Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Character Ed: Bah, Humbug!

In today's NYTimes, What if the Secret to Success is Failure?, about attempts to teach good character traits.

At a KIPP school, they've designed a report card:

Logistically, the character report card had been a challenge to pull off. Teachers at all four KIPP middle schools in New York City had to grade every one of their students, on a scale of 1 to 5, on every one of the 24 character indicators, and more than a few of them found the process a little daunting. And now that report-card night had arrived, they had an even bigger challenge: explaining to parents just how those precise figures, rounded to the second decimal place, summed up their children’s character.   I sat for a while with Mike Witter, a 31-year-old eighth-grade English teacher, as he talked through the character report card with Faith Flemister and her son Juaquin Bennett, a tall, hefty eighth grader in a gray hooded sweatshirt.

... Witter pulled out a green felt-tip marker and circled one indicator on Juaquin’s report card. “ ‘Pays attention and resists distraction,’ ” Witter read aloud, an indicator for academic self-control. “That’s a little lower than some of the other numbers. Why do you think that is?” 

“I talk too much in class,” Juaquin said, a little sheepishly, looking down at his black sneakers. “I sometimes stare off into space and don’t pay attention.” 

Oh, please.  Is there no end to the meddling our schools engage in?  If I were Juaquin, I would never want to step foot in school again, after such an invasive and humiliating experience.

Meanwhile, at an affluent private school in the Bronx:

[Guidance Counselor] Cohen said that in the middle school, “if a kid is a C student, and their parents think that they’re all-A’s, we do get a lot of pushback: ‘What are you talking about? This is a great paper!’ We have parents calling in and saying, for their kids, ‘Can’t you just give them two more days on this paper?’ Overindulging kids, with the intention of giving them everything and being loving, but at the expense of their character — that’s huge in our population. I think that’s one of the biggest problems we have at Riverdale.”

I am extremely skeptical of the alleged character-building effects of bad grades.  Bad grades are just as likely to provoke depression and despair as hard work and persistence, especially if the child perceives them as unfair.

For kids to grow as complete human beings, they need autonomy, privacy, and free time.  They need the chance to figure things out for themselves and develop their own point of view.  No report card can help kids achieve this goal.  The only way for kids to develop true character is to have genuine, real-life experiences that grow naturally from their own interests.

I fear that at this rate, the first genuine, unmediated experience our kids are likely to have is post-graduate unemployment.


  1. PsychMom chimes in:

    Hear, hear! When I read the post, all I feel is bad for these kids. If an employer tried, and I mean even tried, to do something like that to an employee, they'd be harrassing the employee.

    I'm a broken record...we are not kind to our children and our old people, we are not kind to our children and our old people......

  2. Suburban Chicken FarmerSeptember 14, 2011 at 12:47 PM

    Juaquin may have been exerting his physiological best. His teacher could have circled "Didn't drink a Coke" as an area the kid needs to improve on. We humans don't have an inexhaustible reserve of self-control. Self control takes energy-

    As a coffee drinker and smoker, I must say, it's great that someone is finally recognizing that I'm improving my character!

  3. PsychMom adds:

    I read the whole article last night. Martin Seligman and his positive psychology ideas are at the basis of these two principals' new character building schemes. One guy wants his students to be morally ethical (be good people), the other feels that good work ethics will help the kids succeed.

    But all of this character building is still no different than introducing a new reading program or new way of doing math. It's being DONE TO the kids, they have no choice, nor do their parents. Someone in authority is telling them all that this is the only way to go! The judging is what's toxic...and these two principals are just adding more, new boxes to tick.

  4. Also, it's interesting to see the different approaches taken in the majority-white, affluent school vs. the majority-black, poor school.

    As you might predict, everything going on in the majority-black, poor school is especially top-down, authoritarian, and invasive.

  5. PsychMom adds:

    Did anyone watch Survivor last night? The person who became unwound in a day on the island was ....a teacher. So used to being in complete control, she just couldn't handle the chaos and layed back attitude of her fellow castaways. She expected a shelter to be builtm water to be drawn, fire to be started. It didn't happen..

    She panicked.

  6. I've never seen Survivor (not to be self-righteous, I watch plenty of silly stuff), but I'm not a bit surprised that the teacher couldn't hack it.