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Archive for the month “June, 2014”

David and Goliath: An Oklahoma Story

  • An Analysis of the Defeat of Common Core in Oklahoma through Gladwell’s Lens
  • David and Goliath by Gebhard Fugel This past week I was invited to Oklahoma City to participate in a photo event marking the historic signing of HB3399, the bill that ended Common Core in Oklahoma. I’m not at all sure I belonged with the group in the photo, but I was pleased to represent my region of Oklahoma by participating. The effort for HB3399 was totally an ongoing grassroots marathon that for some began four to five years ago. I only became aware and took an active part over the last year, but this involvement has given me unique insight as to how the surprising upset was accomplished.

    In the beginning, overturning Common Core seemed like an impossible goal. By the time anyone really knew what was happening, the governor, the state superintendent of education, and the legislature had worked together to not just put Common Core “in place,” but to put it into law. By June of 2010, it had become the law of the land and virtually no teachers or parents had even heard of it. As some of us began to question it, as we dug into its history and background, we learned that Common Core was much bigger than Oklahoma; it was a national initiative to ensure that all American children learned exactly the same thing at the same time and were tested on their knowledge based on those standards with exactly the same tests, and the data from those test results would be accessible on a national level to third party vendors. We figured out that the impetus behind it all boiled down to a few individuals or groups with a lot of money who either thought they knew better than educators and parents how to run education, or who saw huge profits to be made in providing curriculum materials, computerized tests, and professional development for the “new, national” standards. It has become a fight of the “one-percenters,” the super-rich “philanthropists” with a business perspective and sometimes (oftentimes?) questionable motives, against disconnected, politically unsophisticated, and normally compliant parents and teachers.

    As the battle was playing to what we thought was its end, I happened to be reading Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (2013). I was intrigued by the correlation I noted between theories in this text and what was happening in Oklahoma. Perhaps it will be useful to review those correlations.

    Not Playing by the Rules

    At the beginning of the book, Gladwell introduces his premise using the familiar Biblical tale of David and Goliath, but he cautions that David’s victory over the giant warrior was not as straight forward as we usually think of it. It’s important to know, for example, that there were certain conventions of warfare that everyone was expected to follow; one of those conventions involved avoiding devastating and costly battles by agreeing to one-on-one contests. Each side pitted its best hand-to-hand fighter against that of the other side, winner take all. In the David and Goliath story, that’s just what the Philistines were trying to set up, but no Israelite was big enough to stand a chance against Goliath. When David rose to the challenge, everyone, including King Saul, expected him to fight a close, hand-to-hand encounter. David, however, knowing that was effectively suicidal, refused to follow the conventions. He elected to use his highly honed skills as a slinger against Goliath. Slingers comprised one of the three components of every ancient army, along with foot soldiers in heavy armor and archers who stayed behind the lines and did not need armor. Thus, when David approached him with no armor and no visible weapons, Goliath was perplexed, and only too late did he realize that David wasn’t following the “rules.”

    I see a clear correlation here to the story of the defeat of Common Core in Oklahoma. To begin with, the movement essentially started with a very small group of parents, some of them also teachers, who realized early on the standards themselves were not well written. Although there were some good parts to them, on the whole, they were not developmentally appropriate, especially at the lower grade levels, and they made assumptions about children and learning, even at higher grade levels, that were inaccurate. These individuals were led to do a great deal of research through which they began to see that the standards were only a part of a much bigger “initiative” promoted by the federal Department of Education to be “national” standards and funded by philanthropists with a decidedly “corporate reform” bent, and that the ultimate goal of these tightly connected “reformers” was data collection on both kids and their parents and the ultimate destruction of public education. They were determined to stop it, but what could such a small group do against such a huge and well-funded business-government coalition?

