• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


We Have an Engagement Crisis, not a "Grit" Deficit

"Grit" is the education reform approach du jour. Even its founding researcher is worried.

March 27, 2016



Pioneering "grit" researcher, Professor Angela Duckworth, has had that research turn into a monster and escape from the lab.

People who possess “grit” are able to trade short term pain for long term gain. In Prof. Duckworth’s words, “Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality.”

Prof. Duckworth has found individuals who score highly on her grit test are more likely to succeed at things like completing cadet training at West Point. Our most successful and estimable people often seem to be “gritty.”

But can grit be taught? Prof. Duckworth wasn’t sure, but hoped so. She’s been researching grit ever since.

California has given “grit” its warmest embrace inside of schools, starting a program of testing for “skills” like “self-control,” and “conscientiousness,” which are believed to be important keys to developing “grit.”

Duckworth walked away from the group implementing the California plan. She told the New York Times, “I don’t think we should be doing this; it is a bad idea.”

In a Times op-ed, Duckworth makes clear the limits of her research, “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 punishing schools for how students perform on these measures.”

The thought of using tools like Duckworth’s Character Report Card to evaluate a school’s quality makes Duckworth “queasy.”

Prof. Duckworth deserves credit for her public stance, but the Character Lab at the University of Pennsylvania she established and oversees is larded with education reformers who are known to be “accountability metric” friendly, and the lab peddles a pretty slick piece of software in the Character Growth Card that looks like it’s grit measurement ready.[1]

Duckworth says these consequences are “inadvertent,” which is no doubt true. But just as a certain Dr. Frankenstein learned, that doesn’t mean these negative consequences, inadvertent as they may be, were unforeseeable. That many concerned education figures have been warning against just these consequences suggests as much.

What’s the saying? If you lie down with education reformers you wake up with standardized tests and teacher accountability?

Reformer desire for the next magic bullet seems to be insatiable. The as yet unproven, and possibly never-to-be potential of grit is apparently too tempting for some to resist.

I will be curious to see how Prof. Duckworth deals with this “grit narrative” in her forthcoming book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. I’m not made hopeful by the publisher’s jacket copy indicating the book will tell us “the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent but a focused persistence called ‘grit,’” but marketing copy is marketing copy, and this short review suggests the book may embrace considerably more nuance.

I’m worried, though, that Prof. Duckworth may be the only one capable of corralling the monster before it does terrible damage. Actually, I’m more worried that no one can put this genie back in the bottle. Angela Duckworth’s op-ed is likely to do very little to stop the California program.

Perhaps it will be enough to stop its spread. Perhaps on her media tour in support of her book, Prof. Duckworth will galvanize resistance to these misuses of her work.

It’s not as though anyone objects to passion, perseverance, conscientiousness, or other character traits we know correlate to success and happiness.

But what if there’s something different we should be looking at in schools? What if our focus on the defects of students and teachers – the dominant approach in our failed education reforms for better than a generation – is the wrong approach?


In my opinion, students don’t suffer from a grit deficit. Instead, schools and students are being crushed by an engagement crisis.

Each year, Gallup measures student engagement and the data makes two things clear.

1. The more years students are in school, the greater their “disengagement.”

2. The number of students classified as “disengaged” is increasing over time.

Dealing with the second finding first, the 2015 survey shows, for the first time in its history, an equal proportion of students being “engaged” (50%) vs. those who are either “not engaged” (29%) or “actively disengaged” (21%).[2]

A similar decline was seen in the “hope” index. In 2013, 54% of students were rated “hopeful,” 32% “stuck,” and 14% “discouraged.”

In 2015 those numbers are 48% “hopeful,” 34% “stuck,” and 18% “discouraged.”

As to the first proposition, the “engagement” grandmean[3] peaks in 5th grade, (the youngest students surveyed), at 4.30 on a 5pt scale. This drops every year through 11th grade, bottoming out at 3.59, before rebounding slightly in 12th for a 3.62.

Apparently, light at the end of the tunnel marginally improves engagement.

I do not believe it is an increase in “rigor” that accounts for these findings. Questions like, “In the last seven days, I have learned something interesting at school,” show the same year-to-year declines as the others.[4]

Besides, rigor and interest are not incompatible. Most college students will report significant increase in engagement when taking upper-division courses in their majors, courses, which should be far more demanding than the general education credits they often view as pointless hoops to jump through.

Personally, I see these numbers as a crisis, and we will not see any improvement in achievement until we address the causes.

A disengaged and discouraged student cannot be saved by grit or any other education reform magic bullet,[5] be it the Common Core State Standards, a “mind-reading robo tutor in the sky,” or learning “grit.”

We need to stop measuring product and instead engage with process, and we do this by listening to and valuing students as human beings who deserve the chance to practice agency.

No, this is not coddling or pandering, but the opposite. “Engagement” and “entertainment” are not synonyms. Engagement means setting up challenges for students that are meaningful beyond getting a grade, challenges which encourage risk without unduly punishing failure so they may experience the pleasure of resiliency and be enthused about trying again. This is the building of “agency,” which decades of research has shown to be the most important factor when it comes to success and well-being.

How we shape these challenges depends on the students we work with and the communities we work within. For example, if a student cannot answer yes to “I feel safe at school,” (one of the Gallup engagement questions), how can we expect them to learn?

And we should not confuse order achieved through compliance with safety and security. How safe do the students at Success Academies feel when they wet themselves over anxiety? How safe was that first-grade girl whose teacher ripped up her paper and banished her to the “calm-down” chair for the sin of getting a question wrong.

Our teaching must be thoughtful, flexible, customized to our communities. Teachers must be given the freedom to act as the professionals they are and use their discretion and judgment and be given the support necessary to achieve these goals.

Basically, we should do the opposite of the last 30+ years of school reform. Why are we still going down those roads when they have zero results to show for their efforts?

There are no “secrets” when it comes to learning.

There is only trying and doing and trying again. If we can hold true to that and stop worrying so much about “achievement,” whatever that means, we may have a chance.



[1] Tipped by Audrey Watters, I looked at the privacy policies and note that the student data collected by Character Lab is a “business asset” that may be “transferred” in the even of a “business transition such as a merger, divestiture, acquisition, liquidation, or sale.” Internet commerce centers on the monetization of user data and this education software is no different.

[2] In 2013 55% percent of students were “engaged,” while 17% were “actively disengaged.”

[3] Calculated by averaging nine questions such as “In the last seven days, I have learned something interesting about school,” and “I have at least one teacher who makes me excited about the future.”

[4] 4.32 in 11th grade, 3.67 in 12th grade.

[5] In fact, the most effective reform we have, desegregation, seems to be the one reformers are least willing to push for.


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