Can Affordable Housing Help Retain Teachers?

Originally published in The American Prospect on November 18, 2015.
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On December 1, Allison Leshefsky, an elementary school gym teacher in San Francisco, will be evicted from the rent-controlled apartment she’s lived in for the past ten years. She and her partner pay $2,000 a month in rent, but if their place were put on the market, it would likely go for at least $5,000 a month—far more than any public school teacher could afford. As of August 2015, one-bedroom apartments in San Francisco rented for an average of $2,965 a month, and two-bedrooms for $3,853. Leshefsky’s landlord, who manages and partially owns nine San Francisco properties, has gained notoriety for evicting or allegedly forcing tenants out, in order to rent their units for more money.

Leshefsky has decided to finish out the school year teaching in San Francisco, even if that means paying jacked up prices for an air mattress she finds on Craigslist. “I’m making a commitment to get through the rest of the year regardless of whose couch I’m on or whose overpriced house I’m in,” she says. “I’m making a commitment to my students to finish this out.” But then, she says, she’ll have to leave.

In recent years, a growing number of researchers, policymakers, and philanthropists have directed their attention to the relationship between housing instability and student achievement. A great deal of evidence has shown how homelessness and housing insecurity can negatively impact a student’s behavior, which creates problems not only for them but for their classmates and teachers as well. A host of educational interventions are being tried in conjunction with local housing authorities, and some cities are even tying housing vouchers to specific struggling schools—in the hopes that such requirements will reduce student turnover and increase school performance.

Yet despite the perennial quest for top-notch teachers, less attention has been paid to the relationship between educators and their housing. It doesn’t require a great stretch of the imagination to think that teachers’ instructional capacities could be impacted by conditions they face outside the classroom, such as high rents, or unsafe housing. “There is no possible way the city can recruit talented people and maintain them with the housing crisis here,” says Leshefsky. “Students deserve teachers that are secure in their homes, and when a teacher is not secure, they can’t be the most effective educator.”

The city of San Francisco seems to agree. Last month, San Francisco’s mayor announced a new plan, formed in partnership with the school district and the teachers union, to provide housing assistance to some 500 public school teachers by 2020. Elements of the plan include forgivable loans, rental subsidies, housing counseling services, and the development of affordable housing specifically for teachers. This month, 73 percent  of San Francisco voters approved a ballot measure that will help make this plan a reality.

Across the country, other variants of teacher housing developments have cropped up, or are in the works—though the motivations for them, and allies behind them, differ from city to city. From San Francisco, to West Virginia, to Philadelphia, the efforts to attract, or retain, teachers through subsidized housing is growing more pronounced, and debates over how such projects impact their surrounding communities are likely to intensify in the coming years.

MATTHEW HARDY, the communications director for the San Francisco teachers union, says the union has a three-pronged strategy to deal with the city’s housing crisis. The first involves fighting for higher wages. In December 2014, the union negotiated a substantial salary increase for teachers and aides—a raise of more than 12 percent over three years. “But if we just limited ourselves to that, we’re not going to be successful,” says Hardy, which is why the union has also been pushing for teacher housing—using surplus district property—and for broader affordable housing policies for all city residents.

“Of course San Francisco is a wonderful place, and some people are willing to make immediate sacrifices to get their foot in the door, but it gets to a point where teachers start to wonder if they should continue paying $1,500 a month for a tiny room or move to the suburbs [where salaries are higher and housing is cheaper] and make $15,000-$20,000 more,” says Hardy. “We need to find ways to support teachers early in their careers, but also those who are more experienced and might want to start a family or buy a home.”

“If affordable brick-and-mortar teacher housing were actually here right now, and not several years in the future, then there would be no doubt in my mind that I would have continued to stay in the district,” Leshefsky said, wearily.

A very different sort of housing crisis plagues McDowell County, West Virginia—a poor, rural area, with a population that’s fallen by 80 percent since the 1950s. Teachers aren’t being priced out, but few want to move there, and those who might be so inclined struggle to find attractive housing options.

In 2011, former West Virginia First Lady Gayle Manchin asked Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), to help her figure out a way to improve McDowell’s school system. They started to organize a coalition of public and private organizations to tackle not only educational issues, but also regional poverty. In a speech given in 2012, Weingarten called this effort “solution-driven unionism.” Rather than shut down a school that’s struggling, she argued, unions can push to strengthen them with wraparound services. Then “learning improves, the school improves, community schools become more attractive than private or charter schools, people return to them with new confidence, home values increase and communities are renewed.”

