A union at the University of Chicago and the great debate between John Dewey and Robert Hutchins.

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Yesterday I posted the letter that University of Chicago sent out to teaching assistants and student teachers regarding the ruling of the National Labor Relations Board that permits them to unionize.

On one level, in spite of all the high-falutin language, there is not much different about this letter than one any union-fearing boss would send to their workers who wanted a union.

Let’s pretend that there is a serious debate here about the nature of learning, teaching and the role of the university.

I know.

Just go with me for a moment.

In 1936, University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins published a slim volume entitled The Higher Learning in America.

The purpose of the essay was two-fold. Hutchins believed in knowledge for its own sake and believed that the liberal arts and the universities which taught them had lost their way.

But it was also a polemic against the progressive education ideas of John Dewey.

And Dewey knew the essay was directed at him.

Hutchins argued for a life of the mind, knowledge for its own sake uncontaminated by questions of practice, work, empirical sciences or current events.

Dewey, on the other hand,  understood “knowledge for its own sake” to be a part of what was called “vocational knowledge,” both within the liberal arts and the world outside the university.

Dewey believed in the uniting of theory and practice, knowledge and reflection on experience.

For John Dewey, a liberal arts education had to  address the fact that ideas and practice are two connected things. As Dewey puts it in Democracy and Education:

While the distinction [between labor and leisure] is often thought to be intrinsic and absolute, it is really historical and social. It originated, so far as conscious formulation is concerned, in Greece, and was based upon the fact that the truly human life was lived only by a few who subsisted upon the results of the labor of others. The problem of education in a democratic society is to do away with the dualism and to construct a course of studies which makes thought a guide of free practice for all and which makes leisure a reward of accepting responsibility for service, rather than a state of exemption from it.

Many University of Chicago students teachers and teaching assistants may never join another union for the rest of their lives. They can join one now.

Hutchins, if he were alive today, might find that disturbing.

Dewey, always a union man, would have been supportive, I am sure.

Lily Eskelsen Garcia two years ago.

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Lily Eskelsen Garcia in 2014.

-I’m on the road until the end of August. In between intermittent posts of my own I have been posting other bloggers and posts. Some have written to say these have been the best things I have ever posted. Oh well.

This is from a 2014 interview with NEA President Lily Garcia by Washington Post education columnist Valerie Strauss.  

To call the woman who is about to take the helm of the National Education Association “outspoken” would be something of an understatement. Lily Eskelsen García, who will take over next month as president of the largest teachers union in the country (and, for that matter, the largest union of any kind in the country), is nauseatingly sick of what she calls “factory school reform” and she doesn’t mind telling everybody about it in clear, challenging words. “Stop doing stupid,” she says.

That’s not all. Acknowledging that sometimes it is hard for her to be diplomatic, García says she wants to shake things up: “The revolution I want is ‘proceed until apprehended.’” Translation: Teachers, administrators and everybody else involved should ignore bad school reform policy and do “the right thing” for kids. “Don’t you dare,” she said, ” let someone tell you not to do that Shakespeare play because it’s not on the achievement tests. Whether they [reformers] have sinister motives or misguided honest motives, we should say, ‘We are not going to listen to you anymore. We are going to do what’s right.’”

The biggest problem in education today, she said, is the obsession many school reformers — including Education Secretary Arne Duncan — have with standardized tests and using student scores to make high-stakes decisions on  whether students move to the next grade or graduate high school, how much teachers get paid and whether they can keep their jobs, and even if schools are reconstituted or closed. “I will go down to my last breath telling people that the most corrupting influence in public influence today is a high-stakes consequence for not hitting the cut score on a standardized test,” she said.

What would she do if she were still teaching and an administrator told her to do something in class to improve student’s standardized test scores so that her test-based evaluation would be better?  “I would totally ignore them,” she said. ” ‘Go stand out in the hall and don’t waste five seconds of my time.’ I would not make that change one thing in my classroom.”

