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Character Education: A Cautionary Note

Mike Rose

In this essay from the Center on Children and Families’ Essay Series on Character and Opportunity, Mike Rose expresses two concerns for 21st century character education, cautioning against the reductive way qualities of character get defined and the near-exclusive focus on low-income children.

One of the surest claims one can make about leading a successful life is that qualities such as determination, perseverance, self-control, and flexibility matter a great deal. In American education, these qualities often get labeled as “character,” and there is a rapidly growing interest in developing character.

As I watch the 21st century character education take off, I worry. My worry is based on decades of working with low-income children and adults and watching new ideas – or, often, old wine in new bottles – capture our attention. I have two concerns in particular: the reductive way qualities of character get defined; and the near-exclusive focus on low-income children.

There is some confusion as to what to call qualities like “perseverance” or “self-control.” Some refer to them as personality traits – a term that in psychology refers to a relatively stable characteristic. Yet a quality like “perseverance” might change with setting, age, and task. I am dogged in writing a commentary like this, but I become impatient and unfocused with tax forms or technical manuals.

A further problem with terminology involves the widespread tendency to label these qualities “non-cognitive” traits or skills. Cognition traditionally refers to a rich range of mental processes, from memory and attention, to comprehending and using language, to solving a difficult problem in physics or choreography or human relations. But over the last few decades cognition has been reduced in education policy to the skills measured by standardized tests, typically of reading and mathematics. And as economists have gotten more involved in education, they’ve needed quantitative measures of cognitive ability and academic achievement for their analytical models, so they’ve used I.Q. or other standardized test scores as a proxy for intelligence or achievement.

This impoverishment of cognition and the construction of the cognitive/non-cognitive binary have troubling implications for education, especially the education of poor children.

To begin with, the labeling of character qualities as “non-cognitive” misrepresents them. Selfmonitoring, for example, has to involve a consideration and analysis of one’s performance and mental state; flexibility demands a weighing of options and decision-making. These are deeply cognitive activities. Two of the classic pre-school programs that have provided a research base for the character advocates – the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian Projects – were cognitively rich in imaginative play, language use, and activities that required thought and cooperation. I am not simply fussing over terminology. If you don’t have an accurate definition of something, how can you help people develop it?

Also, we have to consider the consequences of this cognitive/non-cognitive binary in light of American educational history. We tend toward either/or policies – think of old math/new math or phonics/whole language – so we can predict a pendulum swing away from the academic and toward character education. But over the past fifty years, attempts at character education as a distinct pursuit have not been particularly successful – in some cases, student behavior is not affected, or changes in beliefs and behaviors don’t last.

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There are equality issues here, too. The primary focus of the current character education movement is on low-income children. But many poor kids are already getting terrible educations in the cognitive domain. For character-building interventions to have an effect on academic achievement, students need a curriculum that is academically substantial.

My second concern about the current championing of character education is that it can diminish public discussion of broader policies to address poverty and educational inequality.

Generalizations abound in discussions of character. Support for character development is often coupled with the inaccurate claim that social and educational programs for poor children have failed, when, in fact, there is variability in the effectiveness of such programs depending on the site, the population, the specifics of implementation, and the way effectiveness is defined and measured. The same variation holds for newer psychological interventions to build character; context and implementation matter.

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Worse, we have a longstanding tendency to attribute all sorts of pathologies to the poor. Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, the authors of a report from the Boston School Committee bemoaned the “undisciplined, uninstructed…inveterate forwardness and obstinancy” of their working-class and immigrant students. There was much talk in the Boston Report and elsewhere about teaching the poor “self-control,” “discipline,” “earnestness,” and “planning for the future.” This language is way too familiar.

Some poor families are devastated by violence, uprooting, substance abuse – and children are terribly affected. But some families hold together with iron-willed determination and instill values and habits of mind that middle-class families strive for. There’s as much diversity among the poor as in any group. What they share are the assaults of poverty.

Over the last few years, I have been working with a group of community college students who have overcome difficult, even traumatic, backgrounds to succeed, headed toward an Associate of Arts degree and transfer to a four-year college. They possess grit by the truckload. Yet every one of them has been significantly delayed by financial, housing, and transportation problems, by bureaucratic snafus they don’t have the know-how or social capital to remedy, by violence in their communities (one fellow’s younger brother was murdered), by disruptions in their families, by health care – one woman had to quit school for a year to pay down a $10,000 emergency room bill. The poor routinely face barriers that they have few material resources to address. And sometimes no matter how hard they try, the barriers are too frequent and too high to overcome. A good education has always had as one of its goals the development of character. But as a matter of public policy, it would be counterproductive, and ultimately cruel, to focus on individual characteristics without also considering the economic and social terrain on which those characteristics play out.

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