Sunday’s NY Times featured an Op-Ed from researcher and keynoter Angela Duckworth, arguing that we shouldn’t “grade schools on grit,” a piece I’ve seen many educators and writers I know, like, and admire praise and promote in their feeds.   My favorite popular journal, Slate, contributed its view with an article entitled “No, of Course You Can’t Judge Schools on Students’ “Grit.”” The comments sections in both the Times and Slate similarly reflect a near consensus that seeking to do so represents a kind of insanity.   

So call me nuts, but I think the argument deserves to be engaged with more critically, and alternative viewpoints should be put forth.  In this piece, written for a client organization of mine, ProExam, I set aside the narrow and specific argument about “grading “schools, and instead address what I believe some readers will take away more generally from Duckworth, that we shouldn’t be measuring SEL at at all in schools.   

However, I do want to go on record saying I admire, endorse, and applaud the California school districts known grouped together as “CORE” for their innovative and exciting school accountability index, which does include, as I think every school dashboard, accreditation, and accountability portfolio should include, measurements of student noncognitive skills and their growth.  More on that topic coming soon. 


reposted from ProExam blog, 3.30.16, written with Rich Roberts, Ph.D.

Angela Duckworth has garnered a great deal of attention this week for her Sunday New York Times op-ed, entitled “Don’t Grade Schools On Grit.” In it, she cites Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the effect that schools have a responsibility to educate for character. She also marshals compelling evidence on the social and emotional learning (SEL) skills we often call character, such as grit, and that “teaching social and emotional skills can improve behavior and raise academic achievement.”

We agree wholeheartedly about the importance of SEL and character, and we appreciate all Dr. Duckworth has done to bring it attention. We write as friendly associates with Dr. Duckworth: Dr. Roberts has known her since she was a graduate student, and she has co-authored articles with him; I have met with her in small groups several times, interviewed her, and written about her frequently with great admiration.

One might think that advocates of social emotional learning, knowing the importance character development and recognizing the value of using evidence for better decision-making, would strongly support measurement of student learning in this domain. Surely we would want schools to better be able to know which students are developing these competencies and which are not, so we can better direct our attention to their needs. We need to know which programs are accomplishing our goals and which are not; we should better evaluate which approaches we should fund and promote and which we should de-emphasize.

However, in her piece, Dr. Duckworth strongly opposes measuring social emotional learning for accountability, as can be seen in the headline and in multiple quotes throughout the piece, such as “this is not at all a good idea.” Likely many readers will take this to mean that employment of reliable character assessment systems for any purposes is unwise or premature.

We at ProExam share Dr. Duckworth’s concern about giving undue weight to or inappropriate application of character assessment. If the stakes for any single assessment become so high that educators ignore other indicators of student ability (e.g. grades, courses taken, etc.) then that should cause concern. Nobody wants to see measurements that are flawed by reference bias inaccuracies, create perverse incentives for cheating, or motivate extrinsically to their detriment.

But Dr. Duckworth’s concerns about the use of problematic measurement systems and about the misuse of measurement in schools shouldn’t be taken to settle the question of whether we should use such measurements at all. Rather, we think it is the responsibility of researchers to develop and educators to use more sophisticated, research-validated character assessments.

Our message: Don’t abandon character measures because they’re not yet perfect; use better measures, test them, and continuously improve them so they can be powerful aids to advancing social and emotional learning.  

The good purposes to which these assessments can be applied are nearly infinite.

  • Teachers and counselors can better know their hundreds of students and better plan curriculum and programming to develop their skills.
  • Principals and district administrators can better design, implement, and evaluate professional development for their teachers to strengthen social and emotional learning by having more information about needs and what’s working.
  • Districts can select programs, prioritize interventions, and allocate resources to areas of greatest need or initiatives with greatest opportunities.
  • School teams can be paired with like-demographic schools performing better on SEL assessments to compare practices and find inspiration.
  • Principals can identify the key levers in SEL which data suggest will best boost academic achievement, reduce drop-outs, increase college attendance, or enhance life satisfaction of students.

The very same Martin Luther King quote that Dr. Duckworth employed to head her Times Op-Ed was used by Dr. Roberts as the epigraph for the concluding chapter in his latest book, Psychosocial Skills and School Systems, published in February. As he wrote there, by emphasizing and effectively assessing social and emotional learning, we will be “getting closer towards the ‘truly complete broad’ education that Dr. King envisaged nearly seven decades ago.” It is precisely the moral force of Dr. King’s argument which demands that we not abandon developing and deploying measures of social and emotional learning.

Rather than walk away from such measures, as Dr. Duckworth can be read to suggest, we should step up our efforts. Doing so will raise the level of educators’ professional practice, and provide educators more information on how to strengthen student outcomes in the areas that matter most not just for test scores but for life success and fulfillment.

We are looking still for a few more middle schools to volunteer to participate in a pilot of our instrument in development (Tessera)– at no expense– for our research to “keep improving” this kind of measurement.   Little is required of schools other than providing about 45 minutes for students to take the fun and friendly assessment online.  Contact me at