Testing for joy and grit? 


Jade Cooney leads “good-behavior games” with her fifth-grade class at Visitacion Valley Elementary School in San Francisco. Photo: Elizabeth D. Herman, New York Times

Schools are trying to measure students’ “social and emotional skills,” reports Kate Zernike in the New York Times. But how do you measure “joy” and “grit?” Nobody really knows.

SAN FRANCISCO — The fifth graders in Jade Cooney’s classroom compete against a kitchen timer during lessons to see how long they can sustain good behavior — raising hands, disagreeing respectfully and looking one another in the eye — without losing time to insults or side conversations.

As reward for minutes without misconduct, they win prizes like 20 seconds to kick their feet up on their desks or to play rock-paper-scissors.

And starting this year, their school and schools in eight other California districts will test students on how well they have learned the kind of skills like self-control and conscientiousness that the games aim to cultivate — ones that might be described as everything you should have learned in kindergarten but are still reading self-help books to master in middle age.

The newly revised federal education law “requires states to include at least one nonacademic measure in judging school performance,” notes Zernike.  But advocates of teaching social-emotional skills “warn that the definitions are unclear and the tests faulty.”

“I do not think we should be doing this; it is a bad idea,” said Angela Duckworth, the Stanford psychologist who popularized the “growth mindset.” Her new book, out in May, is titled Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

. . . Last spring, after attending a White House meeting on measuring social-emotional skills, she and a colleague wrote a paper warning that there were no reliable ways to do so. “Our working title was all measures suck, and they all suck in their own way,” she said.

A 2011 analysis of 213 school-based social-emotional skills programs found that they improved academic achievement, writes Zernike. The next year, Paul Tough extolled schools that teach “grit” in How Children Succeed: Grit Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character

Next year, the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress will include questions about students’ social-emotional skills.

Parents don’t want Uncle Sam to become Uncle Shrink, writes Robert Holland in Townhall.

College readiness includes coping, character

I am for peace
Perspectives Charter students organized a peace march in Chicago last year to urge young people to reject violence.

First-generation, low-income college students need more than academic skills to succeed in college, many educators now believe. College readiness includes social and emotional skills, writes Hechinger’s Emmanuel Felton in The Atlantic.

“Plenty of kids” are eligible for college, but not really ready, says Laura Jimenez of the American Institutes for Research. “If your class is at eight in the morning, are you going to be able to get up and get to class? Are you going to seek help when you need it?”

At five Perspectives Charter schools, which serve low-income Chicago students in grades six through 12, every student takes a daily class called A Disciplined Life that stresses what might be called character education. Only 8 percent of Perspectives students passed Common Core-aligned tests last year, writes Felton. However, 93 percent of graduates attend college and 44 percent graduate in six years, a high success rate for disadvantaged students.

Ronald Brown, a senior at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, says Perspectives’s focus on social-emotional skills set him up to tackle the demands of the selective, mostly white and affluent liberal-arts college.

“Perspectives prepared me,” said Brown. “Be open-minded, try new things, challenge each other and yourself intellectually, time management, all of that came easy. And when I hit academic barriers, I persisted and kept moving forward. I took advantage of tutoring, the counseling center, the math center, the writing center, anything that could help.”

At KIPP and YES Prep, predominantly low-income black and Latino students do well on state reading and math tests, but struggle in college. Both charter networks have turned to social and emotional learning to boost their college success rates.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) “identifies five essential aptitudes: self-management, self-awareness, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness,” writes Felton. “But none of these skills are straightforward to measure—and how educators stress and relay them to kids looks very different from school to school.”

51gaLpYzZ4L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Educators hope teaching non-cognitive skills “will help students develop the inner fortitude and confidence to push through personal and learning challenges,” writes Katrina Schwartz on Mind/Shift.

Character development programs have become more popular,” but it’s not clear which character strengths improve student success.

In Character Compass: How Powerful School Culture Can Point Students Towards Success, Scott Seider, a Boston University education professor, discusses how three high-performing Boston charter schools, all primarily enrolled black and Latino students, try to develop character.

The strongest predictors of good grades were perseverance and school-connectedness, he found.

Effort isn’t enough: Kids have to learn

Psychologist Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset” theory — students work harder and learn more if they believe they can “grow their brains” — is red-hot in the education world.

Everyone says they believe in the growth mindset, even when they don’t really, Dweck writes in Education Week. A “growth mindset isn’t just about effort.” It’s about learning and improving.

The student who didn’t learn anything is told, “Great effort! You tried your best!”

Instead, a teacher might say, “Let’s talk about what you’ve tried, and what you can try next.”

Dweck has a fear that keeps her up at night, she writes.

