by Anindya Kundu
As defined in the 2010 Western, True Grit implies individual tenacity and passion, a tireless ability to dust yourself off and pull yourself up by the bootstraps. A related idea has emerged in contemporary conversations about public school achievement. Agritty student makes no excuses and meets any and all academic issues: head on.
There is no doubt these are praiseworthy character traits, but there are problems with viewing grit as an essential component of student success. The focus on grit overlooks inter-subjective factors, which shape the public education experience.
University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth has convincingly argued that grit is a desirable trait that directly predicts student achievement. Duckworth also implies that every student has grit and the ability to access it.
But, here’s the problem: grit directs attention away from other factors that affect student success. Saying that student A achieves because she is gritty ignores the hurdles in the path of student B, whose underachievement is then simply attributed to his or her personality deficits. This logic follows that attitude is the sole basis for achievement. The problem is no longer our problem, but just theirs. As such, poor outcomes are due to student behavior and not a failure to address other key issues such as teacher performance.
The same idea underlies our ever-ubiquitous use of the phrase “achievement gap” instead of posing the problem as that of an “opportunity gap.” Hypothetically speaking, if all students had the same initial set of opportunities, then measuring grit would be more valuable and predictive of future success. But, access to opportunity is anything but equal. Social science research has consistently shown that that public school students with higher-income parents should expect to attain higher levels of educational attainment than other students.1 This is one of many reasons that only 6% of Americans born in the lowest income quintile make it to the top quintile. Similarly, only 9% of people from the top quintile ever end up at the bottom. As a result, the United States has the highest income inequality among developed nations.2
The fact that privilege begets privilege is perhaps obvious and accepted as the way things go in capitalist America. Our best public schools are nestled within our wealthiest communities, and our poorest performing schools are located in America’s poorest communities. It is hard to say that we have a working meritocratic system when a school’s resources and quality are a direct reflection of its per capita income.
Rather than providing social mobility, schools actually perpetuate the status quo. One explanation for this unexpected outcome is that schools perform an array of critical social functions, which differ based on the local student population. As such, it is unlikely that schools with large numbers of low-income students will out-perform students with better facilities, teachers and enrichment programs.
Thus while there remains the egalitarian burden on schools to be the sole, “Great Equalizer,” the onus is unreasonable as schools face drastically unequal challenges. When some students come to school hungry on a regular basis, they face a type of uneven playing field the school should not be expected to level on its own. There is nothing necessarily wrong with American democracy, but the “American Dream” certainly works better for some than it does for others.
Within this context, a student’s demographic profile continues to be one of the best predictor of college-readiness—with the student’s race, zip code, and family income at the very top of the list.3 In New York City neighborhoods with 100 percent black and Latino residents, only 10 percent of high school seniors are college-ready. On the other hand, New York City neighborhoods with low numbers of black and Latino residents are the most college-ready.4
Problematically, lack of schooling has worse outcomes now than ever before. Today, only one out of ten American jobs are available to high school dropouts. Forty-two percent of all jobs require a college degree, and another 17 percent require at least some amount of college education.5 At the same time, poorer students need positive institutions, like school, more than their better-off counterparts because they have more basic needs going unmet.6 Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds have greater needs for safe environments that provide resources like meals and adult-supervision. Thus, the nature of the problem is a genuine dilemma: one that is not remediable by telling these children to keep their chins up, heads forward, and eyes on a prize they cannot conceptualize.
Education and schooling are both individual and community issues. They should be treated as such. Focusing our attention on narrow, personality-centric solutions like grit can wrongly shift the burden of success away from collective responsibility. More encompassing solutions can and should be found at the intersection of character virtues and capacity building. In the form of a different, single word, solutions can be found within agency.
Agency involves action, and having agency implies having an ability to act and affect one’s surroundings. Agency cannot gloss over structural inequality because it must work against these forces to truly exist. Agency does not tie one’s disposition with one’s personality. Rather, it takes into account a person’s inability to act and considers the social factors that may keep them from acting.
Agency is collective in so far as it acknowledges the existence of a world outside the individual. This is a critical feature lacking in the concept of grit, which by definition focuses solely on the individual. “Everyday parents and teachers ask me, ‘How do I build grit in kids?’” Duckworth says in her TedTalk. “The honest answer is, I don’t know.”
In educational settings, agency can be easier to see and locate than a personality trait. Fostering agency has the potential to be extremely powerful. Students stand to make immense academic and life gains if actually taught and mentored to empower themselves. Students should be brought to the table, as they are the most important stakeholders in today’s educational system..
