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.”

UK study: Female teachers give boys lower grades

At least in Britain, female teachers mark boys more harshly than outside examiners, according to a London School of Economics study.

Expecting lower grades from female teachers, boys worked less in their classes, the study found. Girls think — incorrectly — that male teachers will favor them and work harder for them.

“Students from low-income families and minority ethnic backgrounds do not believe in systematic teacher biases,” researchers reported. They found no evidence of grading bias based on socioeconomic or minority status.

ES or N? DEM or PRG?

Instead of A’s, B’s, C’s or D’s , Montgomery County, Maryland students in first through third grades will get ES, P, I or N on their report cards, explains the Washington Post. ES means “exceptional,” P means “demonstrating proficiency,” I means “in progress,” and N means “not yet making progress or making minimal progress” toward meeting standards. DEM (demonstrating), PRG (progressing) or N (not yet evident) will be given for  “effort,” “intellectual risk taking” and “originality.”

Parents are confused by the “standards-based” grading system, reports the Post. No kidding!

Students will earn an ES, P, etc. in each of several categories in each subject area. “For example, social studies is divided into “measurement topics” of civics, culture, economics, geography and history,” reports the Post.

(GreatSchools’ Samantha Brown) Olivieri said more schools across the country are moving toward standards-based report cards to align with the adoption of Common Core standards, which focus on critical thinking and other higher-order skills students are expected to have in the “real world.”

“It’s not just about what letter we’re using or the grading systems,” Olivieri said. “It’s about the information inspiring action from parents to support their kids.”

Montgomery County plans to expand the new grades to fourth and fifth grade. Other districts are following suit.

But some parents think it’s the same old system with different letters, reports the Post.

Alicia White’s daughter is a third-grader at Dr. Sally K. Ride Elementary School. . . . “For her spelling test, my daughter came home with an I, and to me, I saw it and just [said], ‘That’s a C,’?” White said.

Another parent calls the new report cards “squishy” and say parents don’t know how to use the reports to help their children do better.

Teachers will have to spend more time grading in all the sub-categories, not to mention deciding who gets a DEM, PRG or N in “intellectual risk-taking” and “originality.” (How does one evaluate a first grader’s intellectual risk-taking?) Parents will have to spend more time analyzing the report card — or , at least, translating into A, B, C, D and F grades. Is it worth it?

Unprepared in SAT prep class

A straight A student in Los Angeles schools, Andrea Lopez went to a SAT prep workshop and realized she was way behind students from other high schools. Will my best be good enough? she asks in LA Youth. She couldn’t do a single math problem. Other students knew vocabulary that she’d never learned, such as “spurious” and “cogent.” After years of being the best student in class, she felt stupid.

Her advisory teacher at Social Justice Humanitas, an academy within a larger high school, explained that her fears were reasonable.

Most of our parents, he pointed out, can’t help us with school because they didn’t finish high school or don’t speak English. Or they have to work all day to put food on the table. He was right. My parents stopped helping me with homework around fourth grade.

. . . “Most of those kids will have it easier than you guys because their parents are able to provide them with what they need,” he said.

“Wouldn’t it be better to know that you put in a strong effort to get to that dream college?” he continued. “That you made it work because you were determined and you understood everything you learned in school and you didn’t just wing it?”

Later, Lopez talked to Social Justice Humanitas graduates at UC Irvine, UC San Diego and San Diego State, who said they’d taken community college classes in high school, performed community service and joined clubs “to show colleges that they were well rounded.”

“I know we can make it if we are determined to work our hardest,” Lopez concludes.

With straight A’s, she’ll make it to state universities, but she’ll need reading, writing and some math skills to earn a degree. I’m a big fan of hard work, but I’d feel better about her chances if she’d talked to her high school math teacher about how to solve those math (advanced algebra?) problems. What can she do to learn it so she’ll have options in college? And her English teacher may be able to help too.

This girl has met every expectation in school. Now, with one year of high school to go, she learns the expectations were too low. She got a pep talk. She needs a study plan.

