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Posted at 5:30 AM ET, 11/24/2010

Is it harder for affluent schools to have good character?

By Jay Mathews

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.]

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | 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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Comments

Whose word are we taking for the superior character of these schools, and whose definition of character?

Consider, on this Thanksgiving weekend, an historic example of a greatly acclaimed school designed to instill correct character in a disadvantaged polulation.

Most of the Indian Schools had mortality rates approaching 40% for their student bodies, but Carlisle, in Pennsylvania, was a successful showcase. It gave us Jim Thorpe, and educated my great-grandmother and my half-breed grandfather. You can read about it on your own, because there is too much to tell in a commment. But compare the character they inculcated with the despised values of the "degraded" peoples they taught it to.

I had a Sioux college lecturer once, named Lehman Brightman, who taught a course in Native American sociology. Theirs are many different sets of character values, of course. Here are the virtues of a Sioux warrior, on which the character education of children was based. In order, they are: courage, fortitude, generosity, and wisdom.

The order isn't according to importance. Courage is the easiest to teach, he said. Then fortitude (spiritual strength), and after that generosity. Wisdom, alas, is unteachable. Some perfectly fine warriors will always be fools, whatever you do. Don't follow them.

Wait a minute, we said. You TEACH courage? Courage is easy to teach? We thought not.

Brightman answered, "We are the Dakota. do you doubt it?"

Anyway, have a happy Turkey Day, everybody.

Posted by: mport84 | November 24, 2010 6:44 AM | Report abuse

Jay, Casey ignores research to the contrary with his "no excuses" philosophy. Some kids really do have a tougher uphill struggle than others; I dare say some will never reach their would--be-pinnacle. Maternal smoking is a most hideous insult to offspring and is related to (in varying degree from near none to major) ADHD, criminal behavior, poor birth outcomes, ill heath, etc. Males are more susceptible the the pathophysiological effects from maternal smoking. Of course, many factors affect school performance - history or shaken baby syndrome and other physical abuse, blood levels of lead, chronic illness, poverty in general, malnutrition, and on and on. Some children will need more one-on-one attention from caring teachers / aides along with more informal evaluation to monitor learning. The link to the article below is a good one for starters; there are dozens.

Does the cortisol response to stress mediate the link between expressed emotion and oppositional behavior in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity-Disorder (ADHD)?

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2917389/?tool=pubmed

Posted by: shadwell1 | November 24, 2010 9:58 AM | Report abuse

Mport84 - thanks for referencing history both moving and powerful.
I recommend to all reading our own Sally Jenkins' book: The Real All Americans: the Team that Changed a Game, a People, a Nation. It has great sociological information and contexts on an area of American history that almost no one knows about. Culture and poverty can have tremendous positive advantages in certain ways when it motivates to succeed against formidable opponents.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | November 24, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse

Why do we want to teach students "character"? It turns into political indoctrination--usually of the leftist persuasion, although it's possible that some schools enforce a conservative notion of character.

Schools that pride themselves on teaching "tolerance", for example, are just bent on ensuring their students all piously intone diatribes in favor of affirmative action, the Dream Act, and gay marriage. Students who mock political correctness or simply disagree with it are then in trouble for not showing the proper moral character.

Keep schools out of the morality and character business--or limit the lessons to those directly relevant to school. Don't cheat. Focus on increasing your knowledge. Set meaningful goals. And be done with it.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 24, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, Cal_Lanier. My district, which considers itself the epitome of internationalmindedness and tolerance, actually had what it called Character Education. When the adults in a school fail to model honesty, fairness, courtesy and compassion, how can anyone expect those qualities of the students?

At the height of my district's "character education" fad, my daughter was in MS. Long story short, I had questioned the source of a ditto which claimed that our solar system was in the center of the universe. My questioning resulted in the classroom teacher having a complete and total meltdown which in turn resulted in the district switching my daughter off the "team" to which she had been assigned because Ms. Meltdown "couldn't teach a cynical child like mine with a cynical mother like me." They placed my daughter on another "team", but not before forcing her to sit through a video of all the special things the "team" she had been removed from would be doing without her. The poor kid was depressed and humiliated. She had done nothing wrong and was being punished because her mother had asked a question.