Part of the McDowell plan includes not just wraparound services for community members, but also new apartments to attract teachers who might not otherwise want to move to McDowell County. As the lead coordinator involved in the teacher housing complex told Governing, “You can’t expect someone to leave life on a college campus for an isolated area where they live in the middle of nowhere and don’t know anybody.”

“What we’re constructing is the first multiple-story building in the area in decades,” said Weingarten in an interview. “The housing will address three big issues: the high teacher vacancy rate, the dearth of available housing, and the need for economic development.”

WHILE McDOWELL COUNTY’S “teacher village” won’t be the nation’s first, others are generally found in urban areas, and have been constructed largely without the involvement of the local teachers unions. In fact, partners more closely aligned to the educational reform movement have led them—those with ties to charter school networks and organizations like Teach for America.

In 2012, then-Mayor of Newark Cory Booker, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, leaders from Google and Goldman Sachs, and others gathered to break ground on the Newark Teachers Village—a downtown Newark development that houses three charter schools, a daycare facility, more than 200 subsidized teacher apartments, and nearly two dozen retail shops. The project received tens of millions of dollars in tax credits. (The Wall Street Journal reported on the event with the headline: “Viewing Newark as a ‘Blank Canvas’”.) The real estate development group that spearheaded the project, RBH Group, is listed as a Teach for America corporate sponsor, and one of RBH’s founding partners, Ron Beit, is the chairman of the board of TFA’s New Jersey chapter.

The Newark Teachers Union, an affiliate of the AFT, originally backed the Newark Teachers Village—though Newark teachers say that their now-deceased president, Joseph Del Grosso, did so without consulting union members. The AFT is an affiliate member of the AFL-CIO, a federation of labor organizations that includes construction unions, and some think Del Grosso supported the plan because it carried the potential to create new construction jobs, not because it was actually in the teachers’ interest. However, despite Del Grosso’s initial support, the union was ultimately uninvolved with the project.

“They basically shut out the public school teachers and the public school union,” said Weingarten in an interview. “Just like they shut out the community from their reform efforts, they shut us out too. Initially we had conversations [about the Teachers Village], and then we were stonewalled.” Had the AFT been involved, then the union likely would have invested pension funds into the project, which may have broadened, and diversified, the project’s mission, and given more stakeholders a say in shaping its development. The union could have also pushed to bring on different types of asset managers, like the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust, which they used in West Virginia and San Francisco. Ron Beit did not return repeated requests for comment.

Over the past couple years, similar teacher housing projects have opened up in other East Coast cities. In 2009, the Seawall Development Corporation established Miller’s Court in Baltimore, using millions of dollars in local, state, and federal tax credits—and another, Union Mill, a few years later. The lead developer, Donald Manekin, was a former board member of Teach For America, and said he originally got the idea to build teacher villages when he saw 100 new TFA members arriving in Baltimore each year. “We’d sit at the end of these board meetings and say wouldn’t it be great if there was a great place for teachers new to the city?” He made these remarks to Newsworks in 2013, as his company prepared to build another teacher housing complex in Philadelphia.

Teach For America’s vice president for administration, Matt Gould, told The New York Times that his organization backs the projects because they “allow [teachers] to have safe, affordable housing. It’s a recruiting tool.” Teach For America is also reportedly looking into New Orleans and Washington as additional cities to expand teacher housing.

I spoke with Thibault Manekin, Donald Manekin’s son, and co-founder of Seawall Development Corporation, about his work building teacher housing. “Really our goal was to provide Class-A apartments and space for teachers doing the most important work in our city, which is helping kids get an education,” he said. To do this, the Manekins provide teachers with a free fitness center, free parking, reduced rent, lounge space, and other amenities that one might find in a more expensive apartment building. (Their website describes the buildings as “an urban oasis”.) Manekin says his company is in the middle of a similar project in Springfield, Massachusetts, and helping others think through comparable developments in other cities. “Yeah, I think you’ll start to see this spread more,” he said.

I asked him if he thought Baltimore teachers had struggled to find safe or affordable housing before he and his father embarked on their projects. “I think the challenge was that teachers, often new to Baltimore, and new to the classroom, weren’t living with like-minded people, and so might be making bad decisions on where to live,” he said. “As a result of that it makes the job that much harder. We just wanted to provide them with a world class space at a significant discount.”

