Archive for April, 2016

Character and High-Stakes Accountability

Friday, April 8th, 2016

Public union agency fees were OKed by the U. S. Supreme Court and Spring means another yearly round of achievement accountability testing, in California based on results from Smarter Balanced assessment.

But educators, in California and other states, are looking at another part of a successful school: using multiple measures to evaluate meaningful learning, including student engagement and school climate.

An opinion article recently in The New York Times “Don’t Grade Schools on Grit” by Angela Duckworth, 3/26/2016, suggests incorporating strategies for character growth that can support a student’s achievement.

When I was a student I rarely received more than an S in citizenship and conduct out of a possible O, S, U on my report cards. When I was teaching elementary classes, as part of the report card I mostly gave S because everyone had good days and bad days. I felt it was simply a section of the report card to complete; it didn’t teach me or my students a way to do better.

For two years when I was teaching, we used a program in which famous persons’ quotes led to discussion and other activities to help students find ways to make habits of good traits. Each showed one of twelve or so positive character traits, like courage, humility, perseverance, kindness, and tolerance. As part of “Success For All”, the reading/language school-wide program used at my San Jose, CA, school to improve reading, students at every grade level practiced being cooperative, helpful, attentive, and engaged in learning to read well.

The issue is that every teacher in the school must be relentless about following whatever model is agreed upon. Every student, every parent must accept the goal to succeed. Angela Duckworth’s article is based on a great deal of field study about a model that has been successful over time in a wide variety of schools, such as private Riverdale Country School in New York and KIPP charter schools. I would suggest school districts consider the model if they want to find useful accountability for school climate and student success.

The tool used to foster character growth is a questionnaire called the Character Growth Card which students complete at the end of a marking period. As I understand, all the traits are correlated, but form distinct clusters of character strength: grit, self-control, optimism help a student achieve; social intelligence and gratitude relate to helping others; curiosity, open-mindedness, and zest for learning enable independent thinking – a strong need for success with the CORE standards curriculum.

Of course, as Duckworth states, feedback from the questionnaire is not enough. For example, students often need strategies for what to do when they are weak in habits of self-control, often a conundrum in low-performing schools. I would suggest that a strong professional development component be implemented if your school wants a valuable character program to succeed, which aligns with California’s emphasis on continuous improvement.

Some teachers, for example, Brett Ashmun, Freshman Composition Instructor at CSU Stanislaus, teaches civility and citizenship through projects on which his students report. California English, Vol. 21-3, “For Greater Good: Teaching Civility and Citizenship Through Community-Based Curriculum”, Brett Ashrum.

While curriculum using the CORE standards is still being developed, opportunities for open-mindedness or curiosity or social intelligence may be found by working on projects with other grades in the school or completing a team math project.

Last, if such a project is started in any public school, from California to New York, my advice would be to not turn accountability into a score that rewards or punishes the school. As Angela Duckworth said,

“Does character matter, and can character be developed? Science and experience unequivocally say yes. Can the practice of giving feedback to students on character be improved? Absolutely. Can scientists and educators work together to cultivate students’ character? Without question.

Should we turn measures of character intended for research and self-discovery into high-stakes metrics for accountability? In my view, no.”