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.

How do you teach grit?

Nobody really knows how to teach “grit,” says Penn researcher Angela Duckworth in a Scholastic interview.  “How do you get your teachers to speak in ways that support growth mind-set?”

Duckworth’s nonprofit, Character Lab, is “organizing some lectures for teachers about self-control, grit, and related topics” and is  helping put together a MOOC for teachers.

Duckworth chose “grit” over pluck, tenacity, persistence and perseverance as the best word to describe the non-cognitive skills that lead to success.

Challenge teaches perseverance

Challenging classwork teaches perseverance, writes Justin Minkel, who teaches second and third grade at a high-performing, high-poverty school in Arkansas. Non-cognitive skills such as perseverance, collaboration and goal-setting raise academic achievement, research shows.

Children will work hard on complex problems, he writes. “If a problem is easy, it’s embarrassing to get it wrong. If a problem is so complex even the teacher hasn’t figured out the answer yet, failure becomes a step toward success.”

His third graders design, build, advertise and sell a product for an economics unit.

The teams (or “companies”) will spend hours perfecting their design for an animal-shaped sticker book or toy iPhone, rehearsing the script for their commercials, and even spying on other teams with similar products to find out how they’re pricing them.

The first time around, only two of the eight companies made a profit. The kids on those teams didn’t sit back with a smug grin the way some students do when they get an A on a paper. Instead, they figured out how they could improve on their success to make an even bigger profit the next time around.

Kids on the six teams that lost money didn’t hang their heads the way students do when they get a D or an F. They immediately began talking about where they went wrong and how they could make a profit next time.

This what “productive failure” is all about, writes Minkel.

Black male collegians need grit, grades

Black men’s college success on white campuses depends on “grit” as well as academic preparation, according to a study by Ohio State Professor Terrell L. Strayhorn.

Strayhorn tracked 140 mostly first-generation college students at a large public university. He found that those who scored higher on an eight-item measure of grit earned higher course grades after taking into account prior achievement, age, transfer status and school engagement, among other factors.

. . . “The ability to persevere in the face of obstacles is a key to college success for black men. You can’t change where a student grows up, or the quality of the high school he attended. But grit is something that can be taught and instilled in young men and it will have a real effect on their success.”

Grit is usually defined as “a mix of resilience, perseverance, self-control, focus, and positive mindset,” notes Ed Week. People disagree on whether grit is a character trait, or a skill that can be taught.

Strayhorn envisions pre-semester “boot camps” with “learning activities and experiences that (a) nurture students’ capacity to persevere despite setbacks or failure, (b) clarify their personal and professional goals, and (c) provide them strategies for overcoming obstacles to achieving such goals.”

No math, no job

Weak math skills disqualify would-be workers, manufacturers say.

High school graduates applying for jobs at Tacoma’s General Plastics Manufacturing have to take a math test. The company makes foam products for the aerospace industry.

Eighteen questions, 30 minutes, and using a calculator is OK.

They are asked how to convert inches to feet, read a tape measure and find the density of a block of foam (mass divided by volume).

One in 10 pass the math test. And it’s not just a problem at General Plastics.

“Manufacturers are willing to train people about the specifics of their machines and technology,” said Linda Nguyen, CEO of Work Force Central, a partnership of government, business, education and community organizations that trains workers in Tacoma and surrounding Pierce County. “But they can’t afford to hire someone who needs to relearn basic math.”

Math teachers know their students will need math knowledge in the real word, writes Darren, a high school math teacher, on Right on the Left Coast. But he’s turned off by the story’s “drooling over Common Core Standards. Many teachers  “doubt . . .  the so-called cure.”

Having students write about math isn’t a real cure.  Group work isn’t a cure.  Collaboration requires everyone have some background knowledge on which to draw so everyone can contribute.  I wouldn’t mind cutting a few topics out so we had more time to cover the remaining topics more deeply, but to insist on so-called discovery learning is an exceedingly inefficient use of instructional time.

