Babies teach lessons in empathy

During a Roots of Empathy classroom visit at Maury Elementary School, June Goodman looks at a toy held by fourth-grade students Kanye Cheeks, left, Gabriel Smaw, second from left, and LaTrice Hicks, far right.During a Roots of Empathy classroom visit at Maury Elementary School, June Goodman looks at a toy held by fourth-grade students Kanye Cheeks, left, Gabriel Smaw, second from left, and LaTrice Hicks, far right. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Babies are cute. But can playing with a visiting baby teach empathy? Five Washington D.C. elementary schools are bringing babies into classrooms “to hep students recognize and deal with emotions,” reports the Washington Post.

A Canadian program called Roots of Empathy is being tried  in the U.S. “amid growing concern about classroom bullying and growing conviction that teaching certain character traits — such as persistence, self-control and self-confidence — is just as crucial for students’ futures as teaching academics.”

Roots is built on a simple notion: When babies such as June bring their huge eyes, irrepressible smiles and sometimes unappeasable tears into the classroom, students can’t help but feel for them. The idea is that recognizing and caring about a baby’s emotions can open a gateway for children to learn bigger lessons about taking care of one another, considering others’ feelings, having patience.

A baby, with a parent, visits each classroom once a month.

 A volunteer instructor asks questions related to one of nine themes, from the reasons babies cry to the emotions they feel. The classes — which range from 30 to 50 minutes, depending on the baby’s mood — are mostly a chance for students to watch the baby as it responds to songs and games and to ask questions and share observations about whatever comes to mind.

With discussions before and after the baby’s visit, students spend 20 hours a year on the program. Some D.C. elementary schools don’t offer a full year of science or social studies, the Post notes.

Children do better in school when they learn social-emotional skills, argues Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia. “Children who participate in Roots tend to show declines in aggressive, bullying behaviors and growth in sharing, cooperative and helping ones,” her research shows.

Anti-KIPP: All grit, no morality

KIPP’s grit-heavy character education has three major problems, writes Jeffrey Aaron Snyder, a Carleton education professor, in the New Republic.

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.

KIPP focuses on seven character strengths—grit, zest, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity — which KIPP believes predict success in “college and life.” Founder David Levin  aims for “dual purpose” instruction to reach both academic and character goals, he says in his online course.

But KIPP’s list of character strengths is “devoid of value judgment,” Levin told Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed. “The inevitable problem with the values-and-ethics approach is that you get into, well, whose values? Whose ethics?”

KIPP’s values are “relentlessly focused on individual achievement rather than “good and evil or citizenship and the commonweal,” complains Snyder.

. . . 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.” . . . 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.

. . . This is “tiger mother” territory here — a place where the “vulgar sense” of success prevails.

KIPP’s mission is to help students —  95 percent are African American or Latino — get “into and through” college.  That’s “laudable,” Snyder concedes. But really . . . “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.”

We may not know how to teach character, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Perhaps few students will go on to win Nobel Prizes, but that doesn’t mean the school should give up on preparing students for success in college. The future electricians, police officers, teachers and accountants will need that — not just the future nuclear physicists.

I do think that KIPP should consider adding citizenship to its list of character strengths. And stop worrying about whose values the schools are promoting. These are the values of the parents who choose KIPP as their “tiger” school. They want their kids to succeed, however “vulgar” that may seem to others. If they wanted a school that saw their kids as future beauticians, they have other options.

The ‘grit lady’ wins a ‘genius’ grant

Angela Duckworth, known as “the grit lady,” has won a MacArthur “genius” grant worth $625,000. A Penn researcher, Duckworth says “grit” and self-control are strong predictors of success — and they can be taught.duckworth 

As a math teacher, she noticed that her best students weren’t always the brightest, she tells NPR. She wondered why some kids try harder than others.

The “character skills” of self-control and of grit are teachable, Duckworth believes. She plans to spend the $625,000 grant to bring middle-school teachers to Penn to discuss how best to develop students’ grit and self-control. (She also plans to buy boots.)

Grittier individuals tend to be “slightly less talented,” says Duckworth. “If things come very easily for you, if you learn things very quickly, you know, maybe you don’t develop the ability to overcome setbacks, to sustain effort, etc.”

