Don’t grade schools on grit

Don’t grade schools on grit, writes Penn psychologist Angela Duckworth, who practically invented grit, in the New York Times.images

Character traits such as self-control affect students’ success, she writes. Schools can help students develop these traits.

But character measures aren’t accurate enough to be used for accountability.

Encouraged by ESSA, the new federal education law, nine California districts are experimenting with using measures of “soft skills” to evaluate school effectiveness.

Duckworth’s research has identified three clusters of character strengths.

One includes strengths like grit, self-control and optimism. They help you achieve your goals. The second includes social intelligence and gratitude; these strengths help you relate to, and help, other people. The third includes curiosity, open-mindedness and zest for learning, which enable independent thinking.

Educators and researchers are looking for ways to assess these traits, raise students’ awareness of their shortcomings and provide “strategies for what to do differently,” she writes. Turning that research into a high-stakes assessment would be a mistake.

Non-cognitive measures aren’t reliable and may never be good enough to use for accountability writes Jay Greene. For a new study, his team tested students with different measures of “non-cognitive” skills. They wanted “to see if we get consistent results. We didn’t.”

W need “hard thinking on soft skills,” writes Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst. These skills are “far too important to suffer the fad-like fate” of other education reforms.

Character matters, but what can schools do?

“Character skills matter at least as much as cognitive skills,” writes James Heckman in the lead essay of Brookings’ new book, Does Character Matter? Policymakers should look for opportunities to shape both cognitive and non-cognitive skills, writes Heckman.

Other essays deal with parenting, conscientiousness, grit, the effects of chronic adversity and creating “schools of character.”

“The journey from good idea to good policy is a minefield,” writes Robert Pondiscio.

. . . Third Way policy analyst Lanae Erickson Hatalsky notes in her essay (that) if Democrats talk about character, “it runs the risk of sounding like apostasy, blaming poor children for their own situation in life and chiding them to simply have more grit and pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” (Likewise, the Left dares not invoke the miasma of family structure.)

Character talk may feel more at home in Republican talking points, but it carries the risk of foot-in-mouth disease, “setting the stage for politicians to inadvertently say something that sounds patronizing to the poor, demeaning to single women, or offensive to African Americans (or all three).” Just so.

The book lacks an essay on “school choice as a means of giving educators permission to focus on character development,” writes Pondiscio. KIPP can “worship at the altar of grit” because parents have chosen that model.

Dominic Randolph, headmaster of Riverdale Country School, wants “a comprehensive international effort in institutions and in governments to develop intellectual, character and community standards of growth that can be embedded in the ‘curricula’ of schools, universities, workplaces.”

“Don’t expect Common Core character standards any time soon,” responds Pondiscio.

Can schools build character?

“Performance character” strengths — qualities such as prudence and drive — lead to success in school and work, concludes a Brookings study, The Character Factor.

“Family income and maternal education are positively associated with higher levels of performance character strengths,” the study concludes. That is, the children of educated, middle-class mothers tend to be better at deferring gratification, working toward a long-term goal and persisting in the face of obstacles.

Brookings has posted essays on character and opportunity, such as Ross Thompson on how chronic adversity leads to self-regulatory problems.

Brookings researchers want policymakers to pay attention to the “cultivation” of character skills, notes Robert Pondiscio. What does that mean? “Character value-added measures?”

A figure in the report is headlined “Drive and Prudence Matter as Much as Book Smarts for HS Graduation” (“Book Smarts?” Seriously, Brookings?), but the bar graph clearly shows “high reading skills” matter a lot more.

“Schools need no additional reasons to short-shrift academics,” Pondiscio writes. Telling “fad-prone” educators that grit trumps academics “wouldn’t be prudent.”

Babies teach lessons in empathy

During a Roots of Empathy classroom visit at Maury Elementary School, June Goodman looks at a toy held by fourth-grade students Kanye Cheeks, left, Gabriel Smaw, second from left, and LaTrice Hicks, far right.During a Roots of Empathy classroom visit at Maury Elementary School, June Goodman looks at a toy held by fourth-grade students Kanye Cheeks, left, Gabriel Smaw, second from left, and LaTrice Hicks, far right. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Babies are cute. But can playing with a visiting baby teach empathy? Five Washington D.C. elementary schools are bringing babies into classrooms “to hep students recognize and deal with emotions,” reports the Washington Post.

A Canadian program called Roots of Empathy is being tried  in the U.S. “amid growing concern about classroom bullying and growing conviction that teaching certain character traits — such as persistence, self-control and self-confidence — is just as crucial for students’ futures as teaching academics.”

Roots is built on a simple notion: When babies such as June bring their huge eyes, irrepressible smiles and sometimes unappeasable tears into the classroom, students can’t help but feel for them. The idea is that recognizing and caring about a baby’s emotions can open a gateway for children to learn bigger lessons about taking care of one another, considering others’ feelings, having patience.

A baby, with a parent, visits each classroom once a month.

