Dear Edujournalists: Listen, Learn

The media and educational love affair with “grit” has at least two sources for the frenzy: Paul Tough, journalist, making “grit” popular and accessible and Angela Duckworth, scholar and “genius,” giving “grit” the allure of research and science.

And now, both Tough and Duckworth have released books continuing the “grit” train — and interestingly, both are doing so with some light backpedalling about their initial claims that have mostly been embraced by the privileged and used on vulnerable populations of students (black/brown, poor, ELL).

Concurrent with that backpedalling comes as well a significant challenge to Duckworth’s research on “grit”: Much Ado about Grit: A Meta-Analytic Synthesis of the Grit Literature, Marcus Credé, Michael C. Tynan, and Peter D. Harms.

As reported by NPR:

Here are the key claims in Crede’s paper:

1. Effect sizes in one of Duckworth’s major papers on grit were described incorrectly to sound misleadingly large.

2. The impact of grit is exaggerated, especially when looking at broader populations of people — not just the high achievers in Duckworth’s initial studies.

3. Grit is nearly identical to conscientiousness, which has been known to psychologists for decades as a major dimension of personality. It is not something that’s necessarily open to change, especially in adults, whereas Duckworth in her writings suggests that grit is.

In other words, this analysis of research on “grit” suggests that the science as well as Duckworth’s representation of that research is significantly overstated.

So why did “grit,” and Duckworth, garner so much media and educational momentum?

One reason is the utter failure of edujournalism; another reason is that the “grit” narrative speaks to and perpetuates racist and classist beliefs among the U.S. public; and a final reason is that Duckworth’s “genius” grant as well as her TedX talk provided financial and celebrity cover for her shoddy work.

But this pattern of media/educational overreaction followed by an unmasking by more careful scholarly analysis is not by any stretch new.

Take as just one example how Malcolm Gladwell (fellow “good” journalist to Tough) made the 10,000-hour rule popular — so much so that the number is mentioned over and over to this day throughout all sorts of mainstream media.

Yet, the scholar whose work is the foundation for the popularized and misleading 10,000-hour rule, K. Anders Ericsson — unlike Duckworth [1] — directly refuted how the media has distorted his work: The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists: Why the APS Observer Needs Peer Review When Summarizing New Scientific Developments.

The 10,000-hour rule pattern — bad media coverage of scholarship — is the same as the “grit” mess — and this pattern happens weekly because mainstream edujournalists will not listen (they argue edujournalism is the best it has ever been), and will not learn.

Just as Duckworth has been afforded in major media outlets, Tough is peddling his new book, and his very bad journalism, through opinion pieces masking promotional material.

And day after day, education bloggers are forced to confront the horrible consequences of negligent and inexpert edujournalism (see for example, Campbell Brown’s Bizarre NAEP Response in the Washington Post).

Here, then, I want to offer edujournalists a series of ways in which edujournalism persists to fail:

  1. Seeking outlier schools in order to write “miracle” school feel-good stories. First, outliers schools are often proven to be false stories, but even if they are somehow exceptional, outliers never provide any evidence of what should be normal in education (or any human behavior). At their core, “miracle” school stories are shaming stories that cast “other schools” as negligent, just not trying hard enough.
  2. Presenting education research and science in simplistic terms and failing to couch any one study in the context of the broader body of research or against unbiased reviews of that study. Especially since mainstream media are contracting, edujournalism is even more susceptible to press-release journalism — simply restating what aggressive researchers and think tanks send to the media without regard for whether or not that research is credible (thus, above, the overstating by both Duckworth and media coverage).
  3. Remaining trapped in rankings and state-to-state or international comparisons. Not only are rankings and comparisons mostly misleading, in many cases, the rankings are fabricated (seeking ways to force a ranking instead of admitting that the objects ranked are essentially the same), and comparisons are made at superficial levels that ignore significant differences in what is being compared (see HERE).
  4. Uncritically embracing crisis discourse about education that ignores historical patterns involving education, poverty, and racism. Current “crisis” education stories about “bad” schools, “bad” teachers, and “kids today” have been recycled in the U.S. since at least the mid-1800s. The “crisis” label allows edujournalists, politicians, and the public to ignore social and policy causes for the consequences being identified as the “crisis.”
  5. Perpetuating false claims about the power of formal education: education as the “great equalizer,” education as the key to individual and societal economic success. Facts are not always what we want to be true, but educational attainment in the U.S. remains less important than race, gender, or the social class of any child’s family. Education is not the great equalizer. As well, as Gerald Bracey and many others have shown, there simply is no clear positive correlation between the so-called quality of education and any state’s or country’s economic success.
  6. Over-stating the impact of so-called teacher quality, and under-stating the impact of social influences on measurable student outcomes. The most conservative research shows that measurable student outcomes (test scores) are primarily (about 60%) a reflection of out-of-school factors; teacher quality and even school quality impact those scores at much lower percentages, about 10–15%.
  7. Giving lip-service to the impact of poverty, racism, and sexism on formal schooling, and suggesting that focusing on poverty, racism, and sexism is simply as “excuse.” The mainstream media speak to and perpetuate the rugged individualism myth in the U.S. Edujournalists uncritically accept and preach that myth by giving passing nods to poverty, racism, and sexism, but nearly always moving immediately to focusing on individuals — teachers need to try harder, students need to try harder.
  8. Bumbling both what statistics show and how statistics are presented to the public. Edujournalists are victims of blurring cause and correlation, overstating “significance,” and failing to address false comparisons (consider the routinely awful charter/public school comparisons).
  9. Perpetuating a long list of go-to educational facts that are actually false: the word gap, third-grade reading proficiency, school funding does not matter, Teach For America, charter schools and private schools trump public schools, for example. Edujournalists, like the public, uncritically accept claims that sound true, but as journalists, should be interrogating these claims exactly because they sound too pat.
  10. Giving non-educators both primary and exclusive voices in education debate. Edujournalists love economists, psychologists, and think tank advocates — but avoid educators and educational scholars, except occasionally to allow them space as “critics” (see as one example NPR Whitewashes “Grit” Narrative).
  11. Seeing all educational topics as a “both sides” debate with each side given nearly equal status. Edujournalists refrain from considering and/or explaining that some stances in education are significantly more credible than others. As do most journalists who fear being activists and worship at the alter of “objective,” edujournalists fail the Oliver Rule.
  12. Thinking without an ounce of imagination. Accountability, standardized testing, grades, grade levels — these and dozens of “normal” and “traditional” practices are never realistically challenged in edujournalism; no consideration is given to things could be otherwise. A failure of imagination is seeking out and believing in new tests and new standards; imagination allows us to rethink a better school system without tests and without standards.

I remain a vigilant critic of edujorunalists/edujournalism, but I have been a career-long critic of educators/education as well.

This criticism of, and plea to, edujournalists is grounded in my belief that the U.S. needs a critical free press as much as we need a critical education system.

Edujournalists, like educators, need to listen, and to learn.

UPDATED: Please Read

TFA’s Latest PR Stunt, Gary Rubinstein

[1] Note that Ericsson’s research has been conducted in conjunction with Duckworth on occasion.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education.

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