You can read this story by my colleague Lyndsey Layton about García’s rise to the top of the NEA, a journey that started when she worked in a school lunch room, moved through years of teaching (during which she was named Utah’s Teacher of the Year)  and took her to the leadership of her union. And here are some excerpts from the recent interview I just had with García about her views on challenges facing educators today.

On Education Secretary Arne Duncan:

Arne Duncan is a very nice man. I actually believe he is a very honest man. And that cannot excuse the fact that he is wrong wrong wrong on just about every thing that he believes is reform. I could just give him hugs when he talks about preschool. I love when he talks about affordable college. Its not that he is in the pocket of the Koch brothers and wants to destroy public schools. But he has drunk the Kool-Aid. He has drunk the factory reform Kool-Aid.  So now it’s you have to hit a number and that number is what we call accountability and we have to blame someone and there has to be a punishment for not hitting that cut score. And I believe will go down to my last breath telling people that the most corrupting influence in public influence today is a high-stakes consequence for not hitting the cut score on a standardized test.”


On the Common Core State Standards and aligned testing:

“We have something with incredible promise, like the Common Core. My own friends will go, ‘You know they are just going to mess up the Common Core.’ Yeah, and then we have Texas. Texas isn’t in the Common Core but it’s a mess there. It’s not the standards. It’s what they are doing with these standards, or whatever standards. So you have a New York situation, which is the “I Love Lucy’ thing. ” We have the Common Core and add one more test and judge you and punish you by it and ramp up the factory thing and you have chocolate falling to the fall — and there is no more tragic metaphor to me than chocolate falling on the floor. Educators, my colleagues, are trying to take the high road and explain that … 100 percent of the kids cannot statistically be above average. And you can’t throw these wonderful new problem-solving, critical-thinking skill standards at teachers when we haven’t trained then on it or given them any curriculum and tell them that the tests are being field tested but they are still going to be judged on them, even fired, and third graders can’t go to fourth grade because of test results. Imposing this toxic testing regime makes no sense.

“Stop the stupid. And I’ll try really hard to make that diplomatic.”

On ‘value-added measures’ (VAM is a way of evaluating educators that takes student standardized test scores, plops them into a complicated formula that can supposedly weed out things like how much living in poverty or being sick affects a child’s performance on a test and determining the “value” of an individual teacher.)

Voodoo value-added. It is beyond ridiculous. Have you ever seen the formulas? Here’s what I think. Let’s make it so complicated no one will ask a question for fear of looking stupid. I’m the teacher who told my kids there is no such thing as a stupid question. … I looked the year I had 39 fifth-graders and looked at what is factored into the value-added formula to determine my value. That year I had Brandon and Chris, both of whom had behavior disorders. How is that factored in [to the formula]? You cannot surgically remove every factor that might affect some child’s test score, and then attribute a “value” to a particular teacher. I know that part of what I did was build on what the teacher the year ahead of me was able to accomplish. It is not surgery. And anybody that stands up and sends us the voodoo value-added should be ashamed of themselves.

I’ve always told people — because I am that obnoxious — that  I am the best freaking teacher you have ever seen. You want your child in my class… I am not afraid of an evaluation system. Bring it on. But what I would do with value added? I would totally ignore them. ‘Go stand out in the hall and don’t waste five seconds of my time.’ I would not make that change one thing in my classroom. If a principal said, ‘We can’t do the blood drive because we have to prep for the test,’ I would say, ‘Go away’. That’s where the rebellion would be.

There is no law that says we have to race around and catch that testing tail. We do it to ourselves. The revolution I want is, ‘Proceed until apprehended.’ … Stop listening to the salesmen. Stop listening to phony reformers. And stop listening to those good-hearted and absolutely wrong people and do the right thing with kids. We are the educators, the professionals. We actually know what to do with children.”

On No Child Left Behind:

“I am so convinced that No Child Left Behind is really based on the ‘I Love Lucy’ episode in the chocolate factory [when Lucy and Ethel work in a factory to box chocolates that appear on a increasingly fast assembly line]. I really believe that someone spent a little too much time watching ‘Nick at night’ and said, ‘Let’s just speed up the chocolate. We will find a way to wrap it and put it in pretty little boxes. And Lucy and Ethel couldn’t do it of course. We have corporate reform. It doesn’t make any sense.”