Teach a kid to fish and you’ve taught him how to feed himself. For example, dedicated and skilled mentorship is one way to improve student engagement and learning over time.7 However, mentors must take care to encourage students to do their own thinking and to advocate for their interests. Teachers, mentors, and role models need to tread carefully between hands-on and hands-off approaches to help students become agents for themselves. When young people have degrees of autonomy, they stand to reap the most out of their experiences. Youth who are involved in crafting their own learning and influencing policies that affect them feel engaged and are even likely to generate innovative solutions to problems.8
Recent studies have also shown that public school students are more likely to identify new and innovative solutions if they help to make school-level decisions.9
For example, a 2012 Annenberg Institute study found that empowering public school students to be leaders led to more student learning and engagement.10 One explanation for this outcome is that when young people are taken seriously, whether by school administrators or their peers, they also take themselves seriously.
Acting on behalf of students is critical in showing young people what can be possible regardless of institutional, bureaucratic, or systemic constraints. Truly leading by example is not an easy endeavor, but it works to distribute social responsibility equally. Affective altruism on the part of the privileged means equal doses of charity and progressive action. While hand-outs are helpful, hand-ups are powerful.
Agency has lifelong implications. Fostering a sense agency can inspire and empower. Teaching someone that they can influence their surroundings is important to enfranchising the disenfranchised. People can realize their potential power as willing participants, as opposed to apathetic observers of public discourse and civil action.
While grit is a beneficial ingredient to a young person’s future success, without agency, or the ability for them to act, it is all but irrelevant. To stand by the claim that anyone can pull themselves up from their bootstraps, we need to make sure everyone has bootstraps. We should acknowledge that the paths some of us are given are on rockier terrain. If life is an uphill game, it seems that many students get to climb sturdy ladders, while others are left to climb windy chutes. Accomplished destinations look more reachable for some than others. We must work to make the journey easier to navigate for all.
Agency is required on multiple levels by all community members to enact long-lasting, sweeping change. In educational settings, volunteer groups and after school programs must be leveraged to provide equitable resources. The power of good teachers should be harnessed by incentivizing effective teachers to teach in the neediest communities and lend their services to the highest-need schools.
Attributing student success to something as intangible and difficult to foster as grit causes those in positions of power to be complacent. Those with the most agency are able to avoid utilizing their potential to act. Policymakers wrongly assume that the ingredients for success are out of their control and outside their scope of responsibility.Ironically “blanket approaches,” or proposals that claim to work for all students, ignore those most in need and leave many issues unaddressed.
Effective remedies need to be tailored to contextual elements, and include opportunities for collective action. Promoting agency is a solution that works with social context to benefit all students, regardless of their circumstances.
Anindya Kundu is pursuing his PhD in the Sociology of Education program at New York University (NYU). His research focuses on how to empower disenfranchised youth and promote their agency through new media, and other interest-driven outlets. Anindya’s NYU Profile can be found at: http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/humsocsci/sociology/doctoralprofiles/AnindyaKundu
 Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis. Schooling in capitalist America: Educational reform and the contradictions of economic life. Haymarket Books, 2011.
 Marsh, John. Class dismissed: Why we cannot teach or learn our way out of inequality. NYU Press, 2011.
 Catone, Keith, and Alexa LeBoeuf. “Student-Centered Education Starts with Student-Led Reform.” Annenberg Institute for School Reform, 12 Nov. 2012
 Fruchter, Norm, Megan Hester, Christina Mokhtar, and Zach Shahn. “Is Demography Still Destiny: Neighborhood Demographics and Public High School Students’ Readiness for College in New York City.”
 Marsh, John. Class dismissed: Why we cannot teach or learn our way out of inequality. NYU Press, 2011.
 Noguera, Pedro. City schools and the American dream: Reclaiming the promise of public education. Vol. 17. Teachers College Pr,2003.
 Schwartz, Wendy. After-school programs for urban youth. ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education, 1996.
 Noguera, Pedro. City schools and the American dream: Reclaiming the promise of public education. Vol. 17. Teachers College Pr, 2003.
Noguera, Pedro. City schools and the American dream: Reclaiming the promise of public education. Vol. 17. Teachers College Pr, 2003.
 Catone, Keith, and Alexa LeBoeuf. “Student-Centered Education Starts with Student-Led Reform.” Annenberg Institute for School Reform, 12 Nov. 2012.