New York Times reviewer, Judith Shulevitz, concludes a negative review of Angela Duckworth's new book with this:
can’t blame Duckworth for how people apply her ideas, but she’s not shy
about reducing them to nostrums that may trickle down in problematic
ways. On the one hand, some of the “no excuses” charter schools that her
research helped to shape have raised math and literacy scores among
minority and poor students. On the other hand, a growing number of
scholars as well as former teachers at those schools report that some of
the schools, at least, feel more like prisons than houses of learning.
Schools that prize self-regulation over self-expression may lift a
number of children out of poverty, but may also train them to act
constrained and overly deferential — “worker-learners,” as the
ethnographer Joanne W. Golann calls them. Meanwhile, schools for more
affluent children encourage intellectual curiosity, independent
reasoning and creativity. Ask yourself which institutions are more
likely to turn out leaders. Perhaps an approach to character training
that’s less hard-edge — dare I say, less John Wayne-ish? — and more
willing to cast a critical eye on the peculiarly American cult of
individual ascendancy could instill grit while challenging social
inequality, rather than inadvertently reproducing it.
Actually, you can blame Duckworth for how people apply her ideas, since the humiliation that we see at KIPP and other KIPP Model schools is directly linked to her and David Levin's design for teaching grit, which is based on the "learned helplessness" and "resilience" research of psychologist and CIA consultant, Dr. Martin Seligman.
Below are a few excerpts from my book that provide more context for Duckworth's role in creating the ethnic character cleansing used by the KIPP Model schools.
Work Hard, Be Hard: Journeys through "No Excuses" Teaching may be purchased with a 20 percent discount from Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Use code: RLEGEN16 when ordering.
Seligman’s influence and that of his
protégé, Angela Duckworth, continue to be central in controlling the
“non-cognitive” behaviors and attitudes that are central to completing the KIPP
Model mission. As “KIPP teachers believe their job is to teach 49 percent
academics and 51 percent character” (Morris,
2011), “grit” and
“self-control” are the two most important character traits that KIPP develops
in their students. The other components of character are zest, optimism,
gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity, although
the KIPP model is principally concerned with developing grit, or relentless determination to achieve and to maintain self-control.
further divides self-control into two
categories, each having four components:
- Came to class prepared
- Remembered and followed
- Got to work right away instead
of waiting until the last minute
- Paid attention and resisted
- Remained calm even when
criticized or otherwise provoked
- Allowed others to speak without
- Was polite to adults and peers
temper in check (KIPP Foundation, 2015c)
KIPP refers to its character goals as
“performance character,” or “achievement character,” and
KIPP’s list of traits represents a distillation of a more expansive list that
includes 24 characteristics, which was developed by Dr. Seligman and his
colleague, Dr. Peterson (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). The narrowing down of the list was the
principal work of Duckworth and Levin, who selected those qualities that they
believed were crucial for raising achievement for children who, otherwise, may
be distracted by the challenges of living in poverty.
Notably missing are some of
the more common elements of moral character that have been traditionally taught
in school, such as honesty, integrity, thrift, and humility. According to
Paul Tough (2012), Levin contends that moral character is based on moral law
that, by necessity, is imposed by some higher authority. In following
Seligman and Peterson, Tough claims “moral laws were limiting when it came to
character because they reduced virtuous conduct to a simple matter of obedience
to a higher authority” (p. 59).
In exchanging goals of
moral character for those aimed at developing “performance
character,” students are likely to grow up with values suited to the needs
of the modern workplace, as described by Eric Fromm (1956) in The Art of Loving:
capitalism needs men who co-operate smoothly and in large numbers: who want to
consume more and more: and whose tastes are standardized and can be easily
influenced and anticipated. It needs men
who feel free and independent, not subject to any authority or principle or
conscience—yet willing to be commanded, to do what is expected of them, to fit
into the social machine without friction; who can be guided without force, led
without leaders, prompted without aim—except the one to make good, to be on the
move, to function, to go ahead (p. 85).