Instead of trying to make math “fun” or “applicable”, perhaps we could consider instilling in students, or insisting on, some perseverance and a sense of responsibility, and maybe even some delayed gratification.

Employers would value those traits too, Darren believes.

Many students who slid through high school without really learning math enroll at community colleges with hopes of training for a job or eventually earning a bachelor’s degree. Placement in remedial math is the single biggest dream killer.

“No excuses’ students struggle in college

“No excuses” charter schools send most or all of their low-income, minority students to college. But do “no excuses” students graduate from college? In Education Next, Robert Pondiscio looks at what charter schools are doing to improve their graduates’ college graduation rates.

KIPP is the largest and best known of a class of charter-management organizations (CMOs) that includes Achievement First, YES Prep, Uncommon Schools, Mastery, Aspire, and others. This group shares a set of familiar characteristics: more and longer school days, with a college preparatory curriculum for all students; strict behavioral and disciplinary codes; and a strong focus on building a common, high-intensity school culture. Classrooms and halls are awash in motivational quotations and college banners, typically from the alma maters of the inevitably young, hard-charging teachers who staff the schools. The signature feature is high behavioral and academic expectations for all students, the vast majority of whom are low-income, urban black and Hispanic kids.

Both KIPP and YES Prep track their graduates and report on how well they’re doing. One third of former KIPP middle schoolers have graduated college within six years — four times the average for disadvantaged students, but way below KIPP’s goals.

Black graduates of YES Prep average 1556 in reading, writing and math on the SAT, “far above the national average of 1273 for African Americans, and significantly higher than the 1500 national average for all students.” All graduates have passed at least one AP class. Less than 5 percent of YES Prep grads require remediation in college. Yet the six-year graduation rate is only 41 percent .

 “It wasn’t the academic piece that was holding our kids back,” notes senior director of college initiatives at YES Prep Donald Kamentz. “What we found hands down was it was the noncognitive piece—that tenacity, that grit—that allowed kids to harness those skills and persist when they faced difficulty.”

“What we’ve found with the ‘whatever it takes’ or ‘no excuses’ mentality is that it was very teacher-driven and less student-driven,” says Kametz, acknowledging this is a controversial line of thought in his own halls. A typical No Excuses approach might involve giving demerits or detention for missed assignments or turning in work that’s not “neat and complete.” Kamentz questions whether this tough-love approach helps create the self-advocacy in students they will need to be successful in college. “It’s the largest gaping hole with our kids in college,” he says. “They will constantly say, ‘You structured my life so much that I had to do very little thinking and structuring myself.’”

The no-excuses charters are trying to develop ways to strengthen students’ perseverance, “growth mindset” and grit. Some send  “posses” of students to “right-match” colleges that provide mentoring to first-generation-to-college students. (I love Pondiscio’s phrase: “in helicopter parentis.”)

KIPP, which started with middle schools, is adding elementary and high schools to strengthen academic preparation. The network also is following its alumni through college to help them cope with academic and social challenges. Now there are 1,000 KIPP graduates in college. In a few years, there will be 10,000. KIPP hopes to raise the college graduation rate to 75 percent, as high as students from upper-income families. The short-term goal is a 50 percent graduation rate.

Teaching grit

Teachers can help students develop “non-cognitive” abilities such as adaptability, self-control and motivation, argues Northwestern’s C. Kirabo Jackson in a working paper, Non-Cognitive Ability, Test Scores, and Teacher Quality.

Using 2005-10 North Carolina data on absenteeism, suspensions and grades as a proxy, Jackson finds non-cognitive factors predict college enrollment and lifetime earnings more strongly than cognitive ability, notes Education Gadfly.  Evaluating teachers on their affect on student test scores doesn’t capture their full contributions to student outcomes, Jackson concludes, suggesting evaluations should include teachers’ affect on student suspensions and absences.

