Amelia Marcetti Topper has been a part of the education community for over 16 years as a teacher and researcher. She is a doctoral candidate in Arizona State University’s Education Policy and Evaluation program, specializing in Higher Education. Her current research is on issues of access and equity in higher education from the perspective of the capabilities approach, a human development framework. Her dissertation project uses survey, interview, visual elicitation, and participatory ranking methods to explore the tension between perceptions of community college “student success” between students, faculty, and administrators. She holds a Master’s in Leadership in Teaching from Notre Dame of Maryland University and a Bachelor’s in Philosophy and the History of Mathematics and Sciences with a minor in Classical Languages from St. John’s College.
The Equity Alliance’s recently published blog post by Dr. Stuart Rhoden calls attention to the growing number of families who are choosing to opt their children out of taking mandatory state standardized exams. Dr. Rhoden argued that opting out is damaging to our students by sending the message that it is okay to give up when faced with a hard task, and that families need to work within the system to bring about changes in accountability measures instead of removing themselves from it out of protest. As I read his commentary, I was struck by his reliance on a popular and pernicious narrative dominating current discussions of what it takes for students to be successful. This type of language, which often uses terms like grit, persistence, perseverance, and sacrifice, is perhaps as damaging as our high stakes testing climate to the education community in that it glorifies the talents and commitment of the individual above all else. On face value, these words feel right; we want our children and our students to be able to navigate obstacles and not be defeated by setbacks. At the same time, we owe it to them to thoroughly understand the assumptions that underlie these concepts about learning and success, and question their real usefulness in explaining what goes into student outcomes – before we apply them.
The purpose of this blog commentary is to challenge both those within and outside of the education community to think more carefully about the words we use to describe the process of becoming “successful” in school. While Dr. Rhoden’s blog provided a starting point for this post, I am not critiquing the opt-out movement or, even, necessarily taking issue with his recommendations. Rather, I am calling attention to how easily we – researchers, teachers, policymakers, journalists, and even students – gravitate towards easy concepts and expressions that can, ultimately, have a powerful and potentially dangerous effect on the educational experience. These are words that contribute to a very masculine, vaguely Puritanical, and strongly meritocratic worldview of education that favors the few over the many. As George Orwell insightfully observed in his essay Politics and the English Language (1946), “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.”
In higher education, where the majority of my work takes place, student success is often synonymous with macro-level outcome measures, such as persistence and graduation. While adult learners and higher education institutions are not (yet) subject to mandatory assessments of student learning, the accountability movement has led to a proliferation of “data-driven” initiatives and mandatory data reporting requirements. There has also been a growing interest in non-cognitive personality traits and their potential to explain why some students “succeed” and others struggle. The idea of grit, in particular, has already begun shaping public discourse, both in the way the media talks about students and in the proliferation of interventions and programs aimed at making students “grittier.” For the remainder of this post, I would like to focus specifically on grit, as it was highlighted in Dr. Rhoden’s piece and is a clear exemplar of how a feel-good word can have hidden limitations and dangerous implications.
Angela Duckworth, who has been at the forefront of grit research, and her colleagues define grit as “perseverance and passion for achieving long-term goals” in the face of setbacks and adversity. While grit has been more widely connected to K12 student outcomes, it is worming its way into higher education as well; during a panel on grit and resilience at the 2014 Association for the Study of Higher Education Annual Conference, the concept was lauded as “revolutionary” for understanding postsecondary student outcomes with the potential to be used as an evaluative tool on which to base admissions. Like other trendy concepts that end up casually incorporated into education discourse, what is often overlooked is that much of grit’s underlying research focuses on younger and homogeneous groups of students in very unique educational environments, such as the cadets at the elite West Point military academy who are academically and physically robust, participants in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and undergraduate students at prestigious selective and highly selective universities. Furthermore, it advances a meritocratic worldview where the purpose and process of education is reduced to seemingly innate qualities, further dividing students into the gritty have’s and the less-gritty have not’s.
The problem with applying this kind of narrative to high stakes testing is that it contributes to a skewed understanding of what helps individuals become successful, while ignoring the material conditions, cultural differences, and social and political structures that students navigate on a daily basis, which makes it an inherently racist and classist discourse. Whatever the factors that contribute to students’ ability to be successful in education, focusing on internal qualities such as grit perpetuates the false impression that students’ achievements are the products of only their own industriousness. More damaging, perhaps, is that students begin to explain their own accomplishments without recognizing that they did not – and do not have to – go through it alone.
Furthermore, the linking of these two issues – high stakes testing and bootstrap narratives – also assumes that parents and students are choosing to opt out to avoid hard tests, while the real issue is that these are bad tests. We must not submit to the idea that some children (i.e., disproportionally students of color and students from lower socioeconomic strata) do not perform well because they are simply not trying hard enough. Rather, we must challenge a system that reinforces deficit-oriented explanations of student success. To do this, I encourage us all to opt out of using these types of words and concepts to explain or justify the status quo.