The following Monday, I called the Asst. Principal to listen to her assure me how "delicately" they had handled my daughter's "situation". I then told her that our district must have sent our teachers and Administrators to the Marquis de Sade's School of Compassion and they better not EVER mention Character Education to me again!

Posted by: lisamc31 | November 24, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

I'm jumping on Carter's bandwagon like a Redskin fan after a Dallas victory. I've been saying this for years, yet the larger a school system for which I work, the more deaf ears upon which it falls. This succeeds only when you have a cadre of adults who believe it and expect it. Our current testing mania is not conducive to fostering character, yet without these values within our students we reduce their chances to succeed. Our current environment seems to ignore that we teach PEOPLE as much as content. The best sample of this is what a former middle school student said to me: "I learned more about myself and being a man in your class than I learned math."
At that age especially, I consider that mission accomplished.

Posted by: pdexiii | November 25, 2010 9:04 AM | Report abuse

"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..."

... are fools. Even if there was no IQ gap between the children of affluent suburbia and those of low-income neighborhoods (and there is a very large one) it would be impossible for schools to overcome the parental support gap. Lots of good things can be done to improve schools. But the whole effort is handicapped by starting from such a ridiculous premise.

Posted by: CharlesMcKay1 | November 25, 2010 7:57 PM | Report abuse

There's also a "Distraction Gap" between children attending affluent suburban and those attanding low-income schools. In this context, parents and school officials in suburbia are better able to minimize distractions in and surrounding the education of their children. A lower distraction level perforce leads to more learning in school and out.

In low income schools, where parental input/interest lags and school officials are more overwhelmed by maladies not experienced so heavily in suburbia, the level of distraction soars.

If one looks closely at those schools that take low income children and achieve a much higher level of academic achievment than what would be expected, they all have at least one thing in common: a much lower distraction level. How they do this varies, but the end result is the same: lower/fewer distractions that don't crowd out opportunites for academic achievment.

Much like war - simple to state and understand, hard to do.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | November 26, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Affluent children often have greater access to alcohol and drugs and from my observation are far more likely to experience permissive parenting. The lower-middle-class families of my acquaintance tend to favor "old school" discipline and demand obedience from their children. Many of the affluent parents I know seem afraid to say "no" to their children- is it any wonder that so many of those kids wind up with substance abuse problems as teens?

Posted by: CrimsonWife | November 27, 2010 2:51 PM | Report abuse

Crimson, since the nice little fairy tale you report doesn't correlate with the real world at all, why not start by familiarizing yourself with the real world data before you embarrass yourself with absurd speculations?

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 28, 2010 1:27 AM | Report abuse

The rate of alcohol and drug abuse *IS* higher among affluent teens. If you don't believe me, see: Luthar, S.S. & C. Sexton (2005), "The high price of affluence," in R. Kail, ed., Advances in Child Development (San Diego, CA: Academic Press).

In terms of class differences in parenting style, if you choose to dismiss my observations, read "Unequal Childhoods" by sociologist Annette Lareau.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | November 28, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

If character education means high standards in the classroom then I like what they are talking about. But I think I agree with Cal Lanier and
Charles McKay. All schools should be "no excuses" not just low income ones.

The armed forces do a much better job at character education than schools

The main problem with implementing character education are the petty rivalries, jealousies, resentments and "cave mentality" of the educators.

Posted by: Hrod1 | November 28, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

"The rate of alcohol and drug abuse *IS* higher among affluent teens."

First, that's not what you said. You said they had greater access to it--and since that's not specifically what I disagreed with, who cares? I was referring to your nonsense about lower middle class families having stricter standards--and there, you didn't give a cite, but talked about the families you know, as if that matters. Crime and misbehavior correlates pretty strongly with family income, so the fact that you personally know some strict lower income families is possibly interesting to you, but hardly relevant to the conversation.

Second, the study you cite mentions only self-reported behavior, and is one of those angst-ridden woe is me, how the rich among us suffer from their helicopter parents reports, and hardly worth the time of day. Even assuming that the wealthy are using drugs more than low income kids (something I find counterintuitive but not impossible), casual drug use is hardly the nadir of low character. What the kids do while under the influence is a bit more relevant, and those strict but loving low income families have a higher crime rate.