I fore see problems. Student suspensions would be a less accurate way to measure students’ self-control if teachers knew they’d earn a higher rating — and perhaps more money — for a lower suspension rate. High school grades are a good way to predict college and career success since they measure work ethic and motivation as well as academic learning. But grade inflation would go wild if teachers were evaluated based on their students’ grades.

True Grit: Can Perseverance Be Taught? is the title of University of Pennsylvania Psychology Professor Angela Duckworth’s 2009 TED talk.

“Non-cognitive abilities” are ways of thinking, writes David Conley, a University of Oregon education professor, in an Ed Week commentary.

Are we not observing a higher form of thinking when we see students persist with difficult tasks, such as overcoming frustration; setting and achieving goals; seeking help; working with others; and developing, managing, and perceiving their sense of self-efficacy?

Executive functioning — the brain “monitors and adjusts to circumstances to accomplish specific aims and objectives” — is a critical part of the learning process, writes Conley.

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.

Kids make cool stuff, learn ‘grit’

Teaching kids to make things teaches problem-solving, perseverance and “grit,” reports Wired.

When Eugene Korsunskiy and seven of his fellow students from Stanford University’s d.school set out to tour the nation in a brightly painted truck full of laser cutters and rapid prototyping machines, they thought they were bringing a chance to play with high-tech maker tools to school kids who hadn’t had one yet.

And they were: SparkTruck, the educational make-mobile, made 73 stops this summer, treating 2,679 elementary and middle school students to hands-on workshops covering the basics of electrical engineering and digital fabrication, and giving a chance to make cool stuff in the process, like small robotic creatures and laser-cut rubber stamps.

The SparkTruck team learned to let children struggle with design problems, get frustrated, beg for help — and then figure it out. “Once you make it clear that you’re not there to provide the answer, they completely rise to the challenge,” said Korsunskiy.

American kids are said to be low on “grit,” the ability to learn from setbacks instead of giving up, Wired writes. Design teaches problem-solving, Korsunskiy said. Students learn to brainstorm, test ideas and go back to the drawing board.

Lots of failure, little effort to learn from it

John Thompson writes about “no excuses” schools after reading Paul Tough’s New article, What if the Secret to Success is Failure? Tough describes how KIPP co-founder David Levin tries to teach “perseverance and empathy” as well as academic skills.

In inner city schools, there is plenty of failure but rarely is there an effort to cultivate grittiness, resilience, and skills for rebounding from failure.

High-challenge schools have imitated the easiest of Levin’s methods by putting up signs saying “Whatever It Takes!” and “Failure is NOT an Option!” Thompson writes. They forget Levin’s concerns about the “socio-emotional aspects of learning.”

Here’s the model:

First, principals and teachers who supported Levin’s vision would start by calling a faculty meeting and proclaiming an unflinching focus on instruction, as well as a system for providing remediation. . . .  a system of rewards and punishments for students and teachers, along with additional paperwork would be announced.

. . .  at first, these initiatives always worked pretty well, and often they were spectacular successes. After a few weeks, however, the issue for teachers would become the minority of students who failed to comply.

By October, teachers push loudly for consequences. Faculty meetings degenerate into shouting matches. Eventually, complaints about students’ behavior are labeled “excuses.”  If the principal tries to send the worst discipline problems to alternative schools, they’re sent back quickly.

Thompson wonders what could have happened if the system had tried to teach perseverance and empathy.

What if the failure to meet classroom behavioral standards had not been dismissed as the teachers’ failures with classroom management? Think of the difference it would have made if educators in neighborhood schools had the ability to draw a line and enforce standards. Then, the failure of a student to control his or her behavior could have become “a teachable moment.” We could have helped students develop the resilience required to be a good citizen in class.

“Had we been just as serious about teaching students to be students as we were about teaching subject matter, could we have avoided our reform wars?” Thompson asks.