Is character key to student success?

Two books make the case

AS A THOUGHT experiment, imagine you’re magically “shaping” a high school senior. You’re lucky. Her starting point is that she’s at the 80th percentile in both IQ and “character”—a composite measure of traits like grit, tenacity, and optimism. You can increase either variable, but only by lowering the other variable by the same amount. For example, you could “shape” her into a kid who is in the 90th percentile in IQ but 70th percentile in character. Or vice versa.

Where would you set the dial? Which variable matters more in generating success?


If you find yourself leaning towards character, an important further question emerges. Is character a mix of genetics, parent modeling, and life experiences, with schools really unable to do much about it? Or can schools actually teach character, such that kids change for the better?

Two new books shed some light on these questions.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Tough introduces us to Kew­auna Lerma. She grew up near Deval Patrick’s birth­place on the South Side of Chicago. But her circumstances were very different than his.

“I didn’t really have a family family,” Lerma tells Tough. “I was scattered all over the place, no father, with my grandma sometimes. It was all messed up. Jacked up.”

Tough, the author of a previous book on Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone (Whatever It Takes), has reported on poverty for many years. So he knew where stories like hers usually end up: high school drop-out, single mom, and intergenerational poverty.

That wasn’t Kewauna’s story, though. Tough writes:

Just before her sophomore year of high school, a few weeks after Kewauna was arrested for the first time, for scuffling with a police officer, Kewauna’s mother told her that she wanted to have a talk. Kew­auna knew it was serious, because her great-grandmother was there, too, the one member of her family Kew­auna had always respected. The two women set Kewauna down, and her mother uttered one of the hardest sentences for any parent to say: “I don’t want you to end up like me.” The three of them talked for hours…

Kewauna’s mom cried through practically the whole conversation, but Kew­auna herself never shed a tear. She just listened. She wasn’t sure what to think. She didn’t know if she could change, and she didn’t know if she wanted to. When she got back to school, though, she started to pay more attention in class. In freshman year, she had run around with a rough crowd, girls into gangs and boys into drugs and everyone into skipping school. Now she pulled herself away from those friends, spending more time alone, doing homework and thinking about her future. At the end of her freshman year, her GPA was a miserable 1.9. By the middle of sophomore year it had climbed to 3.4.

She became a straight-A student, and last year headed off to college. So what happened? To answer that, Tough’s book propels us through a readable history of psychology over the past few decades, focusing on the issue of character. By that, Tough means qualities like perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control.

Nobody disputes that these traits are “good.” Aristotle argued that tenacity was a virtue; Martin Luther King wished that his four children (and all people) be judged by the “content of their character.” Tough argues these traits are not just positive, but are also key drivers of children’s success.

There is serious research underway on these matters, including some by local scholars like MIT neuroscientist John Gabrieli, to measure these traits, and to ultimately validate or refute some of what Tough describes. In the meantime, Tough’s thesis is very well-reported and pro­vocative. (There are competing ideas out there. Com­mon­Wealth readers may recall a different list of virtues purported to explain success—industriousness, marriage, honesty, religiosity—from the book review last year of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart [“The Great Divide,” Spring 2012]).

Tough also touches on the relevance of character for highly educated parents. In an interview, he said:

“[Writing this book] made me more relaxed as a parent. When Ellington was born, I was very much caught up in the idea of childhood as a race—the faster a child develops skills, the better he does on tests, the better he’ll do in life. Having done this reporting, I’m less concerned about my son’s reading and counting ability. Don’t get me wrong, I still want him to know that stuff. But I think he’ll get there in time. What I’m more concerned about is his character—or whatever the right synonym is for character when you’re talking about a three-year-old. I want him to be able to get over disappointments, to calm himself down, to keep working at a puzzle even when it’s frustrating, to be good at sharing, to feel loved and confident and full of a sense of belonging. Most important, I want him to be able to deal with failure.”

This relates to my only small quibble with the book. Robert Pondiscio captures this well in his own review of Tough’s book, “Is Grit Enough?” which appeared recently on the Core Knowledge Foundation blog. As educated, middle-class parents, both Tough (Ellington is three) and I (my children are four and two) are relaxed about our children’s acquisition of knowledge only because we know it will invisibly and inevitably seep in. Hence, we have the freedom to turn our attention to character. Pondiscio writes:

Tough is undoubtedly correct that much essential knowledge is indeed family driven. There are clear benefits to growing up in a home filled with books, college-educated parents who engage their children in rich dinner table conversation, museum visits, travel, and other enriching cultural experiences…
Family background matters.? But it doesn’t follow that schools cannot or should not make a concerted effort from the very first days of school to provide as much rich content knowledge across the curriculum that kids need to be successful—especially for “school dependent” learners who are less likely to be exposed to it, like second-hand smoke, through their daily lives, contact with educated adults, or via what Annette Laureau termed “concerted cultivation.”

