"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Duckworth Panned, Grit Roasted, KIPP Cooked

New York Times reviewer, Judith Shulevitz, concludes a negative review of Angela Duckworth's new book with this:
You 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.

Performance Character

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. 

KIPP further divides self-control into two categories, each having four components:

 School Work

  • Came to class prepared
  • Remembered and followed directions
  • Got to work right away instead of waiting until the last minute
  • Paid attention and resisted distractions


  • Remained calm even when criticized or otherwise provoked
  • Allowed others to speak without interrupting
  • Was polite to adults and peers
  • Kept 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:

Modern 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 unrealistic demands.

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).

            With David 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 http://www.upenn.edu/gazette/0512/PennGaz0512_feature4.pdf
Hedges, C.  (2010).  Empire of illusions: The end of literacy and the triumph of spectacle.  New York: Nation Books.
Horn, J.  (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
KIPP 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
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.  (2004).  Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification.  New York: APA/Oxford University Press.

-->Tough, P.  (2012).  How children succeed: Grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character.  New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  
Tough, P.  (2006, November 26).  What it takes to make a student.  New York Times Magazine.  Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/26/magazine/26tough.html?pagewanted=print&_r=0
Zwilling, M.  (2012, November 17).  Six right times to be ready-fire-aim entrepreneurs.  Forbes.  Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/martinzwilling/2012/11/17/6-right-times-to-be-a-ready-fire-aim-entrepreneur/


  1. Anonymous1:16 PM

    What would be the effects of raising the standards of living of families living in poverty and ending the long sentences of imprisonment for nonviolent offenses committed by men of color?

    Abigail Shure

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Angela Duckworth presented a book talk at the Free Library of Philadelphia on May 5th at the beginning of her book tour. https://libwww.freelibrary.org/podcast/episode/1483#play

    She is doing damage control to try and disassociate her 'grit' message from 'no excuses' schooling. In her whole talk she never mentioned her promotion of 'grit' in KIPP and other 'no excuses' schools. If you listen from 38:00 in the podcast (the earlier part is a lot of happy talk about 'perseverance') you will get an idea of how she is trying to repackage her product. She has become a motivational speaker for middle class audiences and should be kept away from schools, especially in low-income communities.

  4. Angela Duckworth tries to disassociate herself from promotion of 'grit' in schools, but the damage has been done. She says nothing in this interview about her association with KIPP and its use of her theory.

    "Don't Believe the Hype About Grit, Pleads the Scientist Behind the Concept" | NYMag

  5. It is the type of psychological "science" that provides fertile ground for those who argue that contemporary psychology is largely pretend science.