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.”