    They became “David” pacing back and forth at the top of the ridge surveying the valley below where the huge giant stood commanding the field of battle. For approximately three years, they researched, wrote, and talked to anyone who would listen–and there weren’t many who would. They were often ignored or dismissed. As they traveled from one corner of the state to the other at their own expense, giving presentations with PowerPoints displaying screenshots with documentation for their claims, a few people began to listen, especially parents whose children were now dealing with some of the disturbing curriculum being introduced as “Common Core-aligned.”

    Realizing that, since Common Core had been voted into law, repeal would have to come through the legislature, they began lobbying legislators to submit repeal bills. Although bills were submitted at each session, they never reached the floor, probably because of the influence of the minions of those who had pushed Common Core from outside the state in the first place, and because few legislators saw these new standards as significantly different from any other set of standards, for heaven’s sake! In 2011 and 2013, however, two representatives were given permission to hold a couple of interim studies on Common Core. At each of those studies, educators and parents testified, some angrily, some tearfully, as to numerous problems with Common Core and about the problems with testing that were already being experienced and would intensify as Common Core was fully implemented. I testified at one of these studies; unfortunately, only a handful of legislators actually showed up to hear our testimony.

    Traditional political wisdom would say that the cause was hopeless; there were too many people with too much money and power arrayed against us to achieve our goal. But those with the power didn’t count on the Mama Bears. By late fall 2013 into winter 2014, parent legislative action committees began to spring up all over Oklahoma. These groups were concerned and they were angry. Not only did they feel that Common Core was not appropriate for their children, they felt they were totally left out of the educational and political process. This was the point where “David” stopped following the conventions of how things get done in politics. The various parent groups set up Facebook pages and posted the research that they were doing that revealed the corrupt underbelly of the Common Core Initiative. These posts were shared and re-shared and re-re-shared. There were blogs and Twitter conversations to develop strategies and to keep one another informed. Connections were made with similar groups across the country; we learned we were not alone.

    It was determined that the only way to get the attention of the legislature was to bombard individual legislators with emails, letters, and phone calls, and the Mama Bears did it by the thousands, using social media to coordinate their efforts. In fact I read that, after the bill was passed and the governor was contemplating whether or not to sign it, she received over 20,000 emails and calls requesting her to sign. On at least two occasions, the call went out for parents and teachers to report to the Capitol en masse for a systematic lobbying effort, and hundreds showed up. That is the kind of grassroots demonstration that “Goliath” never expected. And Oklahoma is not the only place this kind of political activism among parents and teachers is being exercised. This is happening in many states across the country, and one by one, the dominos are falling.

    Giants Are Not Always What They Seem

    The second correlation with Gladwell’s rendition of the David and Goliath story has to do with the idea that Goliath’s greatest strength was actually his greatest weakness. According to Gladwell, researchers now believe that Goliath suffered from a malady known as acromegaly. This condition is brought about by a tumor that grows on the pituitary gland, which as you may recall, is the tiny gland in your head that controls growth. Acromegaly causes growth in height to continue well past the time it ceases in normal individuals, resulting in extreme height, sometimes eight feet or more. This certainly could explain Goliath’s reputation as a giant. However, most people with acromegaly also have very poor vision, including double vision, and the evidence in the Biblical text suggests this was true for Goliath. Thus, Goliath was unable to determine that David was not planning to follow the rules of hand-to-hand combat until he was well within range of his slingshot. As Gladwell says, “The powerful and the strong are not always what they seem” (p. 15). I think this is certainly true of the groups and individuals who developed and successfully (to a degree) promoted Common Core. For whatever reason, they believe that they and only they know exactly how to “fix” American education. This deep-seated hubris leads them to believe that the rest of the nation should be grateful for what they are doing and not question it. They believed they could pave the way for acceptance by the people by paying for it with their largess. They did not expect any significant opposition and did not plan for it. Thus, by the time it had developed, they had no response other than to continue to spout the unsupported and undocumented talking points they provided initially. In my opinion, the strength of their self-confidence in themselves and their money was their undoing, at least in Oklahoma.

