Knowledge, Character, and the Next Mole

Yesterday, the New York Times had an article by Paul Tough about developing character in schools.  Citing the academic success of a middle school KIPP charter in NYC at achieving excellent test scores for its low-income students and getting them into selective private schools, the article then went on to show how still only 33% of the KIPP graduates got a college degree.  (Frightening fact: only 31% of middle school graduates nationally get college degrees, according to the article.)  KIPP founder Dave Levin’s solution: help his students develop character.

The article inadvertently demonstrates how education reform is often like a game of whack-a-mole.  We find a target to aim at and we focus our energies on it, only to see that there is another obstacle that pops up.  For example, the No Child Left Behind Act was instituted to guarantee minimum competency for all students regardless of background, but the nature of the tests used to guarantee this “proficiency” focused learning so tightly on a few specific subjects (and narrowly within those subjects) that schools left out important topics and skills students would later need.  Similarly, in the article, KIPP achieved real learning and proficiency on the part of their students, only to discover that the students didn’t have the grit to stick it through college.

Tough goes on to describe how the NYC KIPP schools have started teaching character.  Not “moral character,” but rather “performance character”: things like effort, diligence, and grit.  They’re whacking the next mole.

Unfortunately, I’ll bet that there will be yet more moles after this one.  For example, some of my own work deals with developing education-dependent adult identities for students to understand why they’re going to college.  Students also need a broader understanding of what opportunities exist for them in order to find the right path in college and afterward.

So how do you build a program that really helps students succeed?  It’s not easy to find effective methods.  Imagine trying to test out the effectiveness of this kind of character education.  There’s no test that will show immediate improvement just because some students have a bit more grit each year, so you need to do a longitudinal study (very hard and expensive!) to see how grit helps them in college and afterward.  It would take at least a decade.  And then, what if you made the mistake of doing your study on an ineffective school?  Students without sufficient knowledge and skills wouldn’t benefit nearly as much from character education, so we might conclude that this intervention doesn’t work at all, when in fact it does work in a school like KIPP that has a good grasp on the basics.

But let’s assume we got lucky and tested character education in the right setting.  We’d no doubt find many different interventions that are successful, and now we’d need to understand how these interventions work together.  A rigorous and controlled academic curriculum like KIPP’s might pair well with this kind of character education, while the effort might be wasted elsewhere.  It would take centuries to test all of these combinations.

Building a good program is hard.  (Kudos to KIPP for tracking its students, discovering their failures, analyzing them, and finding an underlying reason.  That takes incredible leadership.)  We can’t possibly test every combination of in-school methods.  Successful methods are often contradictory, or work against each other when implemented together.  Rigorous studies can often provide some clues as to what works, but we still need to trust ourselves to make good choices.  We still need to look at each program holistically and not let ourselves be so beholden to research that we can’t use our common sense to design a curriculum and a school.  Nor can we measure outcomes with a test at the end of the year and conclude that we’ve understood the impact on students.

In the end, this is a flaw with the slew of programs that are developing with laser-precision focus on specific outcomes.  Without thinking about all aspects of a child’s education, we’ll miss things.  The need to explain a program in a single sentence, to give a “statement of need” that explains what niche you fill, misses the real breadth that a successful program has.

We can and should measure outcomes, but we should also admit that our measurement is incomplete and trust our gut.  I really do wish that there was an easy way to find effective methods and combine them into a coherent program.  But because there isn’t, we will have to instead go back to basics: have good people at all levels of the education system and enable them to do good work that is guided by the research but not beholden to it.

Author: danzaharopol

I am a math geek. I love doing math, learning math, and teaching math. Nothing excites me more than working with young people who are discovering new and amazing things. Professionally, I founded Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM), a program that makes it possible for low-income and underserved students to become scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and programmers. That's where I spend most of my time geeking out about math these days. Prior to BEAM, I was a math graduate student (studying algebraic topology) and taught math in places all around the country. I also co-founded and served as the founding CEO of Learning Unlimited, an organization that mentors college students to create enrichment programs for local middle and high school students. In my non-existent free time, I love board games, great plays, frisbee, and reading.

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