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School & District Management

Study Links Teacher ‘Grit’ with Effectiveness, Retention

By Holly Kurtz — March 10, 2014 5 min read
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In recent years, we’ve heard a lot about gritty students. Now grit researchers are turning their attention to teachers. In a study published in the current issue of the peer-reviewed journal Teachers College Record, University of Pennsylvania researchers Claire Robertson-Kraft and Angela Duckworth found that, for novice teachers in high-poverty school districts, higher levels of “perseverance and passion for long-term goals” (aka “grit”) were associated with higher rates of effectiveness and retention.

“No single factor alone should determine a hiring decision for a teacher,” said Robertson-Kraft, a doctoral candidate in education policy and former 3rd grade teacher. “But the study does suggest that grit is one factor that could be considered among many.”

This is not the first study of teachers and grit for Duckworth, an associate professor of psychology and MacArthur Fellow who has been credited with coining the term “grit” in 2007. An earlier study, published in the peer-refereed Journal of Positive Psychology in 2009, also found that grittier novice teachers were more effective novice teachers. However, a limitation of that study was that it relied on self reports of grit. (For instance, participants were asked to rate the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with such sentences as “Setbacks don’t discourage me.”) A problem with self-reported measures is that people are more likely to agree with socially desirable statements simply because they think they should.

For this more recent study, the authors developed a method in which raters scored 461 novice teachers’ resumes. This method assigns 0 to 6 points based on the extent to which a teacher sticks with an activity over a period of years and also attains “moderate” or “high” levels of success in that activity. For instance, a teacher with no multiyear activities in college would receive a score of 0, which would indicate a shortage of grit. The highest score of 6 might go to a gritty teacher who was a “member of the cross-country team for four years and voted MVP in senior year” and was also “founder and president for two years of the university’s Habitat for Humanity chapter.” The unnamed teacher-training organization that provided the data for the study is now using a version of this rating system as one of multiple tools to help make hiring decisions.

The rating system could be promising, according to Matthew Kraft (no relation to Robertson-Kraft), an assistant professor of education at Brown University. Kraft was not involved with the study.

“If further research shows that rating prospective teachers’ resumes using a rubric to assess their grit can be implemented reliability by district HR staff/principals, and that these ratings are predictive of measures of teacher effectiveness and turnover, then districts should definitely experiment with using this measure to inform their hiring decisions,” said Kraft. “The distinct advantage of this rating is that it does not require districts to collect any new information. Instead, it provides them with a new way to analyze applicants’ resumes. Considering both the data-collection costs and the ability of teachers to game selection criteria are key considerations for designing a teacher hiring system.”

Retention was clear-cut in that it was defined as remaining on the job without quitting in the middle of the school year. Effectiveness was trickier to define. Robertson-Kraft and Duckworth used the unnamed training organization’s measure, which rated teachers “effective” or “less effective” based on several different measures of student achievement. Depending on the data available for each teacher’s students, the definition of effectiveness varied. For some teachers, this meant that students, on average, made at least one year’s growth in one year’s time on a standardized test or alternative assessment such as an end-of-course exam. For others, growth indicators were unavailable so effectiveness was defined as students mastering at least 70 percent of content on a standardized or alternative exam.

Given that this measure was not necessarily reliable, Robertson-Kraft said she was surprised that she was able to find an association with grit. She suggested that, “with a stronger measure, we could have observed a more significant effect.”

Robertson-Kraft would like to pursue research on ways to not only identify gritty teachers upfront but to help new hires develop gritty traits such as making and meeting long-term goals.

“I think we need to do a lot more to train and support teachers to understand how to approach their work so they can stay motivated through the end of the year,” said Robertson-Kraft.

Both Kraft, of Brown, and Robertson-Kraft noted that there is a current shortage of research on how to teach teachers to be gritty.

“I think a more promising solution is to select grittier teacher applicants and then focus on creating school environments that support them when they do face adversity,” said Kraft. “Being a novice teacher is extremely difficult, particularly in an urban low-income school. Rather than teaching teachers survival tactics, we need to develop organizational contexts in schools that allow teachers and students to be successful.”

Along with Brown colleague John Papay, Kraft authored a study that found that organizational context matters when it comes to improving teacher effectiveness over time. That study, published online in January, is scheduled to appear in a forthcoming issue of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, a peer-reviewed journal. The study found that: “On average, teachers working in schools at the 75th percentile of professional environment ratings improved 38 percent more than teachers in schools at the 25th percentile after 10 years.”

“Organizational contexts matter as well,” said Kraft. “Even the best teachers can struggle when they work in schools where there is a lack of order and discipline, no coherent leadership, limited opportunities for feedback, and a culture of low expectations for students. School contexts can support teachers to maximize their potential or undercut their efforts.”

Robertson-Kraft agreed that work environment was important.

“We should be doing both, " she said. “Making teachers’ lives easier and supporting them while simultaneously helping them develop the skills that they need.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.