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Oh noooo! Regarding K-12 education, Mrs. Obama recently said,

Three words you are going to hear me say a lot over the next three years: grit, resilience, courage.

The horrific Angela Duckworth and her supporters’ distorted usage of the word, GRIT is everywhere. The Duckworth has even gotten to Mrs. Obama. An otherwise harmless word has been co-opted and politicized in the interest of indoctrination, charter schools and privatization. Or Marxism. Some say all of the above, and they might be right.

Traversing the stations of privilege

The Duckworth is Martin Seligman’s wunderkind. Martin Seligman, PhD, professor, Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, is a former chair of the American Psychological Association. Unlike every other applicant to the PhD program in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, EVER, she was allowed to apply months after the deadline, and accepted, with gratitude! I would like to know how anyone could have accomplished all of the following, by the age of 28,

  • worked for two years as a management consultant for Booz Allen; recall that they were Ed Snowden’s former employer,
  • worked for two years at an unspecified hedge fund in an unspecified capacity,
  • been a mathematics teacher for three years, and possibly founded a school, according to some effusive accounts,
  • was a Big Sister, worked for the homeless, the elderly (it was the “epicenter” of her focus while at Harvard, consuming 35 hours each week) AND
  • attended Oxford, graduating with a master’s degree in neuroscience.

That was why she couldn’t apply to the University of Pennsylvania on time, you see.  Maria Popova offers an alternative, even more stellar Duckworth biography,

After completing her undergraduate degree at Harvard and starting a summer school for low-income kids in Cambridge in her spare time, she bounced from one station of meritocracy to the next: intern in the White House speech writing office, Marshall scholar at Oxford, management consultant for McKinsey and Company, charter-school adviser.

That is hardly what I would describe as meritocracy. Instead, it is traversing the stations of privilege and great wealth.


Duckworth has become a transformative figure in U.S. education reform. There was a highly publicized and professionally marketed book featuring her ideology, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character and how it could be implemented in the public schools of America. Her sentinel word is grit.

Grit is the Duckworth’s term for student self-discipline, which she claims to be able to quantify, score, and use as a predictor of academic performance. She is the expert in instilling grit. The infamous fraud Jonah Lehrer agrees. True believers say that this will restore American productivity and prominence. They neglect to mention that America still hasn’t lost its “world-class” productivity and prominence. World class is another of the education reform movement’s buzzwords. The MacArthur Foundation chose Duckworth as one of their Genius Award winners in September 2013.

In her research, Duckworth examines two traits that predict success: grit, the tendency to sustain interest and effort in pursuing long-term goals, and self-control, the regulation of behavioral, emotional and attentional impulses. To Duckworth, grit allows people to pursue challenges over the course of years. Self control, on the other hand, helps us battle hourly temptations.

Neoliberals and New York city hedge funds know best for all of America’s children

To me, the following quotation, also from the MacArthur award press coverage, drips with condescension. Duckworth’s perception of aloof, socioeconomically distant Ivy League students, who don’t care about children, is extraordinarily cynical. Perhaps she is describing her present or younger self, which is equally bleak, given the acclaim, credence and power that she has been given to instill grit.

There’s tremendous value to get people who go to Harvard and Yale to care about kids. It would be hard for them to care as much if they read about kids from a New York Times op-ed in the comfort of their Upper East Side apartment.

Duckworth promptly announced that she would take the $625,000 that MacArthur gave her and use it to finance an Character Lab, a New York City-based education start-up venture. I can think of no less deserving purpose for those funds.

Character Lab directors include Tiger hedge fund manager, Mr. Feroz and his wife (an executive with Teach for America), Jeff Bezos’s mother (‘She calls the intersection between a big idea and passion the “sweet spot of philanthropy”. For her, that sweet spot is education from birth through grade 12″), the co-founder of the KIPP charter school chain and a few other “Third Way” Democrats. All are involved in one or more of Teach for America, the Robin Hood Foundation, Common Core, charter schools or social venture philanthropy.

Character education

Grit is an integral component of character education. Character Lab’s mission is to “bridge the science of character development with the daily work of teaching,” although none, other than Mrs. Bezos, have any training in education.  Somehow, they consider character development to be a field of scientific endeavor.  I don’t think so.

Forbes contributor Todd Essig, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, had this to say, about 625,000 reasons to see Grit as the key to success:

Angela Duckworth, a MacArthur Fellow will now be expected to be herself…a prize with no strings. But there is an unintended irony. Her work suggests it’s time to make a change in the prestigious MacArthur award; from now on we should call them the MacArthur “grit awards.”  Her work shows that talent, even genius IQ, only goes so far. If you want to predict success, look only to grit and self-discipline.

The REAL problem with grit

Forbes columnists are not alone in their concern. Teachers are troubled by Duckworth too. Her not so subtle elitism, arrogance and almost will-to-power attitude are particularly troubling attributes for an education genius:

Duckworth blames poor children, African-American children and Latino children for their position in society, she wants us to “fix” the undesirables through “re-education”. So please University of Pennsylvania, please MacArthur Foundation, TED, New York Times, NPR, please stop. Duckworth’s Grit is bad research based in horrific research.