On corporate school reform and whether Democrats who support it have abandoned teachers union:

“I talk about factory school reform. Its not even like a well-run modern corporation that they are suggesting. It’s a 1920’s factory. And …on both sides of the aisle we get the same misguided list of reforms. Basically its privatized, standardized, deprofessionalized. The exact opposite of what very successful international success stories like Finland or even Singapore do. They personalize. They use data to make good decisions. They have ramped up the professionalism of education. They make it harder to get into your college of education than to get into your law school. They make it a career, not a summer project for someone who just graduated from college. Even KIPP [charter schools] will say one of the secrets of their success is a stable, highly professional faculty. How do you make sense of a churn system of Teach For America where you give two years and go on your way? The corporate factory reformers have this evidence-free zone that surrounds them… We are like waving red flags of evidence in front of them. Stop doing stupid. Can we just do what we can show you makes sense?…

“I would challenge the premise that the Democratic Party is not a friend of organized working men and women. But there are disconnects on more and more issues. And of course we are seeing that disconnect seriously in the education world….

“We just need to say this is no longer partisan. It is just stupid.”

University of Chicago: ” We hope all members of our community will take the time to look more deeply into the challenges and potential negative consequences of a union and participate in dialogue around these issues.”


University of Chicago.

To: Faculty and Graduate Students
From: Robert J. Zimmer and Daniel Diermeier
Re: NLRB Ruling on Student Assistants
Date: August 24, 2016

Yesterday, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that student teaching and research assistants at private universities have the right to unionize in their capacity as workers. For a number of months, the University of Chicago community has been engaged in active dialogue on this subject and its potential impact on the College, graduate students, faculty and the University as a whole. In light of the NLRB’s decision, it is more important than ever to reflect on the fundamental nature of education at UChicago, and the potential impact that graduate student unionization in particular could have on the University’s distinctive approach to research and education, including the relationship between graduate students and their faculty advisors.

It is the collective responsibility of students, faculty, staff and University leaders to ensure that the University of Chicago is a place where students can flourish. Central to the success of graduate students is the intellectual relationship between students and faculty, particularly between students and their advisors. These relationships reflect the University’s character as a place of intellectual openness and scholarly autonomy, where students and faculty constantly work together to push the boundaries of understanding. These formative and mutually advantageous collaborations often move in novel directions, across disciplinary lines and established responsibilities. Each student’s path reflects their own goals, interests, intellectual ambitions, and subject matter.

Ensuring that students are flourishing is not a simple or easy process. Ongoing attention is required to make sure programs are working well and adequately supporting students throughout their time at UChicago and beyond. Our graduate students already are active partners in identifying the elements of a successful education, and they have worked with the faculty, chairs, divisions, schools and the provost’s office to make many improvements. Bearing this progress in mind, and the fact that there is still more work to do, the fundamental question now is whether a graduate student labor union would advance or impede students’ overall educational goals.

While reasonable people can come to different conclusions on this point, it is vital that we maintain the special and individual nature of students’ educational experiences and opportunities for intellectual and professional growth. A graduate student labor union could impede such opportunities and, as a result, be detrimental to students’ education and preparation for future careers. It could also compromise the ability of faculty to mentor and support students on an individualized basis.

Students follow their own unique paths at the University in coordination with their faculty advisors and do so in a way that is quite different from the well-defined and important work of employees in skilled trades or clerical positions, where the University has had productive relationships with unions for many years. Unionization by its very nature will mean that a labor union, which may be unfamiliar with what is involved in developing outstanding scholars, will come between students and faculty to make crucial decisions on behalf of students. These decisions could range from which classes students teach, to how best to collaborate with scholars in other departments, to the steps students can take to further their long-term career development. Ceding the power to bargain over some or all of these decisions to a union, which by design focuses on the collective interests of members while they are in the union in the short-term, could make it more difficult for students to reach their individual educational goals.

