Character counts in education reform circles

by Russ Pulliam

Posted on Tuesday, September 30, 2014, at 5:08 pm

INDIANAPOLIS—Character was a hot topic a few years ago. Some feared that America was losing its bearings in terms of traditional values and wanted to promote integrity and virtue. Others were dismayed by President Clinton’s moral problems in the White House.

In several cities business executives started character councils to collaborate on how to encourage employees in qualities such as initiative and perseverance. In Indianapolis, Mayor Bart Peterson, a Democrat, started giving monthly awards for exemplary character qualities. Other cities in Indiana adopted slogans to become Cities of Character. Leading one of the state’s largest districts in Indianapolis, Washington Township Superintendent Eugene White highlighted key qualities for the district each school year.

Mike O’Connor, who was deputy mayor under Peterson and is now an Eli Lilly executive, thinks the character emphasis fell victim to a bottom-line emphasis in business in an ever more competitive economy.

But character is thriving in education reform circles, even as some complain about standardized testing becoming too influential in wave after wave of education reform. A leading example is how the national Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools are working key character qualities into the heart of their school curriculum.

“It’s not a character curriculum per se,” said Indianapolis KIPP executive director Emily Pelino. “It’s a matter of engaging the child in the moment to praise a display of integrity, for example, or to encourage a child to keep trying after experiencing failure in order to develop grit.”

KIPP school officials point to research suggesting that character qualities such as grit or perseverance are just as important for lifetime success as academic understanding reflected on standardized tests. They want excellence in academics and character and see a false dichotomy in choosing between the two. Some KIPP schools look for ways to give grades in character qualities, and teachers are trained to praise the positive attributes and work on correction of negative traits.

In Indianapolis, Marian University President Dan Elsener wants his school to specialize in training exemplary leaders in competence, relational ability, and character. The Roman Catholic school hasn’t figured out the details, but one aim is more intentional teaching and grading in qualities such as self-control and perseverance. Some adults may remember grades in “deportment” during their elementary school years, but those topics were never covered formally as academic subjects.

Elsener knows this emphasis might not fly well at a larger state school, because faculty might claim the school is imposing values or religion on students. But he thinks Marian’s faith-based foundation clears away that objection.

The bigger challenge is how to teach integrity or initiative or self-control. Research and common sense suggest that parents have the biggest influence. Yet apart from the example set by teachers or fellow students, can these qualities really be taught in school?

Researcher Paul Tough is searching for an answer, and has written a book on the topic, How Children Succeed. He argues that education reform for low-income families depends on schools teaching character as well as academics from the very early years.

This former New York Times reporter concludes that conservatives only seem to want to tell people to shape up their character and pull out of their dysfunctional lifestyles. But Tough has a stronger admonition for those on the left side of the political and cultural spectrum: “To liberals, the science is saying that conservatives are correct in one very important point: character matters. There is no [better] antipoverty tool we can provide for disadvantaged young people.”

Tough’s book is interesting for how it backs up what might be called common grace, or truths from the Bible that are getting support from social science research and informed speculation by journalists such as Paul Tough. Much of his book is anecdotal, based on in-depth reporting he has done in inner-city schools and about families troubled by divorce, alcohol abuse, and multi-generational poverty.

One conclusion he makes: “Parents and other caregivers who are able to form close, nurturing relationship with their children can foster resilience in them that protects them from many of the worst effects of a harsh early environment.” That could be a very loose paraphrase of Bible passages such as Ephesians 6:4, Proverbs 22:6, and Malachi 4:6.

Another theme of Tough’s book: An effective war on poverty must find ways to teach poor children qualities like perseverance, integrity, resilience, grit, and self-control. Many passages in the book of Proverbs could be cited to back up his theme.

The author is not quite sure how to accomplish this laudable objective, but he describes plenty of charter schools, researchers, and education reform efforts aiming in this direction of character training and education. Tough’s book suggests some kind of shift in poverty research in favor of what might be labeled “traditional values,” without a direct foundation in faith. A similar shift in thinking occurred in the 1990s when it came to welfare reform, adopted by Congress and President Clinton, with an emphasis on work and job training as crucial to coming out of multi-generational poverty.

Veteran homeschoolers will find Tough’s research of interest in part because many of us were pursuing a similar emphasis back in the 1980s, without any social science research behind us.

We did find some 19th century popular literature that emphasized these themes—the old McGuffey readers were crammed full of character emphasis and themes of sowing and reaping. So were the Horatio Alger stories, or the Oliver Optic stories, or the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew or the G.A. Henty historical fiction stories. Richard “Little Bear” Wheeler offered some of these classics reprinted through his Mantle Ministries that was popular in homeschool circles. Mark Hamby’s Lamplighter Publishing has brought some old classics back into print, with a strong emphasis on positive character qualities.

Some of this literature has a Christian emphasis that would not pass the political correctness tests in public education circles. But this emphasis on character is a sign of wisdom and common grace in some education reform circles these days.

Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of the WORLD News Group board of directors.

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