But as I said earlier, who cares? Just two posts from you makes me positively certain that I wouldn't want someone like you deciding morality lessons for teens, and I'm sure you feel the same about me. So leave schools out of it.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 28, 2010 8:14 PM | Report abuse

CharlesMcKay1 should read carefully fairfaxvaguy's good comments, and maybe give my book "Work Hard. Be Nice." a quick skim. It is not impossible to overcome the parental support gap. It is happening all over the country in all kinds of schools.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 29, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

When are teachers expected to teach character? Is character more important than writing or biology? Do these school's have Character class? Or is it taught through the structure of the school?

Teachers are already over-burdened with material to teach and it seems to increase every year. And high-stakes testing doesn't help.

I would love to see my school implement some program to help instill some basic values into my students. But I agree with Cal_Lanier's concern over whose values are taught. But there are some common values I think we can agree on, like not cheating, respecting other people and their property, etc.

But I don't have the time or know-how to achieve this. I doubt my principal has the time or know-how to implement a school-wide program. I doubt my district cares about anything but test scores.

Posted by: limnetic792 | November 29, 2010 1:24 PM | Report abuse

" It is not impossible to overcome the parental support gap. It is happening all over the country in all kinds of schools."

Actually, there isn't a school in the country that has ever closed the achievement gap permanently.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 29, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

"Character" education is shorthand for imposing one's values on others, whether they like it or not. Especially if the children those "values" are to be imposed on are of an "inferior" culture, as with the BIA schools referrence by mport84.

In terms of the "success" of various education policies, I have yet to see a long-term study of their effects. Standardized tests and graduation rates are short-term results. What happens to the students when they leave? I've never seenb a follow-up on how the students of the old "Supermen" of education have done in adulthood.

Posted by: mcstowy | November 29, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

For Cal---so that "permanently" means you have accepted my Garfield figures for 1987?
Good. I think you raise an excellent issue. What school has closed the achievement gap permanently? Permanent is a hard thing to accomplish. What country has achieved budget surplus permanently? What person has keep their healthiest weight permanently?
It is also hard to gather the relevant data, school by school. I don't know anyone trying to do that. You wouldnt be able to see in one diverse school, because if that school was doing its job and helping everyone the whites and Asians would be going up too. (thus my impatience with the whole achievement gap analysis.) But if we compare the KIPP DC: KEY Academy to an average mostly white school in Mathews County, VA, i think we might see that the gap had been closed.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 29, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

Schools used to teach character implicitly through the materials they used. Look at old-fashioned readers like McGuffey's and the Elson series.

I'd like to see schools teach the Boy Scout values minus the last 2 ("clean" and "reverent" as those are too contentious).

A Scout is Trustworthy.
A Scout tells the truth. He is honest, and he keeps his promises. People can depend on him.

A Scout is Loyal.
A Scout is true to his family, friends, Scout leaders, school, and nation.

A Scout is Helpful.
A Scout cares about other people. He willingly volunteers to help others without expecting payment or reward.

A Scout is Friendly.
A Scout is a friend to all. He is a brother to other Scouts. He offers his friendship to people of all races and nations, and respects them even if their beliefs and customs are different from his own.

A Scout is Courteous.
A Scout is polite to everyone regardless of age or position. He knows that using good manners makes it easier for people to get along.

A Scout is Kind.
A Scout knows there is strength in being gentle. He treats others as he wants to be treated. Without good reason, he does not harm or kill any living thing.

A Scout is Obedient.
A Scout follows the rules of his family, school, and troop. He obeys the laws of his community and country. If he thinks these rules and laws are unfair, he tries to have them changed in an orderly manner rather than disobeying them.

A Scout is Cheerful.
A Scout looks for the bright side of life. He cheerfully does tasks that come his way. He tries to make others happy.

A Scout is Thrifty.
A Scout works to pay his own way and to help others. He saves for the future. He protects and conserves natural resources. He carefully uses time and property.

A Scout is Brave.
A Scout can face danger although he is afraid. He has the courage to stand for what he thinks is right even if others laugh at him or threaten him.

