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.

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.

Can schools measure non-cognitive skills?

The new federal education law tells states to use at least one non-academic measure, such as student engagement or school climate, to evaluate schools. That opens the door to using “social and emotional skills, grit or growth mindsets” in accountability models, writes Evie Blad on Ed Week. It may be a “trap door,” she warns.

Researchers warn that “current measures of student traits are imprecise, imperfect, and subject to all kinds of biases,” writes Blad. Measures such as surveys shouldn’t be used for accountability, argue researchers Angela Duckworth and David Yeager.

“A growing battery of school leaders, researchers and policymakers think surveys are the best tool available right now to measure important social and emotional goals for schools and students — qualities like grit, growth mindset, student engagement or . . . student-teacher relationships,” writes Anya Kamenetz for NPR.

Nine large California districts — Fresno, Garden Grove, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento City, San Francisco, Sanger and Santa Ana Unified — banded together in 2013 to apply for a No Child Left Behind waiver.

The CORE districts, as they were known, drew up a School Quality Improvement System that relied 60 percent on traditional academics, and 40 percent on “social-emotional and culture-climate” factors. This 40 percent includes indicators the schools were already collecting: on chronic absenteeism, suspension and expulsion rates. But the districts also wanted to know how well schools were faring in building nontraditional, noncognitive skills.

The CORE districts are working with a nonprofit called Transforming Education to design measures of growth mindset, self-efficacy, self-management and social awareness, writes Kamenetz.

The collaborative introduced the new index this month and plans to issue the first scores in February, reports EdSource.

A new working paper from Transforming Educaiton highlights research backing the importance of self-control,  social competence and other non-cognitive skills, writes Dan Willingham.

“MESH (Mindsets, Essential Skills, Habits)” skills are linked to academic achievement, high school and college completion, success in the workplace, good health and more, the report concludes.

It’s less clear on how schools can promote these skills, if they’re not taught at home.

Social skills lead to success

“Socially competent” kindergarteners — kids who cooperate and play well with others — are more likely to complete college and work full-time by their mid-20s, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health. Their less socially skilled classmates were more likely to have a criminal record and to report binge drinking.

In 1991 teachers evaluated kindergarteners on a scale of 1 to 5 on how well they interacted with others, including measures like: “cooperates with peers without prompting”; “is helpful to others”; “is very good at understanding feelings”; “can give suggestions and opinions without being bossy”; and “resolves problems on own.”

Childhood aggression measures did not predict criminal activity, notes Education Week.

For every one-point increase on a five-point scale, children were twice as likely to earn a college degree; 54 percent more likely to earn a high school diploma, and 46 percent more likely to have a full-time job. On the down side, for every one-point decrease, a child was 67 percent more likely to have been arrested by adulthood, and 82 percent more likely to be in or on a waiting list for public housing.

Researchers believe young children can be taught social skills, possibly affecting their later success in life.

Wait-for-the-marshmallow children from low-income, black families experience less depression, substance abuse and aggression than their peers with less self-control, according to another new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  But disadvantaged blacks with high self-control age faster,

In earlier research, self-control was linked to high blood pressure, obesity and higher levels of stress hormones for blacks from low-income families, but not for middle-class blacks or for whites.

Summer jobs save lives

New York City teens who got a summer job didn’t earn more three years later, concludes a study that compared participants to applicants who lost the lottery. Getting a summer job didn’t change the odds of college enrollment.

But summer job participants were more likely to be alive three years later, researchers found. The incarceration rate fell by more than 10 percent and mortality by almost 20 percent for former summer job participants.

Youths clean up blight in Memphis as part of an anti-crime program. (AP Photo/The Commercial Appeal, Jim Weber)

Youths clean up blight in Memphis as part of an anti-crime program. (AP Photo/The Commercial Appeal, Jim Weber)

In Chicago, summer workers from high-poverty neighborhoods were less likely to commit a violent crime, another study found. Arrest rates for violence fell by 43 percent over 13 months.

“It might be teaching youths that not everything that happens is an affront to them, not to get quite so angry and not to throw that punch,” said Sara Heller, a Penn criminology professor. “It’s teaching them to manage their own thoughts and emotions more constructively.”

Fewer teens — especially low-income, minority youths — have summer jobs, according to a new report. Over the past 12 years, youth employment has declined by 40 percent. In 2013, “white male youths from high-income families were five times more likely to be employed than black male youths from low-income families.”

Underparented kids on a plane

After getting up at 4 am to catch a cross-country flight, Amy Alkon hoped to sleep on the plane. But a three-year-old in the next row was talking so loudly that noise-canceling headphones weren’t enough.

“Excuse me, could you please ask your little girl to be a little quieter?” Alkon whispered to the mother.

“No,” the woman said.

