Grit Isn't Enough to Help Students Overcome Poverty—And It's Time To Stop Pretending That It Is

The myth that grit can conquer poverty lets a rigged economy and social order off the hook

Photo Credit: Commonsensemedia.org

The following is an excerpt from the new book When Grit Isn't Enough: A High School Principal Examines How Poverty and Inequality Thwart the College-for-All Promise by Linda S. Nathan (Beacon Press, October 2017), available for purchase on Amazon and Indiebound:

In 1998, I became the founding headmaster of Boston Arts Academy, a specialized arts high school, where students audition in one of four majors (music, dance, theater, visual arts) for a coveted spot in the freshmen class. Each and every year that I was headmaster (until 2013), the students heard me say: “All of you will graduate from high school. And all of you will continue on to either college or a career.” Perhaps I was trying to hypnotize them into self-actualizing this: after all, dropping out of high school is almost a one-way ticket to poverty, and I did not want any of my students to be part of that national statistic. Across the United States, only 59 percent of young black men and 65 percent of young Latino men graduate from high school in four years, compared with 80 percent of young white males. The data for females of color in urban schools is a little better. Our high school graduation rate of about 85 percent is high compared with other urban high schools in Boston.

False Promises?

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Since stepping down as BAA’s headmaster, I have oftentimes wondered how well the school fulfilled my annual promise that “everyone will finish high school and go on to college or a career.” For a long time our statistics have remained constant: 94 percent of our graduates are accepted to college or career training. On the surface, that number offers evidence in support of a great American assumption: everyone is equal. I can’t imagine having said anything differently at those opening assemblies as 125 freshmen looked eagerly at me and anxiously at their peers, wondering if they would be the next star in their field. But with the benefit of time and space, I am troubled that I may have inadvertently perpetuated a falsehood.

As I rejoice at the many hundreds of our successful alumni, I rage at the circumstances that reduce so many others to low-wage jobs. Many may be accepted to college, but how many finish? Acceptance is not the same as enrollment; of that 94 percent accepted, an average of 65 percent actually enroll. Of those who enroll, how many graduate? In various studies we did at BAA, we found that about two-thirds of our students finish with a degree. Some may say that this outcome is outstanding. How many urban schools can boast such college-completion rates? But I see it differently. What about the other one-third who do not get a degree? Where are they now? What were the barriers between them and college access or retention, and how could we have better prepared them to overcome those obstacles, or to find another path to success?

Shanita, whose story I related in my first book, The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test, is one of the students for whom the promise proved false. Despite being the valedictorian of her class, she did not go on to college. For complicated reasons relating to a lack of experience or perhaps even shame, Shanita lost a scholarship because she didn’t send in her deposit to hold her place. For years, Shanita’s story has haunted me; in many respects it is the touchstone for this new book. It is not an individual story, but rather an iconic one—a story that is all too familiar to too many poor and black and brown young people. The deposit is a metaphor for the many invisible and visible obstacles that challenge or bar students’ access. Shanita’s experience propelled me to ask the central question in this book: How do schools, particularly under-resourced schools, best prepare our students for successful careers and/or college? Or, said differently, how do issues of access and equity shape our students’ post–high school experiences?

“College for all” is the new refrain. Many urban schools, starting at the elementary level, display the flags and banners of the teachers’ alma maters along hallways and in classrooms. The idea is that if we surround young people with the possibilities of college then they will persevere and get there too. As the Pathways to Prosperity project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education found, as published in its 2011 report, “the lifetime earnings gap between those with a high school education and those with a college degree is now estimated to be nearly $1 million.”  

And the differential has been widening. In 2009 median earnings of workers with bachelor’s degrees were 65 percent higher than those of high school graduates ($55,700 versus $33,800). We know the importance of improving college attendance and graduation rates for urban youth. In 2013, Barry Bluestone, political economist at Northeastern University, wrote that 80 percent of all US jobs in the life sciences will require a bachelor’s degree or beyond.6 In an earlier report, he stated that the “industrial sector in Massachusetts is neither disappearing nor dying, but rather it now has the technology prowess and efficiency to provide good and often exceptional employment for more than 260,000 workers well into the future.” According to reports such as Pathways to Prosperity, over 50 percent of these jobs do not require a bachelor’s degree. Still, they require skills and training beyond a high school diploma. Between 2010 and 2020, 12 million of the 55 million US job openings (24 million new jobs and 33 million replacement jobs) will be filled by people with an associate’s degree or occupational certificate.

These statistics raise serious questions about the overarching ambitions of schooling as well as the role of those in education leadership. They also challenge educators to look critically at what must change if we are ever to embrace both vocational and career education as a serious undertaking in this country.

Creating False Assumptions

Alumni visiting BAA after college have recounted both successes and harrowing disappointments. Often when I shared their traumatic stories with colleagues outside the education field, I would be met by responses like “Well, maybe they weren’t ready for college” or “Not everyone should go to college.” I interpreted these responses as blaming the student rather than a system that is inherently unfair and inequitable. I wanted to understand more. As I stepped down from the position of headmaster and transitioned to a position at the district level (I remain on the BAA board), I decided to interview BAA alumni about their experiences post–high school. During the more than eighty interviews I conducted, similar words or phrases kept recurring in their stories. I distilled these ideas into a set of five beliefs or assumptions that frame both their successes and their failures.

1. Money doesn’t have to be an obstacle

2. Race doesn't matter;

3. Just work harder

4. There is a college for everyone/everyone can go to college

5. If you believe in yourself, your dreams will come true

I began to question these beliefs to better understand how they are perpetuated in our schools and society. First, I want to understand why these assumptions—which hold almost mythological power for Americans—are so prominent. What is their function? How do popular media substantiate or contradict these assumptions? And most important, who benefits from these beliefs?

Taken together, the five assumptions listed above can be dangerous because they reinforce the deeply held American belief that success is individually created and sustained. “If I could do it, so can you” is an echo of the “just work harder” assumption. It is the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” ethos to which so many generations of Americans adhere. Yet data repeatedly show how poverty, social class, race, and parents’ educational attainment more directly influence an individual’s success and potential earnings than any individual effort. We clearly do not yet have a level playing field, but this belief is all but impossible to challenge. Whenever we hear of another bootstraps story, we want to generalize. We disregard the fact that luck often plays a major role. And in generalizing and celebrating the individual nature of success, we disregard the imperative to rethink social and economic policies that leave many behind.

Deeply held beliefs frequently go unchallenged in societies. They are how we explain phenomena or culture or history. They are often false; yet, they persist. I believe that these assumptions, or what I have come to call false promises, persist in public education because we hold so tightly to the American ideal of equality. It is this belief that I and many Americans desperately want to be true. It is this belief we fight for. But it is also this belief that we must fully unpack, deeply understand, and interrogate if we are to uphold our fragile democracy.

Linda F. Nathan is the first executive director of the Center for Artistry and Scholarship and has taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Education for fifteen years. Dr. Nathan served as founding headmaster of the Boston Arts Academy (BAA), Boston’s only public high school for the visual and performing arts. Nathan is the author of The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test.