Monthly Archives: October 2011

Part Two: Subverting the good idea

Part two of my response to “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” a  9/14/11 New York Times article by Paul Tough

The Fatal Mistake: KIPP decided to institute their first ever “character report card.” 

Imagine…

A report card for a child’s character.

A report card that assigns a numerical value to a child’s character.

A report card that assigns a numerical value to a child’s character, the personal qualities that define the very essence of who he is as a human being.

A report card that assigns a numerical value to a child’s character, the personal qualities that define the very essence of who he is as a human being, qualities that are still undeveloped and evolving.

A report card that assigns a numerical value to a child’s character, the personal qualities that define the very essence of who he is as a human being, qualities that are still undeveloped and evolving, and records this CPA (character point average) in the child’s permanent record.

How it works:

The KIPP Character Report Card requires that twice a year all teachers grade each of their students, using a scale of one to five, on 24 statements that represent the desired character strengths the school is encouraging. Some of the thinking behind the decision was how useful a character CPA would be to colleges and work places as they try to select the best candidates, and that parents would like to know how their child’s CPA stacks up against the rest of the class.

The fundamental problem:

They made becoming a good person a competitive sport instead of a personal journey.

A report card approach to building character ignores what research and experience tell us: extrinsic (external) rewards develop a shallow and brief commitment to a desired behavior.  When external generic praise, grades, prizes, stickers, competitions, charts, etc.  are used to reward behavior, students tend to work only enough to reach the reward, and then stop. They are externally motivated to care – temporarily – and with the artificial reward removed, there is no reason to continue to strive to improve.

External rewards, such as a quantitative report card, fail to nurture development of the intrinsic (internal) system of motivation, beliefs, and attitudes needed to sustain personal effort. And personal effort and commitment are what proponents claim are the keys to performance and moral character, and what their students are lacking.

The practical flaws:

  • Grading students on 24 statements is too laborious, time-consuming, and cumbersome a system to be sustained.
  • The evaluation itself is subjective and open to teacher interpretation, resulting in inconsistent ratings assigned by individual teachers.
  • The school would need to create a detailed rubric for each of the 24 statements that describes what level one behavior looks like, what level two behavior looks like, and so on, and then share with, carefully explain, and teach these values and behaviors to the students, and their parents.
  • Quantifying character traits could reward compliant go-along, get-along behavior, be used to punish a student a teacher does not like, and could easily discourage the lively classroom discourse necessary for students to become critical, conceptual, divergent thinkers who express opinions and challenge ideas.
  • As with a GPA, teachers would need to support their rankings with empirical evidence and documented anecdotes. This is a very personal, sensitive, and emotional kind of evaluation. You do not assign a number to a student’s character on a whim or a gut feeling, and get away with it. You will be challenged and rightly so.

How this practice hurts, not helps, students:

  • Assigning a number to describe a child’s character development is counterproductive and misguided. It makes human development a competition, complete with a number that labels the child, in the same way students and parents often use academic grades.
  • It is human nature to focus on the  negative. Receiving less than a rating of 5 would plant self-doubt and insecurity, even if the teacher tells the student that a 4 is a good rating.
  • For the most challenged students who are trying to develop new character strengths, the low scores on their character report card may confirm the negative feelings they already have about themselves. The system tears the child down, when it should recognize improvement, encourage her to keep trying, and to believe through continued hard work she can be successful.
  • And at the same time, when a child receives all fives, it is easy for her to become complacent, even overly self-satisfied, and consider her work done. And we know no one is ever done evolving as a person.
  • A program that rewards a child’s positive behavior observed in one circumstance can also fail to notice negative behaviors happening in other circumstances. Teachers do not know what students are like in all situations, especially when it comes to under the radar relational and covert aggression, such as rumor spreading, discrimination, exclusion, and cyber-bullying. One of the worst things we can do is reward sneaky or deceitful behavior, and an evaluation system based on isolated observations can do just that. Imagine the hypocrisy of a student with a 4.8 CPA on “Social Intelligence – Demonstrates respect for feelings of others,”  who writes unkind things about others on Facebook.

