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my thoughts

Poor? Traumatized? Try some Grit!

This is a reading response to Paul Tough's How Children Succeed and the NYT article 'No Rich Child Left Behind' by Sean Reardon (linked here).

In a nutshell these readings were about the same thing. The income-gap in academic achievement and the importance of the students’ environment outside of/before they enter school. It makes sense, as Reardon points out, that allocation of parents’ resources has something to do with it. It also makes sense, as Tough explains, how stress and trauma may negatively impact a student’s academic trajectory. I appreciated Reardon’s suggestions of investing much more heavily as a society in our children’s educational opportunities from the day they are born (e.g., affordable high-quality childcare and preschool). I also found useful Tough’s examination of the ways that behaviorist, authoritarian teaching or schooling practices can be doubly harmful for children. However, I feel like both discussions were limited (note I acknowledge the limitations of writing) and both overlooked major systemic, societal problems which, given no consideration, would render almost any intervention ineffective because it is not getting at the root of economic and education inequality in this country.

For instance, they both point to parents’ practices/home environments as not preparing students for school. They both have a lot to say about what is done in the homes, but have we asked if the school environment is prepared to academically support these students? I wonder what they would say about studies like Heath (1983) that point to affects that aren’t the result of anything inherently “wrong” with home environments, but simply to the privilege that wealthy families have because school culture/norms are most closely matched with theirs. In Heath’s study she found that literacy practices in poor white families closely resembled elementary school practices (listening quietly, answering questions, repeating after the adult) but by middle/high school they were struggled in areas like creative storytelling and teachers assumed it’s because their families are “uncultured.” In poor Black families, literacy practices included collaborative storytelling and improvisation of the existing story, but elementary school teachers identified this as “bad” literacy behavior and students eventually became disengaged with school before they reached middle/high school when these skills would be valued.

I think they ask a fair question if the goal is to arrive at an immediate solution: what is it about poverty that leads to such disparate outcomes? But I feel as though we can’t even have this discussion without addressing at least once why there’s so much poverty. If minimum wage had consistently increased with CEO pay since the 1970’s, it would be $33+/an hour (Economic Policy Institute). Wealth disparity is also increasing—in 1989 the bottom 90 percent of the U.S. population held 33% percent of all wealth; in 2016 they held only 23% (Washington Center for Equitable Growth). In a Payscale study it was found that in 2021, women still make only $0.82 for every dollar a man makes. In fact, examinations of a racial wage gap found that women of all racial groups earn less than white men. With all of these structural circumstances that are continuing to (re)produce poverty, interventions to mediate trauma and stress is going to feel like rolling a boulder up a mountain. We can move the boulder if we can figure out a way to remove the mountain!

So why don’t they address these structural problems? Saying we can help young people to overcome their poverty and trauma by teaching them “self-control” or “grit”, and to “work hard”, and “be nice” is a little more “grabby” than saying we should dismantle systems of race and class oppression. But there’s something else that bugs me about this suggestion. A lot of these buzz words like “grit” are coded language for saying a child persevered in spite of white supremacy, anti-Blackness and capitalist exploitation but without explicitly naming the source of their oppression or acknowledging their role in students’ lives. What is “self-control” but modifying personal behavior to match that of neurotypical, dominant perspective of what is deemed appropriate in the classroom? If a child “lacks control” as a result of poor nutrition or trauma or stress, why should we teach them to mildly, passively accept this place in life? What happens if a child never learns grit or self control? I’m starting to feel like the researchers are obsessed with finding deficits in poor/minority communities’ cognition, language, culture, “optimism,” whatever, because doing so is the only option that allows everyone else to maintain the status quo and not commit to real social change. Because if it's poor people’s problem, let them fix it.

I just want to touch on one last thing. My ears perked up--Eyes? Idk. when I was reading about the monetized incentive programs—the ones where they pay students and parents to do homework or attend PTA meetings. My immediate thought was, “wow! That’s cool!” but then I was deflated when they mentioned that there were no significant benefits from this intervention. And then it occurred to me—incentivizing homework or parental involvement with money (or anything else really) stems from the belief that these children and their parents aren't doing the work or showing up because they don’t want to. But even when they take the incentives, there is no improvement—so it’s almost as if motivation is not the problem. Perhaps there are some structural obstacles that are preventing them from doing more even when they want to.


Heath, S. B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge University Press.

Reardon, S. F. (2013). No rich child left behind. New York Times, 4(28), 13.

Tough, P. (2012). How children succeed: Grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


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