Hint: try being white and wealthy, kids!

Hint: try being white and wealthy, kids!

Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character is another in a long line of books which tries to determine how we can better serve “underperforming” children—specifically children in poverty and children of color. Tough posits a fairly new approach to this social problem: character. He draws a distinction between cognitive skills, which are most often expressed through academic ability, and noncognitive skills like perseverance, conscientiousness, and eagerness to learn. Over the course of some 200 pages, Tough explores how and why these noncognitive skills develop from a variety of approaches—interviews with students and educators, positive psychological research, studies of rats’ mothering habits and biological stress responses.

The context of the book, though, is as important to my reading of How Children Succeed as its actual content. This is a book I see around my workplace often. It was, in fact, loaned to me by a coworker. And last year, while I was on fellowship as an Education Pioneers Analyst Fellow, some of my cohort read it in a book study. I work in the ed reform movement (something I have deeply ambivalent feelings about), and this book is fast becoming part of the ed reform lingo. It’s a natural fit. This book (and by extension its writer) comes from the same place as my TFA alum and Broad resident coworkers: this is a book written by a deeply privileged person who wants to fix education. That’s a noble goal. But the problem I see over and over in the ed reform movement is that these privileged people cannot see past their privilege, and so the ways they want to fix education continually read to me as shallow and ineffective.

Tough’s book is a great example of this tension. Tough grew up middle class, white, cisgender and male. At several points in the book, he discusses his decision to drop out of Columbia University as a tortured eighteen year old. The fateful dropout decision is not predicated on some external forces (a financial crisis or having to return home to take care of a relative in a tight spot) but on a vague notion that he wants to “try something that’s new”. Tough ends up bicycling halfway across the country, then returns to college only to drop out a second time. So, this is the author’s background. His research and reporting for the book takes him to the South Side of Chicago where he tries to understand the lives of struggling high schoolers. He seems to see these kids’ struggles mostly as a result of two things: the high levels of stress they’ve encountered in their short, violent, impoverished lives and the apparent absence of secure attachments to caregivers. Tough uses research on the HPA axis and biological effects of stress and research on attachment theory to largely explain why and how these kids haven’t yet developed the cognitive skills needed to get them to and through college. And while both of those things may play some small part in their current trajectory I believe he severely overstates the effects of both.

Let me tell you where I’m coming from. I am white, but I grew up poor and queer and struggling with my gender in a small, conservative town in Texas. My parents were both trapped in substance abuse. I was alternately neglected and abused by them, and as such, never developed a secure attachment to either. I also excelled in school (though I was a troublemaker). I got out—got into college, graduated, and then got a doctorate. I am what educational psychologists call “resilient”. I have what Tough calls character in spades. My sister is less resilient. The major difference between my sister and I? She is dealing with a different level of mental health issues than I am. She has a learning disability that was never diagnosed. She didn’t excel in school. In a word, she didn’t look like she could pass as middle class.

Tough makes the case that if poor kids have a positive adult role model to help them develop ‘character’ that they can ‘succeed’. He never stops to consider that what he has deemed ‘character’ is a very white middle-class idea of character. It is deeply steeped in the Protestant Work Ethic, for instance, and it may be that poor kids of color are developing a different kind of character, a set of noncognitive skills acutely attuned to the context in which they live. My avoidant attachment to my parents growing up, for instance, was a totally appropriate way of managing my relationship to unstable and unreliable caregivers. The same with his unspoken assumptions about what success looks like—this is a white, middle class idea of success. When Tough abstracts character and success from the context these people live in, divorcing it so neatly from the structural and institutional oppression caused by racism and classism, he presents the answer to our ‘education system’s failures’ as very simple. While reading the book, the message I got was that all we have to do is train poor black kids to act like well-off white kids and they’ll do just fine. The fact that this strips them of their culture, that it separates them from their families, that faking-it-til-you-make-it is another kind of colorblindness is not addressed. And I can say from my personal experience that I faked-it-til-I-made-it. That’s exactly how I got to and through both college and graduate school. And now I’m upwardly mobile but I’m still a kid who grew up poor. Navigating social class has only gotten harder as I’ve moved up the social ladder. I can’t imagine what it would be to be black or Latino on top of it and to have my marginalization so clearly written on my skin.

The heart of my issue with the ed reform movement, and this is something that Tough’s book falls prey to, is that it doesn’t see the American education system for what it really is. Today, the American Dream is synonymous with educational attainment. The problem is that the American Dream was never meant to apply to most of America. We’ve constructed our education system to explicitly create class divisions along racial lines. Our education system is not failing—it’s achieving exactly what it’s built to do. There’s no reforming it. No amount of character classes in charter schools attracting smart but impoverished kids of color is going to change that. The ed reform movement is a predominantly white, middle class movement and as such it is a movement that makes certain assumptions about the fairness and good faith of the institution of education as it currently exists that are false.

I succeeded in life because I am privileged enough to blend in with the privileged ruling class. I’m white. I’m academically gifted. I was an avoidantly attached enough kid that I was fully comfortable leaving behind my broken family. I worked very hard to lose my scraggly Texan accent when I arrived at college. The noncognitive skills that got me where I am today are largely those that let me forcibly blend into an unfamiliar environment ripe with opportunity. I am a fluke. I am the exception. And it’s not my kid sister’s fault or the poor black kid on the South Side’s fault that they didn’t make it. For other people it’s not so simple as just developing a better character, and on every page I felt insulted at the implication that Tough felt he’d found the silver bullet in this. There are no silver bullets. There’s no reform. The only thing that will work is rebuilding the system from the ground up. There’s no improving an inherently racist and classist institution—there’s only replacing it.


