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…