Helping Poor Kids Get Grit. Part 1: The Importance of Grit.

Grit! If you don't have it, get it. It's the key to success.

[We look at grit and what it means for poor kids in this series of five blogs. In this first blog we introduce the concept and explain why it is important. In the next four blogs we examine: what can be done to build grit in early childhood and beyond; the roles and responsibilities of the primary grit-builders: families, neighborhood schools and communities; the crisis conditions facing poor kids today; and, what needs to be done to keep the "American promise" for these kids.]

Is grit really "the key to success", as the 2013 TEDtalk, by University of Pennsylvania psychology Professor Angela Duckworth, which has now had almost 8 and one-half million views was labeled?

Duckworth, the author of this year's best seller, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, herself demurs saying, "I wasn't thrilled with the title TED.com gave to my speech. Instead, I would say that grit is essential to success, but it's not the only thing."

Regardless of whether it's "key" or "essential", the question becomes how does one get grit? Who and what helps to build the "passion" and "perseverance" necessary for success?

These questions are important for any one at any age. But, they are more important when it comes to kids in their formative years. And, they are most important for kids who come from lower income and poor families.

It's those kids from housing projects who motivated Duckworth to find her passion when she was teaching 7th grade math in her classroom on the Lower East Side of New York City after leaving a good-paying job as a McKinsey consultant. She noticed that it wasn't always the "smartest" kids who performed the best but those who worked the hardest -- or, as she came to call it had "grit".

This caused her to go back to school to secure her PH.D. and to attempt to find out why. While there, she developed an assessment survey called the "grit scale".

After administering the scale to a variety of audiences ranging from West Point students to students in the Chicago Public Schools, she discovered that those who scored higher on the scale were much more likely to graduate. More importantly, the scale was a far better predictor of academic success than traditional measures such as I.Q. and SAT scores.

From that came Duckworth's theory of grit and her life's work. And, even though in her book she describes the success stories of celebrities with grit such as author John Irving, quarterback Steve Young and actor Will Smith, her single goal in work is to: use psychological science to help kids thrive.

The good news is that the grit theory has already made a significant contribution in this regard. It has added another tool to the arsenal of those who can "help kids thrive" -- and poor kids get grit. The bad news is that there is much that we don't know and still so much more to be done -- especially for those kids who come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Don't take our word for that. Take Professor Duckworth's. In her book, she indicates that parents are the ones who ask her most frequently what can be done to help their child achieve her or his full potential.

Duckworth's response as an academician is, "There's a lot of research on parenting and some research on grit, but no research yet on parenting and grit." As her more passionate and pragmatic self, however, she proclaims that she has a "hunch" based upon patterns she has seen in the research studies she has reviewed.

That hunch is simple and straightforward. Grit is born out of "Wise Parenting" which combines supportive parenting with demanding parenting. This contrasts to: authoritarian parents who are demanding and unsupportive; permissive parents who are supportive and undemanding; and, neglectful parents who are undemanding and unsupportive.

Duckworth also says that "emerging research on teaching suggests uncanny parallels to parenting." Psychologically "Wise Teachers" -- those who are demanding and supportive -- can make a huge difference in the lives of their students.

Duckworth has worked with the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter school network to help them develop wise teachers. She states that "Praising effort and learning over 'natural talent' is an explicit target of teacher training in KIPP schools."

KIPP has 183 schools in 20 states and now serves 70,000 elementary, middle and high school students. According to Ms. Duckworth, "The vast majority of KIPPsters, as they proudly refer to themselves, come from low-income families. Against all odds, almost all graduate from high school and more than 80 percent go on to college."

The vast majority of younger students from low-income families are not KIPPsters. Their need is great. And, the distance between those kids who don't live in communities where they can benefit from wise parenting and wise teaching and those who do is growing greater by the year.

As The New York Times reports, based upon a study by Professor Sean Reardon and his Stanford colleagues, "Children in school districts with the highest concentrations of poverty score an average of more than four grade levels below children in the richest districts." A new study titled, "Inequality in Children's Contexts", by University of Southern California sociologist, Ann Owens, helps to explain this startling differential.

Professor Owens found that over the past 20 years, there has been a substantial increase in the economic segregation of families with children in metropolitan areas as the more affluent families moved to areas and districts that had better schools and the less affluent stayed behind.

She observes, "If families with children, particularly public school families, have become increasingly sorted by income across districts and neighborhoods, these contextual resources may be distributed more inequitably, which may result in increasingly unequal outcomes for children."

What can be done to reverse these "increasingly unequal outcomes" and help these kids raise their GPA? That's not grade point average. In this case -- and, more importantly we believe -- it stands for Grit Potential Achievement.

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