. . . that the mindset concepts, which grew up to counter the failed self-esteem movement, will be used to perpetuate that movement. In other words, if you want to make students feel good, even if they’re not learning, just praise their effort! Want to hide learning gaps from them? Just tell them, “Everyone is smart!”

She calls for “telling the truth about a student’s current achievement and then, together, doing something about it, helping him or her become smarter.”

Prepare to struggle

In a new episode of Inside Quest, psychologist Carol Dweck describes how she helps her Stanford students develop a “growth mindset.” Students must write letters to themselves “from the future,” focusing on all the challenges, heartaches, and failures they’ve overcome along the way.

Grit, mindset will be part of ‘Nation’s Report Card’

Students’ motivation, mindset, “grit” and other noncognitive traits will be measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “nation’s report card,” beginning in 2017, reports Education Week.

The background survey will include five core areas — grit, desire for learning, school climate, technology use, and socioeconomic status — of which the first two focus on a student’s noncognitive skills, and the third looks at noncognitive factors in the school. . . . In addition, questions about other noncognitive factors, such as self-efficacy and personal achievement goals, may be included on questionnaires for specific subjects . . .

There’s no plan to use NAEP’s noncognitive measures to judge schools.

However, a “coalition of seven California districts that have received waivers from some federal accountability requirements are developing a new accountability system, in which 40 percent of a school’s evaluation will take into account school culture and students’ social and emotional learning,” reports Ed Week. Schools that score poorly on these measures will be paired with a higher-performing school to learn how to improve.

Don’t use measures of noncognitive traits for school accountability, advises Angela Duckworth, who’s pretty much the inventor of “grit” and colleague David Scott Yeager. These measures are not reliable enough for this use, they write.

Learning grit, character, non-cognitive skills or . . . ?

In addition to academic skills, students need . . .  Is it “grit,” “character,” a “growth mindset,” “non-cognitive traits and habits,” “21st-century skills,” “social and emotional skills” or perhaps “soft skills?” Nobody’s quite sure, writes Anya Kamenetz on NPR.

“Basically we’re trying to explain student success educationally or in the labor market with skills not directly measured by standardized tests,” says Martin West, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Credit: LA Johnson/NPR

Credit: LA Johnson/NPR

Laura Bornfreund, deputy director of education policy at the New America Foundation who prefers “Skills for Success,” says the different terms reflect “a lack of agreement on what really is most important to students.”

I’ve been visiting high-performing schools with lots of high-need students lately. Every single principal mentioned the importance of a “growth mindset” for teachers and students.

Many students say their classes are easy, writes Lisa Hansel on Core Knowledge blog. “Thanks to the self-esteem movement, the narrowing of the curriculum, and test-prep drills that focus more on strategies than on content, we now have a grit, character, team work, self-discipline, call-it-whatever-you-want problem.”

Trying to teach these skills and traits directly isn’t the solution, Hansel argues.

I had some easy history classes in middle school. Then I had a high school US history class with fact- and concept-heavy exams, quarterly debates, and a college-quality term paper (that was spread across the entire year so we were taught each step of the research and writing process). The class was not easy. It was also one of the best I ever took. Grit was necessary, but not the goal. We were given a goal that made us want to develop knowledge, skills, and grit: understanding America’s past and present so that we would be capable of helping shape a better tomorrow.

I think “executive functioning skills” such as planning, focusing attention and self-regulating are the key to success in school, college and life.

If kids can’t improve, bad schools are OK

Is intelligence fixed — or can kids get smarter? The importance of a “growth mindset” applies to educators as well as students, writes Robert Maranto, 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

“If you think that intelligence is a constant, then there is no point reforming schools because schools don’t matter,” he writes in the Baltimore Sun.

“Good” schools and “good” teachers either cherry picked or lucked into smart students. It’s unfair to compare schools or teachers on academic results because student learning is determined by who teachers teach, not what or how they teach.

When right-wing social scientists argue that genetics determines low academic performance, their views are marginalized, Maranto writes. But many on the left also believe some groups of children can’t learn.

I know prominent education professors who have not read any of the eight high quality scientific evaluations of the high poverty/high achievement Knowledge Is Power Program schools, nor set foot in such schools, but know that KIPP must be cheating in some way. They have no more interest in the research on KIPP than a creationist has in paleontology.

Our unwillingness to learn from success goes beyond ignoring successful charter schools. I do fieldwork in a reasonably good school district that has depressingly little success teaching its Hispanic minority; yet no one there bothers to check out a similar school district 10 miles away that has nearly eliminated its Anglo-Hispanic achievement gap. These educators believe, on the basis of no evidence, that Hispanics in the other school district differ from their Hispanics. They cannot imagine different tactics including parental outreach and after school tutoring yielding better outcomes with the same kids.

Urban superintendents aren’t more likely to keep their jobs when achievement rises, Maranto’s research found.

