The United Nations’s Problematic Education Agenda
From its inception in 1945, the UN has been involved with education on a global scale. The UN views education as crucial to eradicating poverty, building peace, and fostering intercultural dialogue, and it remains committed to “a holistic and humanistic vision of quality education worldwide.”
Yet there has been a dramatic shift in the UN’s educational mission from supporting a well-rounded, humanistic conception of education to one that focuses on teaching children the “hard skills” necessary to participate in the global economy. This turn began with the Millennium Development Goals (2000–2015) and has intensified with the Sustainable Development Goals. One target, for instance, is to “increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship” by 2030.
The UN has thrown its weight behind what Finnish scholar Pasi Sahlberg calls the global education reform movement (GERM). According to Sahlberg, there is a “global unified agenda” to rebuild educational systems to benefit multinational corporations. GERM began in the United States and United Kingdom, and has spread throughout the world. GERM is committed to educational standardization, a focus on literacy and numeracy, high-stakes testing, and centralized control of the schools.
According to Sahlberg, this movement “limits the role of national policy development” and “paralyzes teachers’ and schools’ attempts to learn from the past and also to learn from each other.” In other words, GERM disempowers communities and educators and forces them to teach a narrow set of skills measured by standardized tests.
The UN’s sustainable development goals articulate many admirable ideals, including eradicating poverty, combating HIV/AIDS, reducing inequality, and ensuring environmental sustainability. According to Sahlberg, preparing students to tackle global problems requires encouraging creativity and experimentation among schools and teachers. While several recent UN reports mention teaching critical thinking and protecting human rights, the focus is on helping multinational corporations control, for their own benefit, education systems around the globe. For those who think that this is a problem, the time to protest is now.
In fall 2015, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke about the Sustainable Development Goals at the UN Private Sector Forum. He supports the UN’s goal of universal Internet access because it creates new jobs, lifts people out of poverty, and gives millions of children “access to affordable learning tools.” For Zuckerberg, there is a confluence between the UN’s education agenda and Facebook’s development of personalized learning platforms.
The UN maintains that the business community should view the UN’s education agenda as a chance to pilot technologies, enter markets, train workers, and increase profits. Then UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon made this pitch in a report titled The Smartest Investment: A Framework for Business Engagement in Education. According to Ban, the business world needs a “skilled, innovative workforce” and “investing in education creates a generation of skilled people who will have rising incomes and demands for products and services.” The UN promises to help corporations “think about how their business policies and practices can impact education priorities.”
First, the report advises business leaders to convince peers to commit to education reform. The report mentions building sustainable societies and saving lives, but the main theme is that the UN’s education agenda promotes economic growth and expands business opportunities for companies. For instance, corporations may want to work with the UN because “consumers have indicated a willingness to buy—and reward—socially conscious brands.”
Next, according to the report, corporations may improve education by funding organizations with a record of social impact, supporting business schools to train education leaders, or piloting technology to improve delivery outcomes in remote communities. The report makes little mention of education being an end in itself or a means to transform the world’s economic or political structure.
Finally, the report suggests that corporations should work with like-minded businesses, governments, the World Economic Forum, and the Global Partnership for Education, “a multilateral public-private partnership focused on delivering a quality education to all girls and boys.” The report provides examples of how the UN has profitably worked alongside corporations such as Hess, Discovery Communication, Sumitomo Chemical, and ING Bank.
In the words of one functionary, the “U.N. considers working with the private sector as a necessity not an option.” The UN leadership does not seem concerned that the organization should have different priorities than multinational corporations or that the private sector may prefer to train workers rather than educate citizens to think for themselves.
In The Smartest Investment, the UN explains how Pearson drives learning outcomes in Nigeria. Pearson has a $95 million contract with the Lagos State Ministry of Education and the World Bank to develop “measurable solutions” and promote “strong learning outcomes.”
To decode this passage, it is useful to turn to a report from the Global Partnership for Education, Planning for Impact: Measuring Business Investments in Education. According to this document, businesses want to invest in educational projects with measurable outcomes, such as literacy and numeracy rates and scores on “national and international standardized exams,” including the PISA administered by Pearson.