Imagine yourself in this situation.

There is a much more compassionate and effective way to help students develop moral and performance character.

To be continued…

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Part One: Co-opting a good idea

Review of  “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” a  9/14/11 New York Times article by Paul Tough

The author of this article mentions, often with little or no insight or analysis, some of the most critical issues in education today including the nature and nurturing of character development (the basis of violence prevention), competition and collaboration, and intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, including reward systems and report cards.

To summarize the “plot” of the article, the author explored the efforts of two atypical New York City schools – the private and prestigious Riverdale Country School for the affluent, and the free KIPP charter school with enrollment open to all NYC students (by lottery). Both focus on preparing students for college and turning out people who are successful in life. Not liking the results they were seeing, they each identified the need to look more closely at character development, and ways to teach those essential character traits typical of a high functioning, autonomous adult.

Using Martin Seligman’s work on positive psychology and his 800-page book (tome) on character strengths and virtues, the headmaster and superintendent of the respective schools looked at the practical benefits of teaching both:

  •  “Moral character” – high quality values such as  honesty, integrity, compassion, and fairness, and
  •  “Performance character,” –  high quality behavior such as persistence, team work, self-control, and something researcher Angela Duckworth calls “grit.”

The Good Idea:

The KIPP School ultimately chose the seven of  Duckworth’s 24 identified character strengths that were the most predictive of  “life satisfaction and high achievement.”

  • zest
  • grit
  • self-control
  • social intelligence
  • gratitude
  • optimism
  • curiosity

While life satisfaction and high achievement are not synonymous with living a life of high moral character, the list is useful, especially if social intelligence encompasses positive moral traits and pro-social beliefs and skills.

KIPP then took these seven strengths and converted them into 24 statements, such as the student:

  • Is eager to explore new things.
  • Believes that effort will improve his or her future.
  • Allows others to speak without interruption.
  • Remains calm even when criticized or otherwise provoked.

The intent was to use these statements as goals for behavior, and to gauge a child’s progress toward high moral and behavioral character. As we read over the list, they sound like the qualities we’d like to see in everyone.

But then they took a wrong turn.

To be continued…

McInerney Murder Trial #2

The Ventura County District Attorney’s Office has decided to retry Brandon McInerney for the 2008 murder of his classmate, Larry King.  Both Larry and Brandon were middle school students at the time of the incident.

The jury in the nine-week trial that ended in September 2011 could not come to an agreement about Brandon McInerney’s guilt. While there was no question that Brandon brought a gun to school and then carried out his plan to shoot Larry King, the jurors had a difficult time convicting him of  the first degree murder charge – with a special circumstance of lying in wait and a hate crime enhancement – and accepting the mandatory 50-year minimum sentence the charges carried.*

The District Attorney is again applying the lying in wait charge, which means Brandon will be tried as an adult in his second trial this November. His attorney and family, a few jurors from his first trial, and some community members are pressing for a charge of voluntary manslaughter, a charge which would allow him to be tried in juvenile court with the possibility of getting out of prison in 14 years.

Many factors complicate what would seem like a straightforward case: Larry King was openly gay and may have shown Brandon unwanted attention; Brandon expressed a dislike for gays and had an interest in White supremacy; the school administrators knew of and failed to act to prevent further escalation of the tension between the two boys; and the question of whether a cold-blooded, premeditated murder committed by a 14-year-old is the act of an adult or of a child.

With some compromising between the District Attorney’s Office and the McInerney’s, a plea deal may be reached making a second trial unnecessary. But regardless of what happens, each of us still has to address the issues of discrimination, bullying, and harassment in our schools, and implement thoughtful, yet definitive, violence prevention and early intervention strategies and policies.

*For background on the case and perspectives on the first trial, check out my earlier posts.