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When Grit Isn't Enough: A High School…

When Grit Isn't Enough: A High School Principal Examines How Poverty and…

by Linda F. Nathan

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I think that When Grit Isn't Enough is an important book reflecting on the status of higher education in students who aren't white, upper-middle class, with college educated parents, etc. The idea of the US meritocracy is so comforting because it makes people who have "achieved it all" feel as if they had a lot of agency in that process, but in fact the entire concept is a flimsy house of cards. One small breath of air will knock it over and expose it as the outright lie that it is. It's easier to think that the people who have achieved greatness deserved it, and not that they were just lucky in that they didn't have to counter the effects of institutional racism (among other things).

I liked that this book really faces the myths of the meritocracy head-on, and explains how students of color, poor students, immigrant students, those without college educated parents, can be the smartest, hardest-working students of all time and still not succeed in higher education. There are so many pitfalls in place for students who don't have resources. This book helps to explain and expose those pitfalls.

I have to say that what sort of annoyed me about this book is how much the author seemed to like charter schools. Anything that takes away from public education, in my mind, ultimately cannot serve the needs of anybody but the already well-off. We will never get to a better model of education if there is no public (state) to regulate our schools (whether or not the state is doing a good job of this is another story entirely).

In addition, the author seems to have a very poor view of community colleges. I wish she could have visited the community college where I teach. Of course I'm biased, but I see how much our programs (which do not have to consist of getting an associates and transferring to a university for a bachelor's degree) help serve the students who are not being served by traditional four-year (public or private) schools. I know that community colleges have a long way to go in becoming even better (which is the subject of so many other books), but the rancor the author had just struck me as odd. ( )
  lemontwist | Mar 17, 2018 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I received a free advanced reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

Linda F. Nathan is an educator and founder of the Boston Arts Academy (BAA). Like most public high schools in Boston, the student body of the BAA is largely children of color from low-income families, many of them immigrants or children of immigrants. Reflecting on her years as headmaster of the BAA, Nathan recalls her pride in promising students "college for all," and was seemingly successful as the BAA has high graduation rates, high college acceptance rates, and a higher than usual rates of students going on to graduate college. But she also questions whether high schools are properly preparing students for college, or if "college for all" is even the promise they should be making.

Much of her data who comes from former students who struggled to complete college and usually not because they couldn't handle the academics. Instead colleges create many barriers to students based on their race and socio-economic status that make it hard for her student to fit into the college culture, get the support they need, and keep on top of all the costs of attending college. And yes, they make mistakes - failing to fill out a form, missing a meeting with a supervisor, not keeping the grade point average up - but while these things are just road bumps for more privileged students, they can end a college career for Nathan's students and others like them. Not only that, but low-income students are often left with crippling debts for the course they did take, but not able to transfer those credits. Even community college, often presented as a good alternative or preparation for a four-year college, has it's own problems and can be exploitative of low-income students.

Nathan also investigates the "no excuses" philosophy common in many charter schools that claim to be preparing poorer children of color for college. While Nathan is very careful to withhold judgment of charter school teachers' emphasis on strict discipline and rote behaviors, it's hard not to read about what Nathan witnesses in this schools and not see it as abusive and ultimately more geared to the needs of adults than the education of children. Again and again, Nathan reveals the idea of "grit" being used to pin any failures of children on their own character rather than question the reality of poverty, racism, and inequality.

Grit is Not Enough is important read for understanding the realities of public education today. Nathan and her former students, as well as present-day students, are voices that need to be heard more in informing our nation's public policy regarding education.

Favorite Passages:
Deeply held beliefs frequently go unchallenged in societies. They are how we explain phenomena or culture or history. They are often false, yet persist. I believe that these assumptions, or what I've come to call false promises, persist in public education because we hold so tightly to the American ideal of equality. It is this belief that I and many Americans desperately want to be true. It is this belief that we fight for. But it is also this belief that we must fully unpack, deeply understand, and interrogate if we are to uphold our fragile democracy." - p. 6

"It is the 'pull yourself up by your bootstraps' ethos to which so many generations of Americans adhere. Yet data repeatedly show hoe poverty, social class, race, and parents' educational attainment more directly influence an individual's success and potential earnings than any individual effort. We clearly do no yet have a level playing field, but this belief is all but impossible to challenge. Whenever we hear of another bootstraps story, we want to generalize. We disregard the fact that luck often plays a major role. And in generalizing and celebrating the individual nature of success, we disregard the imperative to rethink social and economic policies that leave many behind." - p. 8

"In middle- and upper-middle-class families, an invisible safety net typically surrounds young people planning to go on to college. There is usually a family member or friend who will step in and remind a student about the intricacies of student loans and deadlines, or the m any requirements for staying registered once enrolled, or issues that can arise with housing. However, if you are a lower-income student and you miss one or two e-mails or have a change in your adviser, you may find your dreams derailed. It may be tempting to dismiss the examples above as ineptitude or carelessness on the part of individual students, but why must there be different rules, expectations, and outcomes for low-income versus middle- or upper-income students?" - p. 23

"If we allow an assumption like 'race doesn't matter' to prevail, racial issues can be conveniently explained or excused as singular matters to be solved by individual intervention. Singular responses allow us to avoid the actions needed for racial and socio-economic equity and a path toward a healthy and vibrant society and economy." - p. 73-74

"What all the talk about grit seems to miss is the importance of putting children's experience front and center. In other words, when the emphasis on grit ends up as a stand-alone pedagogy, the context of student' life and family circumstances is ignore." - p.76

"We want to allow for growth mindsets in a way that might equalize the playing field, yet we continue to entrap so many of our young people with the assumption that if they just play by the rules, do the right things, they will be successful. Achieving high test scores has become the only way to measure success or to prove that students have learned grit. Equating better test results with healthy learning has reduced many schools to a narrow understanding of learning." - p. 106