    Gladwell points out that “underdog strategies are hard” (p. 32). When you are the underdog, the temptation is to use the expected familiar tactics. To develop new ones and to put your trust in them takes guts and determination and plain old consistent hard work. That certainly describes the work of the Mama Bears in Oklahoma in the years leading up to HB3399.

    The Theory of Desirable Difficulty

    Gladwell also discusses the theory of desirable difficulty. This theory proposes that, although discouraging difficulties in life, such as being born dyslexic or losing a parent at an early age, may result in some people accomplishing less than their potential, for others the very difficulties they experience have the effect of being the catalyst they require to succeed. One aspect of this is based on the Five Factor Personality Assessment; this measurement looks at where individuals fall on a continuum of five factors: neuroticism, extraversion, openness, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. One psychologist believes that innovators, people who think and act outside the box, tend to have a great deal of openness and conscientiousness; however, they surprisingly tend to be somewhat disagreeable, in the sense of being “willing to take social risks–to do things that others might disapprove of” (p. 117). In other words, the difficulties they have faced and survived may actually lead them to take the risks necessary to challenge the status quo.

    In relation to this theory, Gladwell also talks about the fear of fear being a major factor in not overcoming in desperate situations. When a person has been through “hell,” so to speak, and survived, he or she tends to lose the sense of fear. He or she is ready and willing to be “disagreeable,” if that’s what it takes to accomplish an important task.

    How does this theory explain the Oklahoma fight against Common Core? I can only speculate, since I do not have knowledge of the stories of thousands of teachers and parents who took an active role in this campaign; however, I have heard the stories of parents watching their children struggle with developmentally inappropriate school tasks and tests, and I have heard from teachers who are demoralized by the pinball machine of constant reforms and incessant testing and test prep, who are cheated of the opportunity to use their professional knowledge and decision making art and skill. I strongly suspect that many of these folks have moved beyond their fear of the consequences of speaking out and taking a public role in an attempt to regain their voices in the education of the children of this state. It may have been, like the snake in the beaker of water that doesn’t realize the temperature is being raised to the killing point, these folks might have consented uncomplaining, had the “reform” of Common Core been introduced in a way that gave them the appearance of having a voice in its adoption. As it was, the top-down, “we know best” attitude of the promoters and the immediate and devastating impact it had on children and teachers resulted in a level of “discouraging difficulty” like nothing they had yet experienced. At some point that “difficulty” reached a tipping point; there was no fear left; action was required no matter the risk. I do know that many of the anti-Common Core “operatives” became decidedly “disagreeable” in the view of a number of legislators and state officers; they simply would not go away.

    The Theories of the Limits of Power and the Inverted U Curve

    Another theory that Gladwell deals with in relation to battling giants is the theory of the limits of power. He explains the perspective developed by Nathan Leites and Charles Wolf of the RAND Corporation that became popular after World War II for dealing with insurrections. According to Leites and Wolf, people operate rationally on a cost/benefit basis; that is, if the cost is too great, behavior of an individual will change. They believed then that “influencing popular behavior requires neither sympathy or mysticism, but rather a better understanding of what costs and benefits the individual or the group is concerned with, and how they are calculated” (p. 202). In other words, if the rebels’ behavior doesn’t change, the cost to them is not severe enough. According to Gladwell, the IRA Insurrection in Northern Ireland and Viet Nam were both fought on exactly this premise. It didn’t work in both cases, or in many others. This theory has as its basis the idea that “the power of the state was without limits” (p. 217).

    Gladwell maintains that Leites and Wolf had it all wrong. Whereas Leites and Wolf said authority doesn’t need to worry about how those in their power felt and thought, Gladwell says it is absolutely imperative that authority figures care about the feelings of their “subjects” and communicate that to them.

