When Grit Isn't Enough: A High School Principal Examines How Poverty and Inequality Thwart the College-for-All Promise
reviewed by Erin Feinauer Whiting & Sionelle Beller - March 08, 2018
Title: When Grit Isn't Enough: A High School Principal Examines How Poverty and Inequality Thwart the College-for-All Promise
Author(s): Linda F. Nathan
Publisher: Beacon Press, Boston
ISBN: 0807042986, Pages: 184, Year: 2017
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In her new book, When Grit Isnt Enough: A High School Principal Examines How Poverty and Inequality Thwart the College-for-all Promise, Linda Nathan explains, I am troubled that I have inadvertently perpetuated a falsehood (p. 4), the falsehood being that if you work hard enough, you can go to college and be successful there. This book provides an opportunity to examine the ways that we typically go about preparing students for college. She identifies specific fallacies related to the ways we talk about helping students prepare for college. Specifically, she debunks the myths that money doesnt have to be an obstacle, race doesnt matter, students should just work harder, and that everyone can go to college. Drawing on her wide-ranging experience in education, she uses stories, primarily from former students at the school where she was the founding principal, Boston Arts Academy (BAA), to support her argument. Nathan critiques the college-for-all promise in an effort to improve outcomes and provide alternatives that address the real disadvantages faced by minoritized and poor students.
Chapter One illustrates her argument that college isnt set up for poor people. Using student stories from her time as principal of BAA, Nathan describes the often complicated process of navigating the financial terrain and economic burdens of college, especially for first generation college students. She depicts the harsh reality of student debt as well as the struggle to understand the deadlines and rules for scholarships and student loans. These student stories portray what can be a disorienting transition to college and students desperate need for help understanding financial aid, finding academic and social support, and dealing with isolation. Students also struggle to find belonging in what often is a new and unfamiliar world. This first chapter exposes the complexity of this transition for students who do not have the support to manage the new tasks inherent in higher education.
The ideas presented in Chapter Two are arguably the most well-developed in the book. In this chapter, Nathan tackles the myth that race doesnt matter, presenting compelling stories of former BAA students that illustrate the inequitable racial barriers to both attending and succeeding in college. The ideas expressed in this chapter establish an underlying theme of racial inequity that endures throughout the rest of the book. Although racism is not a new issue, Nathan invites further discussion on why this very real concern is not a systematic part of conversations about preparing students for college.
In Chapter Three, Just Work Harder, Nathan unpacks the idea that hard work alone will be enough for success in college. She questions the emphasis on building individual student grit as a panacea for low outcomes among poor and minority students. Her encounters with KIPP and other no excuses schools paint a vivid picture of how implementing a grit approach often translates into compliance-oriented and lockstep behavior among both teachers and students. This chapter questions the increasing emphasis on individual student grit as opposed to facing the realities of how educational opportunities are inequitably structured and racialized. However, she does concede that grit, when combined with Dwecks concept of growth mindset, could provide more favorable student outcomes. Although her treatment of grit emerges as somewhat conflicted in this chapter, Nathan amply extends a powerful call to critique how we rely on grit to place the spotlight on individual student characteristics rather than on the real issues of racism and systemic oppression.
The following chapter, Everyone Can Go to College, urges a more inclusive discussion about post-secondary education where technical and vocational paths are presented as viable options and not just second-rate substitutes for college. In the words of one of her former BAA students, college just isnt for everyone. Nathan includes accounts of vocational and technical high schools that allow students to gain work experience in various fields throughout their high school careers. She presents these schools as estimable programs that encourage students to explore alternatives to college. However, she also briefly warns of the perils of tracking students based on background characteristics. Instead, she argues that these programs need to be treated as legitimate options for students who are interested in trades and careers where college may not be a helpful path forward, and can actually turn out to be a waste of time and money. In other words, vocational and technical education needs to be considered a legitimate option for all students interested in these types of careers, not just a fallback for minoritized or underprivileged groups.
Nathan uses the final chapter to describe the ways in which Boston Arts Academy has successfully created a school culture that inspires perseverance and belief in oneself. Through stories of BAA alumni, Nathan illustrates the need for schools to be more diligent in helping their students develop self-confidence. She lists role models, a strong community, and Senior Capstone Projects as three ways that BAA encourages a strong belief in oneself. This chapter asks other schools and educators to examine and possibly rethink the systems of support they have set in place for their own students.
The chapters in When Grit Isnt Enough are loosely related and can also stand alone. Together they form an overall argument that urges the public to think more critically about the current issues facing college hopefuls. The powerful student stories Nathan presents expose a kind of naïveté in how we currently prepare students, especially first-generation students, for success in college. Her former students accounts of their unsuccessful college experiences illustrate the truth that just getting them there is not enough. Students need continued support throughout their post-secondary education, and Nathan argues that universities need to be held more accountable for completion rates. In other words, colleges need to work as hard at receiving students as high schools do at sending them.
Although relatively narrow and with a reliance on BAA student experiences, the issues illustrated in this book are important. So much of how we act to solve problems is determined by how we define them. This book seeks to disrupt the falsehood that is so often propagated; that with enough hard work, anyone can go to college and be successful there. Nathan contends that it is not about individual students having enough grit, but rather about understanding the structural challenges of transitioning to a whole new world of college life. If we are serious about improving college attainment and outcomes, then we must address inequities related to race and class, and provide ample support to students in this transition.