Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Context of Character Education

I was up late last night and early this morning reading and thinking about the Troy Davis case, our deeply unjust criminal justice system, and character education. I'm tired and out of blogging practice, so I may have some things to update or clarify later.

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.


  1. That last paragraph you quoted really brings it home to me too.
    It is a far different thing to say "Here are some things which contribute to success, but this is in a big context of other factors, some of which you can change and some of which you can't" than to say "you don't know how to be successful, let me tell you what the secret is."
    Here are some other things which contribute to success: height, weight, race, hair color, speaking accent.

    The last sentence: "They’re not depending on their teachers to give them the information on how to be successful.” implies that the KIPP kids, as opposed to the Riverdale kids, need the teachers to give them information about how to be successful. It is not just information, but resources and social capital that kids in poverty need to be successful.

    To me it also comes with the assumption that poor kids in poor communities are surrounded by unsuccessful people. And these unsuccessful people are unsuccessful because they aren't working hard. Telling poor kids they need to have grit and perseverance and they can go to college and get a great job won't do that much good when they look around in their community and see people with grit and perseverance who work two jobs for awful wages.
    I am not trying to idealize "all these hard working poor people" but just to suggest that all the words of teachers, "giving information" about how working hard gets you ahead won't stand up against seeing actual hard working people (no matter how many) struggling to succeed despite their hard work.

  2. Great comment!

    I am intrigued by this topic. I think that this willful blindness to historical circumstance is characteristic of many of the big mistakes made by reformers today.

    I am thinking about the analogue in the recent history of the New Orleans teachers' unions. As a fresh young alternative certification teacher in NOLA, I was fed distinctively anti-union rhetoric. Only through my own research did I learn about the actions taken by the RSD against teachers in the aftermath of Katrina. Much of the problems my students faced was blamed on lazy New Orleans teachers. Never did I have the occasion to talk with other educators about the schools in New Orleans that had really worked.

    What you point out was a very difficult question for me to consider as a teacher in New Orleans. My students were hammered over the head with KIPP-style messages, many of which I could get behind, but none of which came with an accompanying conversation about the historical causes of black poverty in New Orleans. We were "change agents," and saw ourselves as being divorced from the prior regime (the old black teachers, essentially). Therefore, we never talked about them except to shake our heads.

    To me the aims of KIPP as reflected in this article, like NCLB, are short-sighted and just not ambitious. Are we really teaching our students just so they can be successful along certain expectations (primarily wealth-related)? We have to stand up and face the fact that our black and latino citizens are facing the Great Depression of our era! We are a country full of people who cannot read and many who can read but choose not to. We live in an age of wholesale cynicism and a deep distrust of politics. These are the massive issues of the world that a teacher in any school must address through their pedagogy.

    The role of moral teacher is one that in the past would have been left to the clergy. If we are to take on this role in schools (as John Tough points out - should we?) we must take lessons from religion and philosophy, not from corporate quality assurance. What's significant is not that we pound slogans into our students or regulate their behavior like lab rats, but that we kindle their natural creativity and foster their natural ability to understand what is good and what is bad. We should be like Socrates, uncovering what is already there, not like B.F. Skinner.

  3. What fantastic comments--posts unto themselves. Thank you, both of you.