"Imagine if American high school students knew that they could study careers in music or finance in a vocational school as either an alternative or precursor to college. Imagine if our community colleges could truly reinvent themselves and be places where students enter the allied health professions or even design professions." - p. 133

"School can be the place where you practice how dreams are realized. School can be where you can build a strong sense of self - an identity that you can belong to a special tribe, like artists, or change-makers, or mathematicians or inventors. To ensure that schools incubate future dreams and dreamers, curriculum, structures, and pedagogy must encourage deep engagement both with teachers and with community members. The walls between school and community can and should be permeable." - p. 161 ( )
  Othemts | Mar 13, 2018 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I appreciate the author drawing on her own experiences as an educator and being honest in her reflections about her thinking and messaging to students about educational achievement. There is plenty of opportunity to be critical of grit and the insidious reach by many to try and explain away or justify inequity in education, which disproportionately impacts students of color.

I should have flagged the portions of the book. I haven't, but I think it's worth mentioning this all the same... The author makes some statements that I want to agree with because it aligns with my own thinking, but she contradicts herself. I agree with other reviewers that she revisited ideas throughout the book, and when she did so I think this led to the contradictory examples. If I find time to reread portions of the book, I will edit this review to note some examples where I think this was the case.

I think there needs to be a much more academic critique on grit in book form. I hoped that this book would be it. I don't fault the author for not reaching my expectation, but this isn't that book. In this way I think it unfortunately perpetuates this polarization that many education books do. Because it is not academic, it is likely to only gain favor with those readers who are already open to these ideas and probably politically and socially aligned with the author. Those who seem to find it impossible to imagine that the bootstraps myth is a myth by and large, may latch onto the fact that this book is really still opinion even if based on observations from her own experiences in education. I hope that it has some sway over educators all the same.
1 vote bookcaterpillar | Jan 1, 2018 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The education world has seen many trends come and go, as it continues to look for a silver bullet that will cure all of schools’ (and the nation’s) woes. One current trend that is making the rounds is the importance of grit. A longtime hallmark of “no excuses” schools and education advocates, grit has gained new prominence due, in part, to the work of Angela Duckworth. The appeal of grit is undeniable. The pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, Horatio Alger mentality is as American as apple pie. In a country that prides itself on endless possibilities and Puritan work ethic, grit sounds like the silver bullet education has been waiting for. However, since we do not live in the best of all possible worlds and since one’s fate is often determined not just by grit but by a number of other factors, the reality of grit is a good deal murkier than its supporters would have us believe.

In “When Grit Isn’t Enough: A High School Principal Examines How Poverty and Inequality Thwart the College-for-All Promise,” Linda F. Nathan, the founding headmaster of the urban Boston Arts Academy, explores the limits of grit and debunks five long-held beliefs that have permeated not just education but society as a whole. She counters these beliefs by drawing upon interviews with alumni from the Boston Arts Academy as well as findings and work by other researchers and education experts. The result is a thoughtful and thought-provoking look at the challenges that urban students must overcome as well as the problems caused by perpetuating these flawed beliefs.

Nathan offers a convincing analysis of grit’s shortcomings as well as the deficiencies of the five beliefs, which are:
• “Money doesn’t have to be an obstacle”
• “Race doesn’t matter”
• “Just work harder”
• “Everyone can go to college”
• “If you believe, your dreams will come true.”
What is particularly helpful is that Nathan does not fall into the trap of simply dismissing these viewpoints. Instead, she explores why they can be misleading. Another benefit of Nathan’s approach is that, while she expresses concern and skepticism for programs like the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) that adopt a “no excuses” approach to teaching, she is, for the most part, evenhanded in her critiques of these programs. This is aided by her willingness to admit her adherence to some of these beliefs when she worked at BAA and when raising her children. Rather than undermining her evaluations, this shows how these views might work within certain contexts but might not apply to all situations.

While the book seemed overly long in some areas (as another reviewer noted, Nathan reiterates many of her points), it was an approachable and sobering look at the problems plaguing education. These problems are too complex for one idea or characteristic to solve them all, and I appreciate Nathan’s willingness to acknowledge this. As a teacher educator, I see “When Grit Isn’t Enough” as a valuable resource for current and future teachers, especially those who want to get another perspective on grit and the “no excuses” approach to education. ( )
  sweeks1980 | Dec 16, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I am a teacher with over thirty years experience in an urban high school. This book was not an easy read for me. Though I think it is an important book and one which needs to be read and discussed by educators, parents and American taxpayers, fellow teachers may also struggle with many of the author’s observations and conclusions. I’ve done a lot of reflecting about it and I believe my discomfort is a result of feeling that, though I am an extremely dedicated and, according to my evaluations, “exemplary” teacher, I realize that I have failed to meet the desired goals I hold for many of my students. Like Ms. Nathan, I also feel somewhat responsible.

I agree with the author that economic inequity is probable the greatest challenge in education today. However, I don’t see race in itself as an obstacle to a college degree. I believe the author hopes to find a way to enable society as a whole to provide the economic, practical, emotional and academic support to allow every student to earn a college degree. I believe it takes multiple generations within a family of valuing education, hard work and belief in oneself and the possibility of achieving that goal to make the dream come true. I believe she underestimates the power of generational grit. Things take time, but the American dream is still a possibility for all. I could not be an educator if I felt otherwise.

I was most encouraged by the chapter on alternate paths to success. Public education must provide more options for students than the college route. Over the last decade it has become politically incorrect to suggest to a student that college may not be the best choice for them. Ms. Nathan seems to have her hand on the pulse of educational change and I hope she is not alone in her conclusions in that regard. ( )
  mryan40 | Dec 13, 2017 |
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