Establishing the intersection of “Be nice” and “Know a lot”

No Child Left Behind is apparently disappearing with a whimper, or at least a waiver. The originally bipartisan law has become a bad brand.

The pragmatics of the law’s demise rest in its rather silly calculation of test scores, and the backloading of expectations so that in the final years of the law the majority of schools in the United States would be labeled as failures, something that no state or governor or education secretary could stand politically.

But the problem with the whimpering exit is that we haven’t gotten to the root of the matter or had the political debate about what we want from the schools.

In a recent column in this space, Jeff Camp raises the question of the content of student character: whether and how it should be taught and evaluated. “A simple ‘character score’ would be of little use,” he writes, “the true point of this kind of evaluation would be to drive conversations and self-reflection about things that actually matter.”

But even reflecting on things that matter or engaging in “performance character,” does not take place without context. One needs to know how to connect personal niceness with the nation’s history and struggles. We are not doing such a good job at that.

A recent Southern Poverty Law Center study written by Kate Shuster with a forward by Julian Bond found that academic standards virtually ignore our civil rights history. Or when it is taught it turns into a fable: There used to be segregation, then Dr. King came along, and now everything is all right.

The ability to make sense of history, and thus to “act nice” in a social sense, rests on knowledge coupled with schooled training in public action. Action without knowledge is simply gut-level response and know-nothing politics. Knowledge without action is a waste: test scores without a purposeful anchor. (Shuster, whose doctoral research at Claremont Graduate University finds a lack of efficacy in state minimum competency tests, illustrates that point in her dissertation.)

As California looks hard at how it assesses schools and students, it needs to look at the intersection of nice and knowledgeable.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teachers unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press. He writes the blog

How can the content of character be measured? And should it be?

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, 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.