While safe and affordable housing was available, he went on, “you wouldn’t really be living with people in the same boat as you.” They wanted to establish a space where teachers could lean on one another outside of the workplace.

Weingarten says the union was not included in the Philadelphia project, and was only cursorily consulted with for the Baltimore developments.

BRANDEN RIPPEY, a Newark public school teacher who has been working in the district for 18 years, said he acknowledges that Newark needs to build better housing to attract high-quality teachers. “Newark isn’t San Francisco. You do need to work to draw people in, and some of the housing we have here is in bad neighborhoods, and there is crime,” he says. As well, most of Newark’s teachers live outside of the city, so the idea of enabling teachers to establish roots as residents within the community is something he also likes. “I support the idea of creating good, affordable housing for working class people. The problem is that [the Newark Teachers Village] is clearly designed for white, young professional types, at a time when we desperately need more housing for poor people of color.”

Rippey notes that the Teachers Village is located close to other redevelopment projects in downtown Newark. “It’s just becoming a little yuppie commercial district,” he says. “The reality is they have a vision for gentrifying the whole downtown.” Rippey believes that these projects serve as a way to easily import TFA teachers, and by extension, weaken union power. Whereas developers like Beit and Manekin see the teacher housing complexes as positive ways to build communal spaces for local educators, Rippey thinks they can serve as a vehicle to isolate new and relatively young teachers from the union and the broader community. “It’ll keep those teachers residentially, and almost culturally, segregated,” he says.

IN A WAY, these Teachers Villages function as sort of a camp experience. You may be making a two-year commitment to live and work in an unfamiliar city, one that perhaps you, or your family, worry is unsafe. You know that you’re going to be working hard, long days—and so living in close quarters with people going through similar experiences might be quite comforting. All in all, it appears to be a pretty good deal—you’ll be afforded lots of amenities and discounts, you’ll live in a place you know is secure, and you’ll have the chance to develop friendships with other “like-minded” individuals.

In 2013, Mark Weber, a public school teacher and an education policy doctoral student, wrote some strong critiques about these new teacher housing projects.

It’s the perfect scheme: Beit and his private investors get tens of millions of dollars in tax credits to finance the development. He then turns around and rents his commercial units to charter schools, which drain tax revenues away from the neighboring public schools (which could sorely use the money to shore up their crumbling infrastructures). Those schools then pay their young teachers, recruited from TFA, who then turn around and pay rent to Beit. So Beit’s managed to develop three revenue streams—tax credits, charter school rents, and teacher residence rents—all made possible by the proliferation of charters and TFA.

And here’s the real beauty part: If the neighborhood gets gentrified and property values rise, the increases accrue to the property owners—like Beit—but not the people who actually live in the neighborhood. Think about it: If these teachers were buying brownstones and condos, the rising property values would accrue to them. But, because they’re renters, and not owners, they don’t see any of the increase. Their presence will raise the value of the neighborhood’s properties, but they’ll get none of the reward (assuming everything goes according to plan).

I called Weber to discuss some of his thoughts in greater detail. He sounded skeptical that these subsidized projects had much value at all: Will they really help attract lifelong educators into the profession, or will they just serve as a nice perk for young teachers who wouldn’t stay in the classroom beyond a few years anyway?

“If these charter schools need young people who are willing to work long hours and do the career for just a couple years, then things like teacher villages are almost custom-made, because you’re not going to be buying condos, and it’s close to your work,” he said. “Is that sustainable? I would argue no if we’re trying to build a workforce that sees teaching as a lifetime career. We could continue to build, or we can ask ourselves if we’re paying teachers enough money. If you can’t comfortably live here without staying in subsidized housing, maybe that’s a problem.”

Others have also questioned whether this whole subsidized housing deal isn’t just a misplaced way to avoid paying teachers significantly higher salaries. An individual used to feel more comfortable entering the teaching profession—despite its lack of prestige or big paychecks—given the relative stability if offered: a middle-class life, solid health care benefits, and a stable pension to live on during retirement. Today, however, those sorts of guarantees are beginning to fall by the wayside.

“If you’re not going to offer good health care benefits, what are you going to offer to get people to join the profession?” asked Weber. “Some modest rent control in hip neighborhoods? That’s not going to help the neighborhood much, and that’s not going to be much of an incentive to go into teaching.”