Yesterday, I visited a San Jose elementary school whose students — more than 80 percent are English Learners from lower-income families — excel at reading and math. It’s called Rocketship Brilliant Minds.

Teachers and students dance each day at Morning Launch.

Learn from charter schools

Learn from urban charter schools’ success, argues Liz Riggs, who’s taught at both district and charter schools in Tennessee, in Education Post.

In Memphis, Nashville and other cities across the country, urban charters are showing strong gains in reading and math for disadvantaged students, according to the new Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) study.

Value-added scores are high at KIPP Nashville, where 90+ percent of students come from low-income families.

Value-added scores are high at KIPP Nashville, where nearly all students come from low-income families.

In Nashville’s Davidson County, nearly 40 percent of “Rewards Schools (top five percent)  were high-poverty charter schools, she writes. In Memphis, 73 percent of charters outperformed traditional district-run schools.

When she switched from a district to a charter school, she “used many of my materials from teaching ninth graders specifically for my new eighth grade students.”

All the charter teachers and administrators believed “that students could achieve whatever they set their minds to,” Riggs writes. This sort of growth mindset may be held by individual teachers and teams in district schools, but is not a “schoolwide mantra.”

I worked with one English teacher at a district high school in Nashville whose students have already grown 1.3 years in reading in one semester, but that teacher will be leaving her district school for a charter next year. Presumably, she wants a place where she is not alone in achieving this growth and instilling these mindsets in students.

According to CREDO, charter schools in both cities enroll comparable numbers of English Learners, special ed and low-income students, Riggs writes. Ninety-one percent of Nashville charter students come from low-income families, compared to 72 percent of students at district schools.

‘You can get smarter’

Evanston is a Chicago suburb with one very large high school. It enrolls the children of doctors, lawyers and Northwestern professors. It enrolls students from low-income and working-class families. Half are white or Asian-American and half are black or Latino. 

When Eric Witherspoon took over as superintendent of the district, he saw a very integrated school with segregated classrooms, reports Sophie Quinton in National Journal. “Our Advanced Placement classes were disproportionately white, and our classes for struggling students were disproportionately nonwhite,” says Witherspoon.

Team ASAP (Access and Success in Advanced Placement) tout AP classes at Evanston High

Team ASAP (Access and Success in Advanced Placement) members encourage Evanston students to choose AP classes.

Evanston High has expanded academic supports, such as AVID, study centers, early morning and Saturday study sessions. In 2010, honors humanities was opened to all ninth graders. Those who do well earn honors credit and prepare for Advanced Placement work. Other students earn credit for a regular class.

My daughter’s ninth-grade English class (aka “Critical Thinking”) was an honors class for students who chose to do extra work and a regular class for others. It worked well — because the spread wasn’t all that great between the two groups.

Honor students’ parents protested, fearing the courses would be watered down, but “earned honors’ has expanded to ninth-grade science.

The school, which is very well funded, has invested in training teachers how to teach mixed-level classes and how to have “constructive conversations” about race. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has talked to staff about cultivating a “growth mindset,” the belief that you can improve, if you work hard enough.

The belief that “intelligence is malleable” has taken root, says Witherspoon.

“You can get smarter,” he says, banging his hands on the table for emphasis.

. . . Nine years ago, about 38 percent of juniors and seniors had taken at least one AP exam, and 77 percent of tests earned a passing grade or higher. Last year, 64 percent of juniors and seniors took at least one AP exam, and 71 percent of tests earned a passing grade or higher.

In the class of 2014, 88 percent of white graduates, 82 percent of Asians, 60 percent of Latinos and 44 percent of African-Americans took at least one AP exam.

Study: ‘It gets better’ prevents depression

Telling ninth graders that people can change can lower the risk of depression, according to a University of Texas study published in Clinical Psychological Science. 

Lifelong struggles with depression often start with puberty, says David Yeager, assistant professor of psychology and lead author of the study.

The study asked one group of incoming ninth graders to read a passage describing how individuals’ personalities are subject to change.

The passage emphasized that being bullied is not the result of a fixed, personal deficiency, nor are bullies essentially “bad” people. An article about brain plasticity and endorsements from older students accompanied the passage. After reading the materials, the students were asked to write their own narrative about how personalities can change, to be shared with future ninth-graders.

Students in the control group read a passage that focused on the malleability of a trait not related to personality: athletic ability.

Nine months later, “rates of clinically significant depressive symptoms rose by roughly 39 percent among students in the control group, in line with previous research on depression in adolescence.” However, students who were told personality is malleable showed no increase in depressive symptoms, even if they’d been bullied.

That jibes with research on the academic benefits of having a “growth mindset,” the belief that ability is malleable. And with the “it gets better” campaign aimed at gay teens facing abuse.