First Answers to Your Questions About Character Education

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David Levin, the superintendent of KIPP New York, and Dominic Randolph, the headmaster of Riverdale Country School, are answering reader questions this week about character education, in conjunction with a thought-provoking New York Times Magazine article by Paul Tough chronicling their efforts to teach things like "zest" and "grit."

The first few answers and questions are below; we'll post more next week. To post additional questions, click here or scroll to the bottom of this post.


SchoolBook What was the most surprising thing you each learned about the other's school by reading the article? (Or through the process of working together.)


Dominic Randolph Working with David Levin and the KIPP team has been one of my most inspiring experiences in my professional career. The people who work at KIPP are just amazing educators who are really thinking outside of the usual boxes we use to think about schools. Members of the Riverdale team working on this project have learned so much from the interaction. It is an amazing gift for us to all learn from each other.

I think one of the major problems that we have in education is that we fragment the discourse around change in education and make it a matter of public, charter, independent or private. KIPP is an amazing movement, and all teachers would benefit from understanding what they are doing. This project has and remains incredibly interesting, but I think that we need to treat the “problem” of education as a problem for all of our children. There are common problems across divides that face all the younger generations in this country — we need to come together to face them down. This project was a small step in that direction, and I hope this work and other projects like it can grow and spread.

I don’t think that this is new work. Philosophers in fifth-century Athens were thinking about character strength development. Moral philosophy has struggled with these questions for millennia. However, it is not easy to bring intentionality and science to this work in developing these essential and very important “softer skills.” I have learned much in trying to do that with the team from the schools and university working on this project. Nonetheless, this is just a small start down a path. I hope that the work can continue.

It was also an amazing learning experience to work with a research university, University of Pennsylvania, and people like Angela Duckworth, Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson. School research is often so anecdotal. These incredible researchers and people brought a level of rigor to this work that I have not encountered before. I think we need to commit more often to bringing exceptional social scientists into the process of changing schools. That, also, has been a learning experience for me and for members of my school community.


David Levin Working with the team of teachers involved from KIPP and from Riverdale along with Angela Duckworth, Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional career. One of my biggest takeaways the more I work with the character strengths and the indicators that we developed is the truly universal nature of character. Thinking about developing character is good for all of us — adults and kids, regardless of background.

James Baldwin has a quote, “The children are always ours, every single one of them ... children have never been very good at listening to their elders but have never failed to imitate them.” Believing this and being committed to making this a shared journey for both kids and adults is the key to our approach to integrating character into our schools.


Hamish Stewart How good is the science behind the report card? For example, have you yet been able to compare college dropout rates with final year high-school KIPP scores (as opposed to Duckworth's testing of her "Grit" index). And I suppose I have the same question regarding the feedback to the students: Have you any measure of whether or not that is successful?


D.R. We have focused on development of the tool and implementation these last years together with social scientists such as Marty Seligman, Chris Peterson and Angela Duckworth. David and I have always been interested in making sure that we are trying to have schools use an emerging body of science to inform this work in deep ways.

The development of the indicators of the strengths in the “report card” was incredibly time-consuming for both school communities and the teachers involved did incredible work along with the statisticians at U.Penn. That work was genuinely scientific.

Moving forward it is clear that we are both committed to collecting data and seeing what correlations arise. Our work is hypothetical at this point. We are all committed to helping our students in very different schools develop these character strengths in more intentional ways. This is just the very beginning of this work, and we both hope to continue working in this project for years.


D.L. The feedback from teachers, kids, and parents has been fantastic — particularly around the indicators associated with each strength. Take grit, for example. The indicators for grit are as follows:

a) Finishes whatever he or she begins.
b) Tries very hard even after experiencing failure.
c) Works independently with focus.

It has been so much more productive to engage in conversations around these specifics than just telling people grit is important or working hard is important. If you want to develop a certain character strength, knowing as much about what that character strength consists of is critical.

The character work Paul talks about in this article was just piloted at our middle schools, so there is no data yet on long-term outcomes. That being said, as Paul highlights in his article, the cumulative graduation rate for KIPP students is four times the national average for low-income kids and above the national average for all kids. We believe our emphasis on character alongside academics from our beginning in 1994 has been key to this. Thanks so much for your question.


Kyle Avery How do you differentiate between character and social skills? Many times student behavior is simply a lack of understanding of basic social cues; it seems to me the character report card simply makes the unspoken social curriculum of school explicit.


D.R. I do think that this is a relatively simple matter of making more explicit and intentional the work of shaping behavior and developing character strengths that has long been the aim of many schools and institutions. Many times this work is just very vague and general. We wanted to bring a scientific bent to this work and more of an “edge” to the discourse in schools. Of course character strengths and social skills overlap. “Social intelligence” is one of the strengths we have been working on. It is an essential part of developing as a human being, but it is not inclusive of all the character strengths we are currently researching and working on.


D.L. Social skills are definitely an important component of character. Social Intelligence, gratitude, zest, kindness, citizenship, love, and many of the other character strengths are deeply connected to social skills. I think you are correct — one of the most important things our character report card does, in regard to all of the strengths we’ve focused on, is to make explicit things that are unspoken or unknown.

The indicators for social intelligence are:
a) Able to find solutions during conflicts with others.
b) Demonstrates respect for feelings of others.
c) Knows when and how to include others.

These are frequently part of any discussion around social skills. Yet the character strengths incorporate the full scope of character including non-social skills. For example, the indicators for optimism are:

a) Gets over frustrations and setbacks quickly
b) Believes that effort will improve his or her future