Education Opinion

Go Ahead--Grade My Character!

By Nancy Flanagan — September 04, 2013 3 min read
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Dear Readers,

Tell me the truth. Am I optimistic? (Not so much in recent blogs, I admit.) Grateful? Zesty? Curious?

Are my social instincts on target--or do I just blurt out what I think about the moral underpinnings of public education, heedless of whose toes and income streams I might be stepping on? Does that represent internal lack of self-control? Am I the kid who would gleefully eat the marshmallow now, not convinced it would still be there in 20 minutes, unwilling to delay gratification?

And what about the all-important grit? True, I am a PhD dropout (mostly because I didn’t see future opportunities for a retired teacher with a terminal degree, I’d taken all the doc-level courses that intrigued me, and I couldn’t get an advisory team to agree that my research interests were quantifiable enough to be worthy)--but I taught middle school for more than 25 years. Surely that represents grit, no?

Paul Tough is currently out on the lecture circuit, promoting the idea that seven character traits are as important as IQ in determining future success:

The reports send a signal that through developing kids' resilience, they aren't stuck being any way they don't want to be ("You don't have to remain the slow kid," for instance). They create a sense of personal agency, and moreover, transplant focus from tweens needing to improve intelligence to their working harder on character development (and that true smartness can be a byproduct of their character). Even the things we typically consider innate can be worked on and changed.

Well, amen. In spite of dire, “this goes on your permanent record” warnings from generations of finger-wagging teachers, we all know that academic grades and test scores are unreliable indicators of true human potential. Every teacher has a story to tell, about the kid who looked awful on paper, but turned into an amazing, productive adult--or knocked his ACT score out of the park, but can’t find a job after earning three degrees.

Character matters. A lot.

Here’s where I get off the bandwagon, however: grading students on character as a means of highlighting and developing these critical qualities.

This fact regularly comes as a surprise to earnest, high-achieving, non-educator “reformers,” but--lots of kids don’t care much about their grades. For many kids, grades come to be, at best, a side issue, behind the really important things: food, shelter, family. Having a posse. Making money. Whatever.

Caring may have been extinguished by punitive grades early on, figuring out one’s place at the bottom of the academic pecking order, or gradually coming to understand that the kids who are fighting for top grades have different prospects and values. Not-caring is often a self-defense strategy.

Besides, many schools already grade on character--giving marks for “citizenship” or other worthy attributes--and it doesn’t particularly help. I taught with a colleague who prided himself on giving the lowest citizenship numbers to anyone who didn’t (not to put too fine a point on it) suck up to him. Nobody got a “1" from him--because he was tough, dammit!--but was he shaping the self-actualized citizens of tomorrow? Hardly.

I took the opposite approach. I was uneasy grading kids on citizenship, let alone something as personal as their character, so I mostly gave everyone the highest number. It felt like my signal that I wanted to like and trust them, that I appreciated their unique personalities. When students’ self-control falters (an hourly occurrence, in middle school) or they lack optimism, don’t they deserve another chance? Or a heartfelt conversation with someone who cares about them, rather than a score on their behavior?

Even with rubrics or checklists, should we trust teachers to evaluate students’ character? What would a checklist of traits that display “curiosity” look like? Or “zest?” Would motivated students go around trying to be zesty all the time, to get better grades?

Evaluating character is something we all do instinctively, based on internal “rubrics,” a.k.a. our inescapable human biases. Yes, important indicators of genuine character can be worked on and changed, resilience can be slowly embedded. But what do we lose in this quest for emotional regulation? It’s a question worth asking.

Another question: Just who do we want to display self-control, persistence, gratitude and the proper social instincts? All kids--or just those we’ve decided need our character-shaping? Do we believe that rewarding grit and entrepreneurial spirit will cause the real cultural surround of inequity, prejudice and anti-intellectualism to melt away?

Sometimes, eating the marshmallow now is the best and most rational strategy, after all.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.