    Gladwell also talks about something called the inverted U curve. The theory of this statistical curve is that making a change of any sort often follows a kind of upside down “U” trajectory. Initially there appears to be a quick and beneficial benefit or “rise” due to the change. At some point, however, the benefit from the “rise” flattens out; applying more of the change doesn’t get the same dramatic effect. Eventually, the benefit actually begins to fall; no matter how much more of the change you apply, the benefit becomes less and less. Gladwell applies this idea to the exercise of power, and comes to the conclusion that there are definite limits to power. He goes on to explain that when those in power do not take the feelings of the people into account, their power loses legitimacy in the eyes of the people. They no longer see any need to be loyal to that power. “The excessive use of force creates legitimacy problems, and force without legitimacy leads to defiance, not submission” (p.273).

    Let’s see how this theory applies to the repeal of Common Core in Oklahoma. Research has shown rather conclusively that there was a concerted effort on the part of several corporate reform entities aided and abetted by personnel in the U.S. Department of Education to bypass the democratic process to install the Common Core State Standards in every state before the public was aware of it, at which point, they believed it would be too late for the states to back out. As the realization of that slowly dawned on parents and teachers in Oklahoma, they began to feel that they had had no voice in what was happening to their schools and to their children. And as they realized the result of corporate reform, including Common Core, would lead to more and more standardized testing, and the data from their students would be shared inappropriately–all excessive uses of force–those pushing for Common Core began to lose legitimacy in their eyes. A strong opt-out movement sprang up in Oklahoma; many parents, including some 800 in the suburban community of Jenks, requested that their students not participate in field testing for the new tests. There was a marked rise in parents who began to homeschool their children in an attempt to avoid the impact of Common Core and other reforms. The development of the parent legislative action committees was in itself an act of defiance.

    To make matters worse, the state superintendent of education essentially turned a deaf ear to all requests by parents and schools to mute the impact of the reforms, including Common Core. Probably the straw that broke the camel’s back was her rigid insistence on the Reading Sufficiency Act (a major part of the corporate reform agenda) which required all third-graders unable to pass the third-grade Language Arts test (of which less than half was a true reading test) at the prescribed level, would be retained. The superintendent’s lack of compassion and understanding absolutely contributed to the decline in the sense of legitimacy of the state education agency. Not only were parents complaining loudly on social media and in other venues, many teachers and administrators across the state took to writing blogs, some anonymously, some not, and writing news releases to draw attention to their plight.

    I feel confident that this loss of legitimacy facilitated the “insurrection” against Common Core in Oklahoma. As I write this, the story is not done. After the governor signed the bill overwhelmingly passed by the legislature, a small group of teachers and parents and members of the governor-appointed school board filed suit in the Oklahoma Supreme Court to have portions of the bill declared unconstitutional. This appears to be a political game organized to deflect the heat from the governor and still keep Common Core. I don’t think the Mama Bears and the teachers are going to be fooled this time. They have lost all faith in the legitimacy of those currently in power in Oklahoma. If the Supreme Court tows the power line and declares the bill unconstitutional, I have no doubt there will be political repercussions in the months to come.

    I don’t propose that the theories that Gladwell spells out in David and Goliath explain everything about how Common Core was/is being defeated in Oklahoma, but I do believe much of what happened and is happening can be interpreted in light of these theories, and I believe we can benefit from understanding how these theories apply. Those who have fought this battle, however, should also consider them a warning. The inverted U curve can exert its power in unexpected ways; the strategies utilized against the pro-Common Core factors can simply lose their effect if they are overused. The inverted U suggests there is a limit to their effectiveness. It remains to be watchful and vigilant, something we haven’t been particularly good at in the past. I hope we are not destined to repeat this history. With knowledge and determination, we don’t have to be.

    Work Cited

    Gladwell, M. (2013). David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits and the art of battling giants. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.


    An Oklahoma Miracle

    If you’ve been in or around P-12 education in the last 15 years, you’ve probably heard of the Texas “miracle.” This “miracle” was the supposed unprecedented achievement of students in Houston schools when the initial test and punish paradigm was implemented. The “miracle” laid the foundation for what later became NCLB and was later proven to be a fraud. Today Oklahoma experienced a miracle and it’s no fraud!


