susan_santonePoverty and academic achievement are two big topics most educators are grappling with. What’s the relationship? What factors really determine student success?

Some people say hard work and “grit” are the main ingredients, and that if someone isn’t achieving it’s due to their own deficits. These educators say that everyone gets the same opportunities, and that lack of success is really just a lack of effort or character.

Others, like myself, believe we address stubborn social and educational inequalities. While hard work certainly matters, I’m very passionate that we need to look beyond bootstraps. Why? Because bootstraps made all the difference in my own life. Sound ironic? Allow me explain:

My grandfather, an Italian immigrant, never attended school. He was completely illiterate and could not even sign his own name. He worked as a day laborer and then landed a factory job during WWII that enabled him to move the family into a house with plumbing.

My father entered school speaking only Italian and learned English without the benefit of ESL classes. Neither he nor my mother attended college. (She and her siblings took turns going to school because there were not enough shoes to go around.)

After a stint in the Army in transportation and logistics, my father transferred his sharp skills to a white-collar job in the private sector. He climbed the proverbial ladder, and after 35+ years, retired the vice president of a major corporation. His hard work and talent continues to inspire me and I’ve learned so much from his example.

This rapid advancement is the classic American dream. But the long road to success made clear to my parents the value of a college education. Post-secondary education was a given for me.

I’m a serious nerd who loves to learn and exceled at academics. Did I work hard? Yes. But I had one other thing going for me: privilege. This is a set of benefits gained not from my own effort, but (in my case) from being white and middle class.

My socioeconomic status as a child gave me advantages others did not have. Because my mother did not have to work, she could volunteer at my school and take me to private music and art lessons, which we could afford. Because my father had a stable 9-5 job, my parents could attend band concerts and other events that conveniently fit their schedule. My parents paid for my undergraduate degree, books and all. I did not have to work during the school year, and I saved the earnings from summer jobs to pay for graduate school. (And of course I got those summer jobs by tapping his professional network.)

I enjoy racial privileges as well, which my socioeconomic advantage only strengthens. Because I am white and middle class, I entered school speaking the “right” way. This accelerated my learning and opened the door to advanced classes. And, unlike many kids that spoke the “wrong” way, I was never falsely diagnosed with a learning disability. Because I am white, no one ever assumed I was inherently criminal, and my frequent sass and adolescent shenanigans earned me only scoldings and warnings, not a string of suspensions and arrests that could have easily led me to drop out of school—or worse. No matter what stunt I pulled, no one ever assumed I came from a defective home or an “impoverished” culture.

So yes, hard work—my own and my parents’—have greatly shaped where I am today. But I did not work for the financial cushion or skin color that helped my efforts pay off.

Turns out my bootstraps aren’t as big as I thought!

As an educator, I have a responsibility to support students’ individual efforts. But I also have an ethical responsibility to challenge inequalities that can prevent hard work from yielding fruit.

The long-standing narrative in the US is that success is the result of hard work. That is certainly part of my story. But inequality is growing, and opportunities for upward mobility like my father experienced are shrinking. If schools are to be the “great equalizer,” we need to create an educational system that removes the burdens from the backs of “those” kids. As educators, we must look beyond bootstraps and grit to acknowledge the role of privilege.

I’ve chosen curriculum as my point of action. I see content and pedagogy as powerful leverage points to dismantle inequalities and give all students the learning opportunities they deserve, so that grit and hard work pay off.

In fact, I believe that socially conscious curriculum can enable grit to go further. (Read more in the next blog post.)

What about you? How are you working for change? I’d love to hear your story.

Let’s swap ideas. Let me share some strategies and resources that teachers say are making a difference. You can contact me here: santone at

I look forward to hearing from you.

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