College & Careers

Success comes from grit – and plenty of helping hands along the way


Emily Hanford

Emily Hanford

“Grit” is getting a lot of attention these days, due in large part to an excellent new book by Paul Tough, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Power of Character. Psychologists define grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Research suggests that when it comes to high achievement, grit may be as essential as intelligence. That’s an exciting finding because while the intelligence that can be measured on an IQ test is resistant to change, grit appears to be a more malleable trait. People might be able to learn to be gritty.

Many advocates for low-income students are especially interested in the research on grit. Years of school reform focused on cognitive skills and standardized tests have not succeeded in closing the achievement gap. Perhaps teaching so-called “noncognitive” skills, such as grit, is a solution. But it’s important to recognize that people who are successful in school and in life have more than just grit on their side.

I started reading the research on grit as part of a reporting project at the YES Prep charter school network in Houston. YES was founded in 1995 with the goal of getting poor and minority students to graduate from college. Only 9 percent of America’s lowest-income kids get bachelor’s degrees by the time they’re 24. A big reason is poor preparation. YES set out to change that. When it comes to test scores, AP placement, and college acceptance rates, YES schools are among the best in the country. Ninety-nine percent of YES graduates go to college.

So far, only 40 percent of YES alums have completed degrees. YES was expecting better. Now teachers and staff are trying to figure out what else their students need in order to succeed. They think teaching kids to be grittier might be part of the answer.

They may be right, but not all students need grit to get through college. I don’t think I needed to be gritty. My great-grandfather had a bachelor’s degree. Every generation since has finished college. This doesn’t mean college was easy for me. I worked hard. I borrowed money. I had a part-time job. I even quit college. When I was ready to go back, though, it was a pretty simple process. I re-enrolled, my dad dealt with the financial stuff, and that was it. There was a wind at my back that kept blowing me in the direction of college completion.

The YES Prep students don’t have this wind at their back. Many of them work full time while going to school – and they still have to take out loans. Some are helping support their families by paying bills or taking care of younger siblings or grandparents. If they hit a snag with financial aid or have difficulty getting through a class, they don’t have a parent with college experience to help them figure out what to do. Some students say their families are expecting them to fail.

Chiva Bermudez graduated from YES Prep Southeast in 2012 and is now a student at Providence College in Rhode Island. Bermudez, the first person in his family to graduate from high school, says graduating from college will change his family's future. Photo by Emily Hanford. Click to enlarge.

Chiva Bermudez graduated from YES Prep Southeast in 2012 and is now a student at Providence College in Rhode Island. Bermudez, the first person in his family to graduate from high school, says graduating from college will change his family’s future. (Photo by Emily Hanford. Click to enlarge.)

The ones who overcome these challenges may have a lot of grit, but they tend to get a lot of help too. YES data shows that the students most likely to complete college go to schools where there are good support services and often a concerted effort to encourage and retain poor and minority students. YES tries to get its students to go to these schools. YES has also stepped up its own support services by hiring two people to work full-time on helping students stay in college. YES teachers and staff recognize that getting low-income, first-generation kids through school takes time and money. They are interested in grit as one of the many things their students need to make it in a world where low-income kids have to work harder to get what more privileged people often take for granted.

I worry not everyone will see it this way. The idea that low-income kids need more grit fits neatly into a familiar narrative that poor people don’t work hard enough. When Mitt Romney made his comments about the 47 percent to a roomful of wealthy donors, he also noted that he and his wife had given away their inheritances and earned everything “the old-fashioned way, and that’s by hard work.” But someone like Mitt Romney, or me, has all kinds of advantages that help us gain a level of security and success regardless of how gritty we are.

The research on grit and other noncognitive skills has the potential to change education for the better, away from a narrow focus on test results and toward a fuller understanding of what it takes for people to be successful. But grit can’t be an excuse for not investing in support that low-income students need to be on a more level playing field with their higher-income peers. And grit shouldn’t be used to blame poor kids if they do fail. As one YES staff member said to me: “We don’t want to downplay the significance of these kids being born into situations that are unjust and then if they don’t make it, accuse them of not being gritty.”

Emily Hanford is education correspondent for American RadioWorks, the documentary unit of American Public Media (APM). Her work has received dozens of national and regional awards including a duPont-Columbia Award, a Casey Medal, and a National Headliner Grand Award. Emily’s recent documentary projects include: Grit, Luck and Money, The Rise of Phoenix, Don’t Lecture Me, and Testing Teachers, available online at www.americanradioworks.org. She can be reached at emily.hanford@gmail.com and on Twitter @ehanford.

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