 A volunteer instructor asks questions related to one of nine themes, from the reasons babies cry to the emotions they feel. The classes — which range from 30 to 50 minutes, depending on the baby’s mood — are mostly a chance for students to watch the baby as it responds to songs and games and to ask questions and share observations about whatever comes to mind.

With discussions before and after the baby’s visit, students spend 20 hours a year on the program. Some D.C. elementary schools don’t offer a full year of science or social studies, the Post notes.

Children do better in school when they learn social-emotional skills, argues Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia. “Children who participate in Roots tend to show declines in aggressive, bullying behaviors and growth in sharing, cooperative and helping ones,” her research shows.

Anti-KIPP: All grit, no morality

KIPP’s grit-heavy character education has three major problems, writes Jeffrey Aaron Snyder, a Carleton education professor, in the New Republic.

The first is that we do not know how to teach character. The second is that character-based education is untethered from any conception of morality. And lastly, this mode of education drastically constricts the overall purpose of education.

KIPP focuses on seven character strengths—grit, zest, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity — which KIPP believes predict success in “college and life.” Founder David Levin  aims for “dual purpose” instruction to reach both academic and character goals, he says in his online course.

But KIPP’s list of character strengths is “devoid of value judgment,” Levin told Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed. “The inevitable problem with the values-and-ethics approach is that you get into, well, whose values? Whose ethics?”

KIPP’s values are “relentlessly focused on individual achievement rather than “good and evil or citizenship and the commonweal,” complains Snyder.

. . . the key virtues taught during the nineteenth-century were piety, industry, kindness, honesty, thrift, and patriotism. During the Progressive era, character education concentrated on the twin ideas of citizenship and the “common good.” . . . In the 1960s and 1970s, meanwhile, character education focused on justice and working through thorny moral dilemmas. Today’s grit and self-control are basically industry and temperance in the guise of psychological constructs rather than moral imperatives.

. . . This is “tiger mother” territory here — a place where the “vulgar sense” of success prevails.

KIPP’s mission is to help students —  95 percent are African American or Latino — get “into and through” college.  That’s “laudable,” Snyder concedes. But really . . . “Educators who have embraced performance character seem to live in a world where their students are more likely to win a Nobel Prize than earn a living as a beautician, electrician, or police officer.”

We may not know how to teach character, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Perhaps few students will go on to win Nobel Prizes, but that doesn’t mean the school should give up on preparing students for success in college. The future electricians, police officers, teachers and accountants will need that — not just the future nuclear physicists.

I do think that KIPP should consider adding citizenship to its list of character strengths. And stop worrying about whose values the schools are promoting. These are the values of the parents who choose KIPP as their “tiger” school. They want their kids to succeed, however “vulgar” that may seem to others. If they wanted a school that saw their kids as future beauticians, they have other options.

The ‘grit lady’ wins a ‘genius’ grant

Angela Duckworth, known as “the grit lady,” has won a MacArthur “genius” grant worth $625,000. A Penn researcher, Duckworth says “grit” and self-control are strong predictors of success — and they can be taught.duckworth 

As a math teacher, she noticed that her best students weren’t always the brightest, she tells NPR. She wondered why some kids try harder than others.

The “character skills” of self-control and of grit are teachable, Duckworth believes. She plans to spend the $625,000 grant to bring middle-school teachers to Penn to discuss how best to develop students’ grit and self-control. (She also plans to buy boots.)

Grittier individuals tend to be “slightly less talented,” says Duckworth. “If things come very easily for you, if you learn things very quickly, you know, maybe you don’t develop the ability to overcome setbacks, to sustain effort, etc.”

Charter schools and citizenship

Charter students should be nation builders, says Seth Andrew, the founder of Democracy Prep Public Schools. The seven-school charter network is featured in the first policy brief in American Enterprise Institute’s new series of charter schools and civics education.

Andrew’s passion for civic activism and academic rigor are at the center of Democracy Prep’s model. The network’s motto—“Work hard. Go to college. Change the world!”—couples the “no-excuses” charter school movement’s emphasis on student achievement with a decidedly civic focus. This pairing is in the schools’ DNA; students and parents are exposed to an explicit and unapologetic emphasis on civic education from day one. As Andrew quipped at a 2012 event at the Brookings Institution, “We are called Democracy Prep, not Generic Prep.”

. . . Andrew views charter schooling as an ideal venue for experimenting with exactly how to teach citizenship. When it comes to civic education, Andrew argues, “The charter sector can start to model best practices . . . and really take risks”—such as sending a fleet of students to the streets of Harlem in a GOTV (get out the vote)  campaign.”

Democracy Prep teaches “what it means to be a citizen by doing—mobilizing voters, lobbying state legislators, and teaching their own family members about the importance of voting rights. Meanwhile, classroom lessons about history, government, rights, and responsibilities provide students with the foundation and context necessary to understand why civic engagement is so important.”

Of course, preparing students to be good citizens can take many forms. National Heritage Academies, a for-profit charter network based in Michigan, stresses character education. I wrote the Counting on Character brief for AEI.

