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Author probes difficulties in graduating college

‘When Grit Isn’t Enough’ examines effects of poverty on students’ college completion rates

Author probes difficulties in graduating college
Linda Nathan is a former headmaster at Boston Arts Academy. (Photo: COURTESY BEACON PRESS/PHYLLIS BRETHOLTZ)

During her fourteen years as founder and co-headmaster of the urban high school, Boston Arts Academy, Linda Nathan began every year with a promise to the freshman class; all of them would graduate and all would continue on to either college or a career. After stepping down in 2014, Nathan began a deep interrogation of that promise. She increasingly felt troubled that she may have promoted a false myth about equality and opportunity — one that pushed the responsibility for success onto her students’ shoulders without acknowledging the structural inequities they would face as they pursued their lives after high school.

Now, in her book, “When Grit Isn’t Enough: A High School Principal Examines How Poverty and Inequality Thwart the College-for-All Promise,” Nathan confronts long-held assumptions about college access and takes a sobering look at how current practices and policies push poor and first-generation students off the college track. Revealing how the pursuit of a college degree left too many of her students with impossibly huge debts and limited paths to middle-class lives, Nathan also investigates how career and technical education done well might provide a viable alternative to the four-year degree.

Drawing on interviews with over 90 BAA alumni, Nathan identifies the five myths or assumptions that repeatedly came up in those conversations. She devotes a chapter in the book to each:

  1. Money doesn’t have to be an obstacle
  2. Race doesn’t matter
  3. Just work harder
  4. Everyone can go to college
  5. If you believe, your dreams will come true

“Taken together, the five assumptions listed above can be dangerous because they reinforce the deeply held American belief that success is individually created and sustained,” writes Nathan. “Yet data repeatedly show how poverty, social class, race, and parents’ educational attainment more directly influence an individual’s success and possible earnings than any individual effort. We clearly do not have a level playing field, but this belief is all but impossible to challenge.”

While a safety net protects middle and upper income students from mistakes, argues Nathan, the fragility that poverty creates means poor youths’ missteps can easily and devastatingly derail them from enrolling in or persisting in college. Pointing repeatedly to the lived experiences of her students, she illuminates exactly what these missteps look like, from a class valedictorian who lost a full scholarship when she did not have the money for the deposit to hold her place to a well-performing sophomore who had to leave college because her family did not understand that financial aid forms need to be filled out each year. After examining four-year college alternatives, including the hidden costs of community colleges (financial aid does not cover developmental classes) and the risks inherent in online “competency-based” degrees, Nathan suggests specific ways in which both high schools and colleges could work towards alleviating their students’ financial burdens.

“College can be hard for most young people,” notes Nathan. “Add racial isolation to issues of economic and social class and the experience can be overwhelming.” Sharing her students’ accounts about how race impacted their ability to withstand the challenges of college, including some who felt too alienated to stay enrolled, she examines how the belief that race does not matter denies an important reality for students of color on college campuses, which are overwhelmingly white. Nathan details how teachers at BAA have continually wrestled with and learned from their antiracist curriculum and explores why peer support programs, such as LEAD and Posse, should be expanded to many more college campuses. “Race and privilege can differentiate students in insidious ways,” she observes. “Colleges can gain from vigilance in providing meaningful supports before a student begins to teeter and fall.”

The narrative about student success being entirely dependent on the individual, argues Nathan, has been reinforced over the past decade by the rise in the notion of “grit,” a term originally codified as a characteristic of success by psychologist Angela Duckworth. She critiques the “no excuses” pedagogy — born from theories about grit and reflected in initiatives such as the Knowledge is Power Program and Teach for America — and recounts visits to “no excuses” charter schools where black and brown students must adhere to rigid behavior codes as their entree to success. During one grade school visit, she observes five different classes of non-white students eating lunch in complete silence while their teachers, almost all white, monitor the room. “It seemed more like a prison, with the teachers as guards,” she reflects. “I was stunned that this had become a regular practice. Gone is the joy of meeting friends at lunch and chattering about anything and nothing. Gone is the joy of just being a carefree kid.”

In counterpoint, Nathan recounts visiting a classroom in an urban public high school in New York City where the white teacher ignores small behavior infractions in favor of getting his students of color to think for themselves and define their own notions of achievement. She goes on to share stories from three BAA graduates, each illuminating how working hard does not automatically equal success — even given their school experience which encouraged perseverance, and embraced creativity and a growth mindset. “In my insistence that my students’ hard work would allow them to achieve success,” she reflects, “I had underestimated the negative and pervasive effects of race, social class and also immigrant status through the educational pipeline.”

In the last chapters of the book, Nathan explores how that educational pipeline, one that centers a college degree as the ultimate goal, needs to be rethought, especially in light of the many students who are interested in careers that provide middle-class wages, but may not have the interest in, or the time or money for college. Acknowledging the troubled history of vocational education which tracked poor and minority youth into nonacademic course work, she poses what has become an uncomfortable question: is college really the right course for everyone? In exploring that question, she highlights the importance of career and technical education (CTE) programs that alternate between traditional academics and hands-on work in the trades, while offering examples of model CTE schools — from New England to Iceland, Switzerland and Germany.

Nathan concludes with stories about BAA alumni who have drawn on their sense of personal agency, as well as the power of community, to create impressive careers in the arts and other fields. She celebrates their extraordinary achievements (while acknowledging the danger in holding up the exception as the rule), and suggests ways in which educators can bolster their students’ belief in their ability to succeed.

“My work now focuses on leadership development,” she says. “I hope the next generation of leaders can create schools that address the hard questions that I have raised here. They will move us forward to a more equitable future.”

Nathan is the executive director of the Center for Artistry and Scholarship and has taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Education for fifteen years. Dr. Nathan served as founding headmaster of the Boston Arts Academy, Boston’s only public high school for the visual and performing arts. She also founded and directed the Center for Arts in Education, an arm of BAA that serves the outreach, professional development, and arts advocacy needs of the school. Dr. Nathan was the co-director of Fenway High School for fourteen years and founded two nonprofit organizations: El Pueblo Nuevo (arts and youth development) and the Center for Collaborative Education (school reform issues). She is also the cofounder of the Perrone-Sizer Institute for Creative Leadership and serves on numerous nonprofit boards both locally and nationally. Nathan is the author of The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test.