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Penn psychologist Angela Duckworth Gr’06 argues that character—not intelligence, quality of instruction, family situation, or income level—is the crucial determinant of achievement in school. Now she just has to figure out how to measure character—and influence it for the better.


Every year large percentages of American elementary-school students fail to learn basic math skills like how to add fractions with unlike denominators. The situation is even worse among students from the poorest American neighborhoods, despite the fact that from fourth grade on their teachers drill them in these simple steps: find a common denominator; add the numerators; reduce.

There are many explanations for why such a simple procedure proves to be so hard to convey. Reformers and policymakers point to subpar teachers and inadequate principals; to single-parenthood and other demographic drags; to health, nutrition, and the intangible handicaps of poverty.

Assistant Professor of Psychology Angela Duckworth Gr’06 has another explanation. Before she entered graduate school at Penn in 2002 she spent five years teaching math and science in poor urban neighborhoods across the United States. In that time she concluded that the failure of students to acquire basic skills was not attributable to the difficulty of the material, or to a lack of intelligence, or indeed to any of the factors mentioned above. Her intuition told her that the real problem was character.

“Underachievement among American youth is often blamed on inadequate teachers, boring textbooks, and large class sizes,” she wrote in a paper titled “Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance in Adolescents,” which served as her first-year graduate thesis and was published in Psychological Science in 2005. “We suggest another reason for students falling short of their intellectual potential: their failure to exercise self-discipline … We believe that many of America’s children have trouble making choices that require them to sacrifice short-term pleasure for long-term gain, and that programs that build self-discipline may be the royal road to building academic achievement.”

Effortful practice; persistence though boredom and frustration; gritty determination in pursuit of a long-term goal. In Duckworth’s view these are the qualities that separate more and less successful students, and in recent years she’s emerged as one of the most influential voices in American education reform, where she argues that cultivating “achievement character” in kids may be the last, best way to narrow educational inequality in America.

“Schoolwork is not hard in the way that electromagnetism is hard. It is hard because it’s aversive and not fun to do,” Duckworth, who joined the faculty at Penn in 2007, explains. “So the straightforwardness of the material combined with the abject failure of students to learn it made me think there must be something besides IQ holding them back. That’s maybe more obvious for teachers than it is for policymakers.”

The intuitive appeal and expansive application of Duckworth’s research has earned her increasing popular recognition (a New Yorker profile is in the works) as well as a privileged position at the crossroads of basic research and public policy. This past fall U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan invited Duckworth down to Washington to share her policy recommendations. There she cautioned Duncan about the usefulness of standardized tests as an accountability tool, arguing that performance on those tests tends to be more a function of native intelligence (IQ) than of how well students are actually learning in their classrooms. She also urged Duncan to throw the full weight of the Department of Education behind initiatives to use “the hard-fought insights of psychological science” to improve the way schools teach students.

Duckworth’s experience as a classroom teacher has also helped her build strong ties in the education reform community, where leaders like Dave Levin, the co-founder of the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter-school network, consider her a kindred spirit and are using her work to develop strategies for teaching achievement character to low-income kids. Duckworth is best known for the study of “grit,” which she defines as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Today grit is a buzzword in the hallways of charter schools around the country, where teachers, principals, and deep-pocketed board members have all come to believe that inculcating grittiness in students is every bit as important as building academic skills.

Duckworth’s view, if correct, would have dramatic implications for the way policymakers and educators think about student achievement. It also raises provocative questions about the limits of research in the social sciences and the malleability of human character: Is it possible to design measurements to quantify character with the same precision that researchers quantify intelligence? And if so, are self-control and persistence amenable to cultivation, let alone on the scale of public policy?


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Photography by Chris Crisman C’03





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  ©2012 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 05/01/12