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KIPP's Character Education

Since its inception, KIPP has been the subject of either deification or demonization. The most recent example of the latter has to do with what KIPP calls character education, which is reflected in its character-growth card ("Teaching Kids 'Grit' is All the Rage. Here's What's Wrong With It," The New Republic, May 6).

There are seven elements: grit, zest, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity.  Students are asked to rate themselves on these traits and then teachers rate the students.  From both comes an "Average Teacher Score," which is used as the basis for parent-teacher conferences with the student present.

The three-fold rap is that we do not know how to teach character, that it is divorced from morality, and that it constricts the overall purpose of education. These constitute a heavy-duty indictment that deserves a response.

I'm not a particular fan of KIPP, but I think the criticism is unwarranted. The essence is that the new character education ignores morals, values and ethics by making individual success the No. 1 goal. I'd like to know which schools manage to balance the two objectives.  There have been reports of cheating in even the most academically distinguished public schools in the country, as well as in the most prestigious private prep schools.  Why single out KIPP for giving short shrift to morals, values and ethics?

I agree that there is no surefire way of teaching character.  But then there is no guaranteed way of teaching morality either.  Ethics are caught, rather than taught. Students are both consciously and unconsciously influenced by the adults closest to them.  This starts with their parents and teachers. Were public schools more successful in the distant past in inculcating morality than public schools today?  I think we have to be careful not to engage in nostalgia in this regard.  

KIPP is trying to do what public schools, including other charter schools, are not doing very well, if at all.  Demeaning its efforts, when admittedly they are not perfect, does nothing to improve educational quality.

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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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