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Zane: To better educate, focus on grit, not wits

April 8, 2014 

  • By the numbers

    25: The approximate percentage of American males who are arrested before age 18

    40: The percentage of American males arrested by age 23

    75: The percentage of 17-to-24-year-olds ineligible for military service because they are poorly educated or overweight or have a criminal record

Here’s a smart way to improve education in North Carolina: Banish the words gifted and talented.

As flattering as it is meaningless, the G&T label has metastasized across our state and country in recent decades, distorting our understanding of learning. Suggesting that cognitive biology is destiny, it subtly tells good students to attribute their high marks to smarts and struggling students not to bother because they don’t possess the cerebral goods.

Fortunately, this is beginning to change as educators recognize that noncognitive skills – especially grit, tenacity and perseverance – are the cornerstones of success in school and life. A draft U.S. Department of Education report cites growing evidence that “these factors are essential to an individual’s capacity to strive for and succeed at long-term and higher-order goals, and to persist in the face of the array of challenges and obstacles encountered throughout schooling and life.”

Translation: 21st century educators are rediscovering 18th century values. Once hallowed virtues such as industry, determination and conscientiousness that were given the bum’s rush as IQ scores and critical thinking skills became the classroom’s Holy Grail are coming back into focus.


Public education should have a straightforward goal: to produce contributing members of society. While the ability to read Shakespeare and solve mathematical equations is key to this, so too is the discipline to read the plays and solve the problems. When my daughters moan about high school math, I must admit that I do not remember or use algebra. I also tell them that they must try their best because it demonstrates the capacity to apply themselves to the task at hand.

Life isn’t only about galloping across meadows; often it’s about mucking out the stalls. Both must be done well.

The fact is, most school work is not that hard; the vast majority of students are intellectually capable of earning passing grades in every class. As researchers Miles Kimball and Noah Smith noted in the Atlantic, “for high school math, inborn talent is much less important than hard work, preparation and self-confidence.”

The same is true for adulthood, where most tasks – whether it’s being a good spouse, parent or worker – do not require high-order thinking. True creativity is exceedingly rare; even highly compensated individuals do not have to be Einsteins. Most of us just need to combine basic cognitive skills with the ability to get along with others, meet our commitments and control our worst impulses.

In a nutshell, we need character – a quality too many youths have not developed. To cite two examples: Before age 18, about 25 percent of American males have been arrested, according to a study in the journal Crime and Delinquency. The number jumps to above 40 percent by age 23. A 2009 study drawing on Pentagon data found that 75 percent of our country’s 17-24-year-olds were ineligible for military service because they were “too poorly educated, too overweight or have a serious criminal record.”

In response, traditional public schools and charter schools are increasingly integrating character education into their curricula. The new common core standards for math emphasize developing the ability to persevere in solving problems. Students must learn that stumbling is fine but quitting is unacceptable.

The best overview of these efforts I’ve come across is journalist Paul Tough’s book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.” Criss-crossing the country, he shows how teachers and parents are using a renewed focus on noncognitive skills to boost not only cognitive performance but also life skills.


One of his findings speaks directly to an ongoing debate in North Carolina: whether to expand pre-K programs. I have long believed that Head Start and other early intervention programs are a poor investment because most of the cognitive advantages they provide vanish as quickly as morning dew. Indeed, Tough notes, the seminal data collected from one of the most famous early intervention programs, The Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Michigan, showed that it did not “raise IQ or grades over the long haul.” Recent research asking different questions, however, found that its structured, nurturing environment produced students more likely to graduate from high school and be employed at age 27 and less likely to get arrested or spend time on welfare than disadvantaged children who weren’t in the program.

There is no silver bullet to improving education. New approaches – from charter and vocational schools to more rigorous tests, expanded use of technology and even a later start of the school day – must be explored with vigor. But these must be coupled with a renewed emphasis on time-honored values of dedication and determination. None of us – even those with gifts and talents – can realize our potential without character.

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at jpederzane@jpederzane.com.

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