In short, the UN collaborates with Pearson to help Nigeria improve “learning outcomes” as measured by PISA, a Pearson standardized test. Furthermore, the economists Eric A. Hanushek and Ludger Woessman have argued that the UN’s education agenda should lead to linking foreign aid to PISA performance. If the UN joins the World Bank in pushing test-based education reform around the world, this idea could come to fruition.
The UN education agenda should not promote the skills agenda, serve multinational corporations, or greenwash investment opportunities. Instead, the UN should recommit to the ideal of humanistic education that recognizes many diverse ways for human beings to learn and to flourish.
Do Not Enter the PISA Testing Race
Education reformers increasingly point to one piece of hard evidence that American schools are failing and in need of shock therapy: PISA scores.
The PISA is a standardized test administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Every three years, a representative sample of fifteen-year-olds takes the test in approximately seventy countries. The PISA covers reading, math, science, and problem solving; the focus of the 2012 survey was on the capacity to use mathematical concepts in real-world contexts. The ostensible purpose of the PISA is to enable policy makers to gauge how students in their countries are acquiring cognitive skills and to identify high-performing educational systems that may offer useful policy lessons.
The 2012 PISA results for the United States, according to then U.S. secretary of education Arne Duncan, reveal “a picture of educational stagnation” that justifies the need for reforms such as the Common Core educational standards, national tests, value-added teacher evaluations, and charter schools. Other education reformers—including Joel Klein, a former chancellor of New York City schools; Michael Barber, chief education officer of Pearson; and former Florida governor Jeb Bush—have issued similar warnings about the United States’s lackluster PISA scores.
While U.S. policy makers should care about the quality of education for American students, they shouldn’t place too much value on these scores. In failing to account for factors outside school and by intensifying a testing mentality that educators worldwide increasingly recognize as harmful, the PISA can lead to poor policy recommendations with long-term consequences.
The PISA, of course, has its share of supporters. In their book Endangering Prosperity: A Global View of the American School, Stanford economist Eric Hanushek, Harvard political scientist Paul E. Peterson, and German economist Ludger Woessmann make the case for Americans to take the PISA results as seriously as other countries do.
Cognitive human capital, their argument goes, helps determine long-term economic prosperity. And according to them, a math test of fifteen-year-olds provides a reliable indicator of this capital. They write, “Math appears to be the subject in which accomplishment in secondary school is particularly significant for both an individual’s and a country’s future economic well-being.” Furthermore, math is a subject that appears well suited to cross-country comparisons.
On the basis of these scores, advocates argue that American students are performing unsatisfactorily. In 2009, just 32 percent of eighth graders in the United States were deemed proficient in mathematics, and only 7 percent performed at an advanced level. The United States is eighteenth in advanced math achievement, just ahead of the United Kingdom, Italy, Russia, Latvia, Croatia, and Kazakhstan. According to the authors of Endangering Prosperity, this is proof that the United States suffers from an “educational malaise” that will be “extremely costly both for the next generation and for the country as a whole.”
But there are problems with what the PISA claims to measure and the kinds of policies it supports.
PISA advocates often exaggerate the usefulness of data provided by a test of fifteen-year-olds. For instance, Endangering Prosperity projects economic growth rates based on an improvement in PISA test scores. For example, if the United States matches Singapore’s score, the average American will earn approximately $300,000 in the year 2085, whereas if the United States reaches only Germany’s score, then the average American will earn $150,000. Such projections make too-simple assumptions about eighth-grade test proficiency leading to economic growth and the sustainability of such growth. They also fail to explain how the United States, with its mediocre test scores, has prevailed in the global economy.
Endangering Prosperity also neglects to consider the influence of factors outside school, such as student poverty or wealth. The authors explain that a country’s education system has the primary public responsibility for facilitating the acquisition of knowledge and skills. This may be partly true, but according to the OECD, socioeconomically advantaged children perform, on average, the equivalent of one year of formal schooling better than other children. The problem with the United States’s PISA scores may be poverty, not the educational system.
Also, the PISA framework can shift educational priorities in a negative way.
The test’s advocates offer policy proposals under the banner of education reform. In regard to teacher policy, this means merit pay, the elimination of teacher tenure, and the weakening of teachers’ unions. In regard to school choice, it means vouchers, charter schools, and online courses. And in regard to accountability, it means support for annual testing, education standards, and tests for grade promotion or graduation.
