(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)

My daughter’s first-grade report card came in two sections, one related to her academic work and the other for her teacher’s feedback about the character she displayed in school. Did she play well with others? Did she participate in class? Did she take risks?

In a few years, my daughter’s report cards will become less personal, and probably less interesting. Letter grades and test scores will assume for her the central role that they play for just about everybody in education.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. – Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream, 1963.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” – Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream, 1963.

For the past decade or so, the most pursued goal of K-12 education in America has been pretty clear: Ensure that all children master essential academic content, and do so in a way that can be verified through tests.

One premise of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was that predictable patterns of academic failure could be disrupted through the transformative power of measurement and scrutiny. NCLB set measurable, escalating test score goals for “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) for districts, schools, and subgroups, and established 2014 as the no-excuses deadline for all subgroups to rise to proficiency. Wherever academic achievement lagged, the hope was that “what gets measured gets managed.” If districts were compelled to see the gaps, they would focus on the problems and address them. Lyric sheets for Kumbaya were to be made freely available at a tear-filled ceremony in 2014, which would surely be sponsored by Kleenex.

Ten years on, no one is singing. Test scores have improved, but slowly and inconsistently. Achievement gaps on tests remain large, and they continue to correlate with race and income. With 2014 approaching and AYP requirements rising, schools and districts are failing to meet their targets.

This wave of failure is driving some soul-searching. For one thing, dunce caps lose their meaning if everyone is wearing one. In the absence of guidance from Congress, the U.S. Department of Education is now hoping to draw some value out of the mess by granting selective waivers in a way that can drive focus on a smaller number of problems.

Meanwhile, some educators and reformers are questioning whether academic results on their own are a sufficient measure of success. Some are wondering whether a version of the first-grade report card might be a more useful approach than the letter grade. Back-to-school coffee gatherings are abuzz with discussion of a recent article in the New York Times Magazine by Paul Tough, titled “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” In this article, Tough brings focus to what could be the next frontier in education reform: character education.

Formal character education and feedback beyond the earliest grades has traditionally been the stuff of elite prep schools, military academies, and high-performing knowledge-sector businesses. In the arena of school reform, however, perhaps the most prominent boosters of character education have been the KIPP charter schools, which from the start have famously emphasized values like “work hard” and “be nice.”

After years of observing, KIPP’s founders observed that “the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character traits.”

“Character” can be a boneless construct, but Tough’s article gives it a useful skeleton. Drawing on the work of the Character Education Partnership, he separates character education into two categories: “moral character” qualities like honesty or tolerance and “performance character” qualities like social intelligence or zest.

The KIPP schools are putting these insights to work by trying to convert attributes of performance character from abstractions into things that students can focus on and make progress against. Recently, KIPP has begun experimenting with a new report card that asks teachers to score their students on a 5-point scale on characteristics like “keeps temper in check.” This framework is based on academic work by Angela Duckworth. A full list of the character elements that KIPP is using, and the seven that they are prioritizing, can be found here and here.

Tough’s article includes snippets of conversations between students and teachers discussing “areas for improvement” on a student’s character report card. These snippets reminded me strongly of performance reviews I delivered and received as a young manager at Microsoft. Years later, I remember some of those conversations quite vividly.

Like any idea in education change, a lot can be learned in implementation, and there are going to be some missteps. A simple “character score” would be of little use. The true point of this kind of evaluation would be to help drive conversations and self-reflection about things that actually matter.

If KIPP’s experiments and Tough’s writing help swing the pendulum toward more formal attention to developing the content of one’s character, Dr. King’s legacy may take on yet another layer of meaning.

Jeff Camp chairs the Education Circle of Full Circle Fund, an engaged philanthropy organization cultivating the next generation of community leaders and driving lasting social change in the Bay Area and beyond. He is the primary author of Ed100.org, a primer on education reform options in California. Since leaving a career at Microsoft to work for education change, Jeff has served on multiple education reform committees including the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence.

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  1. Alan N. 10 years ago10 years ago

    It is strange and funny how things keep going around.  Back in the day (elementary school) we had a citizenship (behaviors) and work habit (cleaning up, promptness, etc.) grades.  There were at least 8 or 9 areas in each . . . I think.  I am getting old.  They were graded as excellent, satisfactory, or unsatisfactory.  Oh the good ole days!

  2. Michael G. 10 years ago10 years ago

    As pointed out here and in the NYT article the point of all these character concepts is to ensure academic success, not just character for its own sake.  There are also several types of character traits mentioned.  Those that contribute to academic success like persistence and those that are the individual’s ‘soul’ like honesty.  Both are worthy of fostering but for somewhat different reasons.