That’s the rub. Beyond IQ and character, there is knowledge. IQ affects the rate at which we develop knowledge; and character affects our willingness to devote the time needed to pursue knowledge. But individual schools and teachers are probably even bigger factors affecting a poor child’s knowledge. Policy-wise, if we don’t address teacher quality and curricular choices, even if we’re lucky enough to “raise grit” somehow, we won’t end up with many inner-city kids becoming college grads. Meanwhile, a parent of a kid whose family background does not confer knowledge absolutely needs to worry about how her kid will acquire it, quite apart from any focus on building character.

It’s one thing to conclude that character traits matter a lot. It’s quite another to ask whether they can be explicitly taught.  Enter Scott Seider’s Character Compass.

Seider, a professor of education at Boston University, opens by noting that lots of folks seem to think the answer is, yes. Thomas Jefferson wanted public schools because they’d instill civic character, and Horace Mann because they’d instill self-discipline and respect. Phillips Exeter was founded, writes Seider, to promote “minds and morals.”

But Seider has some sobering news on the ability of schools to strengthen important character traits. He de­scribes a mega-study of character education that randomly assigned more than 6,000 students to seven different “research-based” interventions: conflict resolution training, programs to increase “emotional literacy,” curriculum to promote respect, etc. Which one worked best? None. They all failed, concluded the Institute of Education Sciences, the independent research arm of the US Depart­ment of Education.

Perhaps character drives success, but the research shows it’s not easy to teach. This won’t surprise anyone who follows K-12 education. Avoiding cocaine or teen pregnancy is also linked to success. But it’s hard to teach kids in a way that changes their future behavior. Many heralded initiatives, like the anti-drug program DARE, seek to do that. But close examination by scholars shows no effect.

Seider offers a hypothesis. The programs studied by the Institute of Education Sciences were all inserted into schools from the outside. What if we look at schools that have incorporated character education organically, because they believe it’s an essential component of their recipe for educational success?

Seider sets out to examine three Boston schools, full of kids like Kewauna, that are doing just that. All three are charter schools, and they happen to be unusually good ones, each trying a different approach to this broad concept of character improvement.
Roxbury Preparatory Charter School focuses, like Tough’s book, on performance character—things like perseverance and optimism. Academy of the Pacific Rim teaches civic character (“kaizen”—Japanese for striving to continuously improve the community). Boston Prep­ara­tory Charter School teaches moral character (ideas such as integrity, compassion, resistance).

Any educator contemplating character education will enjoy the detailed descriptions that Seider provides. At Boston Prep, for example, there are weekly small group ethics classes, and assemblies that leverage those ideas. High school kids read and discuss Aristotle, and compare Pat Tillman and Muhammad Ali. By contrast, newly arrived sixth graders might analyze simple ethical issues from Dr. Seuss.

A teacher tells Seider: “Kids are doing good things, families are doing good things long before they come to Boston Prep, before we start talking about ethics or virtues.” But, the teacher explains, the ethics classes provide “common language” to examine normal day-to-day school issues: how a new kid gets welcomed or ignored; whether to show up for early morning sports practice; how administrators handle students’ refusal to sign an honor pledge; what to do about bullying.

Seider is not picking a winner here. All three schools have high MCAS scores, and they’re too young as institutions to have good data on how their alumni do in college and in life.

Seider uses survey data to show that this stuff seems to work. That is, each school’s students make gains in surveys examining the chosen virtues—Boston Prep kids increase in empathy, Roxbury Prep kids increase in perseverance, and Pacific Rim’s kids increase in “daring” —versus control groups from the other two schools.

So what to make of all this?

As Massachusetts policymakers struggle to both close the existing achievement gap and to help suburban students reach Common Core standards and compete with children from India and China, I predict we’ll see increasing attention to character (particularly performance character), not just to pedagogy and curriculum.

A caution: Teachers often have too much on their plates. In a CommonWealth feature a few years ago (“Reports from the front line,” special CW issue on education, 2008), teachers from Boston, Somerville, and Long­meadow de­scribed precisely the problem of being asked to do too much with too little.

Teachers are asked to teach their subject, to generate effort from kids who are disinclined to try hard, and to remediate skill deficits that weren’t cured in earlier grades. Soon they’ll also be expected to vault students to even higher levels, as standardized tests are likely to become harder. Teachers have always vied to model good character, but will more teachers be asked to explicitly teach it?

Tough describes researchers trying to solve the “teaching character” puzzle by generating results from randomized trials, the gold standard of research. They’re not there yet, but the efforts are exciting and well-funded.

Meet the Author
Meanwhile, Seider’s work shows that if you’re going to try to change children’s character, absent an empirically proven methodology, it should at least be “homegrown” —sensitive to context, and organic to the school and teachers who will do the day-to-day work with kids.

Michael Goldstein is founder of Match Charter School in Boston and its teacher residency program. (Disclosure: He has several connections to all three schools that Seider profiles and some that Tough profiles. He also served years ago on an advisory board for Harvard Education Press, which published Character Compass.)