Forget teacher ratings. Think Grit 101.

Jay Mathews
Columnist September 12, 2012

by Jay Mathews

The Chicago teachers strike and its focus on new ways to assess teachers remind me of a brilliant 2002 book, “Children As Pawns: The Politics of Educational Reform” by Timothy A. Hacsi. It argued convincingly that politicians and others with the power to make education policy rarely read education research, and, if they do, they only accept conclusions that confirm their biases.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

Chicago teachers don’t like the hot new trend of rating teachers by how much their students improve on standardized tests. They cite research showing the tests are unreliable indicators of what is happening in classrooms, particularly when based on just a year of data. They are right.

Test score improvement, if assessed over a few years, can identify those at the very top and bottom of the teacher effectiveness scale. But the data gets really mushy in the middle. We don’t have nearly enough experience with student performance measures to put as much weight on them as we are doing in the District and several other school districts.

Why is that? Education policymakers — including big city mayors such as Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel (D) — see rating teachers by student test scores as reasonable and know voters and big foundations feel the same way. Common sense is occasionally wrong in assessing schools, but it trumps research every time, as Hacsi’s book proves. Big-city leaders even overlook the fact that the successful charter schools they admire don’t assess their teachers that way.

What happens next? Eventually we will realize this method doesn’t work well and look for something else. I think I know what that big idea will be. A wonderfully written new book reveals a school improvement measure in its infancy that has the potential to transform our schools, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. The book is “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character” by Paul Tough. I share his excitement about what he has found, but both of us realize, having seen the erratic and often disappointing pace of educational innovation, that even if this new form of character-based education becomes popular, overburdened and under-supported teachers might have trouble making it work.

It is troublesome enough to ask classroom instructors to make sure every student can read and write at a workplace level and handle algebra by the end of 12th grade. What if the state school board in 2022 requires them to make sure those same students, mired in adolescence, are capable of ignoring distractions and sticking to goals as a condition of high school graduation?

Science has proven, Tough says, “that the character strengths that matter so much to young people’s success are not innate; they don’t appear to us magically, as a result of good luck or good genes. . . . We now know a great deal about what kind of interventions will help children develop those strengths and skills, starting at birth and going all the way through college.”

Parents can help, his book shows, with intriguing profiles of the researchers involved. But if your folks lack the character traits to pass on “learned optimism” — a scholarly term for one of the desired qualities — the job can also be done by “social workers, teachers, clergy members, pediatricians, and neighbors,” Tough says.

Some exceptional educators are working on this. Dave Levin, co-founder of the KIPP charter school network, has teachers at his schools in New York City grading students on such things as grit, self-control, zest, gratitude and curiosity. The teachers, students and parents are still getting used to it, but see the merit, as I do, of teaching children how to be better people.

The idea is so irresistible I can’t see how it will fail to spread. But I also envision a future picket sign: “I TEACH MATH, NOT MATURITY.” Tough’s book will prepare you for a new national debate long before it gets started.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/blogs/class-struggle.

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