• by Hector Bojorquez • IDRA Newsletter • April 2018 •
The education research and practice community is anxiously looking toward “the promise” of building certain non-cognitive skills to close student achievement gaps. The logic behind the most current idea is that students must learn to persist, have greater optimism and be confident because these traits may be better predictors of success than achievement on standardized tests (Farrington, et al., 2012). Each skill – including grit, persistence and growth mindset – carries its own definition, practices and promise of greater academic rewards.
Furthermore, the latest review by seminal authors on non-cognitive skills, Kautz, et al., (2014), validates these theories: “Non-cognitive skills predict later-life outcomes with the same, or greater, strength as measures of cognition. They have strong effects on educational attainment but have additional effects on important life outcomes beyond their effects on schooling.”
There is, however, a larger issue that many of these ideas lack: nearly all of them concentrate on a perceived lack of positive traits among underserved and underrepresented students without taking a serious look at the role institutions play in developing or hindering non-cognitive factors.
The question of addressing grit, resilience and growth mindsets in our most vulnerable students should begin by questioning our own academic practices, our own words, and our institutional grit as we provide experiences, support and services that bolster students’ sense of competence in the world. Basically, what do we do as members of an educational institution to achieve greater success through these non-cognitive factors?
Institutional Grit Needed at Key Transition Points
The question is not new. The Consortium on Chicago School Research’s seminal report on non-cognitive factors finds that middle school and high school are places where students’ sense of academic belonging, ability and worth drop off just as academic performance drops off (Farrington, et al., 2012). It is a truism in education that middle school is where “we lose them.”
The report finds that these transition points are where our institutional practices become much less supportive and sometimes are overtly aggressive. How many times do we say to students in middle school: “You’re not in elementary school anymore; You have to step up,” or “This is the time you must prove yourselves,” or “Figure it out yourself”?
At a time when students are experiencing more turmoil, schools often pull out supports in the expectation that students must toughen up. This has absolutely nothing to do with a student’s intellectual abilities or non-cognitive factors but rather an institutional attitude about how to make students more self-reliant or grittier.
The Consortium on Chicago School Research publication validates these observations and reports an all too common situation: “A persistent and ambitious high school student who works hard to get to college, opts to take calculus in her freshman year. Her college instructor does a poor job of explaining the course material and grades harshly on quizzes, causing the student much anxiety. Her attempt to get help during the instructor’s office hours ends with him denigrating her intelligence. After failing her second quiz in a row, she sees no way to be successful and drops the course. Despite the innate tenacity that got her to college in the first place, she [gives] up on calculus when, in a particular context, she [thinks] it [is] futile to keep trying. The context in which this student tried to learn calculus gave rise to a mindset that she could not succeed, which affected her ability to persevere in that context.” (2012)
While this scenario occurs in college, what do similar actions and institutional barriers do to students in the K-12 system? What are we doing and saying at these transition points that inadvertently affect students in at-risk situations? What do our practices say to students? What do our words do to students?
Building Institutional Grit
As members of educational institutions, we have to ask ourselves serious questions. First, do we believe that all of our students are capable of the highest academic achievement possible? This belief must be at the core of all we do. Without it, our students lose out, and we are to blame.
Second, do our practices as an institution demonstrate high expectations and support for all students to meet high academic achievement?
These are not abstract questions.
Using the IDRA Quality Schools Action Framework as a point of reference, leaders in any institution can ask themselves pertinent questions about the relationship between student achievement and non-cognitive factors (Robledo Montecel & Goodman, 2010). This framework outlines the set of inputs, indicators and outcomes that lead schools to achieve greater school holding power and high college going rates. It posits four school system indicators – curriculum quality and access, teaching quality, student engagement, and parent involvement/community engagement – as places where schools can focus their change strategies. These indicators have direct relationships with non-cognitive factors.
For example, in the area of curriculum quality and access, the most basic questions that educational institutions should ask themselves are:
- What are our organization’s practices that ensure all students have access to curricula that lead to a college-going future?
- Do we provide Pre-Algebra and Algebra I for all students? And do we provide differentiated support for students who struggle with the subject? or
- Does our district simply provide a pathway to remediation?
The relationship between high expectations and non-cognitive factors lies in (1) the assertion that all students are college bound, and that (2) as institutions, we must have the grit ourselves to provide supports for all students instead of sending them down remediation pathways or tracks (Bojorquez, 2014).
There is a wrong-headed notion by some that addressing non-cognitive factors is a sign of an entitlement culture that coddles students. This is not the case. When institutions rise up to serve our students with high expectations, our students will rise to meet any challenge.
As the CCSR report finds, the “shape-up or ship-out” attitude that seeps into many of our transition points for students has never yielded the results we need because it blames students rather than addressing the context of the school and its institutional practices. The changes must begin with us.
Throughout IDRA’s existence, we have championed asset-based practices and high expectations. Our initiatives, frameworks, programs and research all point to the same conclusions: it is up to the adults in schools to make high expectations and rigor possible and to remove the barriers of our own making, because all students deserve excellent and equitable education.
Bojorquez, H. (2014). College Bound and Determined (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).
Farrington, C.A., Roderick, M., Allensworth, E., Nagaoka, J., Keyes, T.S., Johnson D.W., & Beechum, N.O. (2012). Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners – The Role of Noncognitive Factors in Shaping School Performance: A Critical Literature Review (Chicago: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research).
Kautz, T.D., Heckman, J., Diris, R., ter Weel, B., Borghans, L. (2014). Fostering and Measuring Skills: Improving Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Skills to Promote Lifetime Success, NBER Working Paper #20749 (Cambridge, Mass.: National Bureau of Economic Research).
Robledo Montecel, M., & Goodman, C.L. (Eds). (2010). Courage to Connect – A Quality Schools Action Framework (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).
[©2018, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 2018 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.]