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Paul Tough’s “Who Gets to Graduate?” offers hope that we can make a difference

220px-Paul_tough_2012favicon Paul Tough knows how to write. He writes so well, if he wrote about marmalade, I’d read it, no problem. Barnacles, too. Give Mr. Tough a topic, any topic, and he’ll churn out a must-read.

His latest piece, “Who Gets to Graduate?” in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, is an article that every urban educator should read. Thanks to loyal Iserotope reader Michele for recommending it!

I don’t want to give too much of it away, or else you won’t read it, but Mr. Tough makes three major claims: (1) Poor students are less likely to graduate from college than rich students, (2) One key reason for this is that poor students don’t feel like they belong and then freak out in college when they experience setback, (3) There are easy ways for schools to intervene so that poor students feel like they belong and remain resilient through challenge.

All right, now just a little bit more on a couple points. First up, the college graduation gap. Please take a look:


My eye goes to two numbers: the 52% on the top quartile line and the 44% on the bottom quartile line. If I’m reading this graph correctly, if you score really high on the SAT but are poor, your likelihood of graduating is less than someone who scores really low on the SAT but is rich. In other words: Your class background matters more for college graduation than your reading and Math skills.

This looks overwhelming, right? It makes you want to act like Diane Ravitch and say that poverty trumps all, that nothing can happen to close the achievement gap until our country solves poverty, right?

But wait. Mr. Tough offers tons of hope. The answer is what David Yeager and his colleagues are doing at the University of Texas at Austin. Mr. Yeager comes from a long line of Stanford professors, including Carol Dweck and Claude Steele, who believe that the mindsets of young adults matter. When students feel they belong, and when they feel like obstacles do not compromise their academic ability, they persist and succeed.

Here’s what Prof. Yeager believes:

Ultimately a person has within themselves some kind of capital, some kind of asset, like knowledge or confidence. And if we can help bring that out, they then carry that asset with them to the next difficulty in life.

To test those beliefs, Prof. Yeager conducted a large-scale experiment on incoming freshmen at UT Austin. Students in the experimental group completed a 25- to 45-minute online module that involved a short reading and writing exercise. The results were stunning. More poor students than ever before did well in school their first semester, passing more classes, completing more units, and starting off strong toward graduation.

Getting these excellent results after a fairly quick intervention is bringing out doubt from Prof. Yeager’s colleagues. Is this really possible? It seems so easy! Apparently, according to several similar studies, it is.

And that’s what makes me hopeful. The most crucial step, Mr. Tough suggests, is to message loud and clear to students that they belong and that they are valued. Too often, teachers — grizzled and jaded from too many years of struggle — present a deficit model to their students. If that occurs, then the gap will continue.

But if we send a positive message, and interrupt deficit mindsets, change is possible. There’s no simple answer, of course, but not everything has to be difficult.

Now, your homework: Please go read this article (it’s also on Iserotope Extras!) and let me know what you think. For example: Do you believe that it’s OK to tell students the truth, or do you agree with “the first rule of the Dashboard?” Thank you! favicon

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The confusing new terrain of grit

gritfavicon OK, now I’m totally confused.

I used to think I understood the concept of grit and its importance in education. It’s the non-cognitive skill (or character trait) studied by Angela Duckworth, psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and made popular by writer Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed.

I thought I understood grit so much that I wrote about it a few times and even taught it to my AP English students two years ago. When they faltered during Fall semester on their essays, I reminded my students of their strength, and I explained that long-term success came from long-term determination. Grit became a buzzword in our class — and occasionally a joke, particularly in our morning classes when my students were hungry and wanted the plural form for breakfast.

Now, two years later, National Public Radio this morning put out not one but two reports on grit, and I’m thoroughly confused. (The reporters call grit “the new thing in education.”) Both are around seven minutes long and worth listening to.

Here’s the first one:

This first report solidified my hunch that grit has been claimed (and possibly co-opted) by conservative educators. Perhaps the shift began when Dave Levin of KIPP became interested in the non-cognitive skill. KIPP schools now teach and assess students on grit, and Mr. Levin teaches a Coursera course on building character in students. As Alfie Kohn argues in the piece, grit is becoming a “virtue” that conservatives like William Bennett would say that “good” students have and “bad” students lack. To Mr. Kohn, grit is an ingredient of a “bootstraps” mentality.

If the first NPR report made me queasy, the second one totally confounded me. Here it is:

Yes, I understand that “smart” is a dirty word. But grit is the outcome of growth mindset? Interesting. Sure, I suppose that makes sense, but I’d never heard the two terms in the same sentence. Certainly Stanford professor Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, wouldn’t want to fraternize with the new grit folks, would she? Now I’m not so sure. The lines are being blurred!

And maybe that’s a good thing. I’ve always disliked the dichotomy in educational discourse. The truth is, There’s nothing wrong with grit and growth mindset existing together. We can all like them! Who wouldn’t want their children to be resilient and see challenges as opportunities for growth?

Unfortunately, nothing in education is that simple. The people who make policy have the power and the resources to shape how we understand and use concepts like grit and growth mindset. It’s all about metaphor. A good word in educational reform today may be a bad word tomorrow, and vice-versa.

Confused yet? (I am.) By the way: Thank you, Michele, for letting me know about the first NPR piece this morning! My loyal Iserotope readers are also great reporters! favicon