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