For both rich kids and poor kids: “What if the secret to success is failure?”

This morning, the “most e-mailed” article on the New York Times website is about the quest for character education at two very different New York City schools.  Dominic Randolph heads an elite private school that serves privileged children of high-achieving parents, while David Levin is superintendent of New York’s KIPP charter schools, where the students are poor and parents generally have little education. But both principals believe that character is essential to their pupils’ future success, and have collaborated to implement comprehensive character education programs.

A few highlights:

  • After the first cohort of KIPP alumni got to college, 33% of them completed a bachelor’s degree, far short of KIPP’s goal of 75%. When Levin and his colleagues analyzed who graduated and who didn’t, they found that students who “persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence.”
  • Indeed, research by psychologist Angela Duckworth has shown that “measures of self-control can be a more reliable predictor of students’ grade-point averages than their I.Q.’s.” She looked at a full-range of character traits that lead to success in populations as various as West Point cadets and New York middle-schoolers, and named the overall quality “grit,” or the combination of a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission.
  • Levin and his KIPP schools use a “character report card” to rate each student on 24 different “character indicators.” (For example, indicators for good Self-Control include “Is polite to adults and peers,” “Keeps temper in check,” “Pays attention and resists distraction”)
  • The Character Education Partnership, an umbrella advocacy group of which CHARACTER COUNTS! is a member,  categorizes character education programs as focusing on either “moral character “ (including ethical values like fairness, generosity, integrity) or “performance character” (including traits that are more closely linked to achievement, like effort, diligence, and perseverance).
  • At the private school, it is unquestioned that virtually all the students will go to college, and that they have a strong support network that will ensure that they reach a certain level of achievement. Nevertheless, Headmaster Randolph sees a strong need for character education in order for these children to grow into happy and fulfilled human beings, and not just reasonably successful earners and employees. He finds parents “who, while pushing their children to excel, also inadvertently shield them from exactly the kind of experience that can lead to character growth. ..What kids need more than anything is a little hardship; some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can.”

Poor kids may have too much hardship at times, and rich kids not enough, but both groups need to learn how to cope with the difficulties that will inevitably face them as adults. That’s where character education comes in.

Image: Stephen Doyle and Stephen Wilkes for The New York Times

2 thoughts on “For both rich kids and poor kids: “What if the secret to success is failure?””

  1. This is so true and right to the point. I have witnessed this in my own environment and with raising my kids. Reality in schools today is showing kids to learn on the computers and the ever changing tech machines; but what is not showed or seen from family, teachers and the commuinity is that the wonderful tech machines do not show how to respect yourself, life, others, and how to engage, connect and discuss with others. A computer can not teach the mindset and process of how to deal with conflict in a non violent way-kids from the start need to be able to be verbal in their thinking and processing skills. Kids need to feel love and wanted from family, teachers and the community-and that the tech world can not teach. We all need to have the basics before we can tackle and deal with the tech world. That way the tech world are tools to use and not abuse.

  2. This new focus on character development in the public schools is fantastic. It seems obvious (at least to me) that first and foremost schools should be molders of character. Professional educational degrees should be redesigned to assume that character formation is the number one task of all education. Principals and teachers at public schools should work with parents to discern character traits they want to prioritize, and then develop ways to inculcate those values into everyday curriculum in classes. I even believe that character training should be taught at public universities, perhaps in a short required course every semester that focuses on educational ethics, civility, and promotion of intellectual curiosity over the mere pursuit of grades.

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