Charter schools and citizenship

Charter students should be nation builders, says Seth Andrew, the founder of Democracy Prep Public Schools. The seven-school charter network is featured in the first policy brief in American Enterprise Institute’s new series of charter schools and civics education.

Andrew’s passion for civic activism and academic rigor are at the center of Democracy Prep’s model. The network’s motto—“Work hard. Go to college. Change the world!”—couples the “no-excuses” charter school movement’s emphasis on student achievement with a decidedly civic focus. This pairing is in the schools’ DNA; students and parents are exposed to an explicit and unapologetic emphasis on civic education from day one. As Andrew quipped at a 2012 event at the Brookings Institution, “We are called Democracy Prep, not Generic Prep.”

. . . Andrew views charter schooling as an ideal venue for experimenting with exactly how to teach citizenship. When it comes to civic education, Andrew argues, “The charter sector can start to model best practices . . . and really take risks”—such as sending a fleet of students to the streets of Harlem in a GOTV (get out the vote)  campaign.”

Democracy Prep teaches “what it means to be a citizen by doing—mobilizing voters, lobbying state legislators, and teaching their own family members about the importance of voting rights. Meanwhile, classroom lessons about history, government, rights, and responsibilities provide students with the foundation and context necessary to understand why civic engagement is so important.”

Of course, preparing students to be good citizens can take many forms. National Heritage Academies, a for-profit charter network based in Michigan, stresses character education. I wrote the Counting on Character brief for AEI.

Character education is ubiquitous and relentless at NHA schools. Each month is assigned a “moral focus” or virtue, which teachers are supposed to weave into their lessons and students write about from kindergarten through eighth grade. Signs in classrooms and hallways honor examples of virtue.

Like other charter schools, NHA promises parents to teach a rigorous curriculum that will prepare their children for success in college. It also promises a moral education imbued with traditional values such as love of country and family. Good character is not just a private asset, NHA leaders believe. It leads to good citizenship.

The AEI series will look at a variety of ways to teach civics and citizenship.

Grit is good, but academics come first

Stressing character traits such as “perseverance, self-monitoring, and flexibility”  over cognition is a mistake, writes Mike Rose, a UCLA professor. Many so-called “non-cognitive” traits require thinking skills.

Some colleges and universities are trying to measure non-cognitive traits to find “diamonds in the rough,” but so far high school grades, backed by test scores, are the most accurate predictors of college success.

Dan Willingham writes on the challenge of measuring non-cognitive skills.

Character becomes destiny

Pushing black students to earn science and engineering degrees has been a priority for Freeman Hrabowski (black guy with Polish ancestor), who’s run University of Maryland Baltimore County for 20 years, reports the Baltimore Sun. I was struck by the account of Hrabowski’s talk to predominantly low-income, black and Hispanic eighth graders at a Maryland middle school.

For their part, the kids appear distracted or sleepy. So Hrabowski attacks. “How many of you are smart?” he begins. A few hands tentatively go up. “All right, tell me your name and tell me what you want to be when you grow up,” he says.

. . . Slowly but surely, his energy transfers to the students. Hands raise more quickly. Thoughts come out more forcefully. “How many of you study at home at night?” he asks. Only two hands go up. “Now there’s the issue,” he says. “I guarantee the people who study are going to be successful. Nothing can replace hard work.”

Only two students study at home? Is it uncool to admit to doing homework? Or are they really that lazy?

He offers $50 for the first person to solve a math problem, but threatens to charge $5 for a wrong answer. (Of 29 students, 20 have a dog and 15 a cat. How many have both?)

“You need to be pumped all the time,” Hrabowski tells the students.

When I go to South Africa or Asia, they say, ‘Bring it on.’ They’re focused. They’re hungry for it. How are you gonna be the best if you can’t match that?”

As a young black kid, he says, he yearned to show a dubious world he was as smart as anybody. To this day, he works 80 to 90 hours and reads three books in a typical week. “That’s what it takes to be the best,” he says.

Nobody gets the right answer, but Hrabowski forgives the $5 debts, reports the Sun. ( I think it’s a range from six to 15. Is that right?)

He gets them on their feet and leads them through one of his favorite refrains: “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes destiny.”

Three students, all black boys, walk him to his car. He chastens them one more time about their study habits. “Rich kids work hard,” he says. “Most black kids aren’t working hard enough.”

Philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff “was struck by Hrabowski’s absolute faith that black men could thrive at the highest levels of academia if held to high enough standards from the start of college,” reports the Sun. With Meyerhoff’s money, UMBC  recruits students of all races aiming for doctoral studies in science or engineering.

Grit is good, but it’s not enough

Is Grit Enough?  In his look at Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, Robert Pondiscio highlights the chapter on the winning chess team at a Brooklyn middle school. Coach Elizabeth Spiegel spends “most of her time telling her students how they were messing up” in chess tournaments, Tough writes. “She does not hug.”

One of her stars, James Black, achieved master status before turning 13 and became a national champion. He beat a Ukrainian grand master. Despite good grades (a sign of grit), he does poorly on state exams. Spiegel pledged to prepare him for  New York City’s entrance exam for elite public high schools. But there was too much to learn.

“She was working hard with James on the test, and he was applying himself, even on hot summer days, but she was daunted by how much he didn’t know.  He couldn’t locate Africa or Asia on a map.  He couldn’t name a single European country.  When they did reading-comprehension drills, he didn’t recognize words like infant and communal and beneficial. . . . When James would get downhearted, and say that he just wasn’t any good at analogies or trigonometry, Spiegel would reply cheerfully that it was just like chess: a few years earlier, he had been no good at chess, and then he got specialized training and worked hard and mastered it.”

Despite his “keen intelligence” and grit, James couldn’t beat the test. Years of academic knowledge and skill isn’t crammable, writes Pondiscio.

Spiegel was angry about how little non-chess information James had been taught, she told Tough.

“He knows basic fractions, but he doesn’t know geometry, he doesn’t get the idea of writing an equation. He’s at the level I would have been at in second or third grade. It feels like he should have learned more.”

Without educated parents, James needed to be taught academic knowledge and vocabulary in school, Pondiscio writes.

The suggested takeaway for educators:  Kids need grit.  But schools need to be very smart and strategic from the very first days of school about the knowledge and skills we ask kids to be gritty about.

Tough talks about character and schools with Ed Week blogger Larry Ferlazzo.

 

Jerry Brown: Data is useless

School performance data is a “siren song for school reform,”  (pdf) wrote California Gov. Jerry Brown in vetoing a bill to add “multiple indicators,” such as graduation rates, to the state’s Academic Performance Index.

This bill requires a new collection of indices called the “Education Quality Index” (EQI), consisting of “multiple indicators,”many of which are ill-defined and some impossible to design. These “multiple indicators” are to change over time, causing measurement instability and muddling the picture of how schools perform.

SB547 would also add significant costs and confusion to the implementation of the newly-adopted Common Core standards which must be in place by 2014. This bill would require us to introduce a whole new system of accountability at the same time we are required to carry out extensive revisions to school curriculum, teaching materials and tests. That doesn’t make sense.

Finally, while SB547 attempts to improve the API, it relies on the same quantitative and standardized paradigm at the heart of the current system. The criticism of the API is that it has led schools to focus too narrowly on tested subjects and ignore other subjects and matters that are vital to a well-rounded education. SB547 certainly would add more things to measure, but it is doubtful that it would actually improve our schools. Adding more speedometers to a broken car won’t turn it into a high-performance machine.

Over the last 50 years, academic “experts” have subjected California to unceasing pedagogical change and experimentation. The current fashion is to collect endless quantitative data to populate ever-changing indicators of performance to distinguish the educational “good” from the education “bad.”

. . . SB547 nowhere mentions good character or love of learning. It does allude to student excitement and creativity, but does not take these qualities seriously because they can’t be placed in a data stream. Lost in the bill’s turgid mandates is any recognition that quality is fundamentally different from quantity.

There are other ways to improve our schools — to indeed focus on quality. What about a system that relies on locally convened panels to visit schools, observe teachers, interview students, and examine student work? Such a system wouldn’t produce an API number, but it could improve the quality of our schools.

Actually, I doubt it.  Maybe a state school inspector could evaluate school quality without student performance data by looking for signs of good character and love of learning.  Maybe not. A local committee would be easy to snow.

The vetoed bill, SB 547, had broad support, notes John Fensterwald of Educated Guess. The proposed Education Quality Index could have included “dropout rates, the need for remediation in college, success with career technical education programs, and graduation rates.” Standardized test scores would have counted for no more than 40 percent of the score in high school. While critics “questioned whether the EPI would be too squishy,” Brown complained “it would have demanded more of the same, hard data.”