David Levin’s focus on
“grit” and “self-control” suggests a high value attached to a kind of crusty
abrasiveness, or personality pumice, that may be used to deal with difficult life
situations. According to Tough (2012), Levin believes his approach stands
above any charge of indoctrination or cultural colonialism by KIPP because “the
character-strength approach is…fundamentally devoid of value judgment” (p.
60). We are left to wonder how Levin’s preferred values of grit,
self-control, gratitude, zest, and the rest are any less of an imposition than,
let’s say, wisdom,
justice, honesty, and temperance.
Levin’s proselytizing for
positive psychologists’ preferred values attempts to cloak any signs of
imposition of behaviors among KIPP children, who are routinely taught that
grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and
curiosity are the keys to attracting the best that life has to offer. Those who
are unsuccessful at working or wishing hard enough to lure are taught that it
is only themselves they have to blame if the best in life remains elusive. Hedges (2010) sums it up this way for those whose positivity
efforts fail to attract the best things in life: “for those who run into the
hard walls of reality, the ideology has the pernicious effect of forcing the
victim to blame him or herself for his or her pain or suffering” (p. 119).
Indeed, students are taught
to blame themselves, even if they encounter harsh treatment from others (Horn,
2012). Such mistreatment by an adult in
position of authority is an indicator that they, obviously, are not working
hard enough or being good enough to be treated with the respect that comes when
one “makes good.” The drawing below (see Figure 2.2) is a copy of a
worksheet that Seligman disciple, Dr. Angela Duckworth, has used in developing
performance character curricula for children in Philadelphia area schools and
for Levin’s New York KIPP schools.
In Figure 2.2, we see that
children are taught that they should “feel okay” about abusive treatment from
authority figures, whose verbal assaults and harsh treatment are to be viewed
as the earned result for failure to meet expectations, which, in turn, requires
more grit and working harder to avoid more justifiable denigration for falling
short of expectations. In this new urban
character building regimen and emotional resilience training, children are
expected to internalize abusive treatment from authority figures and to blame
any such behavior on their own shortcomings.
At the same time, they are
expected to maintain emotional resilience and self-control when faced with any
of the sociological cancers that are triggered by poverty and that, otherwise,
might serve as an excuse for not achieving the expectations from school leaders
and teachers who work within the KIPP Model. Too, any anger or resentment among students that may result from
punishments becomes suppressed as an improper reaction, rather than as a
legitimate expression against KIPP’s total control, constant surveillance, and
Many of the students who
survive at KIPP become docile hard workers, whose submission to KIPP total
compliance regime embellishes a highly developed sense of self-blame, even as
they are effectively dehumanized in the process. If things don't work out for these children
in terms of working hard enough or being nice enough to survive in KIPP and,
later, to attract the “best things in life” further down life’s road, then they
will at least have learned along the way that no one will be to blame except
themselves. They, themselves, will be responsible for the failure that, based
on KIPP’s definition, the majority of them will experience as a result of not
finishing college. No excuses. No shortcuts.
Work hard, be nice.
Angela Duckworth’s ongoing research
projects include working directly with Levin at a KIPP school in New York to
develop and fine tune a report card that can be used to measure and grade what
she prefers to call “achievement character” among the disadvantaged KIPPsters
in The Bronx. Per the worksheet above,
Duckworth is working there and elsewhere to develop curriculum that is intended
to inject character and personality traits into children that purports to build
immunity against the epidemic of urban poverty and disenfranchisement.
Duckworth, herself, grew up
the daughter of privileged Chinese immigrants in the middle class town of
Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and she studied neuroscience as an undergraduate at
Harvard (Hartnett, 2012). After a
Masters at Oxford and then a year at McKinsey and Co., Duckworth became the CEO
of the online public school rating company, Great Schools, before she altered
course to become a charter school teacher on both the West and East Coasts.
