Is it harder for affluent schools to have good character?
Samuel Casey Carter is, in a way, the Tom Paine of the movement to raise school achievement in low-income neighborhoods. He coined the term "no excuses schools” for those run by people who think that no matter how bad their students' family lives, with great teaching they should be able to learn just as much as kids from affluent suburban homes.
His new book, "On Purpose: How Great School Cultures Form Strong Character," puts this in an even wider context. He profiles a dozen schools that, he says, have set high expectations for personal attitudes and behavior and created both good people and good students.
This time, only four of the 12 schools Carter profiles are in low-income communities. Nearly all schools in all communities need some fixing, he says. They need to nourish student character if they want young intellects to grow.
I wrote a blurb for this book. On the back cover is this quote from me: "Samuel Casey Carter shows how great cultures -- not big bucks, smaller class sizes, different curriculums, or better buildings -- are what we need to save our education system." I believe that, yet as I reread the book, I realized that Carter made his case so well he raised in my mind issues that had not occurred to me before:
How can we create more single-minded schools like these in a democratic society if some teachers and students wish to express contrary thoughts and feelings? Is raising the standards for student and teacher behavior harder or easier on more affluent campuses?
I read carefully Carter's profile of Hinsdale Central High School in Hinsdale, Ill., the largest of the book's12 schools by far. The number of students in the other 11 schools are, in ascending order, Hope Prima of Milwaukee (220), Veritas Academy of Phoenix (322), Benjamin Franklin of Franklin, Mass., (394), Arlington Traditional, Arlington, Va. (442), Cotswold Elementary, Charlotte, N.C. (499), Providence St. Mel, Chicago (650), Atlantis Elementary, Port St. John, Fla. (720), Grayhawk Elementary, Scottsdale, Ariz. (821), An Achievable Dream, Newport News, Va. (987), Harvest Park Middle School, Pleasanton, Calif. (1,129) and P.S. 124, New York City (1,143).
Establishing a strong character in a school of less than 1,000 students is perhaps a less complex undertaking. But Hinsdale Central has 2,624 students. If ever there were to be dissent about a single-minded attempt to forge a moral ethos for a school, it would have to be at Hinsdale Central. But there is no hint in Carter's account of any resistance to the transformation of the school he describes.
He describes in some detail, with many examples, the four traits that mark the path toward a school of strong character: a strong belief that culture determines outcomes, a nurturing but demanding culture, a culture committed to student success and a culture of people, principles and purpose. The effort must start with a focus on the happiness of every student, a daunting task that is in my view impossible to achieve, but inspires a refreshing focus on what is happening to kids. Many of our worst schools spend more time satisfying the needs of adults.
Now that Carter has presented these good examples, in his next book I would like see him go deeper into each story and find the hidden flaws and the silent malcontents. I want to know what resistance had to be overcome to establish a school of good character. I want to hear from those who see such efforts as coercion rather than evangelism, if there are any.
At Hinsdale Central, Carter says the excesses of intense academic competition have diminished, but does not provide much evidence for that. A confidential survey of students on how often they cheated on class work, compared to the national surveys on that subject, would shed some light.
Carter is also, I think, a little too quick to accept a view at Hinsdale that their good character and academic success might be an even greater accomplishment than it would for a campus in a poorer part of town. An administrator is quoted saying, "Affluent children often have far more complex social difficulties and greater challenges with ethical issues than children from homes with fewer resources."
Okay, maybe. But Carter is likely to hear from some readers scratching their heads at that idea.
This is a vital topic, if we are to turn our schools into places that not only prepare students for college, but for better lives. As the no-excuses movement Carter named expands, I wait with interest for his next exploration of the evolution of values and character, and the complications of making such transformations work in a country where not everyone defines good behavior in the same way.
[I wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving. I am heading off to California for the rest of the week. This is my weekly Trends column, usually appearing on Friday, but I posted it on Wednesday this week so no one would be tempted to tear themselves away from their families to read it.]
| November 24, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Trends | Tags: Samuel Casey Carter, character education, creating schools of good character, do affluent schools have a harder task?, do such schools encounter dissent, good character produces good students
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