In school, character counts | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, September 15, 2011

In school, character counts

Posted By on Thu, Sep 15, 2011 at 8:26 AM

CHARACTER COUNTS: At KIPP school in NYC.
  • CHARACTER COUNTS: At KIPP school in NYC.
A New York Times magazine article this week is a reminder that there are many ways to refract theories from the prism of education. Is it the teacher? Homes? Standardized tests? Longer school weeks? Merit pay? Charter schools?

Or is it something as simple (and hard) as character — True Grit, if you will, as the article outlines. The reporter is talking here to David Levin, co-founder of the KIPP charter school network about KIPP middle schools in New York:

But as Levin told me when we spoke last fall, for many students in that first cohort, things didn’t go as planned. “We thought, O.K., our first class was the fifth-highest-performing class in all of New York City,” Levin said. “We got 90 percent into private and parochial schools. It’s all going to be solved. But it wasn’t.” Almost every member of the cohort did make it through high school, and more than 80 percent of them enrolled in college. But then the mountain grew steeper, and every few weeks, it seemed, Levin got word of another student who decided to drop out. According to a report that KIPP issued last spring, only 33 percent of students who graduated from a KIPP middle school 10 or more years ago have graduated from a four-year college. That rate is considerably better than the 8 percent of children from low-income families who currently complete college nationwide, and it even beats the average national rate of college completion for all income groups, which is 31 percent. But it still falls well short of KIPP’s stated goal: that 75 percent of KIPP alumni will graduate from a four-year college, and 100 percent will be prepared for a stable career.

As Levin watched the progress of those KIPP alumni, he noticed something curious: the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class. Those skills weren’t enough on their own to earn students a B.A., Levin knew. But for young people without the benefit of a lot of family resources, without the kind of safety net that their wealthier peers enjoyed, they seemed an indispensable part of making it to graduation day.

What appealed to Levin about the list of character strengths that Seligman and Peterson compiled was that it was presented not as a finger-wagging guilt trip about good values and appropriate behavior but as a recipe for a successful and happy life. He 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.”

OK, so how do you build and quantify character? One researcher has come up with a scale to measure grit, said to be a sure-fire indicator of academic success. Interesting and lengthy if you have time.

BTW: I was pointed to this article by a friend who follows the blogger, Steve Sailer. He commented:

Obviously, the whole point of KIPP is for middle class white people like Mr. Levin to cram some middle class white values into the heads of lower class blacks and Hispanics. But, the middle class white KIPPsters have to go around insisting that that's not what they are doing. Heaven forfend that anybody should get any such idea!

It must make everything much more complicated that all the devoted teachers engaged in this must tell themselves that their whole approach is "fundamentally devoid of value judgement" as they slave 80 hours per week at KIPP. No wonder it doesn't scale well.

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