NaBloPoMo: Leadership Story

I’m currently part of the Education Pioneers Analyst Fellowship, and this week I’ve been at a convening of the fellows. I was asked to develop and present my leadership story, which is a fancy way of saying I had to tell people what about my life pushed me to go into education. Here it is:

I’m going to tell you three little stories first.

I was in band from the 6th grade through the end of high school. I played French horn, and I was actually pretty good at it. When I was in the 8th grade, I tried out for district and got through. I tried out for regionals and got through. I tried out for state and made it. It was kind of a big deal. The concert for the state level band was out of town. My mom drove me to it and was supposed to stay there and watch, but she left partway through. She was just not there. I can’t really say I was surprised, but I’ll get to that later. The upshot was that I waited, my heart slowly sinking, growing more numb than anything else, as the other kids left with their parents. My band director was there, and he realized without having to be told that she wasn’t coming, and he drove me two hours home.

Ok, here’s the second one. I wish I could say that I applied myself in high school, but the truth is I didn’t. I was smart enough that I could skate by. I was chronically absent – like, missed two or three days of school a week on the regular levels of absent – and I still graduated third in my class. Anyway, the absences stacked up, and there were some times where both me and my kid sister had unexcused absences on the same day. One of the days I did actually manage to get to school and stay there longer than a period or two, my government teacher stopped me in the hallway. “Hey, is everything ok?” I told him it was, and I felt like it was at the time, but the truth was it wasn’t. “Are you sure? Because you’ve missed a lot and when the office tried to call your house the line was down.” My parents hadn’t paid the phone bill. “If it happens again, they’ll call social services,” he said.

Fast forward to college. There was a Christmas where I was not welcome at home and I didn’t really want to go there anyway, so my plan was just to stay on campus. It was well in to winter break and I think I was returning some videos to the public library or something. Anyway, I went to college at Oberlin, which is a tiny little town in Ohio which ends up totally empty when the students clear out on breaks. It wasn’t that surprising when I ran into one of my professors at the library. I’d taken four classes with him, and he knew me pretty well, and he asked me why I was still in town. “Family stuff,” I told him. And he just knew, somehow, without having to be told. He had me come to his house, with his family, for Christmas dinner. I ate really good turkey there and played with his granddaughter. It was the best Christmas I’ve had before or since.

Through the course of this convening, we’ve heard over and over again how education is a people business, and that’s what I want you to take away from me. It is a people business, and the people are children, who sometimes are drifting along and helpless. As you’ve probably gleaned from these stories, my family life was not great. I was dealing with some real Tennessee Williams shit – rampant alcoholism, physical and mental abuse, neglect. I won’t get into the specifics. I have a kid sister, and my childhood was mostly centered around taking the brunt of it so she didn’t have to. I grew up poor, and I grew up visibly, noticeably queer in Texas, and I might as well be honest I grew up struggling with my gender in a family that was not comfortable with that at all. What I’m saying is I was a total mess as a kid and a teenager. I acted out, got in fights. But the thing is, I was smart, and I knew college was a way out. And I was lucky enough to have teachers who pushed me back on track when I started to drift too far. Teachers helped me fill out college apps and write entrance essays, not my parents. They helped me score scholarships.

So I got to college, and I loved it. I really blossomed there, because it was safe. There’s a common thing with people who grow up in abusive families where they don’ remember that much about their childhoods. It’s like that for me. Memories of home are fractured. It’s weird. But I remember a lot about school pretty clearly, because school was stable and safe. College was even better because it was stable and safe all the time. I was lucky enough to really bond with some of my professors, and it was the absolute best thing for me. I could not be more grateful. They were a support network for me, and I needed it, because even though I was states away my crappy home life still haunted me. My dad got cancer, and fought it, and died, and though we had a complicated relationship to say the least, we were close and it was hard on me. And then the shit really hit the fan, because my mom just lost it. There were suicide attempts, and then she started telling my sister they should both kill themselves, and I had to move my sister into my dorm room.

My sister moved back home after a few months even though I didn’t want her to, and she dropped out of high school. I felt powerless, and some of my professors could tell and reached out to me. I was estranged from my mom by then and they helped me figure out how to get financial aid to work around some stuff and they did a lot of talking with me about what to do after college. I decided with a lot of encouragement to go to grad school.

I did really well in grad school, but academia is not really my scene. I need more on the ground, meaningful impact stuff than you get with psych research. So I started community organizing, much of which was about education, which fed into working with teachers in Detroit. And then I got pregnant, and I started thinking about what being a professor is like and how meaningless academic work felt to me, and how I wanted to really model social change for my kid. And I thought about how transformative education had been for me, but how I’ve been one of the lucky ones, and how my own sister is not one of the lucky ones. So I bailed on academia and went into organizing full time.

Working with teachers is really powerful stuff, and meaningful, but being a full time organizer means you can only talk about certain things to certain people in certain ways. I found it very limiting. And I wanted to be more directly involved with the education system, doing something that had a more direct line of advocacy for kids like me. I found the ed pioneers listing on idealist and was like “holy shit, this is perfect. This is just perfect.”

And here I am. And I’ve landed in this job where I get to think and talk about race and class in education all the time, where there’s tons of data to work with. It feels really hopeful. For the first time in a long time I feel really hopeful.