Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, the two founders of KIPP high-performing charter schools, discovered that their students who went on to do well in college were not necessarily the most academically gifted, but those who exhibited certain characteristics such as optimism, resilience, and social adaptability.
After all, the true tests in life come when encountering the frustrations of failing a test, getting a proposal rejected, or encountering a teammate not favorably disposed. Adjusting and overcoming such obstacles is what determines achievement over the long term.
KIPP, which has schools throughout the country including locations in Los Angeles, San Diego and Oakland, consequently has integrated character education into its curriculum in the belief that intellectual and social engagement are inseparable and that all students need to learn gratitude, self-control, curiosity, social intelligence, and zest. Through engendering these character qualities students learn to interact with others to promote trust and understanding.
The importance of nurturing such characteristics can be best understood by considering the importance of one of them, self-control. A classic study was conducted at Stanford in 1972 by Walter Mischel, in which 92 children at the Bing Nursery School were offered a marshmallow, and told if they did not eat it until after the examiner returned, they could have more treats.
Decades later, those students who restrained themselves the longest scored, on average, 210 points higher on the SAT, established greater self-control, attained higher levels of education, and even had lower body-mass indexes. What the researchers also sought to discover were the reasons behind the students’ abilities of restraint. Many of the ‘self-disciplined’ students focused on something else entirely, such as singing a song, to distract themselves. In essence, self-control can be taught by changing how students think.
There is still, however, strong debate over whether character traits can be changed, or whether they are genetic. One trait such as conscientiousness is considered by many psychologists to be hereditary. Yet, even if this is the case, most characteristics are, according to Dave Levin, about 50% in the genes. That leaves 50% that is subject to alteration. There are, though, difficulties in assessing, measuring, and then altering character. Even more concerning is what type of values should be incorporated into character education?
Levin mentions at KIPP: “If you actually look at what we are trying to teach, if you look at the full array of character skills, then I think you will find that we are very much focused on research based skills and strengths that are not just beneficial to you but beneficial to others as well.”
Jessica Lahey who taught at Crossroads Academy in Lyme, New Hampshire, which incorporates character education, mentioned in her article in the Atlantic: “The core virtues — prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice — make it into nearly every lesson we teach at our school and every facet of our daily lives on campus. The curriculum we use, designed by Mary Beth Klee, is a non-sectarian education in intellectual, moral, and civic virtues through literature, and can be used in conjunction with any academic curriculum.”
Parents feel equally strong about character education. In a 2014 Gallup poll 87 percent of public school parents believe that learning skills such as dependability, persistence and teamwork is ‘very important,’ as opposed to 22% who felt doing well on the SAT or ACT was ‘very important.’
This would be even further endorsed by the founders of our country such a John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin who advocated extensively in their writings that character education creates an educated, involved and virtuous citizenry: essential to the workings of a vibrant republic. Students today also want to be surrounded by fellow students who value respect, compassion, and hard work.
That is why David Levine, along with Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania cofounded Character Lab with the charter to “develop, disseminate, and support research-based approaches to character.” You can see the Lab’s Character Growth Card at https://characterlab.org/measures.
While character education is far from perfect or scientific, the fruits it yields warrant the efforts involved with implementing it into the curriculum and into student lives. Character education requires constant application and context, but then character building always has.
Ralph Becker, is founder of Ivy College Prep, LLC (www.ivycollegeprep.net) and a resident of Long Beach. He has been counseling students for 11 years. He has a certificate in college counseling from the UCLA Extension, and has published "SAT* Vocab 800." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.