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The Pioneers Podcast convenes the worlds social change makers to share their knowledge, challenge our assumptions, and offer practical solutions for a more equitable future. The Pioneers Podcast is hosted by HeartShare Human Services, a non-profit supporting and empowering marginalized New Yorkers since 1914.
Today we would like to talk about grit and educational success with an Anindya Kundu. Anindya Kundu is a doctoral candidate in the Sociology of Education program at NYU. He is currently in the research phase of his dissertation, adding a social perspective to grit, investigating how disadvantaged students navigate obstacles and gain agency. Anindya’s study looks to connect sociological and psychological discourses on educational achievement while observing how students in New York navigate extreme personal, social, and other institutional challenges to succeed.
HeartShare NY: Welcome, Anindya.
Anindya: Thank you for having me.
HeartShare NY: So I just want to jump right in, can you describe the scope of your research?
Anindya: Sure, I’m a sociologist of education and broadly you can say that I study achievement, but more specifically, I study the achievement of low-income students of color in New York. I kind of do that with the premise that achievement and success, both academic and professional, are possible for all students regardless of background, regardless of challenges and disadvantages they have faced, but only if they’re provided the right types of supports and opportunities. So it’s kind of a spin on this idea that some students are unable to learn or unable to achieve by specifically sharing the stories of those people who have beaten the odds, but then again, to make the case that we can create a system for more students to be able to do the same.
HeartShare NY: Absolutely. Can you provide some context as to how we as a society understand what grit is, and how it’s used, and how we should perceive it from your perspective?
Anindya: Definitely. So as a culture I think Americans really value this idea of individualism, and now a lot of us are coming to call it grit- the concept of Angela Duckworth’s psychology coming out of the University of Pennsylvania. Angela’s definition is the passion and perseverance over long term goals for specific outcomes with students, but sometimes broadly, that idea of being gritty for specific goals over the long-term can be co-opted by other audiences simply to mean that effort and merit are enough. We have this cultural value that we place on this idea of meritocracy in this country, that intelligence effort and merit will really help you climb the social ladder, but the perspective of sociologists like myself is that there are these large sweeping constructs related to race and equality- a mixed allocation of resources that really make meritocracy kind of fake. The real reality is that your background- where you grew up, how your parents went in their education- those things are highly more predictive of your eventual outcomes than simple merit.
HeartShare NY: Yeah I think that makes a lot of sense. When you talk about disadvantaged students, who are we talking about?
Anindya: Sure. So a very traditional concept of disadvantaged students. The students I’ve been studying have grown up below the poverty line in New York, parts of the South Bronx, some parts of Jamaica Queens, Bed-Stuy, and they’re also students of color. These people have, a lot of them have been brought up in public housing. They attended schools that are also lower resourced, and lower funded, and are often underperforming, but at the same time I’ve gotten kind of a robust view of these people’s life stories, and hear about the different people that influenced them along the way. To hear about the different types of curriculum that really resonated with them, to really see how these students were able to start considering themselves to be achievers and starting to fit their own potential for academic and professional success. I have this more robust and holistic outlook on all the different factors it takes over the course of someone’s life for them to then be able to develop that grit. Grit is predicated on this idea of passion and perseverance. We have to realize that not everyone has the same opportunities to be able to develop those passions. Some students have to work over the summer to support their families or babysit their siblings, where other students are getting to go to many after-school programs and engage with different resources. So when there’s that kind of a disadvantage, it definitely takes like a broader and wider approach to help other students really recognize their potential as well.
HeartShare NY: Yeah, absolutely. I think that when we talk about our programs here at HeartShare St. Vincent’s, that there’s such a huge disparity between the students that have parents, or the one parent who’s home and is able to assist with homework, etc… versus the learning gap of the students that go to our after-school programs, or for a young person in foster care who is forced to work and doesn’t have the opportunity to take an internship that say, might help them in their career. Something like that.
Anindya: Definitely, yeah. I mean HeartShare’s motto is about helping people reach their potential. I think a lot of it has to do with having the perspective that all students want to succeed, and they all have potential, and you shouldn’t consider something to be deficient simply because of where they’re growing up. Even though we can think about the achievement gap and the various struggles that a lot of students have, it’s not necessarily something that should get as pessimistic. We should try to think about community-oriented supports to help all students succeed.
HeartShare NY: Absolutely. What happens when schools don’t provide additional support to young people?
