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Grit, Overemphasized
Agency, Overlooked

"Unlike grit, agency is about empowering young people
to use education to take control of their lives."

by Pedro Noguera, Ph.D.
New York University, New York

In recent years, the concept of grit has received growing attention from educators and others as the critical ingredient to academic success. For many, the term is likely to conjure images of the young girl featured in the Western, True Grit; a story in which tenacity, relentlessness and courage enable the girl to prevail over enormous obstacles.

Given our nation’s admiration for the rugged individual it is understandable why a Western might choose to glorify a character who possesses guts and grit. However, it is less clear why the idea has become so popular as an explanation for academic success in education. University of Pennsylvania psychologist and McArthur Genius Awardee Angela Lee Duckworth, has convincingly argued that grit is a measurable trait that predicts student achievement. She has also suggested that all students can learn to acquire grit and that with it more students can be academically successful.

Yet, while attributes like grit and impulse control, another attribute identified as important to student success, may indeed contribute to higher levels of academic achievement, by focusing inordinately on these attributes we overlook other important factors that shape the education experience.

Take for example a student like Miguel Fernandez, a recent graduate from a small high school in Mott Haven section of the Bronx, NY. Miguel moved from the Dominican Republic at the age of eight speaking no English. He, and his six siblings, were raised by a single mother, who supported them by working as a maid cleaning houses. Despite working while he was in school Miguel was an A student who graduated near the top of his class. Clearly, his academic accomplishments would suggest that Miguel possessed more than his share of grit; he epitomizes what can be achieved through sacrifice and determination.

However, instead of going to college Miguel now works as an Assistant Manager at a local McDonalds restaurant. Though all of his teachers encouraged him to apply they didn’t know that Miguel was undocumented and in the country illegally. All the grit in the world would not make it possible for him to get the financial aid he needed to pay for his college education.

Miguel’s example and numerous others illustrate the problem with over-emphasizing the importance of grit: it directs attention away from other factors that also affect student success. By suggesting that student A achieves because she has grit we are likely to ignore the hurdles that obstruct the path of students like Miguel who certainly works hard but simply faces legal barriers that limit his ability to experience success.

Additionally, when we overemphasize individual traits such as grit we are more likely to attribute underachievement to personality deficits such as laziness. When this occurs the problem of lagging student achievement is no longer seen as a collective problem that must be confronted through creative policies. Instead, underachievement is seen as an individual problem that can only be solved through changes in student attitudes and behavior.

A similar problem underlies the way policy makers use the phrase “achievement gap” to describe the problems that beset American education. More often than not, we discuss disparities in student performance in isolation from the other factors that contribute to them such as inequity in per pupil spending, unequal access to resources such as science labs and computers, and tremendous differences in the amount of time spent on learning between middle class and low-income children. If instead of posing the problem as an “achievement gap” which reinforces the idea that individual effort is the key factor determining differences in outcomes, we acknowledged it as an “opportunity gap”, we might do much more to address the disparities that limit the ability of children to learn.

Hypothetically, if all students had access to the same opportunities, then measuring grit might be more valuable and predictive of future success. But, access to opportunity is anything but equal. Social science research has consistently shown that public school students with higher-income parents are more likely to attain higher levels of educational attainment than their low-income peers. The United States continues to have the highest income inequality among first-world nations, and all the grit in the world will not change that.

More often than not, privilege begets privilege, and while we might like to believe that grit and effort can make it possible for the poor to use education to overcome adversity, more often than not it doesn’t work this way. Rather than providing social mobility, more often than not, schools actually perpetuate the status quo.

Sadly, a student’s demographic profile continues to be one of the best predictor of academic success and college-readiness. A 2012 study by the Annenberg Institute study found that in nineteen of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods only 10% of high school seniors graduated from high school college-ready. In contrast, in the wealthiest neighborhoods the vast majority of students were college-ready.

The costs of allowing so many Americans to remain under-educated are daunting. Today, only one out of ten American jobs are available to high school dropouts. During our most recent recession those regions of the country with better educated populations managed to recover more quickly than those with less.

This is yet another reason why it is important to see education as both an individual and a collective concern. By focusing our attention narrowly on personality like grit we shift the burden of success onto the individual and away from collective responsibility. More encompassing solutions can and should be found at intersection of character virtues and capacity building that is carried out at the school and community level.

Rather than focusing on grit it might be far wiser to focus on the concept of agency. Like grit, agency involves action, but when used by social scientists agency implies having the ability to act and affect one’s surroundings without glossing over the effects of obstacles created by structural inequality. Moreover, agency is not necessarily an individual trait. It can be applied to groups, schools and communities that organize together to act in their collective interest to overcome obstacles.

For example, in 2011, PS 28, a low-income public school located in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, obtained the highest gains in literacy and math of any public elementary school in the borough. The school’s achievement is even more remarkable when one considers that 100% of the children come from families with incomes below the poverty line, 28% of the children were categorized as being in need of special education, and 40% of the children were homeless. Undoubtedly, many of the children and teachers at the school possessed an enormous amount of grit, but what really explains their success is the collective agency they generated to contend with the significant obstacles they faced. The school actively responded to the academic and non-academic needs of children by expanding access to health services, building partnerships with social services agencies, extending the school day, and working with community-based organizations to address parent needs. In so doing, they improved achievement by expanding opportunity.

In a telling admission shared on her TedTalk Duckworth shared the following: “Everyday parents and teachers ask me, ‘How do I build grit in kids?’ The honest answer is, I don’t know.”

Her honesty should give all of us reason to question the emphasis placed on qualities such as grit. In educational settings, agency can be easier to cultivate and develop than grit. If we honestly acknowledge the barriers our students and their families face, we will be in a better position to counter them.

Fostering agency has the potential to be extremely powerful. Today, Miguel is still working at McDonald’s. But he is also organizing with other undocumented students to demand immigration reform. Rather than accepting his plight as inevitable, he and others are taking action at great personal risk to change laws.

Unlike grit, agency is about empowering young people to use education to take control of their lives. As they come to understand that knowledge is a source of power, students become more invested as learners and more able to see how what they learn in school can be used to counter the obstacles they face.

Teach a kid to fish and you’ve taught him how to feed himself, but don’t stop there. Help him to understand why the river is polluted so that he and his friends can organize to get the river cleaned up and make it possible for the entire community to eat too.

Published in In Motion Magazine March 3, 2015.

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