ACT, Data, and Grit: Don’t You Want to Know if Your Kindergartner has the Right Stuff?

ACT wants to ensure that teachers have access to “actionable” data to improve instruction.  Apparently, access to actionable data means longitudinal P-16 data systems to track students from preschool through college so that students are prepared for the 21st century.  Teachers, schools, and districts need to “closely monitor student performance at every stage of the learning pipeline.”  It’s not enough to follow students’ academic success, either. According to the ACT, it is equally important to monitor behavioral habits that will ensure later postsecondary success.  These behaviors include “motivation, social engagement, and self-regulation.”  And it’s not enough to begin instilling these virtues in students as they enter middle or high school; the ACT asserts that it is necessary to begin as early as possible — in preschool.  Certainly, if ACT begins collecting data in preschool, by kindergarten it can be determined if students need remediation in the areas of motivation, social engagement, and self-regulation.  There’s a growing body of research to enable schools and teachers to begin the process of making sure that children — at the same time they are learning to tie their shoes, share toys, correctly name the letters of the alphabet, make a swing go back and forth without the assistance of another person, ride a bike, and speak in complete sentences — are prepared for college and careers.

Leading the charge of developing the research base to enable schools to gather the data to be used in these endeavors has been the Duckworth Lab at the University of Pennsylvania.  This is the lab that has developed the Grit Scales celebrated by Paul Tough in his widely popular book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.  I read Tough’s book a few months ago.  The first few chapters of the book were compelling.  However, by the end of the book I realized that what he really learned from his research in the area of education, grit, and the hidden power of character was a contradiction in itself.  The reality is that children who come from money and comfort, who attend elite private schools, in fact need no grit at all to succeed.  On the other hand, children who come from poverty and insecure communities need all the grit available to overcome all the obstacles that are commonplace features in their lives.  And even then grit may not be enough to succeed academically — their grittiness may be channelled into other areas in order to make life bearable.  Tough’s book didn’t leave me so much in a state of dissonance, but with a level of discomfort at the obvious contradictions in his book.  Tough’s conclusions on one hand are so obvious — poor kids are trapped in a world not of their making and, therefore, will face extreme odds in their efforts to succeed.  The solution to disparities in academic achievement, according to Tough, is to overtly teach grit-oriented skills and behaviors to poor students.  On the other hand, it is clear that money and privilege create a world for some in which the world is full of possibilities.  These kids don’t need grit; they just need to follow their parents’ lead as they enter the world of college and careers.  So, does grit really matter?

The Duckworth Lab, under the leadership of Angela Duckworth, provides the road map for organizations like the ACT in developing a plan for measuring college and career readiness behaviors among young children.  While researchers at the lab may claim that they are simply continuing in the research already championed by psychologists for more than a century, their research agenda reveals the potential for misuse of their findings to impose on teachers, schools, and children practices that may very well be problematic and even harmful.

First, there is the very real potential for students to not only be labeled deficient based on their academic record, but also labeled as deficient for not being sufficiently motivated to learn and unable to persevere in tasks.  This is already happening at KIPP schools, whose leaders have partnered with Angela Duckworth in developing a report card for “predictive character strengths that are correlated to leading engaged, happy, and successful lives: zest, grit, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity.”

A second potential problem with the Duckworth grit notion is a sense that the inferential statistics that the grit scales are based on are reliable in predicting success.  It positions the individual, and in this case children, as having the power to direct their own lives solely based on their possession of these traits.  While these character traits may be very good things to possess as an individual, I think it is clear that adults make policy decisions about economics, healthcare, employment, education, and national security that inhibit an individual’s ability to succeed.  Just ask college graduates who have amassed an average of nearly $30,000 in student loan debt and are having difficulties finding jobs if their level of grit has ensured their success.  They certainly had the grit it supposedly takes to earn a college degree, but that sometimes doesn’t make their entree into the career world any easier and doesn’t reduce their financial constraints as they try to being an adult life.  The Duckworth approach to success and happiness ignores the power of cooperative and collective action in making the world a better place.  Where on the KIPP report card is there any mention of cooperative action?  The only trait that moves beyond the individual is social intelligence and even that is defined in a way that doesn’t necessarily reflect a sense of shared community.  According to KIPP, social intelligence is measured as the ability to “find solutions during conflicts with others,” to show that “s/he cared about the feelings of others,” and to adapt “to different social situations.”  It is about individual actions, not about the health and well-being of the whole.

Third, and perhaps most troubling, is the potential of grit research to lead to stereotyping, bias, and racism.  The application of Duckworth’s research to children attending schools in low socioeconomic communities, schools which predominantly serve children of color, exacerbates discussions of how to improve the outcomes for these children.  It provides a convenient tool for blaming the children and their families for the social problems that inhibit their ability to succeed.  It diverts attention away from the structural factors that have left entire communities without jobs that pay a living wage, with crime and violence and a police state ready to counter with violence, and with the vestiges of a racist society that too quickly judges people based on the color of their skin or the language they speak.  The Duckworth Lab’s research statement should be a harbinger for all who care about education and children.  The research of Francis Galton, the father of the eugenics movement, is cited as providing a theoretical foundation for the lab’s research.  In the world of research, I suppose, all research is relevant in that it can be expanded upon, confirmed, or negated.  It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that Galton’s research formed the basis for the Nazi regime’s actions toward Jews and other ethnic groups, homosexuals, and those suffering from genetic and mental disorders. Angela Duckworth expands upon Galton’s research and, therefore, resurrects his name in the arena of research in human development. Whatever value the researchers at the Duckworth lab may find in Galton’s research, it is clear that his research was misused and had a catastrophic impact on humanity. So, why resurrect it now?  And why apply it to our most vulnerable citizens — the children who have no vote or voice in education policy decisions?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll continue to say it again and again.  Data is not destiny.

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