Recent experiences demonstrate that efforts to enhance the graduate student experience are highly successful when graduate students, faculty, deans and the provost’s office work together directly. Dialogue among students and faculty has led to increased stipends under the Graduate Aid Initiative and increased remuneration for teaching, more support for students in the sciences, expansion of health insurance coverage, child care grants, and major investments in the Chicago Center for Teaching and UChicagoGRAD to help students with fellowships, pedagogical training, writing and presentation skills, and preparing for future careers. It is unclear whether a graduate student labor union would have achieved any of these outcomes.

Faculty and graduate students at the University of Chicago are not only engaged in scholarship, we are stewards of the legacy we have inherited. Together, we will help define the University’s future. If there is a union representation election here, students will have the opportunity to decide what course is best for their own education. We hope all members of our community will take the time to look more deeply into the challenges and potential negative consequences of a union and participate in dialogue around these issues.

Progressive Block Island.


Accompanied by FBI agents Daniel Berrigan is brought to the mainland after his capture on Block Island.

Our immediate family comes here every summer the last week in August. Others often join us. Our rented house looks out over the lagoon and out to sea. The perfect spot.

Each summer I come I learn more about the place.  Google Block Island history and there are huge gaps.

The island’s history often leaves out those who first lived here for a thousand years.

The Narragansett were the first inhabitants of Block Island. Their name for the island was Manisses which translates to Island of the Little God.

There is a hotel in town called Manisses. Otherwise you might not know.

The first white guy to see it was probably Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524.

He seems to have sailed on.

Verrazano was followed by a Dutch explorer,  Adrian Block. In 1614 Block planted the Dutch flag. He named the place after himself.

Funny how white guys do that.

Even when the place has a perfectly good name already.

The island of the Naragansett was finally done in as part of the Pequot War. Using the excuse of a murdered trader, the Governor of Massachusetts ordered the slaughter of every male on the island and the capture for slavery of every native woman and child.

In 1636 John Endecott claimed the island as part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Twenty-five years later we can mark the beginning of Block Island’s white progressive history with the arrival here of 16 settlers in 1661. They were followers of Anne Hutchinson, a leader in the fight against the Puritan establishment of Boston.

You know how we call people who aren’t fun, “puritanical.”

This was them.

The late Civil Rights attorney Arthur Kinoy writes about the sixteen settlers in his book, The Mystery of Block Island.

Hutchinson is an important person in the development of religious freedom in England’s American colonies. She was not puritanical.

She is also an early figure in the history of the fight for women’s equality. Hutchinson would not accept the authority of the male Puritan ministers, exposing the subjugation of women in colonial Massachusetts. Hutchinson was put on trial for her beliefs and forced into exile from Boston.

Along with Roger Williams who established Providence in what became Rhode Island.

There is a statue of Roger Williams on Federal Hill in Providence.

Anne, who went to high school in Providence, tells me that kids used to smoke dope behind the statue of Roger Williams.

Not very puritancial.

For her early belief in the dignity of women and men and democracy, Hutchinson may have been considered the most dangerous woman in the New England colonies.

As is true for the rest of America, Block Island was settled by Europeans after the murder of most of its indigenous people.

That is way more like the Puritans.

It wasn’t until years later that some of the Europeans who sought greater intellectual and religious freedom, exiled from Boston, arrived on Block Island to create a safe place, protected from the tyranny of Boston Puritanism.

Jump ahead.

It was almost 300 years later that Daniel Berrigan, a Catholic priest and anti-war activist came to Block Island to evade arrest by the FBI.

Berrigan died this past May.

In 1968 Berrigan was part of a group that burned draft records in Catonsville, Maryland in protest of the War in Vietnam.

Convicted, Berrigan fled and hid in the Block Island barn of two locals who provided him space.

“We have chosen to be branded peace criminals by war criminals,” Berrigan famously said while a fugitive of justice, days before his arrest by FBI agents in a barn on Block Island.

I’m pretty sure that Daniel and Anne would have gotten along well.


