Black, brown boys need change — not grit

Schools are pushing “soft skills” such as “grit,” compassion and a “growth mindset” to prepare students for college and careers. Black and Brown Boys Don’t Need to Learn Grit; They Need Schools to Stop Being Racist, writes Andre Perry, an education consultant and writer, in The Root.

Soft-skills training is disguised bootstrapping, which insidiously blames youths for failing in racist systems designed to block their success, and it absolves the middle class of any responsibility to uproot inequality. It is racism that really keeps students out of college and careers, not a child’s lack of resilience. Students are ready for college and jobs. Postsecondary institutions and employers are not ready for black and brown youths.

“Men and boys of color need to learn how to deconstruct systems rather than adapt to broken ones,” writes Perry.

Louisiana students called for the state to stop prosecuting 17-year-olds as adults in an April 6 protest at the State Capitol.

Students called for juvenile-justice reform on April 6 at the Louisiana Capitol in Baton Rouge.

For example, the Louisiana Youth Justice Coalition organized teens to call for juvenile-justice reform at the State Capitol. They urged legislators and the governor to support a bill that would end the practice of prosecuting 17-year-olds as adults.

“Saying that a kid from Baltimore, St. Louis or New Orleans needs grit is like saying a mountain climber needs to get rid of her fear of falling,” Perry concludes.

That’s a good line. But is it really true that black and brown youths are ready for college and jobs, blocked only by racism? Do they already have the academic skills — and grit — needed to succeed?

We need hard data on soft skills

California’s nine CORE districts, which include Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland, are researching the link between students’ social and emotional skills, such as perseverance, confidence and collaboration, and academic achievement, writes John Fensterwald on EdSource. Rating schools by students’ social-emotional skills — as measured by student surveys — is the next, very controversial step.

A sixth grade student at Oak Ridge Elementary in Sacramento writes into a "gratitude journal," identifying one thing each day that he is grateful for.

A sixth-grade student at Sacramento’s Oak Ridge Elementary writes in a “gratitude journal.”

The experiment is worth pursuing, writes Martin West, a Harvard education professor and Brookings fellow.

Some CORE districts, including San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento City, are trying to integrate teaching social-emotional skills into their curriculums and classroom activities, writes Fensterwald.

The new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), requires states to include at least one non-academic indicator of school or student success.

CORE’s surveys of four social-emotional skills — self-management, growth mindset, self-efficacy and social awareness — are valid predictors of academic achievement, West concludes. (The statistical reliability is not as strong for third and fourth graders.)

Middle schoolers’ self-ratings in social-emotional skills correlated with their schools’ math and English test scores, rates of suspension and absenteeism and students’ grade point averages, the study found. Self-management skills showed the strongest link.

Social-emotional factors will count only for 8 percent of CORE’s new School Quality Improvement Index, which CORE introduced this year without including the social-emotional survey ratings. That will came next fall.

CORE’s hope is that schools with high ratings will share what they do well, and schools with low ratings, particularly with subgroups of struggling students, will change instructional approaches. But many researchers remain skeptical of including soft, potentially manipulable measures for school accountability.

Using social-emotional skills ratings in a high-stakes setting — or even a low-stakes setting — could be problematic, West acknowledges. But he thinks the CORE experiment is “an enormous learning opportunity.”

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.

From information to knowledge to wisdom

Most Likely to Succeed, which celebrates San Diego’s High Tech High, argues for schools to focus on “the relational skills” needed in the workforce, writes David Brooks in the New York Times. That includes “being able to motivate, collaborate, persevere and navigate through a complex buffet of freelance gigs.”

But it means students will learn less about the world, he writes in Schools for Wisdom,

At High Tech High, one group “studied why civilizations rise and fall and then built a giant wooden model, with moving gears and gizmos, to illustrate the students’ theory,” Brooks writes.

Most Likely to Succeed doesn’t let us see what students think causes civilizational decline, but it devotes a lot of time to how skilled they are at working in teams, demonstrating grit and developing self-confidence.

. . . teachers cover about half as much content as in a regular school. Long stretches of history and other subject curriculums are effectively skipped. Students do not develop conventional study habits.

The road to wisdom starts by learning facts, such as “what a neutron or a gene is, that the Civil War came before the Progressive Era,” argues Brooks. Then students must learn to “link facts together in meaningful ways.”

At some point while studying a field, the student realizes she has learned a new language and way of seeing — how to think like a mathematician or a poet or a physicist.

At this point information has become knowledge. It is alive. It can be manipulated and rearranged. At this point a student has the mental content and architecture to innovate, to come up with new theses, challenge others’ theses and be challenged in turn.