    On May 23rd the Oklahoma legislature by a commanding majority reversed its 2010 decision adopting Common Core. However, the bill could not become law without the signature of Governor Mary Fallin. This was problematic because Common Core had been commissioned by the National Governors Association of which Governor Fallin is the current chairman. Gov. Fallin clearly was on the horns of a dilemma. Would she fall in line with the NGA sponsorship of the Core and veto the bill, or would she listen to the voice of the people through its elected representatives? Thankfully, at least from my point of view and that of several thousand other Oklahomans, Gov. Fallin today signed the bill freeing Oklahoma from Common Core, and that is the miracle.


    I think it is worth looking at why this has to be called a miracle. In order to get a grasp on that, one must look at the well documented lists of very powerful and very wealthy engineers of the Common Core Initiative. Many researchers have documented these folks—people like Bill Gates, the Walton family, Eli Broad, the owners and/or CEOs of huge megacorporations such as Exxon and, just to mention a few. All of these entities and individuals have thrown their considerable money and influence at state legislators, often through ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, to put in place the hastily written standards concocted in secret by a group of educational test writers. ALEC wrote model legislation that was used by the state legislatures to adopt the standards before they were even finished. In the background was the federal Department of Education under Arne Duncan, which was waiting in the wings with Race to the Top, a competition among the states that would supposedly tie states to commit to the standards in return for a chance for grants to write tests for the standards. Oh, and the states that didn’t win the Race to the Top money could get an NCLB waiver, the legality of which is highly suspect, by signing on to the standards and a few other little things like more charter schools and use of student test scores to grade teachers.


    In Oklahoma this was all done in a matter of weeks in June of 2010 by Governor Brad Henry, State Superintendent Sandy Garrett, and a yes vote in the legislature. Slam, dunk! Common Core was now state law. Oh, and by the way, teachers and administrators of Oklahoma, you don’t get any more money to implement this; in fact, you get less.


    Some Oklahomans caught on very quickly that we had been had. Others of us were a bit more naïve; we tried hard to make these new standards work. But the more we attempted to work with them the more questions we had. One of the first to question the whole enchilada was Jenni White, who, on her own dime, started a group along with Julia Seay and Tracy Lynn Habluetzel, called Restore Oklahoma Public Education (ROPE). Another early alarmist was Linda Murphy, a former teacher and politician, who recognized much of the Common Core language bore a strong resemblance to Outcomes Based Education that Oklahomans had rejected in the 1990s. These and perhaps others I am not aware of began a very slow process of educating parents and teachers of the dangers of the Common Core Initiative. Jenni began researching the origins of the Initiative and shared the revealing documents she found, among other things, linking the standards to a plan to collect personally identifiable student data collected through the Common Core tests to be transferred to databases outside the state that would be accessible by third party vendors, notably the megalithic Pearson. She took screenshots of the data and put together PowerPoints that she and others traveled literally from one end of the state to the other to share. Both she and Linda began taking advantage of social media to keep in touch with others that became “believers.” For a long time it was a very lonely road for these early crusaders.


    One other early crusader must also be mentioned. Representative Gus Blackwell voted against Common Core initially and offered bills in the House repeatedly in the intervening years to repeal it. His bills couldn’t get out of committee. Undaunted, he began holding interim studies to try to educate his colleagues about what was actually happening in Oklahoma education. Jenni and others presented the evidence they had found at those studies, but not many folks were listening.


    I got actively involved in the fight about a year ago after struggling unsuccessfully for two years to make sense of the standards for my pre-service teachers. Some things I read in some of my educational journals made me question the origins of the standards and helped explain why I was having trouble interpreting them for my students. I was able to present my own testimony at one of Representative Blackwell’s hearings last November, along with some Oklahoma administrators such as Rob Miller, principal of Jenks Middle School, and Donna Anderson, superintendent at Bennington.


