What Kind of Character Do We Wish to Build?

Several articles in the Education Issue of the New York Times Magazine dated September 18, 2011, attracted my attention, none more so than the effort by Paul Tough entitled “The Character Test.” The question at the heart of the article is even more provocative and intriguing: What if the secret to success is failure? In fact this article has sent a buzz throughout the independent educational community. The article focuses on two seemingly disparate educational environments: the innovative KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter schools and the rarefied atmosphere of Riverdale Country School, a top-tier independent school in New York City. In each setting the challenge is the same: to develop an effective character development program.

In his explication of the two different approaches taken in the service of this goal, Tough notes the distinction between two categories of character education: programs that attempt to develop moral character (based for example on fairness, generosity, integrity) and programs that focus on performance character (based for example on effort, diligence, and perseverance). The KIPP school educators featured in the article have chosen to emphasize performance character because of the research that showed disturbing trends of KIPP graduates failing to succeed in college. Their conclusion was that the graduates had not developed the “grit qualities” (i.e.. those at the heart of performance character) essential for long-term success. As a result KIPP students are now given character grades on indicators based on the core “grit qualities”: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, curiosity. I must admit that I really like that list. If our students do not develop a resilient core, they will not be ready to face what life will have in store for them.

Riverdale Country School emphasizes moral character development while recognizing that developing the “grit qualities” may not fit easily with the culture and expectations of the school. The implication is that Riverdale and other fine independent schools may be terrific at preparing its students for academic success but not so adept at preparing them for the inevitable failures in life. That leads me to the conclusion at which my counterpart at Riverdale has also apparently arrived. We do not have an “either-or” situation in exploring moral character and performance character; it is essential that we take a “both-and” approach. In doing so, I answer affirmatively to the core question at the heart of the article: What if the secret to success is failure?

Until next time…

My best,
Leo

Not Just a Stop Along the Way

Last week during my remarks at Middle School Parent Night I referred to a quote I heard at the wonderful Institute for Experienced Heads in which I participated this past summer.  One of our presenters mentioned the utterance of a frustrated head of school: “I’m tired of being just a stop along the way.”  While the term consumer parent has assumed a rather pejorative connotation, the desire for independent schools to have a significant return on their significant investment of time, treasure, and talent is completely understandable.  But I also empathize with my anonymous colleague quoted above.  If our sole focus is on the destination or the end product, then we miss a great deal.

Living in the present is a good philosophy in any context.  Savoring the only time we really have -today- is healthy for all of us.  We need to resist the allure of what has been described as the burden of those two eternities, yesterday and tomorrow.  Yesterday never returns, and tomorrow is always ahead of us.  What I have in mind is beyond carpe diem with its hint for desperation.

We care deeply about where the children in our lives will end up, how their lives will unfold.  This sentiment is logical and laudable.  But we do a disservice to our young people if we rush them too fast into our preferred future and fail to encourage them to live in the richness of the present moment.  School- this school in particular- is much more than “just a stop along the way.”

Until next time…

My best,

Leo