rowman and Littlefield, 100-109.

[13] Whitehurst, 2009 (see note 4); McCluskey, 2010 (see note 5);

Mathis, W. J. (July, 2010). The “Common Core” Standards Initiative: An Effective Reform tool? Retrieved October 2, 2012, from