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Teaching Kids 'Grit' is All the Rage. Here's What's Wrong With It.

The problem with KIPP's character-education model

Chris Hondros/Newsmakers

Imagine attending a high school where your teachers grade you on how well you handle disappointments and failures; respond to the feelings of your peers; and adapt to different social situations. Imagine, too, that the results are tabulated in a document called a “character growth card” and sent home to your parents along with your report card.

Sound far-fetched? Well, keeping tabs on a student’s character development is at the leading edge of the “new character education.” Paul Tough’s bestselling 2012 book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, is the closest thing the new character education has to a manifesto; and it has helped to convince thousands of school administrators, teachers, and parents that “performance character” qualities such as perseverance, discipline, and self-control trump IQ when it comes to determining academic success.

I was one of thousands of educators from all over the world who signed up for an online class taught by one of the leading figures in this movement: Dave Levin, the charismatic co-founder of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) network of charter schools and the inventor of the character growth card. When the class went live, I had a few outstanding concerns, but I still expected the KIPP method would have a lot to offer. By the end of the month-long course, my enthusiasm had waned, while my misgivings had multiplied. Here’s why.

Inspired by the field of positive psychology, character education at KIPP focuses on seven character strengths—grit, zest, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity. These seven strengths are presented as positive predictors of success in “college and life.” Grit, for example—a term Angela Duckworth used to mean “perseverance and passion for long-term goals”—has been shown to correlate with grade point averages and graduation rates. Levin envisions that character education will be woven into “the DNA” of KIPP’s classrooms and schools, especially via “dual purpose” instruction that is intended to explicitly teach both academic and character aims.

There are three major problems with the new character education. The first is that we do not know how to teach character. The second is that character-based education is untethered from any conception of morality. And lastly, this mode of education drastically constricts the overall purpose of education. 

There may be an increasingly cogent “science of character,” as Levin says in the introductory video to his online class, but there is no science of teaching character. “Do we even know for sure that you can teach it?” Duckworth asks about grit in the same online video. Her answer: “No, we don’t.” We may discover that the most “desirable” character traits are largely inherited; stubbornly resistant to educational interventions; or both. We already know that grit is strongly correlated with “conscientiousness,” one of the Big Five personality traits that psychologists view as stable and hereditary. A recent report emphasizes that simply “knowing that noncognitive factors matter is not the same as knowing how to develop them in students.” The report concludes that “clear, actionable strategies for classroom practice” are few and far between. Consider the fact that the world’s “grittiest” students, including Chinese students who log some of the longest hours on their homework, have never been exposed to a formal curriculum that teaches perseverance.  

If “dual-purpose” instruction is one pillar of the KIPP approach to teaching character, the other is the character growth card. Originally called the character report card, it's perhaps the most provocative element of character education at KIPP. Students rate themselves on character strengths, responding to prompts such as “kept working hard even when s/he felt like quitting” for grit; “remembered and followed directions” for self-control; and “showed enthusiasm” for zest. All of a student’s teachers in turn rate the student, resulting in an “Average Teacher Score.” The overall goal is to use the card as a catalyst for “growth-oriented conversations” during parent-teacher conferences with the student present.

Levin claims that the character growth card is not meant to “evaluate, diagnose or compare” students. This assertion is either disingenuous or naïve. When Levin first hit on the idea of a character report card in 2007, he envisioned that students would eventually graduate with both a GPA and a CPA, or character point average. In Levin’s conception, the CPA would be a valuable tool for admissions officers and corporate human resources managers who would be delighted to know which applicants had scored highest on items such as grit, optimism, and zest. Even if Levin no longer believes the CPA is a wise idea, human beings have never devised an empirical performance measure that has not become fodder for making comparisons. Prepare to hear questions like “hey, what did you get on social intelligence?” in school hallways. 

Levin claims that KIPP’s character education program is inspired by James Baldwin’s observation that “children have never been very good at listening to their elders but have never failed to imitate them.” It’s strange, then, that KIPP places such a strong emphasis on “labeling and talking about the character strengths” through conversations facilitated by adults. In footage from a seventh-grade math class featured in Levin’s online class, for instance, the teacher praises her students for working so hard, underscores the importance of “not giving up,” and then has the whole class say “grit” on the count of three. 

