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Are Values A Proper Concern of Schools?

The school reform movement is obsessed with quantifying outcomes. Whether through standardized test scores, dropout rates or college acceptance rates, the coin of the realm is measurement.

Yet there is another side of the story that is largely overlooked. It was highlighted in a cover piece in The New York Times Magazine on Sept. 18. In "What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?," Paul Tough focuses on the importance of developing character. He quite correctly recognizes that without it, students are shortchanged.

Because the term means different things to different people, Tough explains which traits qualify based on research by Martin Seligman, Christopher Peterson and Angela Duckworth. The final list: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.

I've written before about the importance of non-cognitive outcomes in education. But it's been like talking to a tree. How successful are schools if they teach only subject matter? Recognizing the failure of schools in this area, David Levin, co-founder of KIPP, urged the development of a C.P.A. (character-point average) to accompany a G.P.A. (grade-point average).

As a practical matter, however, there are several considerations. To begin with, I believe for the most part that the values comprising a C.P.A. are caught, rather than taught. The process begins at home with parents, whose behavior becomes a model that is absorbed by osmosis. Neighborhood figures reinforce the model for better or worse. Teachers are next in line. But their influence is relatively small because they have students in class for only a small portion of the day.

For another, if a C.P.A. is to be valid, it has to rely on what are known as unobtrusive measures. What this means is the subject of Unobtrusive Measures: Nonreactive Research in the Social Sciences (Rand McNally & Company, 1969). In simplest terms: "If people feel that they are 'guinea pigs' being experimented with, or if they feel that they are being 'tested' and must make a good impression, or if the method of data collection suggests responses or stimulates an interest the subject did not previously feel, the measuring process may distort the experimental results."

Despite these difficulties, it's high time we look beyond strictly cognitive outcomes to judge schools. Readers who doubt this warning need consider the actions of corporate executives who graduated from elite prep schools and marquee-name colleges with the highest grades and yet engaged in egregious acts that plunged the country into the Great Recession.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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