MAYBE SUBSIDIZED HOUSING that targets young professionals won’t be what it takes to help attract career educators, yet it’s clear that cities do want to help recruit and retain educators who actually live in the communities in which they serve—an effort that may require more than just a salary increase (though that would help.) Whether it’s a Teach for America participant looking for a supportive communal space, or a mid-career educator with a family who wants to live closer to his or her workplace, thinking about the intersections between housing and teaching is something that even the most progressive unionists, like Rippey, believe we should be doing more of.

Weingarten defended the AFT’s McDowell and San Francisco projects, and contrasted them with the ones in Baltimore, Newark, and Philadelphia. “We’re not looking to create a boutique pipeline for some people to work in different communities, it’s not that,” she said. “It’s about creating affordable housing so people can establish roots in the cities in which they live.”

Still, even teacher villages more closely aligned to the reform movement are helping young teachers, and local nonprofit organizations, forge better ties with the communities in which they serve. “The amount of teachers that have actually stayed in the classroom and in Baltimore, and then gone out and bought homes has been really inspiring to see,” said Thibault Manekin. Of the 30 homes he and his father have built in Baltimore, he says 20 have been sold to former tenants of Miller’s Court and Union Mill.

Would Leshefsky be willing to live outside San Francisco and continue working at her school with a longer daily commute?

“No, I would not be willing to do a two-hour commute just to serve a community that I don’t belong to,” she said. “I’m one of the most constant people in my students’ lives right now, and I don’t think someone who lives outside the city can necessarily connect with their students in the same way. We’re all going through very similar struggles.”

 

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Sorry, Walmart: Charter Schools Won’t Fix Poverty

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 30th, 2015.
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Last week, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and In the Public Interest released a highly critical report on the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 education philanthropy, which ended with a call for increased transparency and accountability in the charter sector. The gist of the report is that the Walton Family Foundation—which has kick-started about one in four charters around the country—“relentlessly presses for rapid growth of privatized education options” and has opposed serious efforts to regulate and monitor fraud and abuse. While the foundation supports rapidly scaling up charter networks that have produced promising results, the AFT and In the Public Interest cite a 2013 Moody’s Investment Services report which found that dramatically expanding charter schools in poor urban areas weakens the ability of traditional schools to serve their students, forcing them to lay off teachers, increase class sizes, and cut programs to make ends meet.

A month earlier, Philamplify, an initiative of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), published its own report on the Walton Family Foundation’s impact, and found that although they have achieved meaningful results through their environmental philanthropy, “an overreliance on specific market-based vehicles” hinders their ability to create “sustainable and equitable” improvements in education. Philamplify also criticized the Walton Family Foundation for “insulating itself among like-minded peers rather than connecting with the broader field.”

While the Walton Family Foundation did not return my request for comment, Education Week reported that their spokesperson, Daphne Moore, defended their commitment to high-quality schools. Education Week also cites Greg Richmond, the president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA)—an organization that receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation—who argued that the foundation has long demonstrated a commitment to accountability and transparency.

This discussion is sure to continue over the coming months, but what was particularly striking was something in the Walton Family Foundation’s response to the Philamplify report—a statement that has been reiterated by the foundation many times over the past several years. Marc Sternberg, the foundation’s K-12 program director, said, “Education is the set of work we can support that will most directly end the cycle of poverty and change the trajectory of young people’s lives.”

The notion that education is needed to break the cycle of poverty is a popular mantra of the education reform movement. The problem is, it is simply not true at all. The most direct way to break the cycle of poverty is actually to give poor people more money, something that high-quality educations, even college degrees, do not in any way guarantee. So when it comes to the question of redistribution—an integral component to any comprehensive anti-poverty program—the political work of the Walton family deserves far greater scrutiny.

Waltons, Walmart, and Politics

The Walton family heirs own a majority of public shares in Walmart, the U.S.’s largest private employer, which easily makes them some of the richest people on earth. Today, the Walton family has more wealth than 49 million American families combined. The six Walton heirs together have a net worth of at least $148.8 billion.

The Walton family engages in quite a bit of political work outside of its environmental and education philanthropy—much of it to advance conservative legislative goals. In the 2014 electoral cycle, Walmart spent $2.4 million through its PAC and individual donations, and $12.5 million through lobbying. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Walmart was far and away the biggest big-box retail spender in the election cycle, and has been ranked among the top 100 political donors since 1989. Demos looked at the Walton family’s political contributions between 2000 and 2014 and found that their $7.3 million in campaign contributions heavily favored Republican candidates over Democrats.

