Something called "character education" is quite trendy in education reform right now. It's based on research from positive psychologists such as Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson that suggests traits like "grit"–perseverance, goal-orientation, and long-term ambition–are more highly correlated with academic and workplace success than traditional measures of skill and talent such as IQ.
There's a lot of interesting, if methodologically questionable, research on these findings. Check out this 2007 study, which attempted (via surveys, some administered online) to correlate the "grittiness" of a few thousand adults with their life outcomes. The researchers identified two major types of grit: "consistency of interests" and "consistency of efforts," asking respondents to rate themselves on a 5-point scale as to whether "new ideas and new projects sometimes distract me from previous ones," or "I have achieved a goal that took years of work."
The study concludes that even when IQ is controlled for, grittiness is associated with degree attainment and higher GPAs. The grittiest people, however, do not have the highest SAT scores. Perhaps those who perform well on standardized tests have so many other advantages going for them that they aren't forced to be particularly gritty in order to achieve their goals.
You can see why a finding like this one would be fascinating to eduwonks. If people with low SAT scores but lots of grit are good at earning degrees, then maybe we can increase high school and college graduation rates for disadvantaged kids by somehow teaching them grit. When I heard KIPP founder Dave Levin speak a few weeks ago at a conference here in New York, he was very excited about the potential here, which he saw as a confirmation of his charter schools' focus on developing "character" in children.
The problem is that we have no idea whatsoever whether traits like grittiness can be taught in school. To what extent are they taught at home? To what extent are they internal to a child's DNA? As Education Week reports, the largest to-date federal study of character education programs has found they lead to no discernible, long-term improvements in students' academic performance or behavior.
This shouldn't be taken as the last word on character education; some smaller studies have reported more positive results, and school buildings that are suffused with talk of hard work, decency, honesty, and other positive character traits are likely affecting children's attitudes in ways that are impossible to quantify.
Still, a helpful reminder of how complex the human brain is, and how very difficult it is to point to any one reform strategy and say, "Eureka, it works!"