Wisdom comes with experience, Brooks concludes. “The stairway from information to knowledge to wisdom has not changed.”

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.

Make it really hard for kids to fail in school

To prepare “difficult” students for the real world, make it “really hard to fail,” argues Dr. Allen Mendler, an education consultant, on Edutopia’s blog.

An effective practice is to “appreciate and focus on the student’s strengths rather than emphasizing and punishing shortcomings such as lateness, lack of productivity, and disruptive behavior,” Mendler writes.

But critics say that’s preparing students to be fired.

Grading for progress rather than achieving a “group-based standard” also doesn’t work in the real world, critics say.

School isn’t like the workplace, Mendler argues. Students have to go to school and take courses in subjects they may not like or be any good at. In the real world, workers can specialize.

“Make it really hard for students to fail school,” he writes. “Not impossible, just really hard!”

Do what you can to impart important life skills such as a solid work ethic, promptness, patience, and getting along with others. Have rules and, as much as possible, “logical” consequences for unacceptable behavior. (For example: “Work needs to be completed. You can do it in class with others, at home, or during recess.”)

. . . I am far more likely to motivate an uninterested student with poor attendance to show up, and therefore make it more likely that she will pass my class and graduate, by telling how much we missed her during her absence rather than by giving her a zero on missed assignments.

School success doesn’t always predict success in life, he concludes. Of course, school failure usually does predict future failure.

More teens drop out, take GED

Letting high-school-age teens take the GED encourages dropouts, some economists and educators fear. A quarter of GED test-takers are 16 to 18 years old, reports the Washington Post. They’re passing up a high school diploma for a much less valuable credential: GED holders earn as little as dropouts who didn’t pass the test and very few go on to earn a higher degree.

“We are making it easy for them to make a mistake,” said James Heckman, a Nobel-Prize winning economist at the University of Chicago.

If cognitive skills were enough, people who demonstrate high school equivalence by passing the GED would perform equally well in the workplace or in college, he said. Instead, dropping out of high school usually portends a lifelong pattern of dropping out, he said. Studies shows high school dropouts have higher rates of job turnover, college attrition, turnover in the military and even divorce, compared with those who stuck it out in high school.

“Sitting in school and showing up on time and doing in school what people ask you to do — those are useful, if dull, tedious traits to have,” Heckman said.

The GED isn’t easy: To pass, test takers must outperform about 40 percent of graduating seniors. It’s being revised to conform to Common Core Standards, which is expected to make it harder.

Tech college adds work ethic to transcripts

A Missouri technical college evaluates job readiness, work ethic and attendance, in addition to academic performance to help graduates find jobs. Employers had complained that many new hires lack a strong work ethic.

The auto industry is hiring again, but only wants workers with high-tech “cross skills” and “soft skills,” says an industry analyst.

College will evaluate ‘soft skills’

“Soft skills,” such as punctuality and teamwork, will be factored into grades and “work readiness” certificates at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in North Carolina. Employers have complained that graduates have technical skills but lack knowledge of workplace norms.

That reminds me of yesterday’s post on a McKinsey report that found a mismatch between teachers’ estimation of their students’ skills and employers’ expectations. (No, that doesn’t mean teachers are “stupid,” as one comment writer insists. It means teachers  and employers aren’t communicating.)

Measuring 'soft skills'

How do we tell if students are learning “soft skills,”  such as “the ability to work with others, process information from disparate sources, communicate persuasively, or work reliably?”  On Taking Note, John Merrow and Arnold Packer look at the challenge of creating valid, reliable assessments.

With a Kellogg Foundation grant, they’re asking mentors at 28 community-based organizations to assess high and middle school students on “responsibility, work ethic, collaboration, communication, problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity.”

We ask the mentors to write a two -sentence description of the context in which each of the traits was demonstrated.  Was the teenager responsible about picking up trash in the park or helping out on the surgical ward?  Communicating to a friend about the homework assignment requires a different skill level than communicating about obesity to a large community audience.  There is no reasonable rubric that will cover this amount of variation.

Finally, mentors also grade the students’ performance on a scale of one (“cannot do it”) to five (“does it well enough teach others”).

This produces a Verified Resume of performance that could be used for job applications and college admissions.

The pilot project will survey employers to see if  the mentors’ evaluations match the new hire’s performance.

We got into this because we believe performance traits like responsibility, tolerance for diversity, ability to communicate and work ethic matter.. Because they matter, we must also figure out how to measure them reliably.

Recommendations are supposed to fill this purpose, but it’s difficult to judge whether the recommenders are setting the bar high or low. And many people are afraid to be honest in recommendations.