Rauner is not looking forward to this week’s TRS meet.


IEA President Cinda Klickna will be chairing this week’s TRS board of trustees meeting.

A Reuter’s report by Dave McKinney and Karen Pierog suggests that Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner is not happy with a possible TRS decision to lower the assumed rate of return on pension investments.

A Monday memo from a top Rauner aide said the Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) board could decide at its meeting this week to lower the assumed investment return rate, a move that would automatically boost Illinois’ annual pension payment.

“If the (TRS) board were to approve a lower assumed rate of return taxpayers will be automatically and immediately on the hook for potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in higher taxes or reduced services,” Michael Mahoney, Rauner’s senior advisor for revenue and pensions, wrote to the governor’s chief of staff, Richard Goldberg.

When TRS lowered the investment return rate to 7.5 percent from 8 percent in 2014 the state’s pension payment increased by more than $200 million, according to the memo.

While TRS investment returns have been weak the last few years, it is considered among the healthiest of investment returns compared to other state pension systems.

That doesn’t improve the $111 billion liability carried by the five Illinois pensions systems, TRS being the largest of the five.

A decision by the TRS board to lower its estimated rate of return would increase the liability. The board is required to submit the estimate each year to the legislature.

The Governor and his people want the board to delay submitting an estimate until after the November election.

Way after.

As I reported earlier, there are three empty seats on the TRS board that the Governor has seemed not to have had any interest in filling until now.

Reports are that Rauner is demanding that no decision on lowering the estimated return until after he names his people to the TRS empty seats. But TRS is scheduled to meet this week with IEA President Cinda Klickna chairing the meeting in place of the expected absence of Rauner’s pick for board President, Tony Smith.

Klickna wears two hats as TRS board member and IEA President.

Since assuming office, Rauner has insisted on pro-corporate, anti-union concessions in exchange for a budget agreement.

This situation doesn’t help him.

Stephen Hawking. Does money matter?

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-I’m on the road until the end off August. I will be doing intermittent postings of my own. Here is a great piece by the brilliant Stephen Hawking that appeared in The Guardian last July.

Does money matter? Does wealth make us rich any more? These might seem like odd questions for a physicist to try to answer, but Britain’s referendum decision is a reminder that everything is connected and that if we wish to understand the fundamental nature of the universe, we’d be very foolish to ignore the role that wealth does and doesn’t play in our society.

I argued during the referendum campaign that it would be a mistake for Britain to leave the European Union. I’m sad about the result, but if I’ve learned one lesson in my life it is to make the best of the hand you are dealt. Now we must learn to live outside the EU, but in order to manage that successfully we need to understand why British people made the choice that they did. I believe that wealth, the way we understand it and the way we share it, played a crucial role in their decision. As the prime minister, Theresa May, said in her first week in office: “We need to reform the economy to allow more people to share in the country’s prosperity.”

We all know that money is important. One of the reasons I believed it would be wrong to leave the EU was related to grants. British science needs all the money it can get, and one important source of such funding has for many years been the European commission. Without these grants, much important work would not and could not have happened. There is already some evidence of British scientists beingfrozen out of European projects, and we need the government to tackle this issue as soon possible.

Money is also important because it is liberating for individuals. I have spoken in the past about my concern that government spending cuts in the UK will diminish support for disabled students, support that helped me during my career. In my case, of course, money has helped not only make my career possible but has also literally kept me alive.

On one occasion while in Switzerland early on in my career, I developed pneumonia, and my college at Cambridge, Gonville and Caius, arranged to have me flown back to the UK for treatment. Without their money I might not have survived to do all the thinking that I’ve managed since then. Cash can set individuals free, just as poverty can certainly trap them and limit their potential, to their own detriment and that of the human race.

Interestingly this attitude, for a long time seen as the predictable eccentricity of a Cambridge academic, is now more widely shared. People are starting to question the value of pure wealth. Is knowledge or experience more important than money? Can possessions stand in the way of fulfilment? Can we truly own anything, or are we just transient custodians?