 

True grit

What if the Secret to Success Is Failure? asks Paul Tough in the New York Times Magazine. Both Dominic Randolph, principal of the elite Riverdale Country School in New York City, and David Levin, superintendent of KIPP schools in New York City, are trying to teach character, the “essential traits of mind and habit” that lead to success in life. It’s more of a challenge for Randolph because private school parent don’t see the need.

 “Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”

Both men met in 2005 with Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Learned Optimism, which helped establish the Positive Psychology movement. Seligman showed them his new book (with Michigan Psychology Professor Christopher  Peterson), Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, a “manual of the sanities.”

Seligman and Peterson consulted works from Aristotle to Confucius, from the Upanishads to the Torah, from the Boy Scout Handbook to profiles of Pokémon characters, and they settled on 24 character strengths common to all cultures and eras. The list included some we think of as traditional noble traits, like bravery, citizenship, fairness, wisdom and integrity; others that veer into the emotional realm, like love, humor, zest and appreciation of beauty; and still others that are more concerned with day-to-day human interactions: social intelligence (the ability to recognize interpersonal dynamics and adapt quickly to different social situations), kindness, self-regulation, gratitude.

These strengths represent a reliable path to “a life that was not just happy but also meaningful and fulfilling,” they wrote.

Eventually, Randolph and Levin developed a shorter list: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.

One of Seligman’s graduate students, Angela Duckworth, a former teacher who’s now a psychology professor, focused on two key traits: self-control, which is essential to achieve basic success, and grit, which is needed to excel.

Levin had seen the first KIPP grads go off to private and parochial high schools; most went on to college. But those who persisted in college were not necessarily the top students academically.

. . . they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class.

KIPP’s New York City schools now integrate discussions of character traits into lessons and issue a character report card that’s used for parent-teacher-child discussions.

But Riverdale’s character education remains focused on being nice to others. Randolph worries that his students think success is guaranteed.

“The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure,” Randolph explained. “And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”

If you read my book, Our School, (which you should), you’ll encounter the Spanish version of grit, ganas. Downtown College Prep, a charter high school in San Jose, recruits underachievers from low-income and working-class Mexican immigrant families. They need a lot of ganas to make it to college and even more to make it through. Many in the first graduating class struggled academically in college, counselor Vicky Evans told me. But they weren’t discouraged.  “They know what it’s like to start a new school and get hammered. They can handle failure. They’ve done it and survived.”

Magdalena Villalvazo gave the commencement speech for the first graduating class, recounting all the challenges they’d faced. “Slowly, our fears became our strengths,” she said.

‘Toxic’ transfers

High-poverty schools are bound to fail because good teachers don’t want to teach in “toxic concentrations of poverty” with low expectations and less parent involvement, writes New York Times columnist Bob Herbert.

If you really want to improve the education of poor children, you have to get them away from learning environments that are smothered by poverty.

A Century Foundation study in Montgomery County, Maryland, showed that low-income students enrolled in affluent elementary schools outperformed  similarly low-income students in higher-poverty schools, Herbert writes.

Studies have shown that it is not the race of the students that is significant, but rather the improved all-around environment of schools with better teachers, fewer classroom disruptions, pupils who are more engaged academically, parents who are more involved, and so on. The poorer students benefit from the more affluent environment.

However, economic integration requires racial and ethnic integration, which “provokes bitter resistance,” Herbert claims. Despite our claims to be a “postracial” society, middle-class whites don’t want blacks and Hispanics to transfer in to suburban schools. (Why would they welcome “toxic” transfers?)

Herbert is confused about the meaning of  “postracial,” writes Liam Julian on Flypaper.

There’s a practical problem with economic integration: Too many poor kids. The Montgomery County study found low-income students learned more in schools in which no more than 20 percent of students qualified for a subsidized lunch; the benefits vanished when 35 percent of students came from low-income families. “Nationally, 41% of American students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches,” Sara Mead writes.

We can’t solve our problems by trying to bus all the poor kids to the suburbs. The challenge is to create healthy, education-valuing school cultures in poor neighborhoods. My book is about a school that’s done that. I also recommend Samuel Casey Carter’s new book, On Purpose: How Great School Cultures Form Character.