When I first heard the word grit in education circles, I dismissed it as a catchy (and meaninglessly catchall) optimization byword expensively cooked up by McKinsey associates—which is funny, because, as I’ve since learned, Angela Duckworth, the psychologist who pioneered the concept, started her career as a management consultant.
This definition of grit refers to character, traits like stamina and conscientiousness and self-control—in short, the “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals,” as Duckworth put it in her 2013 TED talk:
[W]hat we need in education is a much better understanding of students and learning from a motivational perspective, from a psychological perspective. In education, the one thing we know how to measure best is IQ. But what if doing well in school and in life depends on much more than your ability to learn quickly and easily?
That’s where grit comes in. Grit can’t be measured on pop quizzes, but it can often predict long-term success more than mere intelligence. Though Duckworth admits that “the most shocking thing about grit is how little we know, how little science knows, about building it,” the notion took off, particularly in education-reform circles. Charter-school networks like KIPP have long focused on character development, which they believe serves their students far better in life than the memorization of Shakespeare’s love sonnets. Now the idea of judging kids, and schools, on character development is going even more mainstream—so much so that even the woman who brought “grit” into the classroom worries that her nebulous insight has been taken to all-too-concrete extremes.
The new version of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act requires states to incorporate broadly defined “nonacademic” factors into their accountability systems—this could mean attendance, or school climate, or it could mean “grit.” Nine school districts in California are starting to test students on the social-emotional skills that fall under the “grit” rubric. And starting next year, the National Assessment of Educational Progress test that’s often referred to as the “nation’s report card” will begin trying to assess “how students' motivation, mindset, and grit can affect their learning,” according to Education Week.
But how do you score such an innately slippery metric? This where Duckworth, who had an op-ed at the New York Times this weekend headlined “Don’t Grade Schools on Grit,” gets nervous. She writes that “I worry I’ve contributed, inadvertently, to an idea I vigorously oppose: high-stakes character assessment.” So while teaching kids social-emotional skills is good, grading them—and their teachers, and their schools—on mastery of those skills is not so good. As Duckworth writes:
[W]e’re nowhere near ready — and perhaps never will be — to use feedback on character as a metric for judging the effectiveness of teachers and schools. We shouldn’t be rewarding or punishing schools for how students perform on these measures.
That’s why Duckworth, a MacArthur fellow, bowed out of the California conduct-grading undertaking—because, as she acknowledges, you simply can’t measure character development in the same way that you can measure how many multiple-choice math questions a student gets right. The former is by definition subjective, relying on self-reported surveys that can read like Cosmopolitan quizzes: “I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.” I took the three-question sample quiz on the New York Times website and was deemed “somewhat gritty”; on my second go-round, I judged myself a bit more generously and was rewarded with an “extremely gritty” score.
But the crusade to quantify the unquantifiable was at least partially of Duckworth’s own making, as she acknowledges: She helped devise the “Character Growth Card” that was “designed to help educators enhance students’ understanding of their character through regular feedback and goal-setting.” But, as she learned, just identifying a deficit isn’t enough. It’s devising the solution that’s tricky—with character as with math and language.
Even if grading schools on “grit” instruction seems a consummate fool’s errand, that won’t stop those nine California school districts from trying: “[S]ocial-emotional learning will count for 8 percent of a school’s overall performance score” but at least “no teacher will lose a job for failing to instill a growth mind-set,” according to a story last month in the Times.
“Should we turn measures of character intended for research and self-discovery into high-stakes metrics for accountability?” Duckworth asks at the end of her op-ed. “In my view, no.” But alas, in our accountability-crazed era, it might well be too late to put that toothpaste back into the tube.