These questions are leading to a shift in behaviour which, in turn, is inspiring some groundbreaking new enterprises and ideas. These are termed “cathedral projects”, the modern equivalent of the grand church buildings, constructed as part of humanity’s attempt to bridge heaven and Earth. These ideas are started by one generation with the hope a future generation will take up these challenges.

I hope and believe that people will embrace more of this cathedral thinking for the future, as they have done in the past, because we are in perilous times. Our planet and the human race face multiple challenges. These challenges are global and serious – climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, acidification of the oceans. Such pressing issues will require us to collaborate, all of us, with a shared vision and cooperative endeavour to ensure that humanity can survive. We will need to adapt, rethink, refocus and change some of our fundamental assumptions about what we mean by wealth, by possessions, by mine and yours. Just like children, we will have to learn to share.

If we fail then the forces that contributed to Brexit, the envy and isolationism not just in the UK but around the world that spring from not sharing, of cultures driven by a narrow definition of wealth and a failure to divide it more fairly, both within nations and across national borders, will strengthen. If that were to happen, I would not be optimistic about the long-term outlook for our species.

But we can and will succeed. Humans are endlessly resourceful, optimistic and adaptable. We must broaden our definition of wealth to include knowledge, natural resources, and human capacity, and at the same time learn to share each of those more fairly. If we do this, then there is no limit to what humans can achieve together.

Mike Rose. Grit.

While I’m on the road for the rest of August, I will be posting other bloggers. This is from a post by Mike Rose last June. 

“Grit” Revisited: Reflections on Our Public Talk about Education

“Grit” is in the news again big time with the appearance of Angela Duckworth’s alliterative best-seller Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. I wrote about both the conceptual and methodological problems with grit last year, and given the attention Professor Duckworth’s book is attracting, I thought it would be worthwhile to repost what I wrote below and add a few thoughts here.

The book is drawing its share of mixed and negative reviews for superficiality bordering on pop psychology, for its narrow conception of character, for its focus on individual personality traits over social and economic factors, and for problems with methodology. Most of these characteristics were evident in Professor Duckworth’s work long before the publication of her book, but it seems that they got amplified as she (and most likely her editor) prepared her book for a general audience.

Given the number of mixed to negative reviews, it would seem that the opinion-makers are finally countering their original enthusiasm for grit. The ledger is balanced. Those of us with concerns about grit can relax.

Well, no. The meteoric rise of grit reveals troubling problems in the formation of our public discourse about education. I and many others have written about our policy maker’s culpability in the formation of this discourse, but here I’d like to consider another dimension of the circumstances that give rise to phenomena like the one we’re witnessing with grit.

With some notable exceptions, not many journalists who cover education–and even fewer opinion page columnists–have a solid background in the field. The people who review the few books on education that get coverage–most of which are written by other journalists–are often culture critic types who are bright, to be sure, but not schooled on schooling…so they go to school quickly on the Internet, which will yield the mega-hit hot topics (grit, for example) and the people who champion them. This state of affairs hardly generates the kind of knowledge (and more to the point, understanding) that complex topics in education demand. Every concern now being raised about grit was there in plain sight for anyone who did some homework and consulted with a few dispassionate psychological or educational researchers. Oh, that those who contributed to the original frenzy had done so.

The situation I just described leads to a small and closed circle of voices. The concept of grit got the huge attention it did because it was seen as a way to help poor kids persevere in school and achieve their way out of poverty. When the journalists and other writers I mention above are astute enough to question such claims and want to underscore the challenges of poverty, they will find via their search engines trending books and reports on education and poverty that suffer from the same one-dimensional and hot-topic focus as the treatments of psychological traits and character education.  So we end up with a constrained, sometimes problematic, concept of poverty used to counter a constrained, sometimes problematic, concept of character.

I’m not sure how we get out of this mess, though I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately. I’ll post those thoughts as soon as I can tame them into coherence.


