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Consider this statement: “I am diligent. I never give up.”

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If you think, “Hmm, not so much,” you might be lacking in grit, a new buzzword making rounds on the Internet and in parenting circles.

The statement comes from the Grit Scale, a quiz in University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth’s new best-selling book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. In it, Duckworth—who won a MacArthur “genius grant” in 2013 for her studies and whose TED Talk on the subject of grit has more than 8 million views—states a simple yet provocative theory: People who succeed aren’t always the most gifted but rather the ones who work hardest and don’t give up.

Grit highlights America’s love of Horatio Alger­–esque rags-to-riches stories and rugged individualism. New federal legislation that builds on this theory will require states to use nonacademic factors, like student engagement, to measure success. However, critics say this theory overlooks a large section of the population: poor kids, who don’t have the resources to find their passion or the teaching, coaching, and mentoring to inspire them to keep digging in.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, more than 16 million U.S. children live in poverty. The statistics on education for low-income students are equally startling. In 2002, the Department of Education began tracking a large group of high school sophomores from all backgrounds, testing their reading and math skills. Ten years later, it found that low-income students, even the smartest ones, were less likely to have finished college than their middle- and upper-class peers.

I spoke with New York University doctoral candidate Anindya Kundu, who is focusing his studies on what’s next for the idea of grit (Duckworth is on his advisory committee). Kundu’s work involves interviewing students from low-income backgrounds who are succeeding, and his findings on how they’ve persevered will be published in a new book next year. He offers the idea that agency can pick up where grit left off. His goal, he says, is to zero in on how children can leverage opportunities to change their circumstances.

The following is an edited version of our conversation.

Amanda Woytus: In Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth gives the grit formula for achievement: Talent multiplied by effort equals skill. Skill multiplied by effort equals achievement. But aren’t there many other factors of success?

Anindya Kundu: People are ready to accept grit as a working theory of success in education because American history has always been predicated on this individualistic basis. But our obsession with the idea that anyone can pull him- or herself up by the bootstraps overlooks the fact that not everyone is born with the same amount of opportunity. A person’s ZIP code is a large predictor of their future outcome. Another is a person’s parents’ level of education. Just in the way that grit is defined—passion and persistence—we sometimes forget that not all students have a background that allows them to find their passion.

Duckworth explains that she knows her theory doesn’t consider opportunity or luck, but that she still thinks grit is useful. Does the grit theory only apply to kids who have the means to pursue a passion?

Society at large doesn’t value the types of grit children who grow up in lower-income neighborhoods have. Many of the people I interviewed came from single-parent households and have experienced hunger. When they peddle drugs on the corner, they’re trying to fill an immediate need, and that can be considered a form of grit. That’s not a type of grit we’re used to thinking about, but it exists. My mentor, Dr. Pedro Noguera, and I were thinking about how we could broaden the scope of grit, and we came to think of this concept of agency, which has been around in sociology since the discipline’s founding.

How would you define agency?

On the most basic level, agency is just an individual’s ability or potential to act, influence, or change their surroundings toward something they desire. People have different levels of agency, depending on how much power they have. Levels of agency vary from birth—what circumstances you’re born into largely determines the amount you’ll have. That part is class-specific.

Anindya Kundu (via NYU)

So poor kids may already have grit. What they really need is the inspiration, knowledge, and connections to make better lives?

Yes. My project asks a simple question: How do disadvantaged students navigate obstacles to success? My goal is to interview 50 exceptional students in New York who, given their circumstances, you would be very surprised to hear have gone to elite secondary institutions, graduated (or are about to graduate), and are going toward very successful jobs. They’ve been incarcerated, come from single-parent households, struggled with substance abuse, or were homeless, yet they’re succeeding. I’m trying to hear their stories of how grit—as well as social and cultural capital, i.e., people who have helped them or who have opened their eyes to opportunities that they might not have seen—have assisted them in reaching success. That’s the story of agency.

How have you found that agency has helped these students?

One person I interviewed works at J.P. Morgan, and where he grew up, no one worked at J.P. Morgan. It was hard for him to visualize investment banking when he didn’t see anyone doing it. That’s part of the narrative grit isn’t telling.

