Psst…Wanna buy a bottle of air?

“Maybe the whole world has gone mad.”

This rather succinct summation was how education historian and public school advocate Diane Ravitch rounded out her consideration of a new idea that has made its way into the American education vernacular. Ravitch is the author of the well-known and highly touted book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Ravitch, who formerly worked to help bring high stakes testing into the US, is now critical of the entire testing movement. She points out that public education is not actually failing our kids, but rather we are being convinced of this by companies who want access to public education funds; companies who exist to create high stakes tests and privatize schools.

So what idea could possibly cause Ravitch, who has arguably seen it all as far as large-scale standardized testing is concerned, to question the sanity of the entire planet? What new educational thrust has she dubbed as too silly to take seriously”?

Well hang onto your chalk boards, kiddies. Because the monstrosity that is the testing industry has just figured out that educators are now talking about how it is important for kids to have “Grit”.

And by gum, they want to test for it.

And, no, I am not making this up.

The idea of “grit” as an indicator of success came about largely because of a study done in 2007 by four researchers out of the United States. They understood that intellectual talent had long been considered a key indicator of success, but realized there were very few studies that looked at any other individual differences which might account for folks rising to the top of their respective fields. So, they looked at something they called “grit” as an indicator, which they defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals”.

It wasn’t too long after this study that the idea of grit began to take hold in the educational realm. In the latter part of 2013, an article appeared in Educational Leadership entitled “Grit Plus Talent Equals Student Success”. Written by Bryan Goodwin and Kirsten Miller, the article suggested that students needed more than good schools and solid curriculum to do well. What students needed in order to truly succeed was “persistence over time to overcome challenges and accomplish big goals”. They further defined the idea of grit as encompassing a wide array of traits such as a having the will to achieve and the willingness to accept failure as a part of learning.

Teachers, the article claimed, could do much to instil these traits in students. Goodwin and Miller encouraged such things as starting early, with children as young as 3 or 4 setting out goals for themselves to achieve during structured play time. They also spoke of such things as explicitly teaching students how to set and achieve goals, as well as helping them to develop growth mindsets. Finally, they suggested out-of-school activities such as martial arts training and drama to teach students how to persevere and succeed.

Now, the idea of grit as a key indicator of success has had its critics. There were concerns that the notion smacked of a “blame the victim” mentality. Kids who were not succeeding in class could be written off as simply not having “the right stuff”. As well, there were those who looked at the socioeconomic impossibility of students gaining perseverance skills through such things as Karate class.  However, as more and more was written about how to help students develop it, and as speakers like Angela Lee Duckworth began to promote the idea, grit began to work its way into common educational language.

It was in February of this year, however, where grit really moved to the next level of importance. Because in February, it was announced that some schools in the US, recognizing that they had spent far too much time over the past decade focussing on only math and literacy scores, would soon be testing students’ capacity for such things as “joy” and “grit”.

And test makers are falling over each other to be the first to create a tool which does just that.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there are already frontrunners. In the US, a not-for-profit called Transforming Education  claims that they have indeed developed a test that can measure such things as MESH (Mindset, Essential Skills and Habits). They have also developed a series of free toolkits that claim to help students gain everything from a “growth mindset” to self management skills.

The move towards testing such things has (again, not surprisingly) created a backlash. The aforementioned Angela Lee Duckworth abandoned her position as a board member of a group responsible for overseeing the development of this idea in California. She spoke out harshly against testing, warning in a New York Times article that there are no reliable ways to test for such indicators. In a related article, math teacher and author Jose Vison argued that testing for grit would be impossible, as the very idea of grit was ridiculously skewed by cultural and socio-economic realities. “For many of our most disadvantaged students“, he said “just getting to school shows plenty of grit. The fact that they’re in our classrooms writing essays or working on math problems when they haven’t had a good night’s sleep or a proper meal speaks to their zest.

These criticisms, however, seem to be bowing under the pressure of the education system’s quenchless thirst for data.

Even as this debate rages, the trend of recognizing that there is more to education than what can be shown by traditional testing is gaining momentum.  Newly appointed Secretary of Education for the United States John R. King recently called for the US to stop focussing so much on the test friendly areas of  literacy and math. In an address to the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts, King said “I hear frequently and passionately from educators and families who feel that key elements of what makes up a well-rounded education have been neglected in favor of too tight a focus on math and reading.” Even the OECD, a standardized testing behemoth, recognized in 2012 that “a country’s competitive advantage in the world economy of tomorrow will be based on its population’s deep and wide knowledge, and its ability to continue learning”, as opposed to simply literacy and math test scores.

It should come as no surprise to anyone, then, that when faced with a decreasing demand for a product in one market segment, the internationally massive and multi-billion dollar testing industry would look to create a new product that meets the increasing demands of another.

And that, folks, is why I have no doubt that the “Grit Test” may soon be coming to a school near you.

I often tell an anecdote from my University days when I witnessed an argument at a social gathering between a business student and an environmentalist. At issue was the age-old “development versus environment” debate. Unable to make any inroads to his cause, the environmentalist finally asked, in frustration, what would happen if, because of unfettered development, we finally ran out of clean air. The business student, without blinking an eye, indicated that she would simply manufacture clean air, bottle it, and sell it to the environmentalist, at a profit.

I believe that, in testing for grit, we may have encountered the educational world’s latest version of a bottle of air.

And, when it comes to education at least, Ms. Ravitch’s statement may have a larger ring of truth to it than any of us should even be remotely comfortable with.


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Filed under Education Policy, Educational Change, Educational commentary, PISA, Public education, Standardization, Standards

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