These seem like values that pretty much everybody should be able to get behind.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | November 29, 2010 4:41 PM | Report abuse

I don't think Garfield closed the achievement gap in 1987, but I'm happy to learn otherwise. Do you have the scores? (not the pass rate, but the scores)

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 29, 2010 6:16 PM | Report abuse

For Cal---Here is what I have about scores from my book:
129 AP Calculus tests taken at Garfield in 1987 (AB and BC)
44 1s or 2s (I don't have that separated)
53 3s
19 4s
13 5s

That was 66 percent 3s or above, compared to the national passing rate of 71 percent, and down from their 1986 percentage of 84 percent of 93 tests scored 3 or above.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 30, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

It sounds to me like Samuel Casey Carter is more like Mary Poppins than Tom Paine. Hopefully someday all the schools in our country will look something like what Carter’s describing, but that’s never going to happen with our current crop of educators unless you give at least some retraining to almost all of them, extensive retraining to some, and get rid of the ones who can’t perform even after being retrained. Identifying the last 2 groups is going to require extensive use of standardized testing, but the educators who seem to like Carter the most are the very same ones most likely to throw roadblocks in the way of appropriately used standardized testing. The first training relating to Carter’s that’s going to be necessary is values and character training for every school administrator and teacher and some sort of plan about what your going to do with the ones who don’t want to go along with the program. I’ve actually had teachers from a local school district scream at me their own versions of “we expect our students to show up ready to learn”. That school district used to have a separate building that many of the teachers and administrators called the “dog pound” where they sent the kids they didn’t feel like educating. I called the High School in that district one time to tell them one of their students I knew had been chased off school property and that the kid had already been diagnosed with PTSD and would probably need some extra help from the school and they told me to mind my own business. What is Carter going to do about a school like that? Culture, the way Carter is using the term, is defined as “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group”. How’s he going to impose his idealistic culture on a school with teachers and amininistratores who have those kinds of “values”. May be he’s got some magic pixie dust he can sprinkle on them.

Posted by: david_r_fry | December 1, 2010 1:03 AM | Report abuse

It sounds to me like Samuel Casey Carter is more like Mary Poppins than Tom Paine. Hopefully someday all the schools in our country will look something like what Carter’s describing, but that’s never going to happen with our current crop of educators unless you give at least some retraining to almost all of them, extensive retraining to some, and get rid of the ones who can’t perform even after being retrained. Identifying the last 2 groups is going to require extensive use of standardized testing, but the educators who seem to like Carter the most are the very same ones most likely to throw roadblocks in the way of appropriately used standardized testing. The first training relating to Carter’s that’s going to be necessary is values and character training for every school administrator and teacher and some sort of plan about what your going to do with the ones who don’t want to go along with the program. I’ve actually had teachers from a local school district scream at me their own versions of “we expect our students to show up ready to learn”. That school district used to have a separate building that many of the teachers and administrators called the “dog pound” where they sent the kids they didn’t feel like educating. I called the High School in that district one time to tell them one of their students I knew had been chased off school property beaten unconscious and that the kid had already been diagnosed with PTSD and would probably need some extra help from the school and they told me to mind my own business. What is Carter going to do about a school like that? Culture, the way Carter is using the term, is defined as “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group”. How’s he going to impose his idealistic culture on a school with teachers and amininistratores who have those kinds of “values”. May be he’s got some magic pixie dust he can sprinkle on them.

Posted by: david_r_fry | December 1, 2010 1:10 AM | Report abuse

Hi All,
A few insights to Hinsdale Central High School--it's "old money"-- as close to North Shore Chicago established money as one gets in the near west suburbs of Chicago. It's a suburb that has for years been battling McMansions in which an older home valued at $750,000+ is torn down to make room for a new "Executive Home." I'm sure this is nothing new to those of you who live in or travel through more affluent areas in your neck of the woods. The other high school in this two high school district is Hinsdale South High School. Perhaps viewed as the red-headed stepchild, this school would have given Casey a clearer view of character education at a more diverse school which I feel would have been more interesting for educators to read about and discuss. Like many old money communities, the facts, insights, and and thoughts shared with Casey about Hinssdale Central seem to me to be a bit artificial.

Posted by: southsidemike1 | December 1, 2010 9:22 AM | Report abuse

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