Helping Poor Kids Get Grit. Part 2: Building Grit - Early Childhood and Beyond.

This is the second in a series of five blogs that we will post on grit and what it means for poor kids.

In the first blog of this series, we introduced the concept of grit, as defined by Professor Angela Duckworth in her new book, Grit:The Power of Passion and Perseverance, and discussed how important it is for poor kids. We ended that blog by asking what can be done to help poor kids raise their GPA.

That's not grade point average. In this instance it stands for Grit Potential Achievement.
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What can be done? To begin with, following Professor Duckworth's lead, we need to admit that we don't know what we don't know and work with what we do. As Duckworth would advise, it is time to proceed based upon "hunches" using the best research data that is available today rather than studying this problem for the next decade and doing nothing while trying to craft the perfect solution.

It is time for learning by doing and continuous improvement. It is time to put poor kids first. It is time for adults to use their grit to help poor kids get grit.

Let's examine what is known and being done right now to help poor kids to get grit starting with community-wide early childhood initiatives in Union City, N.J., and New York City.

The Stanford study, cited in the first blog of this series, which showed children in the districts with the highest concentration of poverty score an average of more than four grade levels below children in the richest districts also found that there were a few poor districts that posted higher than average test scores.

Union City was one of them. Its students consistently scored about one-third of a grade level above the national average on reading and math scores.

As we noted in an earlier blog, David Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, has written a book and a 2013 op-ed for the New York Times on the transformation of the Union City school system. One of the key ingredients Kirp cited for Union City's success was starting with pre-kindergarten and enrolling almost all 3 and 4-year olds.

Early this year, Kirp wrote an op-ed for the New York Times on New York City's implementation of Mayor Bill de Blasio's promise of a universal pre-K program. According to Kirp, there are now "68,547 4-year olds enrolled in one of the nations' most ambitious experiments in education..."

That "experiment" required: recruiting 2,000 teachers: opening 3,000 classrooms; securing 300 community providers; ensuring the right quality with teachers, staff and coaches who "know how to talk with, and not at youngsters;" allocating the right level of resources in terms of dollars to ensure quality; and, using independent researchers to assess areas such as the "home away from home classrooms", and, parent's involvement in children's academic and social progress.

Kirp emphasizes that it's not sufficient just to get these kids off to a good start. He observes, "For the gains made by these 4-year olds to stick there must be a smooth path from prekindergarten through the first years of elementary school and beyond." We made a similar point in our October 2015 Huffington Post blog, "The Critical Need to Sustain Pre-K Gains by Closing the Educational Chasm."

In that blog, we stated that while research shows that the substantial gains that kids from poor or lower income backgrounds make in pre-K or in Head Start programs are not carried forward to the early years in school, research does not explain why. The answer may be a lack of grit.

Paul Tough, the author of the 2012 best-seller, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, would undoubtedly advance this explanation and place the blame on a deficiency of character skills. In stark contrast, Peter Meyer, former news editor of Life Magazine and currently editor of Education Next and others would most likely place the blame on a lack of cognitive skills.

Who is correct? In our estimation, depending on how one looks at it they both are.

That's because, there is substantial evidence - especially now with Professor Duckworth's new book - that talent alone is not enough. Passion and perseverance are not enough either. Practice - and we should add perfect practice - makes perfect.

Duckworth's two part formula for success is: Talent x Effort = Skill and Skill x Effort = Achievement.

In both parts of the formula, "effort" or grit (character skills) is the independent variable. What that suggests is that building cognitive skills that are central to academic success requires grit and that using those cognitive skills to achieve career success also requires grit.

In other words, in combination, character skills and cognitive skills are powerful. In isolation, they are only half of the equation.

In her book, Duckworth relates that she left her job as a math teacher of low income students in New York City and for a while taught math at Lowell, the only school in San Francisco that admits students based on academic merit. There she discovered that "...Lowell students were distinguished more by their work ethic than by their intelligence." The highest performers on tests and quizzes were not necessarily the brightest students but those who studied the longest hours.

Given the progress that poor kids make in pre-K, it is obvious that they have the capacity to learn and to benefit significantly from an intervention when it is a tightly structured and well designed one. After that intervention, unfortunately, most of these poor kids do not have the ongoing support of "wise teaching" or "wise parenting",as defined by Professor Duckworth, which are the requisites for grit development.

These poor kids have "grit potential" but they are growing up in gritty circumstances. In the main, those circumstances do not promote the type of parenting and teaching that builds grit.

They do the opposite. They extract grit from the parents and teachers who are caught in stressful conditions with limited economic, social and emotional capital to combat them. As a result, most poor kids have a grit deficiency.

They need assistance in order to achieve their grit potential. Who can provide that assistance and what form should it take?

[We answer that question in the next blog in this series.]