Character-education models were the subject of a scathing critique by New Republic writer Jeffrey Aaron Snyder. In the piece, Snyder contends that these models are problematic for three reasons: They assume we know how to teach character; they advocate an unscrupulous, "looking out for number one" mentality; and they place far too much focus on college and career readiness, limiting the goals and purpose of education.
While Snyder's analysis dealt solely with the Knowledge Is Power Program network's 141 charter schools, the concept has become quite popular in recent years beyond KIPP. It is particularly en vogue with charter schools, which have the sovereignty and autonomy to bring dual-purpose education into the fold.
But what exactly do these programs entail? For a better idea, let's take a look at some of the organizations employing these models and how they believe students benefit.
Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP)
Walking into a KIPP school, you're likely to be greeted by a large sign (or multiple large signs) brandished with their logo: “Work hard. Be nice.” What began in 1994 as a single school started by two Teach for America corps members in Houston, TX, has since developed into a charter school powerhouse. The network currently operates 141 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia, serving a reported 50,000 students.
KIPP is known for its focus on college and academics, but as Snyder's piece points out, it has also created a character-education model that is heavily engrained throughout its curriculum.
The KIPP approach to character-education is founded on research done by Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Chris Peterson of the University of Michigan. The two professors created a list of 24 character traits needed for "engaged, meaningful, and purposeful lives," and KIPP ran with it. Through a partnership between KIPP NYC and the University of Pennsylvania Professor Angela Duckworth (a huge proponent of teaching 'grit'), the network was able to boil the list down to seven traits that it believes to be the most important for students — grit, zest, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity.
While these traits are woven into the school's philosophy, KIPP's website also offers various tactics for incorporating character into a classroom outside of the network. One such strategy used is "Believe It and Model It," which is based off of the James Baldwin quote, "Children have never been very good at listening to their elders but they have never failed to imitate them.” The technique spurs teachers to model the behavior they want to see. Another tactic, "Track It," encourages teachers to record and monitor a student's progress toward a character goal. For this one, KIPP even has a detailed character report card that teachers and students use to monitor their growth.
When contacted for a comment on the KIPP character-education model, the network's spokesperson, Steve Mancini, informed Education Dive that a KIPP teacher based out of one of its Harlem schools has penned a 1,000-word response that was submitted to the New Republic last week. Whether it will be published is unknown, but the network understandably wants to provide a KIPP teacher's point of view on why the model can be beneficial.
"We respect Snyder's right to free speech and we have it, too, and thought it would be good to have one of our educators in a school in Harlem write about her experiences," Mancini said. "We wanted somebody from our school to speak to it in detail. It's not a sound bite situation."
Another large charter network that has also championed character-education, Achievement First was founded in Connecticut in 1998 and currently has 25 schools in five cities.
Its mission statement spells out clearly that those schools are focused on college readiness and character development: "Achievement First schools will provide all our students with the academic and character skills they need to graduate from top colleges, to succeed in a competitive world and to serve as the next generation of leaders for our communities."
In addition to setting character expectations for students, Achievement First created "core values" for its teachers and administrators. Among them: "No excuses," "excellence is a habit," and "sweat the small stuff."
All of this jargon can feel a bit far-reaching, and, as Snyder points out, it's difficult to discern whether or not character education is actually being employed or if it's just fancy words chanted and written repetitively.
Ultimately, this is why the network's core values are condensed to the overarching five REACH principles — Respect, Enthusiasm, Achievement, Citizenship and Hard Work — which apply to both teachers and students.
The Detroit Future Schools
While the two examples above have a very college-centric approach to the purpose of education, charters aren't the only types of schools that push for character-education models. Created in Fall 2011, The Detroit Future Schools is a digital-media arts program that places artists in classrooms with the goal of humanizing education. DFS hopes to engage K-12 students in building a more just, creative, collaborative city through the use of digital media technologies. It believes that this goal is possible when students are shifted from consumers to producers.
While its mission has no mention of academics and its goals are very different from KIPP or Achievement First, its character-education model has many similarities. DFS has created "11 Essential Traits of Habit, Character, and Mind" that it believes are necessary for transformative education.
Notably, grit, optimism, and curiosity end up on both the KIPP list and the DFS list, despite diverging views on education and its purpose.
"I feel like when this trend of 'going against teaching grit' started, I just spent so much time asking why. The problem comes when these lessons are presented in isolation of ethics and morals," said DFS Executive Director Ammerah Saidi.
While Saidi respects KIPP for being reflective in its teaching of character traits, she is wary of instilling these skills without context or a moral framework.
When DFS teachers introduce the 11 traits to students, they sometimes ask them to think of examples of real people who have embodied these traits. Saidi says students in the past have mentioned Hitler, which is a great example of character traits, in isolation of ethics and morals, being used for evil.
For this reason, the organization emphasizes not teaching character traits in a vacuum.
Saidi says DFS attempts to make the jump between isolated character traits and ethics and morals not by teaching students what to think, but how to think. By posing questions and including traits like critical consciousness, DFS hopes students will be able to critically think about the ways in which their actions and disposition impact the bigger picture and their communities.