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True grit or false premise: Can schools teach students to persevere and stay positive?

Grit has become an education buzz word as more schools adopt the mantra that kids learn from failure and what separates winners from losers is old-fashioned perseverance, will power and self-discipline.

Schools are now attempting to bottle "grit" and feed it to their students through a variety of character education programs. In the past few weeks, I have heard several educators reference grit as a critical part of student success.

Critics of the grit movement, including education writer Alfie Kohn , contend we ought to worry less about transforming students and more about transforming schools. He told me once: "Because, if the question is how can we train kids to be persistent and self-controlled, then the question isn't, 'Why are some schools so much worse than others?' 'Why are schools in the inner city basically now turned into test-prep factories?'"

A few years ago I interviewed journalist Paul Tough about his book, "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.” I wrote:

After visiting classrooms, campuses and laboratories and interviewing teachers, researchers, chess masters and students, Tough concludes that the most significant skills children must learn in their early years can't be taught with flashcards. A chronicler of school reforms, including KIPP and the Harlem Children's Zone, Tough became intrigued by the question of why some children thrive and others fail.  Tough came to believe success comes down to a set of character traits that, contrary to the belief they are innate, can be fostered in children.

And those traits are most important to youngsters from low-income families, who don't have the family supports and financial resources to protect them from youthful missteps, shield them from consequences and set them back on the right track, he said.

Tough based his reporting on what he saw at KIPP, the high-achieving network of charter middle schools launched by two young teachers in Houston in 1994.

KIPP, which operates eight schools in metro Atlanta, introduced character education after watching many of its students go to college and flounder. KIPP co-founder Dave Levin realized the KIPP students who succeeded were those who showed greater optimism, resilience and social agility.

So, KIPP added character education, teaching teamwork, empathy, self-control and perseverance through an approach derived from social science and cognitive-behavioral therapy. KIPP began to evaluate students on zest, grit, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence and curiosity.

“While it takes grit and self-control to be a successful heart surgeon, the same could be said about a suicide bomber," he writes. "When your character education scheme fails to distinguish between doctors and terrorists, heroes and villains, it would appear to have a basic flaw. Following the KIPP growth card protocol, Bernie Madoff’s character point average, for instance, would be stellar. He was, by most accounts, an extremely hard working, charming, wildly optimistic man."

Snyder concludes:

While KIPP’s college-for-all orientation ultimately aims to expand opportunity, it has undeniably narrowed the scope of its character education program. KIPP and other so-called “no excuses” charter schools have latched onto the new character education as a means of eliminating the “achievement gap.” Character is treated as a kind of fuel that will help propel students through school and up the career ladder. The fact that teachers are the only people who rate students on their character growth cards is indicative of how closely character is tied to academic achievement and cognitive skills. But can we really display more than a narrow range of our character strengths in a classroom context? I can’t tell you how many of my high school friends were listless in math class but “gritty” and “zesty” on the basketball court or the football field.

KIPP and other similar schools are betting that the new character education will help students succeed academically and professionally. It is a risky bet, given how little we know about teaching character.

Take a look at Snyder’s piece , which is long and detailed. Please do so before commenting.

I am fascinated by the question of whether schools can, indeed, help students develop pluck. Increasingly, we are discovering many personality traits -- both good and bad -- have genetic links. We are also learning more about the long-term impact of childhood trauma. Evidence is showing that brain development in young children is curtailed by trauma.

As the National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports :

Young children who experience trauma are at particular risk because their rapidly developing brains are very vulnerable. Early childhood trauma has been associated with reduced size of the brain cortex. This area is responsible for many complex functions including memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thinking, language, and consciousness. These changes may affect IQ and the ability to regulate emotions, and the child may become more fearful and may not feel as safe or as protected. Read more about the impact of trauma on brain development in Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain, a working paper from the Center on the Developing Child.

I am not sure if teachers -- especially as both class size and academic expectations rise -- have the time or training to address and heal childhood trauma. I think that would require the expertise of therapists and behavior specialists.

What do you think?

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.