But such proposals can unduly burden a country, which must often redesign its whole system to prepare students to excel on standardized tests. The United States began this process with the No Child Left Behind Act and intensified it with President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative. As National Public Radio education reporter Anya Kamenetz documents in her new book, The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing—but You Don’t Have to Be, high-stakes standardized tests over the past decade appear to have stunted children’s spirit, demoralized teachers, narrowed discussions about education reform to improving scores, and dampened creativity that can lead to economic innovation. “The way much of school is organized around these tests makes little sense for young humans developmentally,” she writes. “Nor does it square with what the world needs.”
Furthermore, the PISA measures—and thereby incentivizes the teaching of—only a small fraction of what contributes to a meaningful life. Professors Heinz-Dieter Meyer and Katie Zahedi elaborate this point in an open letter to PISA head Andreas Schleicher. “PISA takes attention away from the less measurable or immeasurable educational objectives like physical, moral, civic and artistic development, thereby dangerously narrowing our collective imagination regarding what education is and ought to be,” they write. They also worry about the influence of educational corporations affiliated with the PISA that may prioritize making a profit over educational or democratic considerations.
Education reformers seem to want to outdo one another in warning what will happen if the United States does not improve its PISA scores. But such alarmist rhetoric can cloud judgment and lead policy makers to invest limited financial resources in testing rather than education, in designing an educational system geared toward standardized exams rather than nurturing the talents and interests of children.
America’s goal should be to provide all children the type of education provided by the finest private schools, with qualified teachers, small classes, sports programs, and a curriculum that includes languages, math, science, history, and the arts. This, more than pushing test scores into the spotlight, will help us out of our educational malaise.
What Brazil Should Know about the Common Core
In spring 2015, more than 155,000 New York students refused to take the Common Core standardized tests. In America, the Obama administration tried to frame opposition to the Common Core as coming from right-wing political extremists or uneducated parents who do not want to hear that their children are not brilliant. According to a Columbia University national survey of test-refusing families, however, many opt-out activists are highly educated and politically liberal. In New York, as in the rest of the country, the test-refusal movement includes progressives and conservatives; people who live in the city, the suburbs, and the country; and families of every ethnicity and race. Despite the best efforts of the federal and state governments, the test-refusal numbers increased in subsequent years.
Many Americans are highly dissatisfied with the Common Core education system. Parents in the test-refusal movement have often heard the arguments for national education standards, standardized tests, and accountability mechanisms. We have heard that this paradigm will prepare all children for college and careers, lift a country’s ranking in the PISA, and close the “opportunity gap” between children born into privilege and children born into poverty. Those arguments have a certain appeal, and in 2013, 65 percent of the American public, and 76 percent of teachers, supported the Common Core standards.
By 2015, however, support for the Common Core had plummeted to 49 percent of the American public and 40 percent of teachers. According to one critic, the Common Core is a “lemon”—it looks great but performs poorly and breaks down often. The advertisements for the Common Core are misleading, and many of the problems have become more apparent after the education system has been transformed. Here I offer four reasons why Brazil should rethink its commitment to the National Curricular Common Base.
Bad for Children
In thinking about the question of national education standards, I have found it helpful to use the ideas of John Dewey, arguably America’s greatest philosopher of education and democratic political theorist. The first problem Dewey would identify with rigid standards is that they do not consider the needs and desires of the individual student.
In his 1899 essay “The School and Society,” Dewey announces a “Copernican revolution” in education whereby “the child becomes the sun around which the appliances of education revolve.” According to Dewey, a good teacher discovers and cultivates the interests of each child in the classroom. Dewey thinks that good teachers connect the child’s interest with the appropriate curricular materials that will advance the child’s knowledge and abilities. As much as possible, skilled educators take advantage of a child’s curiosity so that school does not feel like drudgery. In this way, schools teach children that their own thoughts and desires matter and should influence the social world.
National education standards betray Dewey’s “Copernican revolution” in education. By stipulating what all children should know by when, policy makers do not allow children to deviate from a one-size-fits-all plan. Performance-pay programs make the problem worse by forcing teachers to stick to the plan or suffer financial loss. In America, wealthy parents have exited the public school system because they do not want their children to be just another number in a standardized system. Children deserve to develop their own singular talents and interests, not just go through a maze designed by distant authority figures.