He was getting a two-point-something GPA in high school and was interested in rapping. One of his teachers would meet with him after school, and she opened up opportunities for him to go to recording studios and work on his music. The teacher used that relationship with him to push him to get his associate’s degree. There, someone told him about a free enrichment program, Year Up, for students from low-income backgrounds. It places them in high-level internships. He applied, got in, and decided he wanted to try finance. He went to Lehman Brothers, made many more relationships, and, as a result, was eventually able to find a path to J.P. Morgan.

A lot of agency is built in schools. If you want to help grow agency in your community, but you’re not a teacher, how can you?

Agency can benefit from basic caring and expressing interest, and it works through action and people seeing examples. One interviewee said that, even at a time in his life when he was poor, he and his friends would pick up trash in his neighborhood. The older people noticed, and would point it out to the younger people, saying, “Look at these guys. They’re making our community a better place.” It came from nothing other than personal responsibility and love, and showing they cared about something.

So it’s actually really simple.

It’s equally simple for people to just accept the circumstances. One interesting thing about agency is that we have this view in our country that if someone is coming from an impoverished neighborhood, success is being able to leave, go to college somewhere else, and get a high-paying, white-collar job. But the way in which agency can be reproductive is by having those same successful students go back to their neighborhoods and serve as examples for everyone else.

What are some real-life cases of agency working in a community?

One school I love is Medgar Evers College Preparatory in Brooklyn. The majority of its students qualify for reduced lunch, but more than 90 percent are accepted to colleges mostly on scholarship. However, the school took more than a decade to turn around. Twelve years ago, graduation was about 50 percent. Then one principal had a vision, and told the teachers that it would take a long time, but he wanted them to stay after school to work with the kids, and for teachers to come in on the weekends, and to start summer programs. Change comes from hard work.

In her book, Duckworth talks about how, in order to succeed, kids need to have a growth mind-set, the belief that their knowledge and talent can increase. Is that difficult to develop in kids from low-income communities?

It’s hard. Roslyn Mickelson’s work has shown that there are two beliefs that children have when it comes to education. One is their abstract belief in education, and that’s more aligned to the master narrative and the dominant social perspective of education: Education works for everyone. Work hard in school, and you’ll be able to do it. All children, disadvantaged or advantaged, have that.

Then there’s the concrete view of school, rooted in their empirical reality—it comes from their peer groups and parents. How far have my parents gone in school? Are my peer groups going far in school? Why did my parents drop out when they did? Why are my friends thinking about dropping out? That’s the one more aligned with the students’ actual perception of school for themselves and their ability to succeed. While every child might believe that education works on the whole, he or she might not think it works for him or her, and that’s just sad.

That’s not the American dream for me. That’s a product of systems that perpetuate inequalities. We need to understand that education is not a zero-sum game: Children who are growing up in low-income neighborhoods and then not going to college, that’s hurting everyone.

You’ve previously cited a McKinsey study that reported that, if America closed the achievement gap between white, black, and Latino students, the GDP would grow between $310 billion and $525 billion. What do you mean?

More children getting educated and going into the workforce will make for a better economy for everyone. Another child getting a high level of education doesn’t prevent my child from going far. If we can reframe that ideology, we can better strengthen our educational culture.

Duckworth wrote a New York Times opinion piece stating that schools shouldn’t be assessed on the level of their students’ grit. Do you think grit and agency should be graded?

I don’t think grit and agency are in a place where we should be assigning assessments. Our accountability systems are important, but they have not been productive in improving the system of education in the U.S. Assessing how gritty a student is, that’s good, as long as you’re also able to provide that student or their parents with a plan of action that will help the student be more interested and passionate about certain work.

For there to be a decent assessment of grit, we have to look at teachers, administrations, and school boards. If everyone is not showing grit, passion, and interest, it will trickle down to the students.

I don’t want to use metrics to measure agency. You can feel that a student is learning and that a student and teacher have a relationship. That’s the level of assessment.

Duckworth’s book includes a quiz you can take to find out how gritty you are. Have you taken it?

I don’t know my score, but my grit can change depending on the weather, how I’m feeling, or if I’m seeing positive reinforcement for the work I’m doing. Most people operate that way, especially kids. A child could be gritty in a science class but not in a math class simply because he or she likes the science teacher more.

Having worked on this project about agency—getting to meet these exceptional people—definitely helps increase my grit. Their stories are extremely motivating to me, and I think they will be for everyone else, too.

Kundu’s book, Achieving Agency: Raising Collective Responsibilities in Education to Help All Students Succeed, will be published in late 2017.


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