Outside of political campaigns, Walmart employs an array of Washington, D.C., lobbyists to advocate on issues like labor, taxes, and trade. Up until May 2012, Walmart was a longtime member of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which works to promote an ideologically conservative agenda around the country. Moreover Walmart has given millions to the Republican State Leadership Committee, the Republican Governors Association, and other organizations that push right-wing policies.

Their animus towards union and labor is no secret, and Walmart has fought strengthening labor law in Washington, D.C., as well as supporting efforts to expand right-to-work laws in state legislatures. In addition, as veteran labor reporter Steven Greenhouse reported for The Atlantic this month, Walmart “maintains a steady drumbeat of anti-union information at its more than 4,000 U.S. stores”—much of which is patently false.

Beyond their efforts to elect conservative candidates and promote right-wing causes, the Waltons also fight against efforts to promote a greater redistribution of wealth through taxation. According to Treasury Department estimates, closing just two estate tax loopholes that the Waltons use would raise more than $2 billion annually over the next decade—but they have long lobbied against any effort to do so. Americans for Tax Fairness, a coalition of 400 national and state organizations that seeks to promote progressive tax reform, found that Walmart and the Walton family benefit from an estimated $7.8 billion in annual tax breaks, loopholes, and subsidies—much of which stems from the fact that so many of Walmart employees earn meager wages and are forced to rely on public assistance.

After years of worker organizing and public pressure, Walmart recently announced that it would raise its hourly wages to $9 an hour by April and $10 an hour by February 2016. While encouraging, such measures alone are unlikely to mitigate the economic hardship most Americans face—especially when, at this point, many cities are pushing for a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

Economic Inequality and Public Education

The evidence that shows impoverished kids are disadvantaged in school is well-documented—and yet many education reformers insist that despite this, we can still provide every child with a high-quality education so that everyone succeeds. We shouldn’t use poverty as “an excuse,” they say.

The idea that we can redesign education to be excellent and equitable without reducing poverty and economic inequality certainly sounds politically pleasant, but we know it’s just not true. That’s why the education agenda of the Walton Family Foundation has so many internal contradictions. The Waltons say they want to create more high-quality schools to help kids in poverty, but they back candidates who support eroding the already crumbling social safety net and fight against paying their fair share of taxes. And while the Waltons continue to advocate aggressively against unions, the Economic Policy Institute has found that the decline in unionization has mirrored the rise in inequality “to a remarkable extent.”

Not only does poverty hurt one’s chance for success in school, but growing levels of economic inequality also further exacerbate these issues—problems that the Walton heirs do not seem interested in addressing. Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon found that the rich-poor gap in test scores is about 40 percent larger now than it was 30 years ago—though the academic performance of poor students has not declined during this time. He also found that before 1980, affluent students had little advantage over middle-class students when it came to academic performance, but “the rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor.” In other words, growing economic inequality has contributed to disparities in academic achievement across the board, even for those not living in poverty. Other researchers have found that the rich now have much greater access to extracurricular opportunities than the poor. In districts across the country, enrichment programs like art, music, journalism, and athletics are being cut—creating even greater divides between the haves and the have-nots in education.

If we want to reduce poverty and economic inequality—things we know hurt student achievement and life outcomes—then we have to address how the education aims of the Walton Family Foundation are incongruous with their political agenda elsewhere. Closing the achievement gap, as Demos analyst Matt Bruenig points out, will not even reduce poverty; it would merely change the distribution of it. In the education-reform world, unfortunately, grantees are unlikely to criticize foundations because they fear they will be blacklisted or de-funded. This makes sense, as there are incredible power imbalances in the philanthropic sector and money is scarce.

The Walton Family Foundation talks a lot about creating high-quality schools. If Walmart, with its billions of dollars in profits, created high-quality jobs with living wages and benefits, children would be far less likely to grow up in poverty and would perform far better in school. Relatedly, if the Waltons backed candidates who supported a more equitable distribution of wealth and stronger social-welfare policies, then children would be far less likely to grow up in poverty, and perform far better in school. It’s certainly true that every child deserves a high-quality education. How to get there, however, is not rocket science.

