As I watch 21st Century character education take off, I worry about two things, my worry born out of decades of watching new ideas—or, often, old wine in new bottles—capture our attention. One concern has to do with the way these qualities of character get defined, the other with the focus of a fair amount of the discussion on the education of 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, which in psychology refers to a set of relatively stable characteristics. Yet a quality like perseverance might change with setting, age, and task. I am dogged in writing an essay like this but become pretty squirrelly with tax forms or figuring out electronic devices.
A further, and I think major, problem with terminology and definition has to do with the widespread tendency to refer to these qualities as “noncognitive” traits or skills. To understand the problem here, consider the definition of cognition and the way it’s been distorted in our recent educational history.
Cognition traditionally refers to a wide and rich range of mental processes, from memory and attention, to comprehending and using language, to solving a difficult problem in physics or choreography or sharing an office with someone. But over the last few decades cognition has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. Under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, cognition in education policy has increasingly come to be defined by the skills measured by standardized tests 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 (like the Armed Forces Qualification Test or AFQT) as a proxy for intelligence or achievement. From the Latin cognoscere, to come to know, or cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am, we’ve devolved to a few digits on the AFQT.
Many of those who advocate character education believe that our nation’s educational focus on cognition has been misguided. Rather than focusing our energies on the academic curriculum—or on academic intervention programs for the poor—we need to turn our attention to the development of qualities of character, for as much or more than cognition, it is these qualities that account for success in school and life.
It is healthy to be reminded about the fuller scope of education in our test- and grade-obsessed culture, but what concerns me is that the advocates for character accept without question the reductive notion of cognition that runs through our education policies, and by accepting it, further affirm it. The problem is exacerbated by the aforementioned way economists carve up and define mental activity. If cognition is represented by scores on ability or achievement tests, then anything not captured in those scores—like the desired qualities of character—is, de facto, noncognitive. We’re now left with a skimpy notion of cognition and a reductive dichotomy to boot. This downplaying of the cognitive and the construction of the cognitive/noncognitive binary will have some troubling implications for education, especially for the education of the children of the poor.
To begin with, the labeling of character qualities as “noncognitive” misrepresents them—particularly if you use the truer, richer notion of cognition. Self-monitoring, for example, has to involve a consideration and analysis of one’s performance and mental state—a profoundly cognitive activity. Flexibility demands a weighing of options and decision making. This is not just a problem of terminology, for if you don’t have an accurate description of something, how can you help people develop it?
Furthermore, these desired qualities are developed over time in settings and relationships that are meaningful to the participants, which most likely means that the settings and relationships will have significant cognitive content. Two of the classic preschool 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.
A very different example comes from a study I just completed observing community college occupational programs as varied as fashion and diesel technology. As students developed competence, they also became more committed to doing a job well, were better able to monitor and correct their performance, and improved their ability to communicate what they were doing and help others do it. You could be by inclination the most determined or communicative person in the world, but if you don’t know what you’re doing with a garment or an engine, your tendencies won’t be realized in a meaningful way in the classroom or the workshop.
Also, we have to consider the consequences of this cognitive/non-cognitive binary in light of the history of American educational practice. We have a powerful tendency toward either/or policies—think of old math/new math or phonics/whole language. Given this tendency, we can predict a pendulum swing away from the academic and toward character education. And over the past 50 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.
Finally, the focus of the current character education movement is on low-income children, and the cold, hard fact is that many poor kids are already getting terrible educations in the cognitive domain. There’s a stirring moment in Paul Tough’s book where a remarkable chess teacher decides she’s going to try to prepare one of her star pupils for an admissions test for New York’s selective high schools. What she found was that this stunningly bright boy had learned pitifully little academic knowledge during his eight years in school. It would be tragic to downplay a strong academic education for children like him.
This example brings to the fore my second concern about the current championing of character education. When the emphasis on character is focused on the individual attributes of poor children as the reason for their subpar academic performance, it can remove broader policies to address poverty and educational inequality from public discussion.
One of the powerful strands in the current discussion of character education is that it might succeed where academic interventions have failed in reducing the achievement gap. Perhaps psychological and educational interventions that focus on developing perseverance, self-control, and the like will help poor children succeed in school. Such qualities are indisputably key to a successful life, and they’ve been part of our folk wisdom about success well before Dale Carnegie made millions by promoting the power of positive thinking. But they’ve gained luster via economic modeling, psychological studies, and the technological advances of neuroscience. Because brain imaging allows us to see the frontal lobes light up when someone weighs a decision, these claims about character seem cutting edge. It is this aura of the new that contributes to a belief that we might have found a potent treatment for the achievement gap.
A diverse group of players is involved in this rediscovery and championing of character. Nobel Laureate in economics James Heckman advocates early childhood intervention programs for poor kids. Some charter schools, KIPP among them, infuse character education throughout the school day. And a whole range of smaller extracurricular and after-school programs—from Chicago’s OneGoal to a chess club in a public school in Brooklyn—focus their efforts in helping the children of the poor develop a range of mental strategies and shifts in perception aimed toward academic achievement. I have worked with economically and educationally disadvantaged children and adults for 40 years and know the importance of special programs and interventions. They need to be funded and expanded, for poor kids carry a heavy load and have absurdly limited access to any kind of school-related enrichment, especially as inequality widens.
But we have to be very careful, given the political tenor of our time, not to assume that we have the long-awaited key to helping the poor overcome the assaults of poverty. My worry is that we will embrace these essentially individual and technocratic fixes—mental conditioning for the poor—and abandon broader social policy aimed at poverty itself.
We have a long-standing shameful tendency in America 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 obstinacy” 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, and 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 variability among the poor as in any group, and we have to keep that fact squarely in our sights, for we easily slip into one-dimensional generalities about them.
Given a political climate that is antagonistic toward the welfare state and has further shredded our already compromised safety net, psychosocial intervention may be the only viable political response to poverty available. But can you imagine the outcry if, let’s say, an old toxic dump were discovered near Scarsdale or Beverly Hills and the National Institutes of Health undertook a program to teach kids strategies to lessen the effects of the toxins but didn’t do anything to address the dump itself?
We seem willing to accept remedies for the poor that we are not willing to accept for anyone else. We should use our science to figure out why that is so—and then develop the character and courage to fully address poverty when it is an unpopular cause.