Grit? Kids learn it in school, right?

How did teachers become the de facto parent for their students? They are expected to rear, raise and nurture children. That used to be under the purview of families, notably moms, dads, maybe a grandparent or two. Somehow they have been absolved of any influence or responsibility, while the burden has been shifted to teachers. Homes don’t matter; schools are the new locus of all things kid. Although the word parent is thrown into the conversation, low-income parents are phantoms, existing in theory but having no material reality.

Only schools in areas of poverty are expected to teach what middle and upper income kids are expected to learn at home. We know, without it being articulated, that these discussions are only relevant for low-income children. This belief is predicated on an underlying assumption that their parents don’t exist or that they are incompetent to actually “parent”.

After years of working with children and their families and examining extensive data, it is evident that the primary predictor of a child’s trajectory is what goes on in their home. Since few of us ever actually have much interaction with low-income families, they are seen mostly in the aggregate and rarely as ordinary human beings. Surprisingly some of these parents are very personable and astonishingly likable. How unexpected to find that their children have those same characteristics. Parents who work hard, surviving against crippling circumstances, teach their children those same values. Yes, even low-income parents have grit.

Here’s the thing. I’ve met plucky low-income kids who are amazingly smart, but that doesn’t necessarily correlate with academic achievement. Kids who don’t do decently in school are far more likely to drop out. They have solid social skills, which ordinarily is the strongest component of adult success. However there is a cutoff bar for an overwhelming percentage of jobs that requires at least a high school diploma or GED. Even if someone has amazing grit, determination and a work ethic that impresses their employer, they cannot move beyond the minimum wage cluster without having that piece of paper. For those who dropped out of school and haven’t mustered the requisite skills to pass the GED, or the bucks to cover the exam fees so they can take the test, jumping past that hurdle is insurmountable. Grit can’t overcome every obstacle.

We view poverty through our middle or upper income lens. In the coming days I am going to try to unravel the threads that poverty weaves around families and their children. It isn’t enough to refer to “poverty” as a vague explanation of why so much education policy that targets low-income kids fails.  I think it is time.

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