Schleicher: China’s students are ‘remarkable’

China: The world’s cleverest country? asks the BBC. Shanghai students ace PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). Now Andreas Schleicher, who runs PISA for the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) says Chinese students all over the country excel in reading, math and science.

“Even in rural areas and in disadvantaged environments, you see a remarkable performance.”

In particular, he said the test results showed the “resilience” of pupils to succeed despite tough backgrounds – and the “high levels of equity” between rich and poor pupils.

. . . “In China, the idea is so deeply rooted that education is the key to mobility and success.”

The results for disadvantaged pupils would be the envy of any Western country, he says.

Asian culture encourages students to work hard, Schleicher tells the BBC.

“North Americans tell you typically it’s all luck. ‘I’m born talented in mathematics, or I’m born less talented so I’ll study something else.’

“In Europe, it’s all about social heritage: ‘My father was a plumber so I’m going to be a plumber’.

“In China, more than nine out of 10 children tell you: ‘It depends on the effort I invest and I can succeed if I study hard.’

“They take on responsibility. They can overcome obstacles and say ‘I’m the owner of my own success’, rather than blaming it on the system.”

The high-scoring Asian countries expect all students to succeed, Schleicher believes. School is not a “sorting mechanism” to find the brightest students.

I’m surprised to hear China described as an egalitarian education system. China’s best (and most politically connected) students attend well-funded  “key” or “super” schools, which lead to top universities, complains this story. Rural students are disadvantaged.

The habits of successful students

Students who go to classes, study at least 20 hours a week and use college tutoring and support centers usually earn a degree. It also helps to make friends. Slackers and loners usually don’t make it through.

But poor academic preparation — not lack of effort — explains the high drop-out rate of low-income college students, concludes a new study. Many low-income students believe they’re ready for college but earn low grades, especially in math and science.

Lazy business majors

Business majors not pulling their weight? Taiwanese animators at NMA take on reports that U.S. business students don’t work very hard or learn very much.

It’s the students, stupid

We’re obsessing about teacher quality and ignoring what really matters, writes Will Fitzhugh on School Information System. It’s the students, stupid. If they do the work, they’ll  learn. If they wait for teachers to pour knowledge (or skills) in their heads, they won’t.

As in the old story about the drunk searching under the lamppost for his keys, those who control funds for education believe that as long as all their money goes to paying attention to what teachers are doing, who they are, how they are trained, and so on, they can’t see the point of looking in the darkness at those who have the complete and ultimate control over how much academic achievement there will be — namely the students.

Of course, it’s hard to fire lazy, unproductive students, Fitzhugh concedes.

Why China excels

Shanghai;s 15-year-old students are way better than the rest of the world in reading, science and, especially math, notes Education Gadfly’s Amber M. Winkler, looking at the latest PISA results. “In math, they scored nearly a full standard deviation above the OECD average.” And it’s not just rote learning: PISA asks students to apply knowledge to real-world problems.

As an authoritarian regime, China “can force educational change in ways that are unthinkable in democracies,” Winkler writes. Still,  “despite our vastly different governments and cultures, there may yet be a few lessons that America can learn from China.”

(Shanghai) unabashedly closed or merged its lowest-performing schools with its highest-performing ones (of which there are apparently enough). It also transferred—involuntarily, mind you—a number of outstanding urban school teachers and principals to low-performing rural schools and a number of rural staff to high-performing urban sites in order to learn the ropes. Under “commissioned administration,” they can assign a good public school to take over a bad one.

The Chinese create consortia of strong and weak, old and new, and public and private schools with one exceptionally strong school at the core, which is charged with sharing best practices, Winkler writes.

Virtually all teachers are subject-matter experts, not generalists; effective classroom practitioners gain a higher “professional status;” and China has common curriculum standards. It also has a rigorous framework for teaching that includes small groups of instructors engaged in lesson preparation and teaching demonstrations. And in a policy alien to Americans, municipalities in China funnel more money and better teachers to “key schools” which serve high-performing students.

The Chinese rank schools and publish the ratings.

Of course, Chinese schools benefit from the reverence for education, which started with Confucius, Winkler writes. The culture includes a belief that academic success is a matter of effort, under the student’s control, rather than the result of inborn talent.

