Book Review: When Grit Isn’t Enough by Linda F. Nathan

AuthorLinda F. Nathan
TitleWhen Grit Isn’t Enough 
Publication Info: Boston, Massachusetts : Beacon Press, 2017.

I received a free advanced reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

Linda F. Nathan is an educator and founder of the Boston Arts Academy (BAA).  Like most public high schools in Boston, the student body of the BAA is largely children of color from low-income families, many of them immigrants or children of immigrants. Reflecting on her years as headmaster of the BAA, Nathan recalls her pride in promising students “college for all,” and was seemingly successful as the BAA has high graduation rates, high college acceptance rates, and a higher than usual rates of students going on to graduate college.  But she also questions whether high schools are properly preparing students for college, or if “college for all” is even the promise they should be making.

Much of her data who comes from former students who struggled to complete college and usually not because they couldn’t handle the academics.  Instead colleges create many barriers to students based on their race and socio-economic status that make it hard for her student to fit into the college culture, get the support they need, and keep on top of all the costs of attending college.  And yes, they make mistakes – failing to fill out a form, missing a meeting with a supervisor, not keeping the grade point average up – but while these things are just road bumps for more privileged students, they can end a college career for Nathan’s students and others like them.  Not only that, but low-income students are often left with crippling debts for the course they did take, but not able to transfer those credits.  Even community college, often presented as a good alternative or preparation for a four-year college, has it’s own problems and can be exploitative of low-income students.

Nathan also investigates the “no excuses” philosophy common in many charter schools that claim to be preparing poorer children of color for college.  While Nathan is very careful to withhold judgment of charter school teachers’ emphasis on strict discipline and rote behaviors, it’s hard not to read about what Nathan witnesses in this schools and not see it as abusive and ultimately more geared to the needs of adults than the education of children.  Again and again, Nathan reveals the idea of “grit” being used to pin any failures of children on their own character rather than question the reality of poverty, racism, and inequality.

Grit is Not Enough is important read for understanding the realities of public education today.  Nathan and her former students, as well as present-day students, are voices that need to be heard more in informing our nation’s public policy regarding education.

Favorite Passages:

Deeply held beliefs frequently go unchallenged in societies.  They are how we explain phenomena or culture or history. They are often false, yet persist.  I believe that these assumptions, or what I’ve 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 that 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.” – p. 6

“It is the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ ethos to which so many generations of Americans adhere.  Yet data repeatedly show hoe 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 no 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.” – p. 8

“In middle- and upper-middle-class families, an invisible safety net typically surrounds young people planning to go on to college.  There is usually a family member or friend who will step in and remind a student about the intricacies of student loans and deadlines, or the m any requirements for staying registered once enrolled, or issues that can arise with housing.  However, if you are a lower-income student and you miss one or two e-mails or have a change in your adviser, you may find your dreams derailed.  It may be tempting to dismiss the examples above as ineptitude or carelessness on the part of individual students, but why must there be different rules, expectations, and outcomes for low-income versus middle- or upper-income students?” – p. 23

“If we allow an assumption like ‘race doesn’t matter’ to prevail, racial issues can be conveniently explained or excused as singular matters to be solved by individual intervention.  Singular responses allow us to avoid the actions needed for racial and socio-economic equity and a path toward a healthy and vibrant society and economy.” – p. 73-74

“What all the talk about grit seems to miss is the importance of putting children’s experience front and center.  In other words, when the emphasis on grit ends up as a stand-alone pedagogy, the context of student’ life and family circumstances is ignore.” – p.76

“We want to allow for growth mindsets in a way that might equalize the playing field, yet we continue to entrap so many of our young people with the assumption that if they just play by the rules, do the right things, they will be successful.  Achieving high test scores has become the only way to measure success or to prove that students have learned grit.  Equating better test results with healthy learning has reduced many schools to a narrow understanding of learning.” – p. 106

“Imagine if American high school students knew that they could study careers in music or finance in a vocational school as either an alternative or precursor to college.  Imagine if our community colleges could truly reinvent themselves and be places where students enter the allied health professions or even design professions.” – p. 133

“School can be the place where you practice how dreams are realized.  School can be where you can build a strong sense of self – an identity that you can belong to a special tribe, like artists, or change-makers, or mathematicians or inventors.  To ensure that schools incubate future dreams and dreamers, curriculum, structures, and pedagogy must encourage deep engagement both with teachers and with community members.  The walls between school and community can and should be permeable.” – p. 161

Recommended booksTinkering toward Utopia by David Tyack  and Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch

Rating: ****


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