    About the same time, a little blonde dynamo parent from Owasso appeared on the scene. Kristal Picolet had moved with her family to Owasso from Colorado, specifically to get away from Common Core. Colorado was being touted as an early implementer of Common Core, but Kristal was appalled by what was being asked of her children in their classes. Not realizing this was a “national” initiative, she thought they would be safe in Oklahoma. When she realized Common Core was following her, she decided, mama-bear fashion, that it was time to quit running and fight. And fight she did. She joined us in the November Interim Study, shaking as she testified, but with a strong voice. She has continued to be a commanding voice in the fight against Common Core in Oklahoma.


    The more our little army of dedicated soldiers reached out to educate our friends and neighbors, the more they began to listen. Parent legislative action committees began to pop up all over the state. The names of the organizers are too numerous to mention, but you know who you are. The key element was that these groups stayed in touch through FaceBook and Twitter and shared information they learned with the other groups. These groups also made connections with groups in other states fighting the same battle so that there was a constant pipeline of information and strategies being shared.


    When the legislative session began in February, getting a bill out of committee seemed impossible. Nevertheless, large numbers of parents and educators visited the Capitol on three separate occasions, and ROPE members and Linda Murphy met repeatedly with legislators to make them aware of the true impact of Common Core. Many parents and teachers bombarded their legislators with pleas to “Hear the Bill!” The ups and downs of the legislative session were exhausting, and many times it appeared that we would not get a bill. It took an enormous amount of patience and perseverance to hang tough until the final day of the legislative session. The bill literally went down to the wire, and in the end Senator Josh Brecheen gave a brilliant speech defending the bill, that may not have changed any votes but laid out the issues clearly. The bill passed both the House and the Senate in a virtual landslide. This was indeed a miracle. Throughout the legislative session the deep-pocketed corporate reformers had sent in their bought-and-paid-for spokespeople with national organizations such as Stand for Children, Chamber of Commerce, PTA, and others to spout their usual unsupported talking points without benefit of unbiased research to lobby the legislature and the media. In the face of the moneyed interests, the miracle had been wrought by the self-sacrificing hard work of literally thousands of Oklahoma grassroots parents and teachers on their computers, phones and iPads, who stood up and said “No! Not on our watch!”


    Some began to celebrate, but those who had learned the ins and outs of Oklahoma politics knew that victory was not in the bag. That’s when the pressure began in earnest on Governor Fallin, and this explains another part of the Oklahoma miracle. The corporate reformers sent in the big dogs including educational organizations (who hadn’t bothered to poll their members before they spoke), the Chamber of Commerce again, and even the military. And Fallin had to be thinking about the fall-out for her own personal political ambitions beyond Oklahoma if she signed the bill. In the end, although continuing to state that the Common Core Standards were well intentioned, but that they amounted to federal over-reach, she signed the bill, stating that Oklahoma can write better standards than the Common Core ever were. As Rob Miller has pointed out in his blog this evening, Fallin has called Arne Duncan’s bluff.


    Lately I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath, and the comparison to this situation is palpable. Gladwell claims that David was able to beat Goliath, not because he was bigger or stronger, but because he knew Goliath’s Achilles heel, his poor eyesight. I suspect that the Mama Bears of Oklahoma may be the Achilles heel of Common Core.


    My apologies to all anti-CC warriors whom I may have overlooked or whose names I have misspelled. This was a true community effort and everyone of you was necessary. Thank you!

    Grit and Grittiness: A Personal Perspective

    Swimming Pool
    Summer has begun and, among other chores ignored during the busy school year, I am wading through a pile of unread journals I have received over the last nine months or so. Of course, when you have a stack, roughly a foot high, you don’t expect to read all of them cover to cover; I scan through them, pick out the articles that interest me, and ignore the rest. Early on in this project I picked up the September 2013 issue of Educational Leadership; this was a themed issue on “Resilience” and, quite honestly, I didn’t expect to find much in it of interest to me. However, the second article made me stop and go back to read in depth. It was an interview done by Deborah Perkins-Gough with Angela Lee Duckworth on her research on grit (Perkins-Gough, 2013).

