Besides the difficulties in having a full view of student lives, grading an individual on individual character traits will cause more harm than good in the students who most need support. Paul Tough’s recent best seller Why Children Succeed reopened the issue, for some schools, of grading students on character traits. Curiously, Tough’s accounts of two schools saw one of them, a KIPP School, deciding to grade students on character traits and the other, Riverdale, deciding not to do so. There are two compelling reasons why Riverdale made the right choice. Schools cannot, or should not, try to take the KIPP route by assigning grades for character.
Reason 1: The cannot
In search of what good character was and how it was fostered in schools, researchers Harry Hartshorne and Mark May looked at character education programs in the late 1920s. They did so through 10,000-plus school children in a study founded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Much to their dismay, they discovered that there were not “honest” or “dishonest” children, but rather children who tended to demonstrate honesty in some scenarios and not in others. Similar results were found throughout 20th century research. Character traits are found to be relatively stable in repeated situations (e.g., cheating or not on a test this week compared to a test six months from now), but unstable across different situations (e.g., lying to parents versus lying to friends).
Beyond the fact that character traits are not very reliable across situations, an attempt to grade character traits like honesty, citizenship, or responsibility assumes that the person grading is in a position to assess such traits reliably. Tough says the KIPP teachers found the process daunting. The literature on bullying itself is illustrative. Most schools have bullying/cyberbullying problems to one extent or another, and yet schools claim, rightly, that they do not know who the bullies are unless students report them. A certain percentage of bullying behavior is even perpetrated by those “kids you’d least suspect.” Most teachers are not in a position to do these kinds of assessments reliably, so their grades are based on observations in a very limited number of scenarios.
Reason 2: The should not
Greater than the difficulty that lies in the process of grading are the effects of character grades themselves. If a school’s goal is to improve character in all students, then grading individuals on character traits is a no-no. When students see a good grade—provided they feel the grade is warranted—the positive feedback may have slight beneficial effects. However, simple feedback like “good job” has little effect on motivation. What makes positive feedback effective is when the reasons for the “good job” comment are explained. This kind of “informational feedback” tends to motivate students to do more of it, but it does not generally encourage students to be “better.”
And what if a student gets a bad character grade?
We all know one story, maybe two, about a person who made a life-changing turn-around after negative criticism. However, a much more robust finding in the field of motivation is that negative evaluation undermines motivation. In other words, every student with a negative grade (that is, a grade he or she considers negative, regardless of whether the teacher thinks it’s negative) has a far better chance of losing motivation for that particular trait than of working to improve it. Sometimes the anger or resentment generated even causes the purpose of the grade to backfire. In other words, if we do give students unsatisfactory grades in character, we probably are working against our goals to foster character development. In still other words: character grades will have the most effect only if all students get good character grades. But there is no purpose in grading if the results will all be good.
Is there a way out?
The rationale people use in wanting to grade character is good; most people say “Character matters at our school, just as academics do. We grade both academics and character because we want to show that we care about both.” The only problem is that it just does not lead to productive practice. The flaw lies in the assumption that academic assessment and character assessment are done, and should be done, in the same way, and / or that our report cards are the best way to tell people what is important to us.
There are two paths out of the problem of character assessment, one at the individual level and one at the school level. If—again—the school’s goal is to increase motivation for positive character traits, greater results would come from a teacher writing a single sentence about each student. The most powerful such comment addresses the best specific instance the teacher recalls when the student in question demonstrated an important character trait and did so well. For example “I was so touched to see Susan stop in the middle of the game last week to go over and tend to a classmate who got hurt”; or “Paul made us proud this month when he showed the courage to put an end to what could have been an incident of bullying.” A sentence on “positive performance” is the kind of feedback that—from what four decades of research tell us—encourages more of the same.
The second path is at the school level. Though character should not be graded at the individual level, the school that cares will make regular attempts to assess its progress as an institution. Even a 20-item survey administered once or twice a year can tell much about whether the school is making progress in fostering character. For example, using a scale of 1 (I strongly disagree) to 5 (I strongly agree), a school can learn about itself by the number of students who respond with a 1 or 2 (versus a 4 or 5) to statements like “I feel liked by my fellow students” or “Students at our school respect one another’s opinions, even if they don’t agree with them.”
These are the kinds of assessments that more schools will be doing to help foster character development in the 21st century. Not individual character grades, but positive performance feedback that leads to better behavior and stronger schools, and measures to help the school understand what kind of culture it is fostering.