Non-cognitive Factors:
School Context, Not Student Character

By Dr. Stephanie Wood-Garnett

ISA President


Encouraging Students to Persist to CollegeRecent studies on non-cognitive factors conducted by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (CSSR) and the Stanford University Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) provide critical, insightful knowledge that can be used in powerful ways to help close the achievement gap. However, the lens through which practitioners view these studies must be asset not deficit-based ones. If educators’ responses to the studies are reactionary and not deeply thoughtful, they may quickly leap to inaccurate conclusions and continue to search for ways to “fix” students’ character and infuse them with more of the “right stuff” so that they can do better in school. If, on the other hand, educators are deeply reflective about the findings of the study, they will recognize that it is not the students who are deficient but the traditional context of schooling itself. Too frequently, non-middle class students are unable to successfully navigate the unfamiliar school culture, academic programs, and classroom practices that are the unquestioned norm in most schools.

Much of the current dialogue around non-cognitive factors focuses on “grit.” This is the term coined by Angela Duckworth and her colleagues to describe an individual’s ability to maintain consistency of interests and persistence of effort over the long term. Their research resulted in the development of a Grit Scale. Unfortunately, many educators and others are using this research and the Grit Scale to devise a plethora of interventions to correct the perceived character flaws in students who are not “gritty” enough to achieve academically. However, the CSSR research clearly states, “While there are aspects of student characteristics that affect perseverance…Classroom contexts that are structured to support students’ success at assigned tasks and that provide students with strategies to make tasks easier are likely to increase students’ perseverance and persistence in completing those tasks. The essential question,” CCSR states, “for developing students as learners, is not how to change students to improve their behavior but rather how to create contexts that better support students in developing critical attitudes and learning strategies necessary for their academic success.”

The CCSR and SCOPE research also validate two grounding principles of the ISA approach. The first is that sustainable, transformative school reform must be based on a whole-school approach, not a series of isolated, and often disconnected, interventions. CCSR researchers acknowledge that reforming instructional practices is difficult and that implementing interventions might be easier, but they go on to conclude that “…improving classroom contexts would seem likely to have a larger and broader impact on student achievement and achievement gaps than one-time interventions that only can address a limited sample of students.”

The second foundational ISA principle reinforced by this emerging research is that focusing on cognitive skills and abilities to help traditionally underserved students achieve academic success is necessary but not sufficient to reverse patterns of underperformance for poor students and students of color. This core belief is reflected in two of our key structures designed to provide academic, social and emotional support for student achievement—advisories and grade-level teams. These structures have always been critical research-based components of the ISA whole-school reform approach. They help form a safety net to consistently support students’ academic, social, and emotional development. They also serve as mechanisms to build trusting relationships between students and teachers as well as increase teachers’ ability to integrate practices that promote pro-academic mindsets and behaviors. The SCOPE research concludes that “…failing to meet students psychological, social, and emotional needs will continue to fuel gaps in opportunity and achievement for students—in particular, low-income students and students of color—who are frequently underserved by the schools they attend.”

The emerging research on the importance of non-cognitive factors to increase achievement, especially for poor students and students of color, has tremendous potential to identify and implement solutions that address some of the root causes of the decades-old patterns of underperformance for some students. However, this potential will be realized only if educators and other leaders understand and accept that these causes lie within the context of schools and society, not within the perceived character flaws of students, families, and communities.