School & District Management

Walton Family Foundation Invests in Research on Measuring Grit, Character

By Evie Blad — September 17, 2015 3 min read
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The Walton Family Foundation will pledge $6.5 million over the next three years to research on schools’ efforts to promote and measure character education, social-emotional learning, and grit, the organization will announce Friday.

“The Walton Family Foundation is committed to rigorous accountability standards for schools, teachers, and students,” says a letter to grantees from K-12 giving director Marc Sternberg. “But if it’s true that ‘what gets counted ends up counting,’ it’s also past time to seriously consider the next frontier of student success measures.”

The letter says all of the new grants fall into the “emerging field of character research.” That field goes by a lot of names, including non-cognitive traits, social-emotional learning, and non-IQ skills.

The initiative will fund research at the following three organizations:

  • Professor Angela Duckworth’s research lab at the University of Pennsylvania. Duckworth, a former MacArthur “genius” who popularized the idea of grit. Grit is essentially the ability to maintain a focus on long-term goals, despite setbacks, and a sense of self-control. Duckworth is “developing technologies to assess grit and avoid some common biases,” the letter said.
  • The Character lab, which Duckworth founded with KIPP charter schools co-founder Dave Levin and Dominic Randolph, the head of school at Riverdale Country School in New York. The Character Lab is “studying innovative character interventions and how to scale effective approaches to more schools and students,” the letter says.
  • Professor Marty West’s research at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. West helped form the Boston Charter Research Collaborative, which works with MIT and Harvard researchers to test interventions in Boston-area charter schools. “Marty and his team are building a data warehouse, gathering information about everything from students’ character self-assessments and test scores to demographic information and detailed data on their behavior in school,” the letter says.

The character education/social-emotional learning/non-cognitive field is big in education circles. In recent years, many researchers have shifted their focus from proving the importance of these traits and skills to determining how to responsibly measure them in individuals and how to scale-up interventions in practical ways.

In a paper Duckworth co-authored with University of Texas researcher David Yeager in May, the two urged caution with using measurements of students’ growth in areas like grit and self-control for decisions about student placement and school accountability. There are potential flaws and biases in every existing measurement tool, and schools may struggle to administer tests in the same manner they are administered in research labs.

“We share this more expansive view of student competence and well-being, but we also believe that enthusiasm for these factors should be tempered with appreciation for the many limitations of currently available measures,” Duckworth and Yeager wrote.

Duckworth echoed these cautions in a Q-and-A about her research on the Walton Family Foundation website.

“When you say character matters too, there’s a natural inclination to start assessing character in the same way and to have analogous teacher accountability policies, and so forth,” she said. “I think that would really be going beyond what the measures can do right now. The thing that you don’t have for are non-fakeable assessments of character that are really apples-to-apples across school communities.”

Recognizing this, it will be interesting to follow the results of this research.

“These researchers are asking essential questions that could teach all of us how students learn and how teachers teach,” Sternberg’s letter says. “We expect that their work will enhance assessment and accountability for schools, teachers, students, and our entire community.”

The Walton Family Foundation provides some support to Education Week for coverage of parent-empowerment issues.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.