    Now, this article got my attention because, over the last year I have heard or read some discussions about “grit” as it pertains to education, and most of them were fairly negative. For example, I’ve seen this concept referred to as a new version of racism and classism, in other words, a new way of sorting and ranking kids. I read that the federal Department of Education was soliciting proposals to develop assessments for “grit.” The individual discussing this idea spoke rather disparagingly of it, and, frankly, I essentially agreed. First, I wasn’t sure that “grit” in education is quantifiable in the sense of being able to identify it on a standardized test. Second, “grit,” whatever that is determined to be, is not a cognitive trait that needs to be assessed. Third, this seemed to me like just an additional attempt of the DOE to get one more set of data points on American children to sell to Pearson or others to develop programs to sell back to schools to help them teach “grit.”

    Acknowledging that the research on “grit” had not been part of my professional reading, and putting my pre-conceived thoughts aside, I read the article. Within the framework of Perkins-Gough’s questions, Duckworth did a good job of first defining what “grit” means in terms of her research. While the commonly-understood meaning of the word generally refers to “overcoming great difficulty” or “persevering in the face of tremendous obstacles,” Duckworth says it involves much more than that. The concept of grit includes the idea of commitment; “It means that you choose to do a particular thing in life and choose to give up a lot of other things in order to do it. And you stick with those interests and goals over the long term (p. 16).”

    In response to a question about what had surprised her most in her research on grit, Duckworth explained that it was the finding that grit was more important than talent in a successful outcome. People with great talent but without grit often reach a plateau that they are content with and stop short of the best possible outcome, whereas people with perhaps less talent but with grit may achieve even more than the more talented, because they are committed to the absolute best possible outcome they can achieve. It was at that point that my reading ceased being an intellectual exercise and became very personal.

    To explain the connection I made, I must provide some background. I was born with a congenital hereditary abnormality called Kleppel-Fiel Syndrome. The deformity occurs within the first eight weeks of gestation just as the spine and upper body organs are developing. While many children with this issue are affected dramatically with heart and lung involvement that leads to early death, its impact on my body was not so severe. The most obvious physical trait in my case is the fact that two vertebrate are missing in my neck, resulting in a short thick neck. Although I have an extreme scoliosis that results in my being very short-waisted, the deformity in the spine alternates in such a way that I am able to stand straight. Growing up, none of this interfered with my ability to run and play with my friends and do basically everything they did. As I came to understand my condition, I also realized that I was really quite blessed and I needed to make the most of what God had given me.

    Flash forward to my junior year at college. My degree plan required four semesters of Physical Education, and by that point I had only completed two. Some of you remember, I’m sure, the days when on course enrollment day you took your schedule around to visit the tables that the various disciplines had set up in the student union and asked each professor to enroll you in the classes you needed. That was what passed for advising back then. So, I took my schedule and went to the PE table, and just happened to get the swimming coach. I think she was trying very hard to fill a class, because, when I told her I needed a PE course, she quickly recommended swimming. I smiled and said I didn’t want a swimming class. I had taken swimming a couple of times and I just couldn’t learn to swim. Wrong thing to say! She took that as a challenge. “Look,” she said, “if you take this course, I guarantee you I can teach you to swim.” I shrugged my shoulders, agreed, and went out to buy a swim suit and bathing cap.

    On the first day of swimming class, the coach had us all get in the shallow end of the pool and showed us how to do the jelly fish float, where you put your face in the water and grab your knees. She had us do it one at a time and tapped us on the back when she was ready for us to stand back up. When she came to me, I did as instructed. When I stood up, she looked at me and said, “Well, now I know why you can’t swim. You can’t float! You sink!” Later during class she explained to me that my body is so compact, it is not buoyant. “I can teach you to swim,” she said, “but it will be hard.”