Anindya: Well, I think that it could be a product of this culture of, I guess, normalization of failure. That’s what actually ends up happening. So when a lower resource school is underperforming and their resources are tied to that performance, it can kind of create this helplessness, and you can feel it within the administration, you can feel it within the staff, and obviously the students are very (a)tuned to adults that it kind of trickles into their achievement as well. It really takes kind of a jolt sometimes to help the school that has been underperforming for quite a while, to be able to turn that around. I’ll give you a quick example of a school that I take my NYU students to. One of them is Medgar Evers College Prep in Brooklyn, and that school wasn’t performing too well, but a Principal Wiltshire came and started this process of turning it around. Over the course of like literally ten years, he laid out his vision for expanding services to his teachers. In his first term there, he told them that he wanted to offer extra tutoring, after-school programming. He asked teachers to spend extra time helping students outside of school. He laid out his vision for helping students take as many AP classes as they’d like, and what happened was that ended up leaving a unified workforce of teachers who actually bought into his mission and value, and you kept hiring other teachers that he thought would feel the same. It took ten years, but if you were to just look at the demographics of that school- title one school, all students qualify for free or reduced lunch, 99% are minorities- it has the same characteristics of a lot of our failing schools but its a school that’s sending +90% of their students to college on scholarships right now. So there’s no such thing as students who can’t learn or a school that can’t perform, but it does take a really broad approach from a community-oriented stand.
HeartShare NY: That’s really inspiring that that principal was able to turn it around in such a short amount of time, but I do like that aspect of placing hope in the children and young people. When I hear the stories of our foster youth, they’re sort of told as they’re growing up that they’re really not going to amount to much. They’re never going to get to go to college, and literally just providing a little bit of financial and emotional support makes all the difference in the world.
Anindya: Right. I definitely agree with that, and what’s interesting is that we don’t have to have the traditional concept of what success looks like which is one of the things that grit kind of sometimes lends itself to, is this idea that success looks one way. I mean non-traditional students seem to go to college in their late twenties, students who have more vocational training, students who may not even go to college. There are lots of different things that success would look like for students. At the end of the day, educational systems should just try to help recognize and reach their potential.
HeartShare NY: Yeah, and I think that the HeartShare St. Vincent’s American Dream Program has very much emphasized that if college isn’t necessarily the right fit for you, we’re going to find some kind of vocational or other school to help you achieve your goals. It depends on the person. Another question, what happens when schools are segregated?
Anindya: Well on a really basic fundamental human level I think it’s a problem to have segregated schools when 20 years from now, supposedly demographics say that white populations will become a minority in this country and people of color will become a majority. What’s been happening is those two populations have become more isolated from each other, and it’s a myth to think that those things are only happening in the South or rural areas. It’s actually New York, Chicago, and LA that are some of the most segregated school systems in the country. Not just de jure segregation by law, but a lot of it’s just the way in which resources are distributed. So parents having less access to knowing how to apply for certain schools through the school choice system, over time these things actually lead to intense amounts of segregation. If our students aren’t learning together in the classroom, how can we expect them to understand each other and live coherently with one another when they’re adults. At this time, and in this like political climate that we’re in, we’re kind of seeing what happens when people don’t really understand each other, and it’s not pretty.
HeartShare NY: Absolutely, and it is such a terrible problem especially here in New York. Whenever I read a story about it, I just I can’t believe that it’s still happening. To you, what would be the model for an ideal school? Whether it’s a public school, a charter school, college. I know that students at different levels need different kinds of support, but overall what are the key ingredients?
Anindya: Okay so that’s definitely a very complex question, but I think it has to start with the premise that schools can’t really do it alone. A school is very much a reflection of its community. We can think about that from a concrete economic standpoint, where local income taxes are the primary funding source for at school. Therefore poorer schools are in poorer communities, have less veteran teachers, and worse technology, but what we could also realize is that for a school like that- trying to be the sole thing that creates mobility for your students- is kind of an uphill battle. It’s a crazy, crazy challenge to take onto at school, and as a community, we should not necessarily think of that as a solution. We should come up with community-minded solutions so that schools can partner with other organizations to really offer students the types of services they need. So again, if we’re going to think about the Medgar Evers example I mentioned earlier, Medgar Evers College Prep works with Medgar Evers College- helps to bring in mentors for the high school students, people who look like them, people who are experts in magazine publishing and music- so these students can kind of see themselves in these adult mentors, and also learn different tools and different interests that they might have to be able to see themselves in different professions as they grow older. I think that what that says is that the school is really taking a very cultural-competent lens to educating their students. There’s a reason that New York City has the New York City Men Teach policy where we’re trying to hire thousands of men of color to go into teaching because of the lack that there is, because just the presence of a man of color has shown to increase students feelings of their school, and in a positive way. I think another thing to think about is just social support. Schools can partner with healthcare services, mental health is a big one as well. If schools can partner with other types of services, such as in neighborhoods where there’s a lot of unplanned pregnancy, possibly bringing in resources around that to the students. Just, not thinking of education as outside of the context of just learning and regurgitating material. I think it’s important because what we want to do is create people who are going to be contributing adults in society.
HeartShare NY: That is a truly comprehensive and concise answer to a complex question.
Anindya: I don’t know if it was that concise but I tried to give you a lot of the things that came into my head.
