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.
Summary/Review:

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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Podcasts of the Week Ending July 14


Late, but still worth listening to.  There’s a lot of terrific material this week, although to be fair several of my recommendations are repackaging previously released content, so think of this as a greatest hits package of greatest hits!

Best of the Left – The inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men

Several stories debunk the myths of poverty and ask why economists don’t ask the right questions about poverty.

Have You Heard – ‘I Quit’ – Teachers Are Leaving and They Want to Tell You Why

The stress and inequity of teaching in defunded and underesourced public schools is causing teachers to quit teaching, but some of them are prominently telling the world why they’re leaving in hopes of bringing positive change for future teachers, students, and schools.

StoryCorpsBetween June and September

Stories of Coney Island from people who kept the fun in the sun destination alive during its lowest points in the early 1990s.

Politically Re-Active – Street Heat w/ Congresswoman Barbara Lee & Linda Sarsour

Interviews with two amazing progressive leaders, both women of color, and their work fighting for social, racial, and economic justice.  I seriously had no idea that Linda Sarsour was so very Brooklyn.

BackStorySkin Deep: Whiteness in America

Slavery and segregation not only meant discriminating against black people, but also defining what it means to be white.  Three stories detail how the idea of whiteness played out in different periods of American history.

Re:SoundThe Smash the Binary Show

Three stories of the experiences of transgender persons, as well as an exploration of the “feminine” qualities of straight cis men.  I was particularly touched by the story of “The Accidental Gay Parents.”

 

 

 

Podcast of the Week: “Uncovering the Stark Disparities Behind School Money”


The Podcast of the Week from ProPublica strikes close to home as we’re dealing with serious underfunding of urban school districts in Massachusetts while other communities have invested in creating some of the top public schools in the nation. Sadly this is a problem throughout all of the United States.

For more on the issue follow the NPR School Money series

Book Review: Tinkering toward utopia : a century of public school reform by David B. Tyack and Larry Cuban


Author: David B. Tyack and Larry Cuban
TitleTinkering toward utopia : a century of public school reform
Publication Info: Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1995.
Summary/Review:

This slender but illustrative book traces this history of public education reforms across the 20th century.  Two themes run through the book.  The first is that public schools are set in their ways and very difficult to reform.  The authors show that many reforms are “successful” in that they’re widely adopted but don’t actually improve education.  Other reforms have changed teaching for the better and have succeeded so much that they’ve worked themselves into the basic nature of education so that they’re not even seen as reforms.  One example the authors give is the blackboard, a new technology adopted by schools that has become synonymous with education (even as they’re becoming less common in classrooms).  The second theme of the book is that proposals for reform are cyclical returning to the education policy debate generation after generation.  While the authors acknowledge this is true, they also point out that the context in which these reforms are proposed is always changing, thus the implementation of these  “same old” reforms can lead to very different outcomes as they address different problems.

As the title gives away, the authors find that incremental change and working through reforms by adapting to local needs are the most successful ways of carrying out educational reform that actually improves student learning and outcomes.  Although the book was published 20 years ago, the issues discussed are very familiar to anyone involved in today’s education policy debates, and it serves as a good bulwark against calls for sweeping reforms and disruptive panaceas to today’s education problems.

Favorite Passages:

“We want to probe the meaning of continuity in schooling as well as to understand change.  Change, we believe, is not synonymous with progress.  Sometimes preserving good practices in the face of challenges is a major achievement, and sometimes teachers have been wise to resist reforms that violated their professional judgment.

Although policy talk about reform has had a Utopian ring, actual reforms have typically been gradual and incremental.  It may be fashionable to decry such change as piecemeal and inadequate, but over long periods of time such revisions of practice, adapted to local contexts, can substantially improve schools.  Rather than seeing the hybridizing of reform ideas as a fault, we suggest it can be a virtue.  Tinkering is one way of preserving what is valuable and reworking what is not.” – p. 5

“Better schooling will result in the future – as it has in the past and does now – chiefly from the steady, reflective efforts of the practitioners who work in schools and from the contributions of the parents and citizens who support (while they criticize) public education.  This might seem to be just common sense. But in planning reforms in recent years, policy elites have often bypassed teachers and discounted their knowledge of what schools are like today. …

To the degree that teachers are out of the policy loop in designing and adopting school reforms, it is not surprising if they drag their feet in implementing them.  Teachers so not have a monopoly on educational wisdom, but their first-hand perspectives on school and their responsibility for carrying out official policies argues for their centrality in school reform efforts.” – p. 135

Recommended booksThe Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz and Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch,
Rating: ***1/2