    “Do you want me to drop the class?” I asked.

    “No!” she said almost vehemently. “I want you to learn to swim. You can do it, but you’ll have to work harder than everyone else in here to do it.” She explained that in order to stay on top of the water, I would have to be moving constantly. As long as I kept moving my arms and legs, I could generate enough buoyancy to stay at the top of the water. Wow! It was a relief just to understand why I had never been able to learn to swim. But I had to decide if I was up to the challenge. Did I want to work that hard just to get a grade in a swimming course? I decided that I did; I wanted to be able to swim just as everyone else could.

    For the rest of the semester, I worked my butt off in the pool for every class. First I learned to simply stay afloat; then I learned to stroke and kick from a few feet out back to the edge of the pool. What the coach didn’t realize was that, since my chest capacity is smaller, I had to breathe harder and faster than others would have to keep up the constant movement. On class days, I was exhausted by the time class was over. Nevertheless, by the end of the course, I could swim the width of the pool and back on my own and I could jump off the diving board on the deep end and swim to the edge. It was a major accomplishment for me, and I had indeed had to work harder and put out more effort than anyone else in that class.

    As I read Duckworth’s interview, this whole episode came back to me. My experience in swimming class was clearly an example of both definitions of grit she discussed. I had overcome a seemingly impossible obstacle to learn to swim, which is the most common definition. But I had absolutely no talent for swimming, so I couldn’t have done it without my own commitment to making it happen, which is the essence of the second definition. But something else occurred to me as I pondered this. If my coach had not expressed absolute confidence that I could do it, I would never have tried. I think this piece is the “teaching” part of grit. It’s the wisdom on the part of the teacher of knowing how to build and support that confidence in the students.

    Near the end of the interview, Duckworth discusses the idea of teachers teaching grit to their students. She believes it can be done by patterning such teaching on Carol Dweck’s growth mind-set work. But she recognizes this is still theory, with no research yet to support it. I know from experience at least one coach who knew how to do it for me, and I suspect there are many other teachers doing this kind of critical non-cognitive teaching. However, I am still doubtful that we need assessments to determine which students have “grit” or not, so we can implement canned programs to develop it. Can we teach teachers how to teach grit? I doubt it, not to scale, anyway, the way the corporate reformers want to do everything. I think it has to be built around a sense of efficacy on the part of the teacher who communicates to his/her students absolute faith in them and does it in such a way that s/he makes believers out of them. I had no doubt that Coach could teach me to swim if I were willing to put in the time and effort. I’m quite sure Coach never took a course in Teaching Grit, but I wish we had more teachers like her.

    Epilogue: After all the effort I put into that swimming course and after accomplishing what, to me, seemed initially like an impossible task, I was sure that I would get an A. No, I got a C. The letter grade I got reflected the quality of the swimming I could do, not the amount of effort I had put in or the progress I had made. I couldn’t argue with the facts, even though I wanted to. It taught me a couple of things. First, nobody is good at everything; I was an A student in most things, but I was a C student in swimming. It gave me a good deal more compassion for my own students who could never be star students in academics no matter how hard they tried; I will never be an Olympic swimmer. Second, it made it abundantly clear to me that the way our grading system is devised and implemented is fundamentally flawed if our goal is really to develop the grit required for our students to reach the best potential outcome. Interestingly enough, in the same issue of Educational Leadership is an article by Thomas Guskey entitled “The Case against Percentage Grades” (Guskey, 2013). I haven’t read this one yet. I’ll get back to you…


    Guskey, T. R. (September 2013). The case against percentage grades. Educational Leadership, 71(1), 68-72.

    Perkins-Gough, D. (September 2013). The significance of grit: A conversation with Angela Lee Duckworth. Educational Leadership, 71>(1), 14-20.

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