Bad for Teachers
The second problem with national education standards is that they transfer education decision making out of the school. Top-down education reform comes with costs, including that teachers lose their professional autonomy and children receive an inferior education.
Dewey identified this dynamic in a 1922 speech on “The Classroom Teacher.” Policy makers like the idea of giving educators a packaged curriculum and using tests to put teachers and students in line. This factory model is cheap and efficient, and it keeps control in the hands of economic and political elites.
The result, however, is that teachers become uninterested and uninspired. Teaching becomes just a job where you have to do what your boss tells you to do or you will get fired. According to Dewey, teachers only throw themselves into their work with “enthusiasm and wholeheartedness” when they are carrying out plans and ideas that they help develop. The reverse is also the case: people get discouraged when they simply have to follow orders.
Dewey does not concede that standardization makes education better. On the contrary, you cannot expect “creative, independent work from the student when the teachers are still unemancipated.” Students know that teachers in this order do not have power to change the plans. As a result, schools become places where teachers and students focus on preparing for standardized tests in a few content areas. This is not a pleasant work space for teachers or an optimal learning environment for students.
Bad for Democracy
The third problem with national education standards is that they reinforce autocratic tendencies in the modern world rather than creating a space for democracy.
Dewey acknowledges that schools need to set flexible, evolving goals for what students learn by a certain time. He calls these goals “aims” and insists that students, teachers, and community members participate in the conversation about what they are. The purpose of these conversations is not merely to map out the curriculum. Rather, the purpose is to create a community where people experience democracy as a living practice rather than merely a means to select leaders.
One school principal expresses Dewey’s intuition this way: “School, family, and community must forge their own standards, in dialogue with and in response to the larger world of which they are a part. There will always be tensions; but if the decisive, authoritative voice always comes from anonymous outsiders, then kids cannot learn what it takes to develop their own voice.” Dewey thinks schools should teach students in democracy, not just for democracy; that is, schools should model democracy as a way of life in which ordinary people contribute to the discussion of how to raise the next generation and thereby create a new world.
Local education control empowers many people to run the schools. In a system of national education standards, on the other hand, local authorities, principals, teachers, parents, and students have little power or say over what happens in the school. Schools become a place where everyone in the building learns every day to obey orders or suffer the consequences. It is a lesson in servility.
Bad for the Economy
The fourth problem with national education standards is that they create a docile population and thus lead to lower long-term economic growth.
One scholar who makes this argument is the Chinese scholar Yong Zhao. In his book World Class Learners, Zhao explains the secrets to China’s success on standardized tests such as the PISA. In China, little outside of schoolwork is valued. Creative and entrepreneurial students either exit the system out of frustration with having to do boring, repetitive work or conform to the system’s requirements. Chinese students do not spend much time socializing or pursuing their interests or passions. Chinese students lack confidence. According to Zhao, farsighted Chinese policy makers realize that the country needs a different paradigm than the one based on standards and testing.
As an alternative, Zhao looks to the American public school system before the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. When the American education system was “broken,” students pursued extracurricular activities such as music, art, and sports. Children played, by themselves and with others, and often held jobs. American students were happy, confident, and ready to make their own way in the world. As a result of this kind of education, Americans have the world’s largest economy, the best colleges and universities on the globe, and a culture that entertains the world.
Zhao thinks that America is making a mistake trying to fix its education system by adopting the Common Core and associated testing. Good standardized test takers do not tend to invent things or start businesses, and “bad” test takers can often be brilliant artists or businesspeople. For Zhao, Brazil should learn the right lessons from China and the United States.
People who advocate national education standards often have good motives, including to educate all children and improve the economy. Brazilians debating the National Curricular Base, however, should learn from America’s disastrous experiment with the Common Core. National education standards do not tend to raise the academic bar; instead, they narrow the curriculum to what is tested. They tend to make educators follow scripted lesson plans, make students hate school, and alienate community members, who no longer have a say in what happens in the schools.
National education standards are an expensive, time-consuming distraction from the hard work of educating the next generation. Brazil should look for ways to improve its schools in ways that encourage healthy diversity, community input, teacher autonomy, and student initiative.