Teaching Character: Grit, Privilege, and American Education’s Obsession with Novelty

Originally published in The American Prospect on April 17th, 2015.
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Twice a week for 30 minutes, fifth graders at KIPP Washington Heights, a charter school in New York City, attend “character class.” Each lesson is divided into three parts, according to Ian Willey, the assistant principal who teaches it. First, students find out what specific skill they’ll be focusing on that day. “This morning we’re going to learn how to set a long-term goal,” Willey might tell them. Next, students are asked to practice the skill. In this case, students may imagine they have a long-term project to complete, and then work to construct a timeline with incremental deadlines. In the final part of the lesson, students would take time to collectively reflect. “What was hard about this exercise?” Willey might ask. “What went well? Did anyone feel nervous? What did you do when you felt nervous?” And because part of KIPP’s mission is to help build character, the students would then classify their new skill as one or more of KIPP’s seven targeted character goals. In this example, the students were learning “grit.”

Few ideas inspire more debate in education circles than grit, which means having dedication to and passion for long-term goals. Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, first popularized the concept in 2007; she believes that if we can teach children to be “grittier” in schools, we can help them achieve greater success. Paul Tough, a journalist who published a 2012 bestseller, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, also brought grit into the national spotlight. Many policymakers and school leaders have since jumped at the idea. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised Tough’s “fantastic book”—arguing that teaching skills like grit “can help children flourish and overcome significant challenges throughout their lifetimes.” Districts all over the country are exploring how they can incorporate grit into their curriculum. In 2013, Duckworth was awarded $625,000 by the MacArthur Foundation to continue researching ways to cultivate grit in schools.

Despite grit’s enthusiastic boosters, a growing movement has sprung up in opposition. Some psychologists and policy analysts question the methodology behind Duckworth’s research—which has chiefly relied on students answering questionnaires on how gritty they think they’ve been. (For example, a survey question might read: “New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones,” and students would report how much that statement resonates with them.) Some critics argue that grit places too much weight on individual student behavior, and as a result, crucial attention is directed away from the structural forces that inhibit academic success. Some researchers think that emphasizing grit can even produce negative outcomes, like killing creativity.

The excitement towards and resistance to this new field illuminates a great deal more about American education and its obsession with novelty than the grit research itself—which is still in its infancy.

The Background on Grit

Grit researchers begin with the conviction that grit is malleable: They believe that if we could design the right interventions, we could probably increase students’ grit levels, too. Duckworth admires the work of Carol Dweck, a psychologist whose research on “academic tenacity”—a mindset that helps students focus on and persevere towards long-term goals—suggests that cultivating grit may be possible. Grit research also builds on the work of Martin Seligman, who pioneered the field of positive psychology, focused on positive human flourishing. Duckworth is Seligman’s former student.

Schools, politicians, and news organizations have embraced grit, excited by its possible implications. The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story about grit’s potential. KIPP charter schools, like the one Ian Willey works for, have incorporated inculcating grit and other “character strengths” such as optimism, self-control and gratitude into their mission statement. In 2013, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), a global education organization, published a book entitled “Fostering Grit.”

Dan McGarry, an Assistant Superintendent for Upper Darby School District—located in a township adjacent to West Philadelphia—read about Duckworth’s work in 2011 and grew fascinated by character education. “I truly believe that this is going to change the world,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer. His district has since formally partnered with Duckworth’s lab, allowing Penn researchers to both provide professional development to their staff and conduct experiments on their students. McGarry hopes that teaching character will reduce discipline problems and raise student achievement.

Backlash

Advocates insist that the benefits of teaching grit are just as important for affluent kids growing up in hypercompetitive communities as they are for low-income students growing up in poverty. Yet as grit hype grows, critics have started speaking out against what they see as an attempt to gloss over the uniquely debilitating effects of poverty. Paul L. Thomas, an education professor at Furman University, argues that reformers have embraced grit precisely because it presents them an opportunity to ignore material solutions. Indeed, in How Children Succeed, Paul Tough wrote, “There is no antipoverty tool we can provide for disadvantaged young people that will be more valuable than the character strengths … [such as] conscientiousness, grit, resilience, perseverance and optimism.” 

David Meketon, a research liaison from the Duckworth Lab, acknowledges that social class impacts everyone throughout their lives. But “we think our work and understanding can help mitigate those possible preconditions,” he says.

Eldar Shafir, a professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton is skeptical that teaching grit can diminish the effects of poverty. He recently co-authored an influential book with Sendhil Mullainathan, a Harvard economist, on “scarcity”—which is the psychological effect of struggling to manage with less than you need. “I have no problem with the idea that whoever you are, having grit will be better than not having grit,” Shafir says. “But my intuition is that the kinds of problems that are so pressing that it’s very hard to put them out of your mind, like whether or not you will have food to eat, or whether your parent is going to prison or will lose their job, those stresses are much harder to ignore than the stresses facing the affluent, like which prestigious college will you go to.”

