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The Science of Good Character…Two Schools’ Journey to Success for Students by Nurturing “Grit”
The New York Times Magazine (September 18, 2011) recently featured a cover story, “The Character Test,” which suggests that our kids’ success, and happiness, may depend less on perfect performance than on learning how to deal with failure.
The two schools profiled were Riverdale (http://www.riverdale.edu/default.aspx), one of New York City’s most prestigious private schools, and KIPP Infinity Middle School, a member of the KIPP network of public charter schools in New York City. The common factor in each of these schools is a headmaster or charter school superintendent whose leadership is focused on providing an educational experience for the students he serves that encompasses more than academic rigor and achievement. Their strategies are based on the work of Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, whose scholarly publication, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, documents 24 character strengths common to all cultures and eras. The importance of these strengths does not come from their relationship to any system of ethics or moral laws but from their practical benefit: cultivating these strengths represent a reliable path to “the good life,” a life that is not just happy but also meaningful and fulfilling.
David Levin, superintendent of KIPP schools in New York, discovered early in his work in New York City that while more than 80 percent of his schools’ graduates were accepted into colleges or universities, only 33 percent had graduated from a four-year program. On further examination, he noticed that the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. Working with Penn psychologist Angela Duckworth, whose early research showed that measures of self-control can be a more reliable predictor of students’ grade-point average than their I.Q.’s, Levin, in partnership with Riverdale headmaster Dominic Randolph, settled on a list of character strengths to focus their efforts: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. And now in addition to report cards for academic achievement, students at the KIPP Infinity Middle School receive a C.P.A (Character Point Average) based on a two page questionnaire completed by the teacher that evaluates the student’s behavior in relation to the seven character traits.
Ironically, such an instrument is not currently used at Riverdale, though Randolph is working to incorporate the view of character as more than respect, honesty, and tolerance for others to his students and faculty. For kids at KIPP, the notion that character could help them get through college is a powerful lure, one that motivates them to take the strengths seriously. For kids at Riverdale there is little doubt that they will graduate from college. It will happen; it’s happened to every generation in their family before them. From Randolph’s point of view, the experience of hardship, the struggle to pull yourself through a crisis, to come to terms on a deep level with your own shortcomings, and to labor to overcome them, is exactly what is missing for so many students at academically excellent schools like Riverdale. And, perhaps, it may turn out to be an area where the students at KIPP have a real advantage over Riverdale kids.
What struck me about this fascinating article is the data available that documents multi-dimensional traits, skills, abilities beyond academic aptitude necessary to build and nurture a successful human being. Our education policy world and investment strategy have become so focused on standardized testing in a narrow context that we fail to address the range of skill sets needed for true academic success. Yet, regardless of socio-economic background, all students need to have resilience, tenacity, and self-control to meet life’s challenges now and in their futures.