Should schools focus on tenacity or test scores?

It’s a new school year, and teachers will be talking a lot about how to nurture the kind of skills that lead to academic success. I’m not talking about reading and math skills–but rather the behavioral traits and mindsets that are getting a lot of attention in educational circles.

The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research just released a brief summarizing the best research on the “non-cognitive factors” that shape school performance. While most of UChicago’s research focuses on urban schools, this work applies to all students, regardless of whether they attend inner-city, rural or suburban schools.

The work is especially important now because accountability standards are loosening, pushback against standardized tests is growing, and schools need to find better ways to measure whether students are progressing.

In short, according the brief:

“Teaching students to become learners requires more than improving test scores; it requires transforming classrooms into places alive with ideas that engage students’ natural curiosity and desire to learn in preparation for college, career, and meaningful adult lives. This requires fostering the noncognitive factors that standardized tests don’t measure: the behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, and social-emotional skills that set students up for success in school and in life.”

What are these skills? In general they are focused on five key areas:

  • Academic behaviors like going to class, studying, completing homework, and staying organized.
  • Perseverance, which includes grit, tenacity, delaying gratification and self-discipline.
  • A growth mindset, which means a student possess a sense of belonging, values academic work, and believes he or she can grow and succeed with hard work.
  • Learning strategies like self-reflection, goal-setting and study skills.
  • Social skills like teamwork, empathy and cooperation

These skills and beliefs are fluid, not fixed. They can be shaped and bolstered by teachers, peers and parents. The stakes get higher as students become adolescents because weak skills in these areas are often interpreted as a lack of motivation or apathy about learning. And growth in these areas is not as easy to measure as a bump in reading scores, not as simple to fix as hiring a math tutor. But the payoff is meaningful:

Noncognitive factors are shaped by the environments students are in every day—what they hear, see, and feel from teachers, schools, parents, and society. That means all of us — teachers and schools; parents and guardians; coaches and mentors — can play a critical role in fostering them. We can create environments that support non-cognitive development — schools and spaces where students feel their work is meaningful, where they know adults believe in their ability, and where they genuinely believe in their own capacity to learn, grow, and succeed. By helping students develop noncognitive skills, strategies, attitudes, and behaviors, we can improve student learning and academic performance while also increasing the likelihood that students will be successful in life beyond the classroom.

In a year when so much is uncertain on the accountability front, focusing on these behaviors and beliefs strikes me as a promising strategy.

What do you think?
The following two tabs change content below.
Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

More Comments

%d bloggers like this: