This is the third in a series of three micro reviews of recent books that are intended to help interested parents discuss the question, “What do we want our kids to get out of school, and which schools can do this well?” More background on the series here.
Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character has attracted a lot of media, so I won’t focus on an in depth review of the book so much as some key questions it generated for our family. Very quickly, the research supports that character strengths are often a better indicator of longer-term career success than test scores or IQ, and according to William Deresiewicz’ Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite, long-term personal happiness. For the last decade or so, there have been more and more media stories about charter schools with overt character development curricula, which has helped the topic go mainstream. SFUSD embraces Restorative Practices and grades children on socio-emotional skills for some grades (not sure whether it is across all grades), and some cultural immersion programs are in many ways as much about character skill development via the immersion culture as language skills.
As Deresiewicz points out, character education has existed for most of American schooling history, but was largely confined to schools that served wealthy children. The more recent movement has stemmed from the motivation to equip kids from low income backgrounds with the skills to succeed in a school and job environment that expects certain behaviors, and requires kids to persevere through barrier after barrier to a fulfilling, well-paying career. That excellent impulse has been met from parents and educators who are also seeing the serious downsides of too little focus on character development for upper middle class kids. The case for this problem is laid out in Deresiewicz’ book, Madeline Levine’s The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids and Quanyu Huang’s The Hybrid Tiger: Secrets of the Extraordinary Success of Asian-American Kids.
Which Character Values?
Our family has been interested in character learning for our kids for a long time. I am keenly aware of my own character weaknesses, and wish that I had been pushed to work on them earlier in my life. Our question has always been, which character values should be the focus, and how do we know if the school is doing it well? Most of the character values named in all of these books sound good and important. Tough’s book generally makes a strong case for character education in general, no matter what’s in your bank account or mattress. But it doesn’t make a point of recommending specific bundles of character values, and the method of teaching. So I was happy when I stumbled on a podcast with Scott Seider (number 72 on the list), author of Character Compass: How Powerful School Culture Can Point Students Toward Success. I haven’t read the book (yet!), but my understanding from the interview is that he studied three schools that did different types of character education (moral, behavioral and civic), to understand whether one set of values had a bigger impact on future success and happiness than others.
Seider’s takeaway, according to the podcast, was that it doesn’t matter what the set of character values is, as long as they are organic to the community served and are done well. This makes sense to me, and is a bit of a relief. I am still confused about what good character education looks like in a school setting. Preschools are by nature about character education to a large extent, and I feel like I’ve seen character education done well in that context at my childrens’ preschool (and, on occasion, not so well). I took my eldest child to go to the DeYoung Museum with me a few weeks ago. My son wasn’t super excited about going, to put it mildly, but he got really into all kinds of stuff while we were there. As we were leaving, he turned to me out of the blue and said, “Mom, you know I didn’t really want to go to this museum when you first told me, and now I don’t want to leave because I like it so much. Huh.” That moment really underscored for me the value of character skill education; his preschool really emphasized that sort of self-reflection, and it works.
Our experience thus far in SFUSD TK is that, though the initial and sole focus this semester has been on socio-emotional skills, it has been a hollow, weak attempt because it’s been presented as a stand alone endeavor that isn’t woven into the rest of the curriculum. Definitely a step backward from the excellent character curriculum of his preschool. But I take the TK experience with a grain of salt since it is such an unusual curriculum situation for SFUSD.
Which Schools Do It Well?
In our tours I have tried to get a sense of what character education means at each school. It’s been all over the map, and, unsurprisingly, mostly about socializing the full population to the norms of whatever the dominant culture/class/race is at the school, with some exceptions. For example, Rosa Parks tries very hard to fuse its two dominant population's history and culture. At this point, we would very much like to find a school that is extremely explicit about its character education, whatever it may be, and is deliberate in integrating it into the everyday culture and logistics of the school.
On the one hand, I expect that we’ll be able to see whether character education is working or not by simply talking with and observing our children outside of school. On the other hand, I think most of us known how hard it can be to be unflinchingly honest about our kids’ character. I see value in having a less prejudiced set of eyes on my kids’ character development. Maybe it won’t be as hard to parent teenagers who are good at self-reflection?
Have you seen good examples of explicit character education at particular schools? Bad examples? What character values do you want schools to teach your kids, if any?
This is the end of my review series. It’s been fun to write, and I hope that it’s been helpful for other parents. Best of luck in your school searches and beyond!