• by Laurie Posner, M.P.A. • IDRA Newsletter • January 2015 •

Laurie PosnerLately, almost everywhere you look, new research about children and “grit” crops up, like the proverbial rock in the shoe.

The global Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development cites research suggesting that 3- and 4-year-olds develop and follow play plans to foster self-regulation. Edutopia blogs that students should self-administer the grit scale that asks adolescents whether they’ve faced setbacks or been excited about an idea but gotten distracted. Angela Duckworth’s 2013 TedTalk on grit has attracted more than 5.5 million views. And author and journalist Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (2013), has been featured by the New York Times, NPR, the Washington Post and Forbes.

Deficit as Default

Concerning as some of the strategies may be, all this focus on children and grit is not surprising – or new.

An emphasis on character development for low-income children and children of color is baked into American history. Since the 1700s, American maxims on becoming a self-made man and the promise of industriousness have been in circulation (Swansburg, 2014) and have shaped social reform, child development and psychological treatment for children (Little, et al., 2007).

Lightner Witmer, founder of the nation’s first psychological clinic, wrote in 1896, “An important aim of clinic work with ‘slum children’ was to ‘discover mental and moral defects and to treat the child in such a way that these defects may be overcome or rendered harmless.’”  (Fagan, 1992)

This is not to suggest that grit research and advocacy necessarily sets out to impugn the character of children living in poverty. Its authors would, almost to a person, argue that the opposite is true. Nonetheless, a grit narrative aimed at children in poverty almost always calls forth the notion of a grit or character “deficit.”

And this is underscored both by a cultural history that conflates economic poverty with moral impoverishment and by the relative lack of focus on persistence and empowerment in teaching and school systems.

Paul Thomas wrote: “Children living and learning in abundance are not inherently smarter, and they do not work harder than children living and learning in poverty. Again, abundance and slack actually allow children to work slower, to make more mistakes, to quit, and to start again (and again).” (2013)

But he also wrote: “Children in poverty line up at the starting line with a bear trap on one leg; middle-class children start at the 20-, 30-, and 40-meter marks; and the affluent stand at the 70-, 80-, and 90-meter mark. And while gazing at education as a stratified sprint, ‘no excuses’ reformers shout to the children in poverty: ‘Run twice as fast! Ignore the bear trap! And if you have real grit, gnaw off your foot, and run twice as fast with one leg!’” (Thomas, 2013)

Regardless of the intent, where the narrative starts with grit, it almost always winds up conceiving of wealthy children as fleet – if spoiled – sprinters and poor children as leg-gnawing brutes.

Grit in Teaching

The book, True Grit: Trait-Level Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals Predicts Effectiveness and Retention Among Novice Teachers, by University of Pennsylvania researchers Claire Robertson-Kraft and Angela Duckworth (2007), is a notable exception in that it focuses on the link between personal characteristics in new teachers and teacher turnover rates and effectiveness. Did grittiness in teachers predict effectiveness and retention? The researchers say yes.

Looking for evidence of grit (“perseverance and passion for long-term goals”) in novice teachers’ experiences and resumes, they found that teachers with higher grit scores were more likely to complete the school year and outperform their colleagues in improving academic outcomes of their students.

As the researchers recognize, the idea that having a track record in facing challenges could show up as helpful to a novice teacher should not surprise us. It is, after all, a primary reason that any prospective employer asks, “How did you handle a challenge like x?”

What is useful, however, is the finding that traits can be identified based on the kind of information a school administrator or teacher training program typically has when reviewing the resumes of teacher candidates.

Still, a focus on personal characteristics – whether to describe aspirations for teachers and children or the way in which teachers can impart traits for student success – has its inherent limits, and risks. Not only can the model communicate to teachers and children that they are inherently short of “the right stuff,” it can miss key school-based factors that create long-term conditions for persistence and the valuing viewpoint to recognize true grit when you see it.

As a team of teachers and outreach directors at Educators 4 Excellence Los Angeles (E4E-LA) found in True Grit: The game-changing factors and people lifting school performance in LAUSD, true grit was not a trait but an “unwavering pursuit of growth” (2001). It was not a single quality but a collective “determination that permeates our classrooms, the ambition we show in the face of angst, and a belief in what is possible.” (Note: The report features gains achieved by the New Open World Academy – Open World Academy is the lead partner with IDRA on the implementation of the IDRA Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program at Los Angeles USD).

Looking across 35 schools in Los Angeles USD to learn from campuses that had increased their Academic Performance Index (API) by 40 points or more, the educators examined data and conducted interviews and focus groups with more than 400 teachers, administrators and other school-site personnel. They found that five factors were associated with school success and grittiness: (1) strengthening school culture; (2) making data dynamic; (3) working smarter together; (4) building smarter systems; and (5) partnering with families and the community.

Los Angeles USD teacher, Pamela Amaya, stated: “We improved our professional development systems by empowering teachers to design and facilitate trainings, creating an open dialogue for the sharing of best practices.” (Educators 4 Excellence, 2001)

IDRA research on the qualities of school systems that produce strong holding power – the capacity to hold onto every student and prepare them for graduation with college readiness – reveal similar findings. IDRA finds six characteristics of good programs: (1) All students must be valued; (2) At least one educator must be totally committed to a student’s life; (3) There must be extensive, consistent support so that students can learn; (4) Teachers can teach, and parents can be involved (4) Programs that produce results must focus on both equity and excellence; (5) Solutions must be institution-based; and (6) Solutions must build on strengths and contributions rather than try to “fix” students or families (Robledo Montecel, 2006).

At its best, research and experience suggest, grit is not an endowment but a process. And as Avi Kaplan, of Temple University’s College of Education, notes, even if it were, in teaching or learning, grit in isolation is not always good: “Grit has to be balanced with intelligent flexibility.”


Duckworth, A.L. “Angela Lee Duckworth: The Key to Success? Grit,” TED Talks Education [online video] (April 2013).

The Duckworth Lab: University of Pennsylvania webpage.

Educators 4 Excellence. True Grit – The game-changing factors and people lifting school performance in LAUSD (Los Angeles: Educators 4 Excellence, 2001).

Fagan, T.K. “Compulsory Schooling, Child Study, Clinical Psychology, and Special Education: Origins of School Psychology,” American Psychologist (1992).

Goodwin, B., & K. Miller. “Research Says/Grit Plus Talent Equals Student Success,” Educational Leadership (ASCD, September 2013) Vol. 71, #1.

Little, T.D., & P.C. Rodkin, P.H. Hawley (Eds). Aggression and Adaptation: The Bright Side to Bad Behavior, (New York, N.Y.: Routledge, February 24, 2007).

Robertson-Kraft, C., & A. Duckworth. “True Grit: Trait-Level Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals Predicts Effectiveness and Retention Among Novice Teachers,” The Voice [3:42 minutes online video].

Robledo Montecel, M. “Key Points of Increasing School Holding Power for All Students,”  Teleseminar presented by the National Dropout Prevention Center for Students with Disabilities (Clemeson, S.C.: NDPC-SD, 2006).

Swansburg, S. “The Self-Made Man: The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth,” Slate (September 29, 2014).

Thomas, P.L. “The Poverty Trap: Slack, Not Grit, Creates Achievement,” The Becoming Radical, online (November 2013).

Tough, P.  How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (New York, N.Y.: Mariner Books, 2013).

Yeltick, H. “Study Links Teacher ‘Grit’ with Effective, Retention,” Education Week: Inside School Research (Bethesda, Md.: Education Week).

Laurie Posner, M.P.A., is director of IDRA’s Civic Engagement Department. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at feedback@idra.org.

[©2015, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 2015 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]