The most concerted effort to date to implement Duckworth’s research is taking place at KIPP Infinity Middle School in Harlem, New York. The KIPP network of charter schools was co-founded by Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg C’91 [“Alumni Profiles,” Nov|Dec 2000] in Houston in 1994, when they were both working as fifth-grade teachers through Teach for America. Since then KIPP has expanded to 109 schools in 30 low-income regions around the country, and has become one of the most prominent education-reform organizations in the country.
The KIPP model is based on the premise that a high-performing school by itself can overcome the disadvantage that poor, typically minority students face in many other areas of their lives. The basic tools of a KIPP school are an extended school day (often running from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. or later), a longer school year, intensive math and literacy instruction, and a pervasive focus on the goal of graduating from college.
From the beginning, character development has been an essential part of a KIPP education, as captured by the organization’s ubiquitous slogan: “Work Hard. Be Nice.” Over the last five years Levin, who serves on the KIPP board of directors and is superintendent of KIPP’s eight schools in the New York area, has teamed up with Duckworth to formalize the way KIPP NYC teaches character—to measure and monitor it, and institute strategies for enhancing it.
The cornerstone of the initiative is the “KIPP Character Report Card,” which teachers use to assess students on character traits that KIPP considers intrinsic to high achievement. The idea for the character report cards originated in a 2005 meeting at Penn that included Seligman, Levin, Duckworth, and Christopher Peterson, a psychologist at the University of Michigan.
At the time of the meeting Peterson and Seligman had just finished collaboration on an 800-page tome called Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. To write the book they had scoured essential texts from cultures throughout history, looking for character strengths that have been considered building blocks of the good life no matter where or who you are. In the end they came up with 24, ranging from bravery to prudence to self-control.
Peterson and Seligman’s book provided Levin with a framework for thinking about character in a more systematic way, and in Duckworth he found the perfect person to help him translate that framework into an assessment tool he could use at KIPP. “Angela is one of the elite people in the country to combine a deep understanding of K-12 education with the highest credentials of a researcher,” Levin says. “It was a natural fit for us to work together.”
Levin and Duckworth’s first step was to boil the 24 traits down to those with particular relevance for school. They removed traits like modesty, spirituality, and fairness, and settled on a list of seven that seemed particularly essential for high academic achievement: zest, grit, self-control, curiosity, social intelligence, gratitude, and optimism. (Love actually made the initial cut, but, Duckworth says, “Dave didn’t want to have to tell a parent, ‘Your kid is low on love,’” so they swapped it out for curiosity.)
Once the seven traits had been determined, the next step was to figure out how to measure them—to define, for example, what optimism or zest looks like in practice. The criteria for measuring each trait didn’t have to produce results that concurred with some absolute value, because there is no truly objective definition or measure of something like zest. Instead, Levin and Duckworth’s goal was to agree on criteria that matched their general understanding of the character traits, that were easy for teachers to observe, and that produced results which corresponded roughly with anecdotal evaluations of which students had more or less of a given trait.
In the final KIPP Character Report Card each trait is broken down into two to four indicators on which students are given scores from 1-5. The indicators for optimism are “Gets over frustrations and setbacks quickly” and “Believes that effort will improve his or her future.” One of the indicators for zest is the relatively easy to quantify “Actively participates,” while another is the less tangible “Invigorates others.” Indicators for self-control are more concrete and include: “Comes to class prepared,” “Allows others to speak without interruption,” and “Remembers and follows directions.”
Duckworth is aware that measuring character to two decimal places on a report card could be perceived as unduly harsh, particularly if it’s seen to overlook the role that poverty plays in depressing achievement among low-income students. But in her view character isn’t purely innate—instead, she argues, it’s just as influenced by environmental forces as things like reading scores and high school graduation rates, which most people feel entirely comfortable quantifying and evaluating.
“One of the problems with the word character is that it carries a lot of baggage,” Duckworth says. “People sometimes think that emphasizing character means not emphasizing environmental conditions like growing up in poverty or not having good role models. But I think it’s a false distinction, because your character is influenced by how you grew up—it’s not like there’s character on one side and environmental forces on the other. Given that, if you wanted to help kids, it’s not immediately obvious how you’d go about changing poverty. So the direction I’m more excited about is the effects that schools can have on kids. We might not be able to make a family richer, but maybe we can make their kids grittier or more self-controlled.”
There is scattered evidence showing that programmatic school-based character interventions work. Some of the most frequently cited interventions include Tools of the Mind, a preschool program that helps students develop self-regulation tools, and the Chicago School Readiness Project, which trains preschool teachers on how to instruct kids in self-control. Overall, though, the research in this area has been limited. It’s still unknown whether personality is like a person’s height—which is measurable, but not modifiable—or whether it’s more like blood pressure or cholesterol levels, which can be measured and modified, and which can be influenced at a population level by public health initiatives.
At the end of my conversation with Seligman I asked him whether he thinks we’ll see the day when schools are teaching kids grit and self-control alongside phonics and fractions. I expected the father of positive psychology to be bullish, but he was surprisingly skeptical. “I think Angela has made some progress in this area,” he said. “But it is interesting to me that for 3,000 years at least teachers have been trying to get more self-discipline out of kids without figuring out how. So for me the modification of grit and self-discipline are still hopes and promissory notes as opposed to fact.”
For Duckworth, however, the challenge of her research question is part of its appeal. She spent the first decade of her professional life unsure of how to apply her abundant talent. Now she no longer has any doubts. “I have complete conviction that this is an incredibly important scientific question,” she says. “If we can figure out the science of behavior and behavior change, if we can figure out what is motivation and how to motivate people, what is frustration and how do we manage it, what is temptation and why do people succumb to it—that to me would be akin to the semiconductor.”
Kevin Hartnett, a former teacher, is a freelance writer living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A collection of his work can be found at GrowingSideways.net.
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