Talking About ‘Grit’: Breakthrough or Just More Reform Snake Oil?

Got grit? If you’re a public school teacher in the United States, you probably have plenty. But, believe it or not, some say you might need more grit to be an effective educator. And what about your students? Are they demonstrating the necessary perseverance, stamina and determination to succeed academically?

If you haven’t heard, grit has become the buzzword du jour in influential education circles over the past year. It’s not exactly a new notion – who doesn’t value resilience in the face of adversity? – but the word ‘grit’ appears to have acquired mantra-like status in the media and among many education reformers, while others label it everything from a vapid soundbite to a dangerous distraction.

Angela Lee Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, is widely credited with popularizing the term. More than a decade ago, after a couple of years as a classroom teacher, Duckworth entered graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and began conducting research to determine what non-cognitive traits could predict success. With a research team, Duckworth studied various groups – West Point cadets, spelling bee contestants and first-year teachers in challenging schools – and discovered that one characteristic emerged above all others: grit.

Duckworth argues that grit, which she defines simply as “sticking with things over the very long term until you master them,” and non-cognitive skills in general are critical factors in student achievement. Paul Trough in his best-selling 2012 book  “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character,” reinforced the grit narrative and soon, with a boost from a couple of popular TED Talks, Duckworth was everywhere spreading the grit gospel. And it’s not just for students. Duckworth just released a research paper extending the conversation to teachers (more on that later).

Take the Grit Test
Interested in finding out if you possess the quality Angela Lee Duckworth believes can predict personal success? Take the short interactive test developed by her lab at the University of Pennsylvania.

A critic of standardized testing, Duckworth believes the education system should, as she recently told National Public Radio, “accommodate a much richer portrait of who students are.” Schools should therefore work harder to develop non-cognitive attributes, including perseverance, in children.

On one level, who can argue with that? But is it really that simple, or has “grit” become the new bright, shiny object to distract us from the tougher questions facing public schools?

“Corporate reformers have seized on the idea that what is needed for academic success is not just strict discipline and constant test prep, but grit,” says Diane Ravitch.

Alfie Kohn, an expert on child education, parenting, and human behavior, echoes the concern that an undue focus on this attribute provides cover to proponents of failed education policies.

“The problem isn’t with kids’ attitudes or motivation as much as it is with our practices and policies,” Kohn recently wrote on his blog. “Yet potential problems with the latter are typically ignored by people who tell kids to grit their teeth, pull up their socks, and try, try again. Worse, these people may explicitly endorse those problematic practices or even call for more rigorous or competitive grading and testing.”

An Incomplete Conversation


Dr. Pedro Noguera, professor of education at New York University, wonders how only grit was supposed to get Miguel Hernandez the necessary financial aid to attend college. Miguel, the son of an undocumented domestic worker from the Dominion Republic, graduated last fall from a Bronx high school. He worked extremely hard in school and received top grades.

Dr. Pedro Noguera

Dr. Pedro Noguera

“This kid – just like so many others who face economic or social hardship – showed tremendous determination against great odds and did very well in school. But ultimately his status prevented him from attending college, which his teachers urged him to do,” Noguera explains. “His resilience got him far, but at some point the system has to work for these students.”

Noguera, co-author of the new book, Schooling for Resilience: Improving the Trajectory of Black and Latino Boys, says the emphasis on grit often comes across as a spruced up plea to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

“All the grit in the world can’t compensate for the obstacles that face so many students in low income communities,” Noguera says. “All the grit in the world is not going to get your Dad a job, or regain the home of your family just lost. I’m not hearing in the conversation acknowledgments of the effect poverty, income inequality and the opportunity gap has on student achievement. ”

Noguera says a more useful emphasis would be agency, a more collective attribute that, like grit, involves action, but doesn’t ignore the obstacles created by structural inequality.

“We want educators and others to understand that even with barriers and constraints, there’s still possibility for action,” Noguera explains. “But we don’t want to send a message that’s only about kids working hard. It’s also about them needing help navigating those barriers. The same applies to schools. Even with all the hard work and determination, schools in low-income neighborhoods need resources.”

Hey Teachers, Be Grittier!

In February, Duckworth turned her attention to teachers, releasing a paper that looked at novice teachers in high-poverty school districts and whether a connection could be drawn between their levels of perseverance, effectiveness, and the decision to stay in the profession.

Duckworth and co-author Claire Robertson-Kraft first assigned each teacher in the study a “grit” score based on “objective evidence of perseverance and passion in college activities and work experience.” They circled back after the school year and found that grittier teachers were 1) more effective than those who scored poorly and 2) were more likely to remain in the classroom.

Duckworth and Kraft concede that the study has limitations but believe that a fully-developed “grit” rating system could be predictive of effectiveness and turnover and therefore a valuable resource for districts in hiring teachers.

Ok, so grittiness matters in teaching. But can you build a teacher workforce fully prepared for the challenges of the classroom by evaluating for grit at the recruitment stage? Where does a system of school supports come into play? Can a novice teacher, “grit score” notwithstanding, really thrive in a school that falls short in this critical area?

Heather Wolpert-Gawron, a teacher at Jefferson Middle School in San Gabriel, California, is doubtful. While she believes that a discussion on developing perseverance in the classroom for both students and teachers is valuable, Wolpert-Gawron is concerned that dwelling on a teacher’s grittiness draws attention away from how “many people it takes to screw in the light bulb.”

“Educators know they have to be tough and determined, especially newer teachers. They’re willing and hopefully they’re ready,” Wolpert-Gawron explains. “But does it occur to them that they’re also going to have push hard everyday to get parent buy-in? To get the support they deserve from the administration?”

The bottom line is that the suggestion that it’s only teachers who have to sustain a level of grittiness is likely to heighten frustration in a profession that can’t afford to push those limits any further.

“We’re hemorrhaging good teachers every year, so it’s better to tell us that we all have to be gritty together –  parents, administration, everybody,’’ Wolpert-Gawron says. “But if you’re telling me that I am the one who needs to increase my resilience and determination so than you don’t have to? I don’t think so. What teacher wouldn’t be frustrated at hearing that?”