Michelle Obama: The ambassador of ‘grit’

First lady Michelle Obama speaks to students about higher education during an event at the Bell Multicultural High School, November 12, 2013 in Washington, DC. The first lady told students to commit to their education so that they can create a better future for themselves and their country. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

First lady Michelle Obama speaks to students about higher education during an event at the Bell Multicultural High School, November 12, 2013 in Washington, DC. The first lady told students to commit to their education so that they can create a better future for themselves and their country. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

In the kickoff speech of her new education push, Michelle Obama on Tuesday invoked a word that is increasingly popular among scholars who work on closing the achievement gap between rich and poor students in the United States: grit.

“Studies show that those kinds of skills –- skills like grit, determination, skills like optimism and resilience –- those skills can be just as important as your test scores or your grade scores — or your grades.  And so many of you already have those skills because of everything you’ve already overcome in your lives,” she told students at a Washington, D.C. high school.

Grit is something of a new buzzword in policy circles. The U.S. Department of Education is conducting a study on how increasing American students’ grit can help the overall economy. (Grit is defined in the study as “perseverance to accomplish long term or higher order goals in the face of challenges and setbacks, engaging the student’s psychological resources, such as their academic mindsets, effortful control, and strategies and tactics.”) Paul Tough, one of the leading writers on social policy in the country, published a book last year called How Children Succeed that puts a heavy emphasis on grit.

There’s also an anti-grit movement afoot, with some scholars arguing that grit, like other education reform ideas, puts the responsibility and the blame on students who often face barriers from under-staffed, test-obsessed schools, racism, and poverty. Instead of more grit, these scholars argue, what students really need is a better education system helping them learn.

In her speech Tuesday, Michelle Obama, as her husband does when he talks about divisive, complicated issues like race and class, tried to embrace both camps. She spoke of the role of perseverance in her own success, describing how she had been discouraged from even applying to Princeton, then the challenge of graduating from the prestigious school.

“It is not your circumstance that define your future — it’s your attitude.  It’s your commitment.  You decide how high you set your goals.  You decide how hard you’re going to work for those goals.  You decide how you’re going to respond when something doesn’t go your way,” she said.

At the same time, Obama mentioned her husband’s various education ideas, from increasing financial aid to federal websites that make it easier for students to compare colleges and their costs. Her message was obvious: grit alone won’t do.

“We’re going to do everything we can to help connect you to all the resources that are available to help you on your journey -– many resources that weren’t around when I was your age,”she said.

The speech though was heavy, intentionally so, on students owning their achievements, and the First Lady said that would continue to be a theme of her education remarks for the next three years.

Her speech had the emphasis on personal responsibility that often marks President Obama‘s speeches to black audiences, some of which have been slammed by African-Americans as focusing too much on individual action and power instead of the government and its role. Michelle Obama avoided the sharp tone that occasionally is used by President Obama and did not speak about race at all, but echoed the same broad concept.

“You’ve got to step up as individuals,” she told the students at Bell Multicultural High School.