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Monday, September 19, 2011

A Fully Credulant Muse on Character Education

The article in the New York Times yesterday, entitled, "What if the Secret to Success is Failure," was a good read. In it, we are introduced to two schools, one private and highly competitive and one charter middle school that is filled to the tippy top with the types of students that historically have been doomed to failure by our current system.  Each school finds that success in life (and in college) isonly tangentially related to academic prowess and ismore likely to be indicated by character, which they define as set of 24 indicators that deal with ideas such as resilience, curiosity, love, and compassion.  The two schools change their foci to reflect a dual system of assessments that deal with both academic and character scores and discover what many educators already knew -- a dogged and curious student of moderate intellect will make it farther in school and in life than a bright student who cannot overcome obstacles and who doesn't feel any pull to investigate.

This is news in the same way that the wheel is news when it is discovered that the rectangles we've installed on the cart don't work very well.

What we are talking about are the honor codes that students from previous generations swore to uphold.

What we are talking about is the idea that creating a temporary bubble in a student's sense of self through inflated grades is destructive.

What we are talking about is the fact that an ability to do well on a test is not a testament to anything but test-taking skills.

We are talking about the idea that human beings are greater than the averaged sum of their grades.

What we are talking about is the citizenship score that was written next to the academic grade on my own report cards when I was a student.  Scores that were based on my willingness to try, my ability to work, my openness to my fellows, and my demonstrations of civic responsibility in the classroom and on the playground.

But it's not something we can just "bring back."  We are, I believe, too far gone to just walk it back up the line.  We are now generations removed from this idea and if we did manage to suddenly reset our educational system and produce a generation of ethically solid, hard-working, citizens, I'm pretty sure that the self-esteem generations that preceded them would not hire them.  Not unless they also had the proper credentials and certificates.

In the last thirty years, as character education and the attendant character that it instilled has disappeared from our society, we have replaced it with a new system that is now firmly ensconced and will be frustratingly difficult to dismantle.  We have replaced the individual assessment of character with the credential.  We actually do care more now about test scores and grades as a society than we do about the quality of the individual that produces them.

Character (as defined in the article) and diligence have become less and less of an expectation.   We have replaced a belief in the intrinsic qualities of our fellow citizens with credentials and certificates that, while not guaranteeing the quality of the employee, at least keep the HR department from taking the blame when some new hire turns out to be a shiftless and useless waste of a position.

We have become so risk-averse when it comes to our fellow citizens that we refuse to even look at them for jobs, no matter how good and how capable they are, unless they have a certification from an institute (we now trust institutions more than individuals, which is ironic in the face of the libertarian screaming in our current political scene) that states that the person is capable of the job and, if a person with a credential turns out to be completely incompetent, we shrug our collective shoulders and exclaim, "Well, they had a credential so we assumed they were competent."  And then it takes years of hard work to undo the damage.

This means that we are all, competent and not, spending many more dollars and many more hours proving our competence through coursework and tests and at the end, only the least competent have been weeded out, leaving all other players on an even field regardless of character.

We assess character through the ability pass a background check.

We assess character through loosely written recommendations from people we have never met.

And then we hire them based on their paperwork and an interview.

When I began teaching, my mentor teacher had been in the classroom for 25 years.  He had inspired generations of students, including my own self as a teenager, to do bigger and better things than we imagined we could.  He trained us how to think and how to reason and he was not alone.  There were other teachers, too, who inspired us to write and to think and to learn and not a single one of them had had to prove their subject matter competency through the CSET or the Praxis.  Not a single one of them had to pass the CBEST (The California version of the basic competency test for teachers, which is a ridiculously low bar by the way).  Not a single one of them had taken 60 units of post-baccalaureate coursework in education.  All but one of my best teachers in high school had stumbled into teaching on their way to other careers and stayed.  They were Mr. Hollands, each and every one.

Now, it is all but impossible to stumble in to teaching and we are worse off for it.  Character and ability alone don't cut it.

I was talking to a friend recently, who was considering making a switch from journalism to teaching.  She'd be a good one and she already works with a youth program and is successful there.  But she already has two masters degrees and is unlikely to want to go back to school again.  So she's probably not going to do it.  Our loss.

If we were still hiring on character and capability, she would be a teacher now.

Some will push back against this by arguing that, when hiring was a subjective process, employers substituted similarity to themselves for character.  It was true -- white men were more likely to think that other white men had character and competence so, since most employers where white men, white men ended up with most of the jobs.  White men.

This was certainly true and, without objective hiring standards, it might still be true, but I don't think it would be now.   And I don't think we're that much better off, anyways.  People on the outside of our proper society are no longer prevented access through simple racism and classism, but through the addition of multiple expensive and complicated hoops that must be navigated before one can even be granted an interview.

Many poor people are still prevented from becoming teachers.  They are more likely to become teachers' aides, instead; it's much less expensive and difficult to navigate the hoops.   My students set their sights on Medical Assistant, on X-Ray Tech, on Nurses' Assistant, on Legal Assistant, or on Lab Tech.  Each requires a certificate.  Each requires dedicated coursework, but none pay a living wage comparable to the profession they support.   Taking an entry-level job in a profession with the idea of  moving higher is impossible because one cannot simply "work their way up," anymore.  Not without further schooling.  Not without more and more expensive tests.  The fully competent worker who exudes resilience, curiosity, love, and compassion will forever be an assistant to somebody else so long as they cannot afford to buy access to the next hoop.

But if you're still worried about going back, you can stop.  We aren't going to collectively rip up or credentials and certificates.

But if we did manage to bring character back to schools, it's nice to imagine what we might be able to do with the rest of society.

1 comment:

  1. My Oxford is off-line at the moment ... and without it I don't think I'm going to find a definition of credulant or cupineous, much less be able to use these as a "Reaction" in a continuum that also includes "real" and "important."