Schools of Character

In this essay from the Center on Children and Families’ Essay Series on Character and Opportunity, Dominic Randolph explains why character outcomes must become part of our entire educational system, saying that formative and summative assessments of character skills need to be created and report cards should assess intellectual, character and social skills.

Here are two predictions: there will be ever-increasing change and a growing demand for greater equality and opportunity. We must therefore educate for change and opportunity. This learning cannot just be about knowledge, but must also be about capacities that are adaptable and provide one with a “toolkit for change.”

As society has become more rational and more enlightened, we have also come to believe in a division of labor and specialization; however, this focus has also brought about a loss of our ability to see human nature as a whole. This lack of wholeness is one reason we encounter such difficulty in suffusing the development of character skills such as optimism, self-control, gratitude and curiosity into the curriculum. As David Levin, the co-founder of the KIPP charter school network, has said to teachers over the years, dual-purpose teaching allows the teacher to teach fractions while also emphasizing resilience as a skill to be developed. It is not a matter of “either/or,” but rather “both/and.”

For all the talk about character in schools, two things are clear: The definition of character has been vague at best (what are the clear character outcomes for schools?) and there have been few formal measures of character that have any effect on one’s future. Character doesn’t show up on transcripts. And yet, we know that “character skills” can be defined, measured and developed and that they are tremendously relevant to effective performance in our schools, in our work and in our lives.

From my perspective, the failure to focus seriously on the development of character skills leads to a number of urgent problems:

  • Fragmentation of school life without significant and clear binding influences
  • Lack of resilience in different school populations of students (high-achievers / non-traditional independent school students / minority students)
  • Extreme focus on IQ as a sign of success rather than on a broader conception of human capacities. The result of this is a misunderstanding of human success and potential that closes the accessibility to education
  • A “fixed mindset” in students and adults about capacities like intelligence that effects different student populations negatively for potentially their whole lives.
  • And, most importantly, a feeling of disenfranchisement and powerlessness rather than agency in students and teachers. They do not believe that they can change the world.

Given these problems, why is it that these essential character skills are neglected, overlooked and not seriously embedded in our work and in our lives? Why don’t we have a SAT for character if non-cognitive capacities are so correlated with common measures of success (salary level, reported happiness, divorce rates…)? I think there are three principal reasons:

  • Character skills are difficult to define with precision.
  • There is not enough evidence to support specific interventions developing character strengths in young people through schooling.
  • While measuring math skills seems a viable objective public pursuit, measuring character seems a personal, subjective and private endeavor.

We need to stop talking about STEM and STEAM and reviving a retrograde “Sputnik” approach to improving education. Perhaps our math scores on the PISA tests are lower than that of Singapore, but to reduce human endeavor to a math score is just as faulty as reducing our achievements to an SAT score or to the place we go to university. We need to broaden our approaches to conceptualizing and measuring human endeavor in all its richness. Moreover, if you ask the question, Why does Singapore so dramatically outperform the US in math, you might come around to the idea that character strengths like self-control and perseverance may be cultivated more intentionally, and more successfully, in cultures other than ours.

There needs to be a comprehensive international effort in institutions and in governments to develop intellectual, character and community standards of growth that can be embedded in the “curricula” of schools, universities, workplaces.

There are amazing scientists as well as organizations like the Character Lab, the International Positive Education Network (IPEN), and the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) that are all working on the problem of taking some of the findings from social science and “translating” them to our lives. This “translational research” is essential to finding interventions that help to grow optimism, zest, curiosity and other strengths. However, there needs to be more of a consensus and clearer set of goals that these organizations can rally behind, as well as more governmental support of these ideas and how to bring them to action and scale. Character outcomes must become part of our entire educational system. Formative and summative assessments of character skills need to be created by researchers and testing organizations. Report cards need to assess intellectual, character and social skills. The capacity to understand and make change happen needs to be primary amongst our school outcomes.

At Riverdale Country School and KIPPNYC with the help of David Levin of KIPP, Angela Duckworth and Marty Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania over the last seven or so years we have tried to implement and research these ideas with two very different types of schools with some overlap in populations. Key lessons include:

  • Character development needs to be a core and overt part of the missions of the school.
  • The research is presented in articles that are intellectually compelling, but too opaque to influence students, teachers and parents. The research needs to be ‘translated’ into everyday practices in schools.
  • We have to constantly challenge the idea that the outcomes of school are a zero-sum game – that focusing on character necessarily dilutes academic. 
  • Developing character strengths and moral education are complementary, not competing, activities.
  • The United States leads the research in this field, but lags behind other countries in terms of application. Why is the development of character skills not a primary policy goal for the United States?

I would suggest some of the following steps are necessary for this work to affect more broadly the work in our schools:

  • Conduct further research into interventions that grow character strengths, and “clearing houses” of trusted information about character strengths linked to education. Create dynamic formative and summative assessments to measure and help develop character outcomes.
  • Develop reports that capture student attainment in terms of academic and character outcomes.
  • Integrate the “translational research” in schools (as championed by Angela Duckworth) into the ongoing, formalized movement for school reform.
  • Introduce teacher evaluation systems linked explicitly to the development of character strengths.

If we focused on the development of character skills as much as we focus on the development of scientific, programming or literary skills, I believe we would live in a much better world. It is not an either/or proposition – we need both.