Should Teachers Be in the Business of Teaching Grit?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

One of our biggest reader contributors, Jim Elliott, is a huge fan of Paul Tough’s piece in our new issue, “How Kids Learn Resilience.” (Tough also spoke at our Education Summit yesterday.) Here’s Jim:

This article is, in my not-so-terribly-humble opinion, one of the more important pieces written about educating children in modern America. Tough focuses on teaching noncognitive skills, the kind of executive functioning required to be a resilient and autonomous person. Read it. Hold it. Love it. Call it George.

A little over a decade ago, I sat down for a job interview with First 5 California [a.k.a. California Children and Families Commission]. The woman who interviewed me said something I’ll never forget: The difference between whether or not a child is resilient or not is the presence of one invested adult. That adult can be a parent, a teacher, a neighbor, a priest, a coach, anyone. They just have to be there and be consistent.

If you’re interested in pursuing this kind of thinking, I would recommend looking into the work of Bessel van der Kolk on “developmental trauma disorder.” [Here’s an informative link, and Eric Schlosser discussed van der Kolk’s work in his 1997 Atlantic piece on PTSD.] I think it feeds in quite nicely to what Mr. Tough discussed in his piece.

Another reader shrugs, “Hard to argue with a guy named Paul Tough on the subject of resilience.” This next reader, a teacher, has mixed thoughts on Tough’s piece:

Yes, we should absolutely prioritize noncognitive skills and character education. That’s a given. I think we do an incredibly poor job of dealing with it in schools for a variety of reasons. I happened to be really good at the noncognitive stuff as a teacher (and I also had good test score results). However, it’s really, really hard to teach grit and resilience in a high poverty school.

It’s usually built by a relationship with a caring adult. The problem with pushing this burden on a teacher is that they’re also trying to being equally as effective for the 34 other students in their room at that moment, and 150 students under their care that year. We can work on the noncognitive stuff all we want, but homelessness, hunger, foster care, and inadequate health care all impact this.

Additionally, there’s some very good and very real research (PDF) about how black and brown students get suspended more because of implicit bias, and how they get put in remedial classes more simply due to their skin color. When a seven-year-old black girl gets taken away from school in handcuffs because the adults at her school have racialized her as older and less innocent, we’ve already lost the resiliency angle.

I also worry about how this will get buzzworded down. The Pearson text on resiliency education is going to go as well as the Common Core roll out (yes, I love Common Core ). It’s also going to simply end up being worked into some asinine racist drivel about how even as we teach THOSE kids about resiliency, they still can’t cut it. It becomes the same old argument that poverty is about the failure of the person and not the system.

TL;DR: We need serious poverty intervention alongside of this.

This reader agrees that poverty intervention is needed, but he looks to the home, not school:

Since most poverty is the result of non-family formation, can’t we intervene one step back in the causal chain? We have huge programs for education and poverty. The results have been dismal. What type of programs do we offer at-risk citizens to equip them to be better spouses and parents?

The data is overwhelming—from Ron Haskins, the co-director of Brookings’s Center of Children and Families, testifying before the Senate finance committee:

In 2009, the poverty rate for children in married-couple families was 11.0 percent. By contrast, the poverty rate for children in female-headed families was 44.3 percent. [7] The difference between these two poverty rates is a specter haunting American social policy because the percentage of American children who live in female-headed families has been increasing relentlessly for over five decades. In 1950, 6.3 percent of families with children were headed by a single mother. By 2010, 23.9 percent of families with children had single-mother heads. [8] ...

One way to think of the shift to female-headed families is that even if government policy were successful in moving people out of poverty, the large changes in family composition serve to offset at least part of the progress that otherwise would be made. In fact, a Brookings analysis shows that if we had the marriage rate we had in 1970, the poverty rate would fall by more than 25 percent. [9]

If people ignore these facts, they are merely bailing water in a boat with a hole in the hull. The existing anti-poverty measures treat the symptoms and ignore the disease. Teachers can’t do it without help from home.

Disagree? Have a point to make about this topic or Tough’s piece in particular? Please email, especially if you work in education policy or have a lot of experience teaching on the ground.