Student Well-Being

Measuring Grit, Character Draw New Investments

By Evie Blad — September 29, 2015 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The Walton Family Foundation has announced that it’s investing in research on the measurement of noncognitive traits such as grit and persistence in classroom settings.

The grants total $6.5 million over three years. They represent a new direction for the organization, which largely has focused its education philanthropy on expanding school choice and charter schools.

It’s a sign that the field of study, known as character education and social-emotional learning, is maturing and gathering interest from many corners of the education policy and philanthropy worlds.

“We will remain very focused on the academic experience and the measurement of academic proficiency that schools can influence,” said Marc Sternberg, the K-12 education program director for the foundation.

“We are also ... interested in the broader definition of success. Sothat takes us to a curiosity of how we can measure things like grit and perseverance and all of the noncognitive elements we know are so important.”

Walton’s announcement this month comes amid warnings that existing tools to measure growth mindsets, grit, self-control, and relationship skills are too flawed to be used for school accountability. Some of those warnings have come from the researchers who first popularized the importance of those skills to influence classroom outcomes. (The Walton Family Foundation has provided grant support for Education Week‘s coverage of parent-empowerment issues.)

More Nuance Needed

Foundation officials hope grantees’ work will help develop more nuanced tools to measure those traits so that existing interventions can be tested and expanded for application in larger settings, such as whole school districts. They also hope such data can be considered in future school accountability efforts, Sternberg said.

“If we’re not measuring these things, we’re not going to be able to see them have the kind of impact we want at scale,” he said.

Critics of promoting these kinds of traits say such strategies place responsibility for academic success on students without addressing systemic issues that are out of their control, such as the strength of school curricula. Supporters say such work can dovetail with other school improvement efforts to accomplish both.

One grant will go to Angela Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania professor of psychology who won a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2013 for research that popularized the idea of grit—the ability to maintain a focus on long-term goals, despite setbacks, and a sense of self-control.

Another will go to Character Lab, which Duckworth co-founded with KIPP charter schools co-founder Dave Levin, and Dominic Randolph, the head of school at Riverdale Country School in New York City.

A third grant has already been awarded to Martin West, a Harvard Graduate School of Education professor. The funds will support his research with the Boston Charter Research Collaborative, which works with Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard researchers to test social-emotional learning interventions in Boston-area charter schools.

West is among the researchers who have urged caution with the measurement of noncognitive traits.

He recently co-authored a study with Duckworth and other researchers who used surveys to gauge 8th graders’ conscientiousness, self-control, and grit.

Parsing Noncognitive Skills

At the student level, researchers found that those traits positively correlated with attendance, behavior, and test-score gains between 4th and 8th grades.

But they also found that students in schools with worse academic outcomes tended to report higher levels of those traits than students in more academically successful schools, a finding West attributed to research bias.

“If you’re in a more [academically] demanding environment, you tend to rate your skills more negatively than if you’re in a less demanding environment,” he said. That is in part because students gauge their successes and strengths by comparing themselves with their peers.

West and fellow researchers will work with Boston charter schools to triangulate self-reported and teacher-reported measures of students’ noncognitive skills with other information, such as discipline data and whether they turn in homework on time, to try to develop more reliable measures.

Duckworth’s work will also focus on developing measures that are consistent across educational environments.

There currently aren’t any “nonfakeable assessments of character that are really apples to apples across school communities,” Duckworth said in a question-and-answer interview on the Walton Family Foundation website.

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 2015 edition of Education Week as Grit, Character Research Draws New Walton Investments

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Whole Child Approach to Supporting Positive Student Behavior 
To improve student behavior, it’s important to look at the root causes. Social-emotional learning may play a preventative role.

A whole child approach can proactively support positive student behaviors.

Join this webinar to learn how.
Content provided by Panorama
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Why Retaining Education Leaders of Color Is Key for Student Success
Today, in the United States roughly 53 percent of our public school students are young people of color, while approximately 80 percent of the educators who lead their classrooms, schools, and districts are white. Racial
Jobs January 2022 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Opinion In Uncertain Times, Students Need to Be Able to Adapt
They might need to hang in there when the going gets tough, but it’s also important to adjust when circumstances change.
Andrew Martin
2 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Getty
Student Well-Being Q&A Communications Expert Explains: How to Talk to Parents About COVID Vaccination
A Johns Hopkins University expert discusses a new training project on how to communicate about the sensitive issue.
7 min read
Anti-vaccine mandate protesters rally outside the garage doors of the Los Angeles Unified School District, LAUSD headquarters in Los Angeles on Sept. 9, 2021. The Los Angeles board of education voted to require students 12 and older to be vaccinated against the coronavirus to attend in-person classes in the nation's second-largest school district.
Anti-vaccine mandate protesters rally outside the Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters in September, 2021.
Damian Dovarganes/AP
Student Well-Being What the Research Says New Research Shows How Bad the Pandemic Has Been for Student Mental Health
Researchers say the road to recovery will be a long one.
4 min read
2016 Opinion ELL 840293800
E+/Getty
Student Well-Being Letter to the Editor Policymakers Must Prioritize SEL
SEL is important both to help students overcome challenges caused by the pandemic and to build resilience in the longterm, says this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Illustration of an open laptop receiving an email.
iStock/Getty