HeartShare NY: No that’s great. I think that the last part that you touched upon is something that we’re trying to do in our integrated health services where we do provide support to our youth in foster care because it’s not just placement and making sure that there’s a permanency plan, but it’s healing from trauma as well. So that includes mental health, and it really doesn’t make sense to bring that into the school system.
Anindya: That’s something I’ve been learning a little bit more about lately is the importance of reminding students to keep mental health in check, and not stigmatizing mental health resources because how can the students achieve if we’re not also thinking about that the minds upon which were expecting achievement to come from?
HeartShare NY: Absolutely. So going forward, what are the challenges that you face in changing New York’s education system?
Anindya: So that’s a big one too. That’s a big, broad question. Well one of the things that I think it really starts with, is kind of debunking that idea of meritocracy. If we really start to realize that educational success is as social as it is individual, maybe we will be willing to enact broader field changes. As a parent, for instance, you are always trying to find out what the best educational opportunity is that you can provide for your kid, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s important to kind of realize that education isn’t a zero-sum game. If someone’s child is getting a good education, that does not necessarily mean that your child’s education will suffer from that, and if we think about creating stronger schools altogether, we create stronger communities. Students come back and feed back in their communities, creating more vibrant communities. There is a McKinsey study from a few years ago that shows that if we could lower the achievement gap between students of color and white students, the country’s GDP would go up possibly three to five hundred billion dollars. So that’s one of the reasons that we should think about. Education is like a collective social good, and then if we can start to really retool those impressions, some things that we need to do are offer after-school programming in all schools so that students can play with a variety of interests. What we should really do is realize the power of veteran teachers, and veteran teachers tend to want to teach in schools that can pay them more, which are typically not the poorest schools. So we should think about restructuring incentives for veteran teachers to go into these schools that could really use their services. Again, school-community partnership would be really important. Just things that really make us realize that education is our most social good and social promise and that if everyone is more educated, everyone stands to be better off as a result of that.
HeartShare NY: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. What can our listeners do? I know that we started with the concept of grit, and sort of this misconception around it. There are so many levels here- It could be something about an attitude shift in society, it could be contributing to education or mental health- what’s something that our listeners can do?
Anindya: Yeah. The first thing I would say, again, is to believe in the potential of all students. I think that in itself aligns with the HeartShare mission. It’s really important in realizing that those students are at a place of deficit. If anything, all students are at a place of potential. So there are really deep roots in the things that manifest as achievement on the surface. Students’ lack of nutrition at home might be the reason they’re fidgety in class and unable to focus. There are a lot of deeper things that we need to try to think through without just like placing the blame on individuals and individual students. One way I think, if your listeners are able and have the means financially, and with their time- which you know everyone’s time is limited- it can be as simple as volunteering. Volunteering in communities and neighborhoods where you may not necessarily feel that’s like a place where you grew up, so you can kind of see how other people are. Kind of how to grow your own cultural competency, and also one of the great things that volunteering does is that it allows you to put a lot of stuff into perspective. Even my students- my participants who have grown up in extreme poverty- one of the things that they say helps them stay motivated to succeed is volunteering. Kind of seeing tangible effect quite quickly, and also helping other people can really help remind you that there is a greater purpose to working hard. It’s really simple, but I think those two things could possibly help to make a difference.
HeartShare NY: That sounds wonderful. If we want to learn more about your work, about what you do, where can we look?
Anindya: Sure. You can find most of my articles on my website which is anindyakundu.com. I just wrote a magazine article that I think just came out today, I just got it in the mail, for educational leadership- talking about Medgar Evers, the school I mentioned during this interview, but also James Baldwin which is a transfer school in Chelsea which also serves a lot of similar students, but students over the D.O.E. age range, and comparing those students in an article. I hope that they’re gonna put it up, and it’ll be free but if not it’s like eight dollars to get the magazine. My book achieving agency, writing it right now, so I’m not sure when I could promise it will be out but I think it should come out at least by early 2019. I try to do things like this as much as possible. I’ll write op-eds every now and then which should again, be possible to find on my website.
HeartShare NY: Well congratulations, that’s a lot to look forward to.
Anindya: Yeah, and quite a while to wait.
HeartShare NY: Well, I’ll definitely look for that educational leadership article for sure. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Anindya: No, not really. I think it just comes down to again, realizing that education is our most social promise as a society but sometimes, it’s a promise that’s unfulfilled. Our public education grants access to undocumented students and homeless students, but simple access doesn’t always equate into opportunity. At the same time, there would be an immense benefit for providing education for all of those students because we have a ton of social problems ahead of us, and those will require social solutions and a more educated community altogether. I think if we think about that, it’s like the reasons to educate all of our students, maybe that will help us create better systems.
HeartShare NY: That’s great. Thank you so much for joining us.
Anindya: Yeah, thank you for having me Jennifer.