“To be perfectly honest, I’m very reluctant to ask the American poor to spend more time doing yoga,” Shafir answered.

I asked Dr. Shafir what he thought about teaching students yoga and mindfulness—popular ideas that the Duckworth Lab and other proponents of grit are exploring. “To be perfectly honest, I’m very reluctant to ask the American poor to spend more time doing yoga,” Shafir answered. “I think the impact of giving kids after school programs, transportation, and childcare for their parents would be much greater than trying to figure out how to include meditation in schools.” 

In late January, some progressive educators discussed the racial implications of grit at “EduCon 2.7,” a Philadelphia-based conference designed to explore digital learning. (The panel was called “Grit, Galton, Eugenics, Racism, Calvinism.”) “We keep [hearing] this narrative that the only way children in poverty are going to succeed is by working harder than their peers who are middle-class,” said Pamela Moran, a superintendent of a large public school district in Virginia. “We have to think about our own cultural biases, why grit appeals to us, and why we want to focus on it in our schools.”

Jeff Snyder, an education historian at Carleton College, thinks that while it’s “patently absurd” to argue—as some of his colleagues do—that teaching grit is inherently racist, there are some problems with how it is being applied in the real world. “[KIPP co-founder Dave] Levin, Duckworth, they all say that character education should be for everyone. But the way that it turns out is that KIPP-based character education is overwhelmingly for poor kids of color,” says Snyder. Referring to the “culture of poverty thesis”—the controversial idea that the urban poor are disadvantaged not due to racism and discrimination but because they harbor certain cultural pathologies—Snyder says it’s understandable that people would resist a new theory that seems to suggest academic failure is rooted in individual behavior. 

Perhaps the most outspoken critic of grit culture is Alfie Kohn, an education writer who published The Myth Of The Spoiled Child in 2014. “There is no pretense of objectivity in [Duckworth’s] work; [she] is selling grit rather than dispassionately investigating its effects,” Kohn writes. “Proponents of grit tend to focus narrowly on behavior, ignoring motive,” he adds. “Do kids love what they’re doing? Or are they driven by a desperate (and anxiety-provoking) need to prove their competence? As long as they’re pushing themselves, we’re encouraged to nod our approval.”

Ironically, Kohn and Duckworth both insist they are looking out for “the whole child”—the idea that schools should not just be for children’s academic development, but for their moral, social, and physical development as well. “If we’re interested in the whole child—if, for example, we’d like our students to be psychologically healthy—then it’s not at all clear that self-discipline should enjoy a privileged status compared to other attributes. In some contexts, it may not be desirable at all,” Kohn argues. In an interview with ASCD, Duckworth says, “standardized tests … are limited in their ability to pick up things like grit and self-control … gratitude, honesty, generosity, empathy for the suffering of others, social intelligence, tact, charisma. … We’re now seeing a pendulum swing away from the single-minded focus on standardized testing and toward a broader view of the whole child.”

Is Grit Science Reliable?

In 2012, the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago Schools Research published a comprehensive literature review detailing all the existing evidence on how these “non-cognitive factors” like grit, motivation, and perseverance shape school performance. They found that most of the existing research is correlational, not causal—making it unclear the extent to which these factors can be developed in classrooms, and raising questions about whether changing them would actually even improve school performance. They also found little evidence to suggest that improving students’ academic behavior would narrow racial and ethnic achievement gaps.

One criticism of grit research is that it has relied mostly on the students’ self-reported questionnaires and surveys. Two sets of problems accompany these measures—one is “social desirability bias” and the other is “reference bias.” The former is a well-documented phenomenon where people tend to inaccurately report their experiences or memories on surveys in order to present themselves in the best possible light. They seek to present themselves in a socially desirable way, thus skewing the results. “Reference bias” is a less obvious issue, but perhaps more detrimental. To answer a survey question that asks “Are you a hard worker?” you’d typically conjure up an image of what you envision hard workers look like, and then compare yourself to them. “Am I hard worker compared to the other kids in my class?” you might ask. In effect, the results of these surveys can tell us very little about how you’ll do compared to people outside of your own peer group.