After a late night email
exchange with Martin Seligman in 2002 and a face-to-face meeting the next day, Seligman
cleared the way for Duckworth to be considered for the doctoral program at the University
of Pennsylvania, even after the normal admissions process was closed. Duckworth became Seligman’s protégé, and she earned
a PhD in psychology in 2006. The next
year Duckworth was hired as Assistant Professor of Psychology at UPenn.
Since then, she has earned
a reputation as a bold experimenter and unabashed extrovert, who exhibits a particularly
salty vocabulary. According to a reporter (Hartnett, 2012) for the Pennsylvania Gazette, Duckworth
. . . uses expletives in a way that might impress even
high-powered cursers like Rahm Emanuel.
In the course of a 90-minute conversation she called a principal she
knew “an asshole,” described the opinion of a leading education foundation as
“fucking idiotic,” and did a spot-on impression of a teenager with attitude
when explaining the challenge of conducting experiments with adolescents: “When
you pay adults they always work harder but sometimes in schools when I’ve done
experiments with monetary incentives there’s this like adolescent ‘fuck you’
response. They’ll be like ‘Oh, you really want me to do well on this test? Fuck
you, I’m going to do exactly the opposite’” (p. 61).
Levin’s promotional prowess, top charter chains such as Aspire, YES Prep, and
Uncommon Schools have been significantly influenced by Seligman’s techniques
(Tough, 2006) that became central to his and Duckworth’s research agenda. Seligman’s
protégé has extended Seligman’s resilience methodology known as “learned
optimism” to further develop programs for urban school children to shape their
persistence, self-control, adaptability, and patience.
Duckworth’s ongoing experiments in the
public schools near the University of Pennsylvania attempt to devise ways to
measure efforts to inoculate disadvantaged children from poverty’s effects and to
boost their immunity to the severe measures used in No Excuses schools to
instill grit and self-control. Levin and other total compliance charter
operators want to engender a version of Seligman’s “learned optimism” that will
background the degrading life conditions that, otherwise, remain dispiriting or
depressing for children. In doing so, the
experimenters hope that KIPP model students will develop the tenacity to rise
above circumstances that would drag down lesser beings. Attitude, Duckworth argues, becomes as
important or more important than ability.
In the absence of any program that
might modify or eradicate the actual stress, distress, and irrationality of
living in poverty, Duckworth and Levin’s character performance experiments may
be viewed as little more than involuntary behavioral and neurological sterilization
techniques that could hinder, in fact, the capacities of children who have to
survive daily in environments where internalizing abuse or acquiescing to
domination could prove disadvantageous or even deadly. Even so, the unregulated and unchecked experimentation
on children without regard for potentially harmful outcomes remains one the
hallmarks of Duckworth and Levin’s “ready-fire-aim” approach, which may be very
useful for business entrepreneurs (Zwilling, 2012) developing new processes or
products, but extremely risky and potentially dangerous when it comes to
educating the most vulnerable children.
Hartnett, K. (2012, May/June). Character’s content. The Pennsylvania Gazette, 58-64. Retrieved from
Hedges, C. (2010).
Empire of illusions: The end of
literacy and the triumph of spectacle.
New York: Nation Books.
(2012, September 12). A former
KIPP teacher shares her story. [Blog
post]. Retrieved from http://www.schoolsmatter.info/2012/09/a-former-kipp-teacher-shares-her-story.html
Foundation. (2015c). Character
strengths and corresponding behaviors.
Retrieved from http://www.kipp.org/our-approach/strengths-and-behaviors
Morris, R. (2011, September 15). KIPP co-founder: “We need to get rid of the
government monopoly on education.” Uptown
Messenger. Retrieved from http://uptownmessenger.com/2011/09/founder-of-kipp-schools-speaks-at-tulane-university/#comment-4836
C., & Seligman, M. (2004). Character
strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: APA/Oxford University Press.
(2012). How children succeed: Grit, curiosity, and
the hidden power of character.
York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
(2006, November 26). What it
takes to make a student. New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from
Zwilling, M. (2012, November 17). Six right times to be ready-fire-aim
entrepreneurs. Forbes. Retrieved from