Character education is ubiquitous and relentless at NHA schools. Each month is assigned a “moral focus” or virtue, which teachers are supposed to weave into their lessons and students write about from kindergarten through eighth grade. Signs in classrooms and hallways honor examples of virtue.

Like other charter schools, NHA promises parents to teach a rigorous curriculum that will prepare their children for success in college. It also promises a moral education imbued with traditional values such as love of country and family. Good character is not just a private asset, NHA leaders believe. It leads to good citizenship.

The AEI series will look at a variety of ways to teach civics and citizenship.

Grit is good, but academics come first

Stressing character traits such as “perseverance, self-monitoring, and flexibility”  over cognition is a mistake, writes Mike Rose, a UCLA professor. Many so-called “non-cognitive” traits require thinking skills.

Some colleges and universities are trying to measure non-cognitive traits to find “diamonds in the rough,” but so far high school grades, backed by test scores, are the most accurate predictors of college success.

Dan Willingham writes on the challenge of measuring non-cognitive skills.

Character becomes destiny

Pushing black students to earn science and engineering degrees has been a priority for Freeman Hrabowski (black guy with Polish ancestor), who’s run University of Maryland Baltimore County for 20 years, reports the Baltimore Sun. I was struck by the account of Hrabowski’s talk to predominantly low-income, black and Hispanic eighth graders at a Maryland middle school.

For their part, the kids appear distracted or sleepy. So Hrabowski attacks. “How many of you are smart?” he begins. A few hands tentatively go up. “All right, tell me your name and tell me what you want to be when you grow up,” he says.

. . . Slowly but surely, his energy transfers to the students. Hands raise more quickly. Thoughts come out more forcefully. “How many of you study at home at night?” he asks. Only two hands go up. “Now there’s the issue,” he says. “I guarantee the people who study are going to be successful. Nothing can replace hard work.”

Only two students study at home? Is it uncool to admit to doing homework? Or are they really that lazy?

He offers $50 for the first person to solve a math problem, but threatens to charge $5 for a wrong answer. (Of 29 students, 20 have a dog and 15 a cat. How many have both?)

“You need to be pumped all the time,” Hrabowski tells the students.

When I go to South Africa or Asia, they say, ‘Bring it on.’ They’re focused. They’re hungry for it. How are you gonna be the best if you can’t match that?”

As a young black kid, he says, he yearned to show a dubious world he was as smart as anybody. To this day, he works 80 to 90 hours and reads three books in a typical week. “That’s what it takes to be the best,” he says.

Nobody gets the right answer, but Hrabowski forgives the $5 debts, reports the Sun. ( I think it’s a range from six to 15. Is that right?)

He gets them on their feet and leads them through one of his favorite refrains: “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes destiny.”

Three students, all black boys, walk him to his car. He chastens them one more time about their study habits. “Rich kids work hard,” he says. “Most black kids aren’t working hard enough.”

Philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff “was struck by Hrabowski’s absolute faith that black men could thrive at the highest levels of academia if held to high enough standards from the start of college,” reports the Sun. With Meyerhoff’s money, UMBC  recruits students of all races aiming for doctoral studies in science or engineering.

Grit is good, but it’s not enough

Is Grit Enough?  In his look at Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, Robert Pondiscio highlights the chapter on the winning chess team at a Brooklyn middle school. Coach Elizabeth Spiegel spends “most of her time telling her students how they were messing up” in chess tournaments, Tough writes. “She does not hug.”

One of her stars, James Black, achieved master status before turning 13 and became a national champion. He beat a Ukrainian grand master. Despite good grades (a sign of grit), he does poorly on state exams. Spiegel pledged to prepare him for  New York City’s entrance exam for elite public high schools. But there was too much to learn.

“She was working hard with James on the test, and he was applying himself, even on hot summer days, but she was daunted by how much he didn’t know.  He couldn’t locate Africa or Asia on a map.  He couldn’t name a single European country.  When they did reading-comprehension drills, he didn’t recognize words like infant and communal and beneficial. . . . When James would get downhearted, and say that he just wasn’t any good at analogies or trigonometry, Spiegel would reply cheerfully that it was just like chess: a few years earlier, he had been no good at chess, and then he got specialized training and worked hard and mastered it.”

Despite his “keen intelligence” and grit, James couldn’t beat the test. Years of academic knowledge and skill isn’t crammable, writes Pondiscio.

Spiegel was angry about how little non-chess information James had been taught, she told Tough.

“He knows basic fractions, but he doesn’t know geometry, he doesn’t get the idea of writing an equation. He’s at the level I would have been at in second or third grade. It feels like he should have learned more.”

Without educated parents, James needed to be taught academic knowledge and vocabulary in school, Pondiscio writes.

The suggested takeaway for educators:  Kids need grit.  But schools need to be very smart and strategic from the very first days of school about the knowledge and skills we ask kids to be gritty about.

Tough talks about character and schools with Ed Week blogger Larry Ferlazzo.