Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Grit, Overemphasized; Agency, Overlooked: Our New Relentless Focus on Grit Is Undermining What's Really Required to Help Students Achieve

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Grit, Overemphasized; Agency, Overlooked: Our New Relentless Focus on Grit Is Undermining What's Really Required to Help Students Achieve

Article excerpt

Grit is receiving a lot of attention as a critical component for academic success. Americans admire rugged individualism, but overemphasizing grit oversimplifies the problems facing education and what it takes for students to achieve.

Isabel Garcia, a junior at a public high school in Queens, N.Y., is a good example.

Isabel has cerebral palsy, which restricts her from fully controlling her movements. Isabel's teachers say she's one of their hardest workers --full of "grit"--always completing assignments on time and maintaining respectful averages in the 80th percentiles. However, when it comes to standardized testing, Isabel fails repeatedly. Her teachers feel a shared helplessness in knowing that she has prepared for hours but cannot succeed in the testing environment required for these assessments.

Though Isabel's teachers devote extra time and help her with testing techniques, they know the odds are against her. All the grit in the world won't help Isabel on state tests like the comprehensive Regents Exams, which she must pass to earn the well-regarded Regents Diploma.

Isabel's story illustrates the problem of focusing on grit: losing sight of structural obstacles in the path of student success. Millions of other students like Isabel have physical, emotional, and social disabilities that prevent them from thriving in traditional settings. When we say one student succeeds because they are "grittier," educators and policy makers ignore the hurdles for students like Isabel, who are determined but face institutional limits to unlocking their potential as young scholars.

By overemphasizing grit, we tend to attribute a student's underachievement to personality deficits like laziness. This reinforces the idea that individual effort determines outcomes. Failing students cease to be a collective concern that potentially could be addressed through creative policies. This way, differences in student performance are discussed apart from factors that contribute to them, such as disparities in per-pupil spending, unequal access to resources, and tremendous differences in how much time middle-class and lower-income children spend learning.

Infinite grit won't remedy the income disparity in America, the highest among First World countries. …

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