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Character Counts in Student Success, Researchers Say

When Dan Takens was an elementary school principal in Kentwood and Byron Center, he expected something basic from all his students: treat others the way you would like to be treated.

That was more than just applying the Golden Rule to social behavior. It was an essential element of the students’ overall education, said Takens, superintendent of Byron Center Public Schools. “The character piece is very important for a child,” Takens said. “When one has that instilled in them, that’s part of their life. The academic piece will follow suit.”

Takens has long believed what other educators are more recently embracing: that the cultivation of character is at least as important to student success as IQ and cognitive skills. Character traits such as grit, self-control and perseverance may for some students be the difference between success and failure in both school and career, these educators say.

“A lot of our kids come to us and they want to do well in life, but they don’t really know how,” said Dave Stuart, who teaches an alternative program called Tech 21 Academy at Cedar Springs High School. “The character strengths help with that.”

Tech 21 is one of several programs nationwide that have put character front and center, drawing from academic research on what traits are most helpful. Most prominent is the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), a charter-school network that uses seven key character traits in helping low-income students to become college-ready.

Paul Tough, author of “How Children Succeed,” chats with teacher consultant Deborah Pryor-Bayard after his lecture earlier this yearSeven Key Traits That Help Students

KIPP runs more than 140 schools in 20 states — none in Michigan — and Washington, D.C. More than 86 percent of its students are black or Latino, according to its Web site, and more than 80 percent of its alumni go to college. KIPP credits its success to rigorous academics and an emphasis on key traits: zest, grit, self-control, optimism,gratitude, social intelligence and curiosity.

The KIPP approach is one of those highlighted in “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character,” journalist Paul Tough’s 2012 book that challenges conventional wisdom about what makes a successful student. Tough cites scientific evidence that non-cognitive skills better predict success than test scores – which he called a “national obsession” — and presents case studies that offer hope these traits can help lift children out of poverty.

In a presentation to Kent County educators earlier this year,  sponsored by the early childhood services group First Steps, Tough talked of character’s crucial role at both a low-income KIPP school and a wealthy private school in New York City. Tough said the chaotic stress of poverty takes a lasting toll on students’ brain development. But while too much adversity can be damaging to a child, he said, so can too little.

“Character strengths like grit and self-control are born out of failure,” Tough told about 400 educators at Ottawa Hills High School, quoting the headmaster of the affluent Riverdale Country School. “And in most high-achieving academic environments in the United States today, no one really fails anything.”

A Little Failure is a Good Thing

Tough told of a group of middle-school students who experienced failure but produced remarkable results. The dynamo chess team of Intermediate School 138 in Brooklyn won the national high school championship in 2012 despite its low-income, mostly minority membership.

He attributed their success to their demanding teacher, Elizabeth Spiegel, who subjected them to “grueling” post-game reviews in which she pointed out their mistakes. But she also cared about them and had high expectations, Tough said.

“She was not just giving them important chess knowledge. She was also helping them learn how to manage failure, and in the process she was helping them to develop character.”

In an interview, Tough said schools should not be afraid to push students and allow them to experience a certain amount of failure “that does not seem overly catastrophic.” By learning from mistakes they can develop character traits that will benefit them in the long run.

“When students are able to develop and display these non-cognitive skills in school, it helps them learn reading and math better,” Tough said.

Not everyone is sold on the sweeping character claims put forth in Tough’s book. In a blog review, education historian Diane Ravitch wrote some teachers hated it, especially the section on the KIPP charter schools.

“Frankly, public school teachers are sick of reading about the miracle of KIPP,” writes Ravitch, noting complaints about its wealthy funders and selected student body. But she praised Tough’s book for pinpointing poverty’s “devastating” effect on children’s learning, saying it refutes reformers “who claim that charter schools and teacher evaluations by test scores can cure poverty.”

Teaching the Whole Child

Local educators say they see great value in cultivating character among their students, not only for its academic value but for more general life benefits.

Deborah Pryor-Bayard is a consultant to teachers of emotionally impaired students in Grand Rapids Public Schools. She called Tough’s ideas “fabulous,” and said schools must work as a team with parents to address students’ needs.

“Our students have faced failure a lot,” Pryor-Bayard said. “One of the things that makes a difference is h-e-l-p — being that influence, being that mentor that speaks to that child.”

In the Cedar Springs Tech 21 program, Stuart and other teachers infuse KIPP’s seven character strengths through instruction, visits to companies and guest speakers. Students assess their behavior based on those traitsand teachers apply them to challenging situations, Stuart said.

“If a text is boring or hard for a kid, that’s a grit moment,” he said. “I’ll say to the kids, ‘Your task is to grapple with this text and make sense of it.'”

Back in Byron Center, Superintendent Dan Takens said his educational philosophy is guided by “belief in the whole child.” That means not just teaching students how to do math but how to be self-confident, monitor their emotions and navigate conflict.

“If you have a third-grader that really has good learning and listening (skills) and knows how to get along with others, they’re going to do better at math than if they were struggling with personality issues,” Takens said.

School staffers are trained in character education, including reading “The Optimistic Child” by Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, a guide to preventing depression in children.

In everything schools do, Takens said, relationships must come first.

“We believe strongly when our children feel cared about and listened to, that just provides a wonderful foundation for the rigor and relevance of learning.”


Discussion by Paul Tough about “How Children Succeed”

Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP)

Brooklyn school chess champions

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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