Martin R. West, of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, has been researching the limitations of self-reported assessments, and finds evidence that the school climate in which a student answers these questions can significantly affect what answer they will give. “In a rush to embrace non-cognitive skills as the missing piece in American education, policymakers may overlook the limitations of extant measures,” West writes, urging researchers to develop alternatives that are valid across a broader range of settings. The Duckworth Lab’s Meketon says his team is now focusing on creating more activity-based tests, such as computer games, in the hope that this will ameliorate some of the concerns people have about the lab’s surveys and questionnaires.  

Avi Kaplan, a psychology professor at Temple University who studies student motivation and self-regulation, finds the public rhetoric around grit research to be extremely political. “Grit is a paradigm that gives people certainty, and that’s what people are looking for—absolute truth.” He argues that there have always been those in his field who aspire, mistakenly, to treat psychology like a natural science. “But human beings are all so different, and people develop and change at such different points in their lives.”

Education Policy’s Ebb and Flow

This is not the first time we’ve recognized that success is not exclusively about IQ or raw talent. In 1961, psychological theorist David McClelland published The Achieving Society, which argued that cultivating the need for achievement, often through early childhood experiences, plays an integral role in one’s chance for life success. In 1990, journalist Dan Goldman published Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ, which argued that self-awareness, altruism, personal motivation, empathy, and the ability to love and be loved are the greatest indicators of success.

This is not even the first time our country has tried to teach character or seen it as integral to education—far from it. Writing in The New Republic, Snyder of Carleton College traces the history:

From the inception of our public school system in the 1840s and 1850s, character education has revolved around religious and civic virtues. Steeped in Protestantism and republicanism, the key virtues taught during the nineteenth-century were piety, industry, kindness, honesty, thrift, and patriotism. During the Progressive era, character education concentrated on the twin ideas of citizenship and the “common good.” As an influential 1918 report on “moral values” put it, character education “makes for a better America by helping its pupils to make themselves better persons.” In the 1960s and 1970s, meanwhile, character education focused on justice and working through thorny moral dilemmas.

With this in mind, the discussion around grit actually fits quite snugly within a long tradition of American education. First comes an idea, and initial excitement. Then there is a backlash, followed by an uneasy period where ideas are implemented and critiqued. “And then ultimately there’s the sad truth with education research and millions of dollars that you will always end up with mixed results,” says Snyder. “You will never do an educational experiment with real live human beings that give you dramatic results.”

Duckworth’s Meketon thinks the grit backlash might be partly steeped in resentment towards the research’s popularity. “The cynical part of me says that if you find someone who is getting a lot of attention, you go against them and attack them,” he says. But Meketon acknowledges that perhaps a simpler explanation is that educators have short attention spans. “I was an educator for 40 years and I’ve watched the evolution of various ideas and best practices in education come and go.”

Snyder disagrees; he thinks it is administrators, policymakers, and philanthropists—like Bill Gates—who have short attention spans, not the educators themselves. “It’s the people who fund the type of research being done by Duckworth that tend to get bored more quickly, because they are excited by innovation in and of itself.” Snyder expects that in ten years we’ll see people excited about new ideas, or old ideas that are billed as new.

Ultimately, we just don’t know that much about grit yet. Even Angela Duckworth has admitted she doesn’t know if we can actually teach it in schools. Her lab is only just now beginning to develop tools that don’t rely predominately on self-reported assessments. Prior research suggests that we’re not all that good at teaching character in school. In 2010, the largest federal study on school-wide character education programs found that these programs largely fail to produce improvements in student behavior or academic performance.

This is not to say this is all pointless. The University of Chicago researchers did find plenty of evidence that supporting positive academic mindsets can help students develop better learning strategies, and in turn, improve their grades—learning strategies like breaking up long-term projects with incremental deadlines, which is what Willey tries to teach in his classroom.

Stefanie DeLuca, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, sees grit’s academic value, and defends teaching it in schools. (“Learning how to be persistent at an unpleasant task, it’s hard to argue that doesn’t matter,” she says.) But ultimately DeLuca worries about where the public conversation is going. “On the one hand, there’s a hopefulness that grit offers us. It’s an American narrative that’s really appealing, and it tells us that poor kids are not lost causes,” says DeLuca, who notes that too many policymakers just give up on kids in poverty. “But what happens with really popular ideas that have simple and compelling solutions is that you can run with them, and if things don’t change, then you start to think things can’t ever change.” By not confronting social structure directly within the grit narrative, we may be setting up these kids for failure. “At the end of the day,” says DeLuca, “poor kids—gritty or not—are still navigating within a profoundly unequal geography of opportunity.”