Unrelenting practice is the secret to the Chinese education system, writes Yuan Tian, a master’s student in philanthropic studies at Indiana University, in a letter to Gadfly.

As a student in China, I was told since my first day of elementary school to focus on my studies, to achieve high scores on all tests, and to go to a respected university. Similarly, teachers are instructed to cover only the content needed to guarantee their students obtain scores worthy of university admittance. The reason is simple: A solid university education means a good job in the future . . .

My participation in the Chinese educational system came with a price — I paid for my acceptance into a good college with twelve years without free choice or the ability to develop personal interests.

She spent four to five hours a day on homework. China’s obsession with tests comes “at the expense of producing well-rounded, thoughtful, independent-minded people,” she writes.

Testing, testing

Frequent tests are no big deal for young children in China, writes Elizabeth Rosenthal in the New York Times. Her children felt challenged, not stressed, by tests when they were in elementary school at the International School of Beijing.

No Child Left Behind required end-of-the year tests to hold schools accountable for students’ achievement. Race to the Top encourages a stream of “formative” tests to help students and their teachers track their progress throughout the year.

Some education experts hail the change as a step forward from the ideological dark ages. “Research has long shown that more frequent testing is beneficial to kids, but educators have resisted this finding,” said Gregory J. Cizek, a professor of educational measurement and evaluation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Tests should be age appropriate and should not determine a student’s future based on performance on a single day, like China’s high-stakes, high-stress university entrance exams.

But Professor Cizek, who started his career as a second-grade teacher, said the prevailing philosophy of offering young children unconditional praise and support was probably not the best prescription for successful education. “What’s best for kids is frequent testing, where even if they do badly, they can get help and improve and have the satisfaction of doing better,” he said. “Kids don’t get self-esteem by people just telling them they are wonderful.”

In Beijing, her children struggled in some subjects and grades.

But let’s face it, life is filled with all kinds of tests — some you ace and some you flunk — so at some point you have to get used to it.

. . . When testing is commonplace and the teachers are supportive — as my children’s were, for the most part — the tests felt like so many puzzles; not so much a judgment on your being, but an interesting challenge. It is a testament to the International School of Beijing — or to the malleability of childhood memory — that Andrew now says he did not realize that he was being tested.

When the family moved back to New York City, her children, then 9 and 11, “started at a progressive school with no real tests, no grades, not even auditions for the annual school musical.”  They missed the feedback.

Primed with Beijing test-taking experience, they each soon tested into New York City’s academic public schools — where they have had tests aplenty and (probably not surprisingly) a high proportion of Asian classmates.

Classroom tests are very different from high-stakes, end-of-the year testing, responds Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge blog.

Likewise there is a difference between studying and mastering a body of material for, say, a biology or geometry test, and a state reading test.  There is no body of knowledge to study with a reading test.  Test-taking skills and reading strategies that might provide a short-term boost are deleterious in the long run.  Countless hours of test prep and strategy sessions are educationally unproductive.  And it would be naive in the extreme to suggest high-stakes tests are not materially different than a workaday math quiz in the anxiety they produce.

Virtually all teachers assess students, formally and informally, all the time, Pondiscio writes. Many children enjoy the competition of things like “mad minute” math drills.  Even for those who don’t, “classroom tests focus the mind and efforts of students to master material.”

Unfortunately, none of these things are true of high stakes reading and math tests. They don’t drive instruction because months go by before you get the results. No bragging rights or competitive juices are fired by them. And reading tests are impossible to study for  since they are constructed on a mistaken notion of reading as a transferable skill.  It’s possible to be a firm believer in testing – even high stakes testing – yet have misgivings about their impact on education.

Asians think test scores reflect effort, while Americans believe scores show ability, notes Heidi Grant Halvorson on Psychology Today.

If we want our children to see tests as informative and challenging, we need to emphasize the importance of effort, persistence, and strategy use over ability. We need to explain to them how tests can help them see what they need to improve, and express confidence that they will improve if they don’t give up.

The anti-testing ethos is expressed in a new movie, Race to Nowhere, which argues students are under too much pressure to perform.