If you’ve followed education in the news or at the book store in the past couple of years, chances are you’ve heard of “grit.” It’s often defined as the ability to persevere when times get tough, or to delay gratification in pursuit of a goal.

Alongside growth mindset and self-control, grit is on a short list of not-strictly-academic skills, habits and qualities that researchers have deemed essential.

And that research has quickly made its way into the hands of educational leaders eager to impose accountability measures that can go farther than standardized math and reading tests. They want to capture how schools are doing in cultivating the full range of qualities necessary for students to succeed.

But now Angela Duckworth, the scientist most closely associated with the concept of “grit,” is trying to put on the brakes. In a new paper published in the journal Educational Researcher, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist, and her colleague David Scott Yeager at the University of Texas at Austin, argue that grit isn’t ready for prime time, if prime time means high-stakes tests.

“I feel like the enthusiasm is getting ahead of the science,” Duckworth said in an interview. “I’m hearing about school district superintendents getting very interested in things like character and grit, and wanting to evaluate teachers based on them.” That, she says, would be gravely premature.

Here’s the problem. Much of grit research is based on self-reporting. That is, if you want to find out whether someone is gritty, you simply ask them to grade themselves on statements such as, “I am a hard worker.” Over large populations and in repeated experiments, Duckworth has found significant correlations between self-ratings on her 12-item “grit scale” and people’s actual accomplishments.

But, she says, there are “serious limitations” with trying to use those same 12 questions, or something like them, in a high-stakes accountability context. One is, of course, the danger that educators would, inadvertently or not, put pressure on students to misrepresent themselves to make the teacher or school look better.

The accuracy of self-reporting depends on your frame of reference. Excerpted from "Measurement Matters: Assessing Personal Qualities Other Than Cognitive Ability for Educational Purposes." (Courtesy of Angela L. Duckworth and David Scott Yeager)
The accuracy of self-reporting depends on your frame of reference. Excerpted from “Measurement Matters: Assessing Personal Qualities Other Than Cognitive Ability for Educational Purposes.” (Courtesy of Angela L. Duckworth and David Scott Yeager)

But there’s another, potentially more serious problem: Sometimes the hardest workers actually have the lowest opinions of themselves.

The KIPP Paradox

Duckworth was a co-author on a paper published last year that compared self-reporting on grit, self-control and conscientiousness with actual test scores and behavior data of students at 32 Boston schools. At the individual student level, the surveys worked as expected. Students who rated themselves lower on these non-cognitive skills had more absences, got in trouble more and made fewer gains in math.

However, at the school level the picture reversed. Students at so-called “no excuses” charter schools made bigger academic gains, yet rated themselves lower on grit, than students at traditional public schools.

How to resolve the paradox? Many of these schools, such as KIPP charter schools, are making concerted efforts to cultivate grit and other “character” qualities. They may have longer days or assign more homework. The authors concluded that in an environment with stricter rules and higher standards, students’ frames of reference may change.

“Some of the hardest-working people rate themselves as lazy,” Duckworth says. So if a school district were to rate schools based on these surveys, the outcome could be perverse: The schools working the hardest to cultivate grit might look the worst.

Marshmallows To The Rescue!

In their new paper, Duckworth and her co-authors aren’t saying that educators should just give up on measures of non-cognitive skills.

She says that, “2015 is not the year to mandate measures in schools, but a great time to start investing in, and encouraging, the development of better measures.” She would start with the famous marshmallow test. In this series of studies, 4-year-olds were given a choice between eating one marshmallow now, or two marshmallows later. In follow-ups decades later, the children who were able to wait longer ended up with higher SAT scores, more college diplomas, and even healthier weights.

This is an example of a “performance task” — a real-life demonstration of self control.

In the future, grit measures could include some kind of performance task, perhaps in a computer simulation. Just as a math test asks you to solve math problems, not just describe your math ability, a truly valid measure of grit would include some opportunity to demonstrate that skill.

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