Why 'Grit' Will Never Be the Key to Overcoming Poverty and Racism

Despite decades of educational research and high-stakes accountability legislation at the state and federal levels, the achievement gap continues to plague impoverished students, black and Latino/a students, English language learners, and special needs students. These children and young adults remain over-represented in low standardized test scores, high drop-out rates and low college completion statistics.

In an attempt to counter this truth, schools and even the "nation’s report card" (the National Assessment of Educational Progress administered by the USDOE) are increasingly turning to the research of Angela Duckworth for ways to measure and instill the concept of “grit” in struggling students. Duckworth and her colleagues define "gritas “perseverance and passion for long-term goals”:

Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.

Having grown up in a working-class family in the high-poverty, rural South, and then teaching there for over 30 years, much of my research has focused on the intersection between poverty and education. I am now consistently asking: Are educational attainment and grit really the keys to success for all students?

The Real Key to Success: The Birth Lottery

Educational policy and our cultural belief in the value of formal education are strongly ties to larger social beliefs — specifically what we believe about people who live in affluence and poverty. Paul C. Gorski, an associate professor at George Mason University and founder of EdChange, an organization dedicated to social justice and educational equity, explains: “many of us were raised to believe that the United States and its schools represent a meritocracy, wherein people achieve what they achieve based solely on their merit, so that all achievement is deserved rather than rendered.”

Historically, this American success story has been “tied to the Horatio Alger myth…and the notions of rugged individualism and an ethic of self-sacrifice,” Gorski notes — what we often call “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.” But having spent much of his scholarship addressing poverty as well as teaching students from poverty, Gorski is clear that the myth is itself misguided: “Working hard is no guarantee, especially not when, on top of your poverty, you’re denied equal educational opportunities.”

Taylor Gordon, writing in Atlanta Blackstar, goes further. He suggests that telling poor kids that their future success can be secured by “working hard” is nothing less than a terrible lie: 

A 10-year study by the Department of Education that started in 2002 revealed that not only are low-income students often left struggling academically but even when they do excel in the classroom, their chances of obtaining a bachelor’s degree were still bleak when compared to their wealthy counter parts.

Reporting in the New York Times, Susan Dynarski reveals: “Any poor children who manage to score at the top of the class are increasingly beating the odds. Yet even when they beat the odds in high school, they still must fight a new set of tough odds when it comes to completing college.”

Our enduring promises and cultural myths about the value of educational attainment and the American work ethic, aka “grit,” are soundly refuted by existing data. To wit:

  • Greater educational attainment increases income within ones race but not among races, in that whites with less education have greater income than blacks and Hispanics with more education.
  • In fact, white high school drop-outs have about the same probability of employment as blacks with some college.
  • Currently, being born in the top or bottom economic 20% is “sticky,” with about a 40% chance of remaining there.
  • People born in the bottom 20% and who complete college are 2.5 less likely to be in the top 20% than people born there but who did not complete college.
  • College completion rates are strongly correlated with family income.
  • Employers continue to discriminate by race despite candidates having the same educational backgrounds, even including elite university degrees.
  • Women of color have significantly lower wages across educational attainment.

In short, as Glenn Altschuler points out in a recent article for Quartz, the best way to land your dream job out of college is simply to be born rich. “The American dream of equal opportunity, based on the conviction that intelligence, hard work and character are the keys to success, may be on life support,” Altschuler writes. “These days children raised at the top or bottom fifths of the income pyramid tend to stay there, even as adults.”

Despite claims by political leaders and even some educators that the U.S. is a meritocracy that rewards educational attainment and grit, the simple truth is that birth lottery remains the strongest predictor of future economic success.

Equity of Opportunity More Important than Effort

A number of educators and scholars have now begun to question whether grit — or its lack thereof —is indeed a useful critique of struggling students. Many reject the grit approach because it suggests impoverished students are lacking effort and persistence. As well, grit narratives are also often masks for race and class biases in the same way IQ was embraced throughout much of the twentieth century.

Also, as Gorksi recognizes, in the U.S., people in poverty have too often been stereotyped as responsible for their own situation due to their own “laziness” (consider how that parallels identifying impoverished students’ failures as a lack of grit). But, Gorski points out, “most of what poor people have in common has nothing to do with their culture or dispositions [ie., charges of laziness]. Instead, it has to do with what they experience, such as the bias and lack of access to basic needs.”

In other words, what keeps poor students struggling is not necessarily their lack of effort — it’s their lack of opportunity. The key to increasing the success of those students now languishing on the wrong end of the achievement gap is to address the inequity of opportunity they face in their lives and in their schools.

“I Worked Extremely Hard to Get Here”

Darryl Robinson, a first-year student of color on full scholarship at Georgetown University, recognizes that despite his exceptional effort, his great disadvantage was not of his making.

“Having come from D.C. public charter schools, I worked extremely hard to get here,” Robinson admits. But life in college hasn’t been easy:

…After arriving on campus before the school year, with a full scholarship, I quickly felt unprepared and outmatched — and it’s taken an entire year of playing catch-up in the classroom to feel like I belong. I know that ultimately I’m responsible for my education, but I can’t help blaming the schools and teachers I had in my early years for my struggles today.

Robinson does not exhibit a lack of drive or persistence, but his educational experiences have mostly paralleled—not overcome—his life experiences of being denied opportunities other more privileged students received. For example, Robinson now recognizes that while he was encouraged to settle for rote learning, his more privileged peers were challenged in the classroom in ways that helped them be prepared for college.

Robinson’s story is not unique: access to challenging and advanced educational opportunities (not to mention well maintained and fully funded schools) remains rare for black and Hispanic students. In Florida, for example:

Only one in 50 black students and one in 15 Hispanic students are identified as gifted, compared with about one in seven white students. 

The picture is similar in Manatee County, where about one in 12 white students are singled out as gifted, compared with one of every 42 black students and one in 32 Hispanic students.

And children in poverty are profoundly impacted biologically from the moment of birth—well before they are likely to experience reduced educational opportunities, as Robinson and many children of color have.

Andre Perry, former founding dean of urban education at Davenport University, has noted that accountability has failed educational equity because “having the ability to compare performances among groups hasn’t brought educational justice to black and brown students.” 

Ultimately, then, continuing to make promises to students about educational attainment and grit serves to maintain, not eradicate, social and educational inequity. Unless we address the root causes of those inequities, race, class and gender biases will continue to insure for most children that their destiny is determined at birth.

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