“Go-right-ahead!” mommying is spreading, writes Alkon in The Underparented Child Flies Again. “There’s no age that’s too young to start prepping the little nipper for Harvard,” she writes in the New York Observer. Yet many parents don’t teach empathy, the root of good manners.

. . . that mom on the plane could have both modeled empathy and asked her daughter to show it: “You know, sweetie, how you get cranky when you haven’t had your nap? Many people had to wake up really early for this flight and might want to sleep, so let’s pretend we’re mice and use our quietest voices.”

. . . getting in the habit of living as if other people matter makes you more likely to be employed by them, to be liked and respected by them, and even to be loved by them. Sure, it’s good to be king. But it’s ultimately far more satisfying to be kind.

Nobody likes a brat — on a plane, in the home or in the workplace.

Snakes on a plane? At least, they’re quiet. 

KIPP boosts academics, but not character

KIPP schools do a great job of teaching academics, but the stress on character education isn’t producing students with more “grit,” persistence, self-control or other character strengths,  writes Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor.

KIPP charters — primarily middle schools — recruit low-income, minority students. In addition to “factors proven to bolster academic success (high expectations, parental involvement, time spent on instruction),” KIPP schools try to develop “seven character strengths — zest, grit, self-control, optimism, curiosity, gratitude, and social intelligence,” writes Steinberg.

Mathematica study compared students whose families had applied to a KIPP middle school but lost out in the lottery to students who’d won the KIPP lottery. If KIPP kids have more motivated parents, so do the children in the control group.

 . . . KIPP students outperformed the comparison children on numerous measures of achievement, across a range of subject areas. KIPP students also spent more time on homework. . . .

However . . . the KIPP children showed no advantage on any of the measures of character strengths. They weren’t more effortful or persistent. They didn’t have more favorable academic self-conceptions or stronger school engagement. They didn’t score higher than the comparison group in self-control. In fact, they were more likely to engage in “undesirable behavior,” including losing their temper, lying to and arguing with their parents, and giving teachers a hard time. They were more likely to get into trouble at school. Despite the program’s emphasis on character development, the KIPP students were no less likely to smoke, drink, get high, or break the law. Nor were their hopes for their educational futures any higher or their plans any more ambitious.

While nearly 90 percent of former KIPP students enroll in college, only a third earn a degree. That’s triple the graduation rate of students from comparable disadvantaged backgrounds, but far below KIPP’s expectations.

Ryane Burke, assistant principal at KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory Academy, leads sessions in mindful movement to help students stay focused and energized.  - See more at:

Ryane Burke, assistant principal at KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory Academy, leads sessions in mindful movement to help students stay focused and energized.

Steinberg believes character education is not the best way to develop students’ self-regulation. Other approaches include: meditation, yoga, aerobic exercise and “cognitive behavioral programs, such as those used to help children learn impulse control.”

Some KIPP schools do use these techniques.

Poverty casts a long shadow

Poor kids usually grow up to be poor adults, concludes The Long Shadow. Johns Hopkins researchers followed 790 Baltimore first-graders until their late twenties. Nearly half had the same income status as their parents; only a third of the poorest moved out of poverty.

Four percent of those from low-income families had a college degree at 28, compared to 45 percent of their higher-income peers.

Baltimore’s low-income blacks do worse than low-income whites, writes Michelle Gininger.

Forty percent of blacks who dropped out of high school were now working, compared to 89 percent of white high school dropouts, the study found.

Black and white women both earned less than their male counterparts, but white women tended to be better off financially with the benefit of marriage or a live-in partner. Black women earned less than white women and were less likely to be in stable relationships.

Growing up poor affects adults’ sense of control, concludes a new study. Even those who’ve reached the middle class may be more likely to make impulsive decisions and “quickly give up on challenging tasks in uncertain situations,” according to lead author Chiraag Mittal, MS, a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota.

Showing participants a photo or news story about economic uncertainty decreased persistence for those who’d grown up poor. So did asking them to recall feeling uncertain about their own finances.

Participants were more likely to persist — even if they’d grown up poor –when asked to recall a time when they were in control of a situation.

“Persistence is directly tied to myriad important outcomes, including self-control, academic achievement, substance abuse, criminal behavior, healthy eating and overspending,” said study co-author Vladas Griskevicius, PhD, also of the University of Minnesota.

However, persistence at an impossible task isn’t necessarily a good thing, the researchers concede. “Time and energy are limited resources, and sometimes it is adaptive to stop expending effort on an endeavor one cannot control in order to pursue more promising opportunities.”

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.

Imprisoned dad helps son learn self-control

In episode 6 of Last Chance High, Cortez visits his father, who’s serving a life sentence for murder. At his father’s urging, Cortez begins taking his medicine regularly and demonstrating self-control and openness at school.

The VICE News series focuses on Chicago’s school for students with behavioral and emotional disorders.