Teachers weigh in on how to identify grit

Grit is one of education’s latest buzzwords, encompassing the idea that character traits like perseverance are critical to academic achievement. Now, educators around the country are trying to identify and quantify this intangible quality.

In September, Angela Duckworth was awarded a $625,000 MacArthur “genius grant” to continue her work studying grit. In “How Children Succeed,” author Paul Tough writes about how Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools in New York developed a report card for character traits, including zest, optimism and, of course, grit. Even the federal government is talking about how to measure this characteristic.

A group of California educators has weighed in, in a report by the Los Angeles branch of Educators 4 Excellence (E4E), a teacher-led group that advocates merit pay and ending seniority-based layoffs. The report, “True Grit: The game-changing factors and people lifting school performance in LAUSD,” studies best practices from 35 schools across Los Angeles that have seen significant increases in student performance. But E4E doesn’t just look at what grit means for students; the report applies the concept to teachers, whole schools and the larger community.

“Grit is doing whatever it takes to make sure each child succeeds,” writes Laurie Walters, a founding teacher at New Open World Academy, one of the schools featured in the report. “Grit is the determination that permeates our classrooms, the ambition we show in the face of angst, and a belief in what is possible.”

The report starts with the assumption that these 35 schools have grit because they’ve made huge gains with largely poor and minority populations and works backwards to see what factors were the most important.

At the top of the list is “strengthening school culture,” which 66 percent of schools said was critical to their success. More than half of the schools also said that smart data usage and teacher collaboration were important. On the other end of the spectrum, just one in five schools cited “partnering with families and the community” as a key element to making progress with students.

The report is meant to serve as a reference for other schools, complete with case studies and “True Grit Checklists” for each of its five criteria: “Students Show True Grit When… Data lives not just in a student tracker or on a public bulletin board, but in the conversations that students are having with their teachers” or “Families and Community Show True Grit When… Diverse stakeholders, including teachers, parents and community members sit on councils to help make decisions about budget, instructional needs and school policies.”

As grit becomes more pervasive in the education lexicon, though, some commentators warn that the idea must be kept in perspective. “Grit and perseverance without contextualized feedback is the equivalent of banging your head against the wall until something breaks,” writes Jordan Shapiro in Forbes. “This is hardly an admirable quality. Instead of celebrating the Grit, value the ability to figure out what to do after each failure.”

POSTED BY ON November 8, 2013

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Michael Verini

I applaud Educators 4 Excellence for recognizing the importance of instilling grit in LAUSD schools. Grit is often tied to the likes of perseverance and ambition, conveying how grit will impart a drive in students to understand that anything is possible if they put forth enough effort. While grit is thought to be beneficial for all students to develop, I believe that grit is especially crucial for low-income students to learn in order for them to exhibit greater academic motivation. Seeing as the majority of LAUSD students is eligible for free or reduced price meals, grit is likely at low levels in most of these schools due to the daily anxieties that burden low-income families.

Many economically disadvantaged children believe that they have little to no power over their own lives, let alone their own education. With chronic stressors like homelessness and hunger existing as strong possibilities due to their family’s lack of resources, it may seem like that their own individual actions have no influence over future outcomes. Thus, low-income students may be disillusioned with the idea that schooling can provide them with a better life because they have already been “dealt a losing hand” in being placed in under-resourced schools. Why put forth extensive effort when external forces predetermine success? The development of grit will allow these students to pick themselves up, brush the dirt off of their shoulders, and regain a sense of control over their lives by becoming academically focused. If successfully taught grit, poverty-stricken students will know that schools are one place where they will be assessed solely on their individual merits, regardless of race, SES, or family structure.

Lucian Yates


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