Penn Prof: “Don’t Grade Schools on Grit”

Angela Duckworth popularized the idea of "grit." Now, she says, it's being misused.

Angela Duckworth |

Angela Duckworth |

There’s probably no person in America who has done more to popularize the idea of “grit” as an essential component of a child’s success than Penn’s Angela Duckworth — she even won a MacArthur “Genius” grant for her work a couple of years back.

Now, though, she’s worried that her work is being misused — and she’s speaking out.

In Sunday’s New York Times, she writes that measures of grit and character are increasingly being tested in the nation’s public schools — and, in turn, being used to judge the progress of teachers leading those students. That’s not right, she says.

“A 2011 meta-analysis of more than 200 school-based programs found that teaching social and emotional skills can improve behavior and raise academic achievement, strong evidence that school is an important arena for the development of character,” Duckworth writes.

“But we’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.”

The op-ed came  under mild criticism from education activists, who suggested that Duckworth should’ve spoken out against earlier against the possibility her work would end up being used to assess schools.

Diane Ravitch, who frequently comments on Philly education issues, wrote: “No one questions the importance of character. But trying to quantify it and holding teachers and schools accountable for it is a goofy idea. In the current climate, Big Data has become a near-religion. Social scientists must exert whatever influence they have to stop the misuse of their ideas, sooner rather than later.”

John Warner, writing at Inside Higher Ed, adds: “The thought of using tools like Duckworth’s Character Report Card to evaluate a school’s quality makes Duckworth ‘queasy,’” he writes. ‘Prof. Duckworth deserves credit for her public stance, but the Character Lab at the University of Pennsylvania she established and oversees is larded with education reformers who are known to be “accountability metric” friendly, and the lab peddles a pretty slick piece of software in the Character Growth Card that looks like it’s grit measurement ready.”

But Duckworth says testing for grit is a misuse of her work.

“Does character matter, and can character be developed? Science and experience unequivocally say yes. Can the practice of giving feedback to students on character be improved? Absolutely. Can scientists and educators work together to cultivate students’ character? Without question,” she writes. “Should we turn measures of character intended for research and self-discovery into high-stakes metrics for accountability? In my view, no.”

Duckworth’s new book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverancecomes out in May.