American Schools Should Not Teach “Asian Values”
In Westchester County, a suburb of New York City, tutoring businesses are popping up like mushrooms in the forest after a rain. The Kumon Math and Reading Center near the local elementary school, for instance, promises to “give your child the academic advantage to compete in today’s world.” Unlike the nearby library, theater company, or nature center, this company does not complement the public school curriculum: it simply adds to the test prep that increasingly takes up the day for American children.
What we see in our neighborhood is a result of American policy makers’ obsession with test-based education reform. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 required all states to test children in math and ELA in grades 3–8 and once in high school. The Race to the Top program of 2009 incentivized states to participate in testing consortia for the Common Core standards in math and ELA. Though the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 reverts to the states certain responsibilities about teacher accountability, the law still forces states to “measure the achievement of not less than 95 percent of all students.” For the foreseeable future, American children may be stuck taking, or preparing for, standardized tests.
A recurrent explanation for America’s focus on testing is that the country needs to emulate Asian education systems. In 2009, U.S. secretary of education Arne Duncan spoke about the results of the PISA. Shanghai, “the jewel of China’s education system,” ranked number one, while America placed in the middle of the pack. “In a highly-competitive knowledge-based economy, maintaining the educational status quo means America’s students are effectively losing ground.” According to Duncan, America needs to enter the testing race against Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and other countries at the top of the PISA rankings.
At this historical juncture, Americans would do well to listen to Yong Zhao, author of Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World. According to Zhao, America is falling into a testing trap that farsighted Chinese are doing their best to exit.
China has the “best” education system in the world, Zhao explains, because parents and students obsess about testing. For over a millennium, Chinese emperors and the Communist Party have built and maintained the keju, an educational system that makes testing the primary route to a respectful career. Rather than pursue their own interests, Chinese channel their energies to succeeding at the gaokao college admission test. And if the tests gauge memorization of Confucian classics or math abilities, all to the better, for these do not prompt young people to challenge authority.
At the same time, Zhao adds, China has the worst education system in the world, because it “stifles creativity, smothers curiosity, suppresses individuality, ruins children’s health, distresses students and parents, corrupts teachers and leaders, and perpetuates social injustice and inequity.” Zhao notes that China has failed to produce a Nobel Prize winner, a global cultural icon such as Lady Gaga, or a world-shaping invention in the modern era.
In an article titled “Revisiting Asian Values,” the political theorist Leigh Jenco explains the history of the concept of “Asian values.” At the end of the nineteenth century, and again at the end of the twentieth, scholars and policy makers identified Asian norms differently from and in opposition to those of Western liberal individualism. Asian values prioritize the community over the individual, harmony over contestation, and rule by appointed experts over popular elections. Jenco thinks there is little to prevent Euro-Americans from adopting these values as their own.
Zhao is not buying the Asian values argument in the context of education. Chinese leaders have designed an educational system upon testing, not for any ethical, educational, or economic reason, but because it trains a docile citizenry. Chinese should not feel bound to agree with the Confucian scholar Mencius that “when Heaven is about to confer a great office on any man, it first exercises his mind with suffering, and his sinews and bones with toil.” In practice, Asian values means making kids suffer daily in school—so that, someday, they may be able to make their parents proud.
Zhao encourages Americans to defend the tradition of local control that enabled school districts to dedicate time and resources to drama clubs, sports teams, field trips, and other activities that tap into kids’ particular talents and interests. On its old, “broken” education model, America became “the most prosperous and advanced nation in the world.” “Erase those values, and you lose the creative power of a culture that celebrates diversity and respects individuality.”
In the end, there may not be a way to win a debate about clashing values, any more than you could convince somebody that strong coffee is better than green tea. But many of us wish that an art studio had opened in the place where a business now trains kids to raise test scores.
According to the grit narrative, children in the United States are lazy, entitled, and unprepared to compete in the global economy. Schools have contributed to the problem by neglecting socioemotional skills. The solution, then, is for schools to impart the dispositions that enable American children to succeed in college and careers. According to this story, politicians, policy makers, corporate executives, and parents agree that kids need more grit.
The person who has arguably done more than anyone else to elevate the concept of grit in academic and popular conversations is Angela Duckworth, professor at the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, she explains the concept of grit and how people can cultivate it in themselves and others.
