The Plans of Policymakers and Professors Oft Go Awry

Jose Vilson Jose

The New York Times posted a puzzling op-ed from Dr. Angela Duckworth on the subject of, you guessed it, grit, and why we shouldn’t (!) be grading students on grit. You already know my objections that I laid bare in the same space. The idea that we must test for grit because it gives us more data is absurd on its face in that we already have plenty of data about the plethora of disadvantages our kids face and, when we don’t, we have any number of ways right now that more than suffice. The idea that these tests let us hit the ground running assumes that that’s what tests are made for. Are we under the assumption that tests are as good at telling us about a person’s character as, say, actually building a relationship with them? I don’t buy it.

What’s most astonishing about Duckworth’s essay is that she may not have believed this was going to happen.

Readers of this blog know how many times we’ve pointed out education policies that don’t reflect the lived experiences of what happens in schools. Here’s a running list of policies gone completely awry from original intention:

  • Districts should take their time learning and immersing themselves in the standards before full implementation, according to Common Core maestro David Coleman. Districts go to full, sloppy implementation within three years in 45 states.
  • Charlotte Danielson creates a good framework for the work done in schools and implies that administrators shouldn’t use it as a checklist, instead thinking in a more holistic manner. Districts take those words to mean that they must create checklists.
  • Researchers come up with a way to aggregate tests scores via a “value-added model” and say that VAM is too unstable to be used as a teacher evaluation tool. Politicians across the country start introducing VAM as a reliable section of new teacher evaluations nationwide.
  • The US Department of Education in conjunction with the Department of Civil Rights release data on school suspensions, even moving former Secretary Arne Duncan to ask for a task force on inequitable suspension policies. Los Angeles Unified School District bans suspension starting in 2016 without creating alternate methods for school culture and discipline and proper conversations with schools. Schools complain of low morale among students, teachers, and schools.

There’s a plethora of other issues with implementation that need to be highlighted in neon yellow. But, every  Duckworth shouldn’t be released from responsibility for her role in setting the tone. If anything, the op-ed affirms that she helped develop a report card that she’s not calling a report card. I get that some report cards grade for behavior in a subjective manner, but the potential for abuse with these markings has precedence.

The perception of grit matters more in the conversation than the concept of grit itself.

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.

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.

I respect character education, but, as with most education ideas in the last decade, it’s fraught with implications that often activate our most unconscious (or conscious) biases along race, gender, and class. This is one of them. Until every student has an even playing field upon which to display their grit, we should lay off the grit talk. Or give all my kids 10s for just showing up to class.

Useful data.