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Academic Success Requires Grit
Hard work is more important than native skill.

Which cadets are most likely to be successful in graduating from West Point, and which cadets wash out? As it turns out, the answer is not to be found in incoming cadets’ SAT scores, their high school ranking, I.Q. or any of the normal measurements we usually associate with academic success.

The answer is GRIT. Individuals high in grit do not swerve from their goals even in the absence of positive feedback. Gritty individuals stick with the task at hand; they don’t give up.  When they fail, they pick themselves up and try again.

These are the findings of Angela Lee Duckworth, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.  Duckworth started out in the corporate world as a management consultant before becoming a middle school math teacher in the public schools of New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

She wondered why students with a higher I.Q. didn’t always achieve as well as many of her average intelligent students. As a graduate student in psychology, she was determined to find out.

In addition to looking at West Point cadets, Duckworth has examined the success rates of national spelling bee contestants, new teachers, and high school students in Chicago. In each case, grit seemed to be a determining factor.

Urban school districts like Milwaukee have a difficult time finding good teachers that will stay in the classroom. Our human resources department has examined which colleges and universities in the area tend to train the most successful teachers. We look at how prospective teachers approach their teaching by asking questions about how they view their students. College grades, academic achievement scores and success at student teaching are important.

But in addition, Duckworth’s research shows that teachers with high grit scores also have students who score higher on achievement tests and are less likely to drop out. And gritty teachers are more likely to stay in the teaching profession longer.

When author Malcolm Gladwell was asked which students he would pick to put into our most elite high schools, he passed on the students with the highest grades or the best test scores. He said pick the students that work the hardest.

In his book, Outliers, Gladwell gives a quick biographical outline of numerous “gifted” individuals from Mozark to Einstein to the Beatles. In every case, Gladwell makes the case that hard work was just as important, maybe even more important, than raw talent.

But our most elite high schools in Milwaukee still rely on test scores and grades to determine who gets in and who doesn’t. Clearly such measurements have some place in the overall equation, but we really don’t measure grit. Test scores don’t tell us how hard a student is going to work. Grades are most often a measurement of compliance with the wishes of the teacher, not whether a student is trying to accomplish anything.

Duckworth has created a fairly reliable measurement system to determine which students have grit and which ones don’t. Unfortunately she hasn’t created a system to create grit in students who lack this attribute.

Carol Dweck of Stanford University says that a certain “mindset” makes the difference. Her research shows that just by telling students that they can make themselves smarter, that intelligence is not set, increases student achievement.  We have to begin by convincing everyone, including our students, that hard work is the key factor to success, that if they try hard, they can succeed. How to convince students of this key factor may be more important than developing new teaching methods in reading and math. Our students can do it.

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