According to Duckworth, grit is the ability to overcome any obstacle in pursuit of a long-term project: “To be gritty is to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal. To be gritty is to invest, day after week after year, in challenging practice. To be gritty is to fall down seven times and rise eight.” Duckworth names musicians, athletes, coaches, academics, and businesspeople who succeed because of grit. Her book will be a boon for policy makers who want schools to inculcate and measure grit.
There is a time and place for grit. However, praising grit as such makes no sense because it can often lead to stupid or mean behavior. Duckworth’s book is filled with gritty people doing things that they, perhaps, shouldn’t.
Take Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology and Duckworth’s graduate school mentor. In a 1967 article, Seligman and his coauthor describe a series of experiments on dogs. The first day, the dogs are placed in a harness and administered electrical shocks. One group can stop the shocks if they press their noses against a panel, and the other group cannot. The next day, all of the dogs are placed in a shuttle box and again administered shocks that the dogs can stop by jumping over a barrier. Most of the dogs who could stop the shocks the first day jumped over the barrier, while most of the dogs who suffered inescapable shock did not try, though a few did. Duckworth reflects upon this story and her own challenges in a college course in neurobiology. She decides that she passed the course because she would “be like the few dogs who, despite recent memories of uncontrollable pain, held fast to hope.” Duckworth would be like one of the dogs that got up and kept fighting.
At no point, however, does Duckworth express concern that many of the animals in Seligman’s study died or became ill shortly thereafter. Nor does she note that the CIA may have employed the theory of “learned helplessness” to perform enhanced interrogation, regardless of Seligman’s stated opposition to torture. Duckworth acknowledges the possibility that there might be “grit villains” but dismisses this concern because “there are many more gritty heroes.” There is no reason to assume this, and it oversimplifies the moral universe to maintain that one has to be a “grit villain” to thoughtlessly harm people.
A second grit paragon in Duckworth’s book is Pete Carroll, the Super Bowl–winning coach of the Seattle Seahawks. Carroll has created a culture of grit where assistant coaches chant, “No whining. No complaining. No excuses.” She also commends Seahawk defensive back Earl Thomas for playing with “marvellous intensity.”
Duckworth has apparently not read any of the articles or seen any of the movies or television programs detailing the long-term harm caused by playing professional football. Barack Obama, among others, has said that he would not want a son, if he had one, to play football. Duckworth might have talked with football players who suffer from traumatic brain injuries.
Another role model, for Duckworth, is Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase. Dimon’s alma mater prep school has the motto of “Grytte,” and Duckworth attributes JPMorgan Chase’s success to the grit of its leader: “In the 2008 financial crisis, Jamie steered his bank to safety, and while other banks collapsed entirely, JPMorgan Chase somehow turned a $5 billion profit.” There is no basis for the word “somehow” in this sentence. The Troubled Asset Relief Program provided JPMorgan Chase with $25 billion in 2008. In general, neither Duckworth nor the protagonists in her book dwell upon the political conditions that enable or thwart individual success.
Duckworth gives many more troublesome examples: the CEO of Cinnabon, who never reflects on how she contributes to the obesity epidemic in the United States; the Spelling Bee champs who don’t love to read; the West Point cadets who have to endure a borderline-hazing initiation rite called Beast.
Why don’t these people ever stop to think about what they are doing? We should not celebrate the fact that “paragons of grit don’t swap compasses,” as Duckworth puts it in her book. That might signal a moral failing on their part. The opposite of grit, often enough, is thinking, wondering, asking questions, and refusing to push a boulder uphill.
Right now, many Americans want the next generation to be gritty. Already, school districts in California are using modified versions of Duckworth’s Grit Survey to hold schools and teachers accountable for how well children demonstrate “self-management skills.” Duckworth herself opposes grading schools on grit because the measurement tools are unreliable. But that stance overlooks the larger problem of how a grit culture contributes to an authoritarian politics, one where leaders expect the masses to stay on task.
Democracy requires active citizens who think for themselves and, often enough, challenge authority. Consider, for example, what kind of people participated in the Boston Tea Party, the Seneca Falls Convention, the March on Washington, or the present-day test-refusal movement. In each of these cases, ordinary people demand a say in how they are governed. Duckworth celebrates educational models, such as Beast at West Point, that weed out people who don’t obey orders. That is a disastrous model for education in a democracy. U.S. schools ought to protect dreamers, inventors, rebels, and entrepreneurs—not crush them in the name of grit.