One of the many frustrating things about education policy and practice in our country is the continual search for the magic bullet—and all the hype and trite lingo that bursts up around it.  One such bullet is the latest incarnation of character education, particularly the enthrallment with “grit,” a buzz word for perseverance and determination.  Readers of this blog are familiar with my concerns and can read my earlier posts by clicking here, or go to a 2014 report on character and opportunity from the Brookings Institution in which I have a brief cautionary essay. I pulled much of this material together in “Being Careful about Character,” a chapter in the 2014 revised edition of Why School?.


In a nutshell, I worry about the limited success of past attempts at character education and the danger in our pendulum-swing society that we will shift our attention from improving subject matter instruction.  I also question the easy distinctions made between “cognitive” and “non-cognitive” skills.  And I fear that we will sacrifice policies aimed at reducing poverty for interventions to change the way poor people see the world.

In this post, I would like to further explore these concerns—and a few new ones—by focusing on “grit,” for it has so captured the fancy of our policy makers, administrators, and opinion-makers.

Grit’s rise to glory is something to behold, a case study in the sociology of knowledge.  If you go back ten or so years, you’ll find University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth investigating the role of perseverance in achievement.  This idea is not new in the study of personality and individual differences, but Duckworth was trying to more precisely define and isolate perseverance or persistence as an important personality trait via factor analysis, a standard statistical tool in personality psychology.  Through a series of studies of high-achieving populations (for example, Penn undergraduates, West Point cadets, Spelling Bee champions), Duckworth and her colleagues demonstrated that this perseverance quality might be distinct from other qualities (such as intelligence or self control) and seemed to account for between 1.4 to 6.3 percent of all that goes into the achievements of those studied.  (Later studies would find several higher percentages.)  These findings suggest that over ninety percent of her populations’ achievements are accounted for by other personal, familial, environmental, and cultural factors, but, still, her findings are important and make a contribution to the academic study of personality—and support a commonsense belief that hard work over time pays off.

It is instructive to read Duckworth’s foundational scholarly articles, something I suspect few staffers and no policy makers have done.  The articles are revealing in their listing of qualifications and limitations: The original studies rely on self-report questionnaires, so can be subject to error and bias.  The studies are correlational, so do not demonstrate causality.  The exceptional qualities of some of the populations studied can create problems for factor analysis.  Perseverance might have a downside to it.  The construct of perseverance has been studied in some fashion for over a century.

But Duckworth and her colleagues did something that in retrospect was a brilliant marketing strategy, a master stroke of branding—or re-branding.  Rather than calling their construct “perseverance” or “persistence,” they chose to call it “grit.”  Can you think of a name that has more resonance in American culture?  The fighter who is all heart.  The hardscrabble survivor.  True Grit.  The Little Train That Could.

Grit exploded.  New York Times commentators, best-selling journalists, the producers of This American Life, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, educational policy makers and administrators all saw the development of grit as a way to improve American education and, more pointedly, to improve the achievement of poor children who, everyone seemed to assume, lacked grit.

I’ll get to that last part about poor kids in a moment, but first I want to ask some questions few policy makers are asking.  What is an education suitable for a democracy?  What kind of people are we trying to develop?  What is our philosophy of education?  With these questions in mind, let’s consider some items taken from the two instruments Duckworth and colleagues have used in their studies.  The items are listed under grit’s two subscales, the factors that comprise grit:

Consistency of Interests Subscale:

  • New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.
  • I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest.
  • I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.

Perseverance of Effort Subscale:

  • Setbacks don’t discourage me.
  • I finish whatever I begin.
  • I have achieved a goal that took years of work.

These items are answered on a five-point scale:

Very much like me

Mostly like me

Somewhat like me

Not much like me

Not like me at all

Let me repeat here what I’ve written in every other commentary on grit.  Of course, perseverance is an important characteristic.  I cherish it in my friends and my students.  But at certain ages and certain times in our lives, exploration and testing new waters can also contribute to one’s development and achievement.  Knowing when something is not working is important as well.  Perseverance and determination as represented in the grit questionnaires could suggest a lack of flexibility, tunnel vision, an inability to learn from mistakes. Again, my point is not to dismiss perseverance but to suggest that perseverance, or grit, or any quality works in tandem with other qualities in the well-functioning and ethical person.  By focusing so heavily on grit, character education in some settings has been virtually reduced to a single quality, and probably not the best quality in the content of character.  The items in the grit instruments could describe the brilliant surgeon who is a distant and absent parent, or, for that fact, the smart, ambitious, amoral people who triggered the Great Recession. (Macbeth with his “vaulting ambition” would score quite high on grit.)  Education in America has to be about more than producing driven super-achievers.  For that fact, a discussion of what we mean by “achievement” is long overdue.