“Words, words, words have become a cheap substitute for sound methods of character training,” education scholar Milo L. Whittaker sniffed in 1934, and it seems apt today. I have no doubt that many KIPPsters can rattle off the seven character strengths. The real question is whether learning to speak KIPP’s character language actually translates into substantive cognitive and behavioral changes. I am afraid that for most of the students, most of the time, the character lessons at KIPP will become indistinguishable from the kind of repetitive teacher-directed talk that only registers as so much background noise.    

The second problem with the new character education is that it unwittingly promotes an amoral and careerist “looking out for number one” point-of-view. Never before has character education been so completely untethered from morals, values, and ethics. From the inception of our public school system in the 1840s and 1850s, character education has revolved around religious and civic virtues. Steeped in Protestantism and republicanism, the key virtues taught during the nineteenth-century were piety, industry, kindness, honesty, thrift, and patriotism. During the Progressive era, character education concentrated on the twin ideas of citizenship and the “common good.” As an influential 1918 report on “moral values” put it, character education “makes for a better America by helping its pupils to make themselves better persons.” In the 1960s and 1970s, meanwhile, character education focused on justice and working through thorny moral dilemmas.

Today’s grit and self-control are basically industry and temperance in the guise of psychological constructs rather than moral imperatives. Why is this distinction important? While it takes grit and self-control to be a successful heart surgeon, the same could be said about a suicide bomber. When your character education scheme fails to distinguish between doctors and terrorists, heroes and villains, it would appear to have a basic flaw. Following the KIPP growth card protocol, Bernie Madoff’s character point average, for instance, would be stellar. He was, by most accounts, an extremely hard working, charming, wildly optimistic man.

This underscores how genuinely innovative performance-based character education is with respect to eschewing values, especially religiously and civically inspired values such as honesty and service. Kindness is spotlighted in the KIPP motto (“Work Hard, Be Nice”), but it is conspicuously absent from KIPP’s official list of seven character strengths. It is not an accident that KIPP’s list of character strengths does not include items with clear moral overtones. As Levin told Tough: “The thing that I think is great about the character-strength approach is that it is fundamentally devoid of value judgment. The inevitable problem with the values-and-ethics approach is that you get into, well, whose values? Whose ethics?”

The decision to avoid overt references to values was no doubt intended to avoid the potential minefields of the “culture wars.” The trouble is that values have a way of intruding on territory that is meant to be value-free. What happens when your list of character strengths excludes empathy, justice, and service? The basic principle of individual achievement rushes to the forefront, as if filling a vacuum. This is “tiger mother” territory here—a place where the “vulgar sense” of success prevails. Life is narrowed into an endless competition for money, status, and the next merit badge.

The third and final problem with the new character education is that it limits the purposes of education to preparation for college and career. KIPP’s central mission is to help students from “educationally underserved communities,” 95 percent of whom are African American or Latino, get “into and through” college. This is an admirable mission, given the fact that for far too long, black and Hispanic students, especially those living in poverty, have not been perceived as “college material.” African American students in particular, of course, were excluded by law and by custom from attending most of the country’s colleges and universities for well over a century. So KIPP’s college-bound mission is both noteworthy and laudable. Whether it is wise is a different question for a different day and one that engages the contentious college-for-all debate. It is worth noting, however, that those educators who have embraced performance character seem to live in a world where their students are more likely to win a Nobel Prize than earn a living as a beautician, electrician, or police officer.

While KIPP’s college-for-all orientation ultimately aims to expand opportunity, it has undeniably narrowed the scope of its character education program. KIPP and other so-called “no excuses” charter schools have latched onto the new character education as a means of eliminating the “achievement gap.” Character is treated as a kind of fuel that will help propel students through school and up the career ladder. The fact that teachers are the only people who rate students on their character growth cards is indicative of how closely character is tied to academic achievement and cognitive skills. But can we really display more than a narrow range of our character strengths in a classroom context? I can’t tell you how many of my high school friends were listless in math class but “gritty” and “zesty” on the basketball court or the football field. 

If you click on the video at the top of the “Character” page on the KIPP website, you can watch a poignant clip of a parent describing how she wants her kids “to succeed” and to “have a better life.” KIPP and other similar schools are betting that the new character education will help students succeed academically and professionally. It is a risky bet, given how little we know about teaching character. It is also a bet without precedent, as there has never been a character education program so relentlessly focused on individual achievement and “objective accomplishments.” Gone are any traditional concerns with good and evil or citizenship and the commonweal. Gone, too, the impetus to bring youngsters into the fold of a community that is larger than themselves—a hopelessly outdated sentiment, according to the new character education evangelists. Virtue is no longer its own reward.