Education reformers' favorite canard: The truth about "grit" and poverty

Are lack of patience and resilience what's really holding back poor kids? Here's the reality

Published October 9, 2014 5:30PM (EDT)

  (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Jeff Chiu/Mary Altaffer)
(AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Jeff Chiu/Mary Altaffer)

Fresh on the heels of one New York Magazine pundit's encomium to the transformative and virility-increasing powers of American football, another publication, Vox, is now out with one of its patented explainers, this time on the problem of America's poorest children and their worrying lack of "grit."

Grit, in case you're unaware, is one of the favorite concept-phrases of the education reformer movement (which Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias has long supported). Like "broaden the base, lower the rates" or "bend the cost-curve" or "information economy" or almost anything featuring the word "globalization," it's one of those meaningless buzzwords elites like to use to pretend defending the status quo is a new idea. But before I offer you my own definition of "grit," specifically, I'll let Vox do what Vox seeks to do best, and give you a clean, straightforward explanation.

"Grit is sort of the grown-up version of the marshmallow test, which tested whether 4-year-olds could delay gratification long enough if they were promised a reward," the site explains. "Those skills in self-control are necessary for good grades in the short term; grit includes other qualities, such as resilience, that are needed to achieve longer-term goals." Perhaps aware that "grit" kind of sounds like a Malcolm Gladwell reject, Vox assures us that grit "clearly resonates." Unfortunately, its evidence for this is — and I promise this isn't Clickhole-style parody — the fact that a TED talk on grit has around 5 million views.

Now if you're starting to think to yourself that this whole "grit" thing sounds an awful lot like a version of the bootstraps canard that was tweaked so as not to offend NPR listeners, Vox wants you to know that's definitely not the case. "One of the reasons grit has become such a popular concept is that it applies across the socioeconomic spectrum," it explains. Citing a researcher at the University of Pennslyvania, we're told that grit is becoming so buzzy because it "speaks to worries that wealthy children are being coddled, and to the reality of obstacles that children from low-income families have to overcome in order to succeed." If you close your eyes, you can picture the TED speaker up on the stage, somberly intoning, "We are all gritless now."

But here's the funny thing: Despite its supposedly universal value and appeal, you'd have to spend quite a lot of time and energy in order to find examples of policymakers and elites urging legislative changes designed to increase affluent children's level of grit. In fact, the most well-known purveyor of the philosophy is probably the Knowledge Is Power Program's (KIPP) charter schools, which are frequently pointed to by education reformers as the model for the future of uplifting poor children, and which distinguish themselves in part by rating those students that don't dropout on their "character," an amorphous concept KIPP defines as "grit, zest, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity."

To be fair, KIPP's experiment in small-scale social engineering has led to some evidence of success — which, despite being heartily promoted by the New York Post's Naomi Schaefer Riley, who once earned herself attention by claiming Black Studies were stupid, appear to not be lying-with-statistics-style bullshit. But while the fact that the most ardent defenders of KIPP and grit tend to be folks usually inclined to blame the (disproportionately non-white) poor for their own suffering is not decisive, it is telling. And the fact that KIPP is still so lauded, despite unanswered questions about its replicability; and that grit is still so promoted, despite its own enthusiasts' admission that it could very well not be something that can be taught, is telling as well.

What's most striking to me, however, is the way that Vox and other grit-glorifying representatives of America's left-of-center 5 percent are quick to note KIPP's successes but fail to mention studies finding as much or more student improvement from simply giving parents cash. I've never been to a TED talk (don't have $6,000+ to burn quite yet) so maybe this is just an example of my luddite, anti-innovation thinking. But it seems to me that giving people money is a whole lot easier than redesigning a kid's character and soul.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

MORE FROM Elias Isquith