But, of course, a good deal of the discussion of grit doesn’t really involve all students.  Regardless of disclaimers, the primary audience for our era’s character education is poor kids.  As I and a host of others have written, a focus on individual characteristics of low-income children can take our attention away from the structural inequalities they face. Some proponents of character education have pretty much said that an infusion of grit will achieve what social and economic interventions cannot.

Can I make a recommendation?  Along with the grit survey, let us give another survey and see what the relationship is between the scores.  I’m not sure what to call this new survey, but it would provide a measure of adversity, of impediments to persistence, concentration, and the like.  It, too, would use a five-point response scale: “very much like me” to “not much like me.”  Its items would include:


  • I always have bus fare to get to school.
  • I hear my parents talking about not having enough money for the rent.
  • Whenever I get sick, I am able to go to a doctor.
  • We always have enough food in our home.
  • I worry about getting to school safely.
  • There are times when I have to stay home to care for younger brothers or sisters.
  • My school has honors and Advanced Placement classes.
  • I have at least one teacher who cares about me.

My guess is that higher impediment scores would be linked to lower scores on the grit survey.  I realize that what grit advocates want is to help young people better cope with such hardship.  Anyone who has worked seriously with kids in tough circumstances spends a lot of time providing support and advice, and if grit interventions can provide an additional resource, great.  But if as a society we are not also working to improve the educational and economic realities these young people face, then we are engaging in a cruel hoax, building aspiration and determination for a world that will not fulfill either.

The foundational grit research primarily involved populations of elite high achievers—Ivy League students, West Point cadets, National Spelling Bee contestants—and people responding to a Positive Psychology website based at the University of Pennsylvania.  It is from the latter population that the researchers got a wider range of ages and data on employment history.

I was not able to find socioeconomic information for these populations, but given what we know generally about Ivy League undergraduates, West Point cadets, etc., I think it is a safe guess that most come from stable economic backgrounds. (In one later study, Duckworth and colleagues drew on 7-11 grade students at a “socioeconomically and ethnically diverse magnet public school” where 18% of the students were low-income—that’s some economic diversity, but not a school with concentrated disadvantage.)  It is also safe to assume that the majority of the people who are interested in Positive Psychology and self-select to respond to an on-line questionnaire have middle-class employment histories with companies or in professions that have pathways and mechanisms for advancement.  So the construct of grit and the instruments to measure it are largely based on populations that more likely than not are able to pursue their interests and goals along a landscape of resources and opportunity.  This does not detract from the effort they expend or from their determination, but it does suggest that their grit is deployed in a world quite different from the world poor people inhabit.


It is hard to finish what you begin when food and housing are unstable, or when you have three or four teachers in a given year, or when there are few people around who are able to guide and direct you.  It is equally hard to pursue a career with consistency when the jobs available to you are low-wage, short-term and vulnerable, and have few if any benefits or protections.  This certainly doesn’t mean that people who are poor lack determination and resolve.  Some of the poor people I knew growing up or work with today possess off-the-charts determination to survive, put food on the table, care for their kids.  But they wouldn’t necessarily score high on the grit scale.

Personality psychology by its disciplinary norms concentrates on the individual, but individual traits and qualities, regardless of how they originate and develop, manifest themselves in social and institutional contexts.  Are we educators and policy makers creating classrooms that are challenging and engaging enough to invite perseverance?  Are we creating opportunity for further educational or occupational programs that enable consistency of effort?  Are we gritty enough to keep working toward these goals without distraction over the long haul?