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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Posted on October 28, 2011, in Bullying and Harassment, Ideas to try, In the News, Laws and Policies, Perspectives, Research Data and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Ugh, sounds like a horrible idea. I can only imagine what my “character” looked like at that age. And I felt like the relationships I had with my teachers varied greatly, so I’m sure some would have rated me higher than others — pretty subjective.

    Jason

  2. Exactly. Once you assign a number to someone’s character, absurd in itself, just as happens when you know your IQ score, it becomes a simplistic and often limiting representation of how you view yourself. In the hands of others it is a convenient label to sum up, categorize, and judge others. It might be the most misguided, damaging policy I have encountered in my entire 35+ career.

  3. Your analysis is comprehensive and your conclusions well-founded. Have you submitted/distributed your sage concerns widely–especially to the KIPP organization itself and the NYTimes? If not, I strongly urge you to do so! I agree that the subjective practice of “grading” character is both damaging and dangerous, and this vital “red flag” needs to be raised high.

    Thank you

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