Success Can Come from Failure

Posted by bhulsey - 22 September, 2011

This week we learned that ten Randolph seniors had been named as National Merit Semifinalists.  Just 1.5 percent of all high school seniors earn this recognition, so this is, for sure, a meaningful and important accomplishment.  To have again this year such a significant percentage of National Merit Semifinalists in the senior class speaks to the climate of excellence at Randolph for all of our students and teachers.

But grades and test scores and wins and losses and final performances in the arts only tell a mere portion of the story.  Each of these markers is in the end nothing more than a snapshot of a single point in time, and does not do much to communicate growth and development over the arc of our lives.  The latter is what matters more to the culture of our community of learners.  Randolph’s mission clearly states that honor, integrity, and character are the heart of our community, and trump by a long way grades and test scores as reflectors of a sustained pursuit of excellence through school and life.

Last week Paul Tough wrote an excellent piece on education for the New York Times Magazine entitled, “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?”  Tough tells the story of Dominic Randolph, Headmaster at Riverdale Country School in New York, and David Levin, co-founder of KIPP charter schools and superintendent of the KIPP schools in New York City.  Different as their school communities are, both Randolph and Levin have been eager to understand more completely why some students succeed in school and life, and why others seem to struggle more.  The answer comes down to character, which is an essential element in any community of learners.

Over a period of several years, Randolph and Levin worked with psychologists Martin Seligman and Angela Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania.  Levin came to understand that those KIPP students who thrived most in college and life consistently demonstrated exceptional character strengths like optimism, persistence, and social intelligence, and they were not always the same students who scored highest on standardized tests.  Randolph agrees, observing from his perch as head of the swanky Riverdale Country School (tuition, believe it or not, is $40,450 for grades six through twelve), that successful learners share in common an ability to “struggle to pull yourself through a crisis, to come to terms on a deep level with your own shortcomings and to labor to overcome them.”

Angela Duckworth’s most important contribution has been to articulate this rhetoric in the form of metrics to be measured for KIPP students.  It’s called the Grit Scale, and it evaluates performance character traits like zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity.  Levin is using the Grit Scale in KIPP schools as a Character Point Average (CPA), which they send home to balance the Grade Point Average (GPA) in their reports on students.  Duckworth’s Grit Scale, by the way, has proved to be the most effective predictor of whether or not incoming cadets will survive Beast Barracks at West Point.

This work is incredibly important to those of us who work in the field of education.  We now have clearer language that helps us focus on intangible qualities that mean so much to our students if they are to dig in and get the most out of college and their lives after school.  I very much appreciate the distinction between “moral character” (fairness, generosity, integrity) and “performance character” (effort, diligence, persistence).  Both are critical to the long-term success of our students and to the well-being of the Randolph community.

It’s not easy for us as parents and educators to welcome failure as an opportunity for growth and development.  It’s natural for us to push for excellence at every turn.  But life is not an arc of uninterrupted progress (look at the American economy!), and we all need to struggle through challenge and difficulty in order to believe in ourselves and be as ready as possible for the twists and turns and ups and downs that are sure to come for all of us.

Topics: challenge, character, community, School Culture, failure, Head of School, Media, National Merit, New York Times, Paul Tough, Community of Learners, Success


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