I read this New York Times Magazine article by Paul Tough about character education at KIPP middle schools in New York City and at Riverdale Country School, an elite private school also in New York City, expecting to be aggravated by it, but I wasn't at all. It was a solid piece of journalism--nuanced, thought provoking, and objective. That being said, I see some real problems in the approach being described.
I hadn't liked the sound of KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg's recent quote that: "KIPP teachers believe their job is to teach 49 percent academic and 51 percent character," so I was relieved when I read the other KIPP co-founder David Levin's clarification in the NYT article that:
He [Levin] was wary of the idea that KIPP’s aim was to instill in its students "middle-class values,” as though well-off kids had some depth of character that low-income students lacked. “The thing that I think is great about the character-strength approach,” he told me, “is it is fundamentally devoid of value judgment.”Still, there are some potential complications of this idea. For one, Levin may think it's a "judgement free" approach, but not everyone involved does or will, including some prominent KIPP supporters. As I discussed here, Matt Yglesias refers to schools like KIPP teaching "bourgeois modes of behavior" and "conduct." As Cedar Riener blogged about here, David Brooks talks about schools like KIPP having an "invigorating moral culture." And, as I respond to here, Mike Petrilli talks about, "the best schools for children of poverty . . . spend a lot of time inculturating their kids in middle class mores." Now maybe I've missed something, but I haven't heard Levin issue any clarification in those cases.
Second, those who implement this character education may not be able to refrain from making assumptions about poverty and financial stability, making value judgments, or expressing those value judgments out loud. In the article I noticed both teachers at Riverdale and at KIPP expressing what I took as assumptions or "judgments."
While going over students' character report cards with parents during parent-teacher conferences, the KIPP teacher said,
“For the past few years we’ve been working on a project to create a clearer picture for parents about the character of your child,” Witter explained to Flemister. “The categories that we ended up putting together represent qualities that have been studied and determined to be indicators of success. They mean you’re more likely to go to college. More likely to find a good job. Even surprising things, like they mean you’re more likely to get married, or more likely to have a family. So we think these are really important.”So here he's not only saying improving his character will help this particular student to get to college and get a good job (and hence be successful), it will help them to get married and have children (and hence be more successful). Wait a minute. Now I know there are some studies that show correlation between marriage and happiness and living longer (and FYI: I've only read about this positive correlation for men, not women), but that's a big leap to make: taking a few findings published from a few studies about marriage and happiness and using them to advise a middle school student that he should adjust his character so that he can get married and have kids. Some people choose NOT to get married and NOT to have kids. Is this teacher saying there's something about such people that indicates inferior character? That they're less successful than those who do choose to get married and have kids? Is it really any of this teacher's business whether this student chooses to get married or not? Is that what we're supposed to be teaching kids to do--to get married and have children? No, no, it's really not and he shouldn't be told that it is.
As John Thompson so eloquently and thoughtfully states in this post (this is a MUST-read) in response to Tough's article, teachers are not trained to give such advice or conduct such therapy. These are complex psychological phenomena and people who aren't trained to interpret and apply them will probably be sloppy with them, as this teacher has been.
That being said, I think it's good to teach character and values as behaviors and habits that will lead to in-school and academic success (turning in homework on time, for example) or getting along with one's peers (how to respectfully disagree during a class discussion, for example). As Thompson puts it in his first post in response to Tough's piece, it's important "to teach students [how] to be students." And there is a lot of social-emotional learning that happens in school--that can't be denied--and teachers are a part of that. But otherwise, teachers and educators need to be really careful with how they approach these matters and they need to focus mostly on academics or teaching character implicitly via academic lessons. Reducing character to a simplified report card explained by people who lack a sophisticated understanding of psychological studies and behavior is careless at best and harmful at worst.
The initial thoughts from the teacher overseeing the character project at Riverdale resonated with me:
When I spoke to Karen Fierst, the teacher who was overseeing the character project for the Riverdale lower school, she said she was worried that it would be a challenge to convince the students and their parents that there was anything in the 24 character strengths that might actually benefit them. For KIPP kids, she said, the notion that character could help them get through college was a powerful lure, one that would motivate them to take the strengths seriously. For kids at Riverdale, though, there was little doubt that they would graduate from college. “It will just happen,” Fierst explained. “It happened to every generation in their family before them. And so it’s harder to get them to invest in this idea."Certainly, I can understand that "going to college" wouldn't be as much of a motivator or novelty for Riverdale students as it would be for students at KIPP because those at Riverdale are pretty much born expecting to go to college. That makes a lot of sense. But she loses me here:
"For KIPP students, learning these strengths is partly about trying to demystify what makes other people successful — kind of like, ‘We’re letting you in on the secret of what successful people are like.’ But kids here already live in a successful community. They’re not depending on their teachers to give them the information on how to be successful.”Is she implying that families of Riverdale students have been successful merely due to their character? That the communities that KIPP students come from aren't successful due to a deficit of those values? I would imagine that the reason why the grandparents or parents of a lower-income black student at KIPP didn't go to college and "weren't successful" in the way that the grandparents or parents of a middle or upper income white Riverdale student is not simply because they didn't have the information about or character training in "how to be successful." Certainly, grit, perseverance, and curiosity help a great deal, but so does being born white and well-off. There are historical and sociological reasons for lack of success and poverty in this country.
And history is not over. As the case of Troy Davis and the experiences of so many poor blacks and Latinos in Americans show, if the lower-income black or Latino KIPP student's father or even the student herself got caught buying or smoking pot, he'd have a vastly different experience with the criminal justice system than would the middle or upper-income white student at Riverdale. Character matters in this country, but unfortunately so does the color of your skin, the circumstances you were born into, who you know, how much money you have, and the policies and laws that govern all of us.
From where I stand, our nation's students could use a few more lessons in history, economics, government, and sociology, while our nation's powerful and "successful" law and policy makers, especially those behind the criminal justice system that is about to execute Troy Davis, could use a little more character education.