Print Columns   |   Web Chats   |   Blog Archives   |  

The Folly Of Measuring Character By Race

What would drive one of the nation's most successful and respected school systems to report which racial and ethnic groups demonstrate the soundest moral character and ethical judgment? How did the Fairfax County schools come to put out statistics claiming that black and Hispanic students are less likely than their white and Asian peers to "possess the skills to manage and resolve conflict"?

Why will the school board convene today to talk about what one of its members calls a "morality gap" that divides the county's racial and ethnic groups?

For decades, schools have been asked to step in where too many parents have failed, taking on the job of teaching values, limits and the ability to tell right from wrong. But while there is a consensus that too many children lack the moral principles that should be planted before they ever set foot in a school, there is far less agreement about how to deal with those kids.

Two years ago, Fairfax, like a growing number of school systems across the country, decided to make "essential life skills" as much a goal as academics. The school board decreed that by the end of high school, "All students will demonstrate the aptitude, attitude and skills to lead responsible, fulfilling and respectful lives."

Who could oppose such a goal, right? So the school board tells the administration to get to work. Anyone who has set foot in a school since the dawn of the No Child Left Behind era knows what happened next.

Administrators, principals and teachers calculated how to determine which students "demonstrate sound moral character" and "courageously identify and pursue their personal goals," and which don't.

Then, as if that weren't difficult and subjective enough, the educators decided to collect data, chop it up by racial and ethnic groups, and digest it into a nifty little scorecard with explosive nuggets like this: Third-grade students who scored "good" or better on work habits "ranged from a low near 80 percent for Black and Special Education students to about 95 percent for Asian and white students."

Even if the basis for such conclusions weren't as flimsy as one of those online polls that ask who is going to win the next "American Idol" contest, what possible purpose could this information serve?

Fairfax School Board member Tina Hone walked off the dais after the data were reported two weeks ago. Today, she hopes to persuade a majority of her colleagues to reject the report and tell the system to go back to the drawing board.

"I agree that our role, especially for kids caught on the wrong side of the tracks, is to fill in gaps left in the home," Hone says. "What I don't think is wise is reporting data by race on having good character. If there's ever a place where teaching to everybody will raise all ships, it's in teaching character. We should be teaching fair play and a moral compass to every child."

Fairfax's measurements of moral character look crisply quantitative on paper, but read behind the numbers and you see scores built on a foundation of nonsense: Number of F's based on attendance; number of discipline referrals issued; teacher observations; surveys students fill out about their life skills -- a load of data, signifying . . . what?

Let's assume green people turn out to be collectively less moral than purple people: What do you do about that? Hone still recalls the powerful impact Aesop's fables had when she read them in school. Great teachers find universal parables in classic literature, in tales of history, in the great moral stands taken by the heroes they present to children.

But in Fairfax, and in schools across the land, the instinct -- no, the compulsion -- is to amass data points and "disaggregate," ed-lingo for looking at children not as individuals but as members of a group. The move to quantify grows from a religious devotion to test scores, a faith that the shaping of a mind can be mapped like a cancer cell and expressed as a number. And the resort to race stems from the balkanization of society, the self-destructive notion that we are a collection of groups rather than a nation of individuals who believe what it says on the coins in your pocket: e pluribus unum -- out of many, one.

"The superintendent told me that the reason they broke it down by race was that two years ago, the board decided to report all data by race," Hone says. "That was part of the No Child Left Behind frenzy. This is a classic case of a pendulum overswing."

Hone believes that as long as the achievement gap that divides the races persists, it's important to break out test scores by race. Otherwise, the failure to push underachieving students up to par might be hidden beneath overall strong numbers in a system such as Fairfax's.

But discerning right from wrong goes to the intimate core of the relationship between student and teacher, Hone says. It's just not something that you can reduce to a number. "This is on the teachers," she says. "It's not a problem of one group of kids. If I as a teacher saw a kid being left out because they were a nerd or fat, it was my job to figure out how to get that child together with the others."

Just as solutions to a child's struggle to learn to read must be molded to each kid's needs, so too must each moral compass be fixed, one at a time.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" at

By Marc Fisher |  April 10, 2008; 8:56 AM ET
Previous: Bolting To New York For One Lousy Buck | Next: Angelos: Go Nats (Sort Of)


Please email us to report offensive comments.

How is this negative? My son is dealing with a kid in his class whose father told me that he's raising his son to be tough which the father equated to his race and actively berates his son and makes him aggressive and is literally causing his failure IN KINDERGARTEN! So this kid is raised to think that people of his race do X and people of another race learn how to use scissors correctly.

Society needs to know who is raising their children like this so we can target messages in ways that make sense. There is nothing racist to be gained from this study because racism is about prejudice based on race, there is nothing at all racist about criticizing someone for their behavior. And from what this study shows, and what I've seen, these kids do not have the internal compass to succeed in life.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 10, 2008 10:11 AM

I'm confused on how these are measures of "morality" as opposed to "socially-approved situational behaviour". The latter allows for shoving people into gas chambers, while the former does not. Talking back to the teacher or writing on the desk is not a reflection of the moral compass of the offender - in fact, a sociopath is likely to figure out precisely what will get him in trouble at school and score perfectly well, while slicing open kittens after school.

Yes, my examples are extremely simplistic, but there's a reason philosophers have spent so much time on "morality" as a concept. It's certainly not something that can be statistically measured.

Posted by: MB | April 10, 2008 10:43 AM

I think what troubles me the most about this study is the disconnect between behaviors regarding substance abuse and Fairfax County stats on discipline and suspensions relative to infractions. Whites indicated higher usage rates yet Blacks and Latinos are punished at rates of 3-4 times their populations.

Looks like FCPS has a racial bias problem bordering on open discrimination.

Posted by: takebackourschools | April 10, 2008 10:57 AM

I'm glad Fairfax County did this. Not for the reasons they intended, but for the fact that the state grading racial groups on their character and morality is so glaringly offensive to a supposedly anti-racist society that the situation would finally make us think twice about our tradition of officially grading the races on anything.

The administration couldn't see the obvious transgression because of the reasons Hone offered - they take for granted the "altruism" of constantly finding ways to give blacks as a group of poor grade - for their own good.

I'm hopeful that blacks being rated sub par for such a subjective attribute like "goodness" will easily be seen as ridiculous by the public and reveal that such state mandated racism is clearly not beneficial to anyone, least of all the traditional losers of the whole race game.

Posted by: Jeremy Jones | April 10, 2008 11:05 AM


My next door neighbor told me that her daughter raised her children to think it was ok to steal from corner stores where the proprietors were not of their race because they exploit "their" community. The grandmother feels that stealing is always wrong. These issues of morality often entirely center around racial or ethnic identity. You will find, if you live in a majority African-American community, that African-Americans do not find such studies "ridiculous" but find them evidence of their moral imperative to proselytize and evangelize morality to their nieces, nephews and extended families.

But my guess is that you do not live in a diverse community by the way you phrased your post. Diverse communities know how culture affects behavior and how people need to unlearn techniques that they gleaned from their teenage years relating to culture to make it in society. If they don't unlearn those ideas they embrace that "gangsterism equals cool" and end up in jail by 18. If they don't unlearn that the road is a meeting place, they will get hit by a car. If they don't unlearn sexism then their first female boss will fire them.

From the perspective of someone who grew up in a moral community where unethical people were criticized, I also believed that people act ethically. Living in a diverse community I talk to people who believe that unethical behavior is positive and it's literally no different than if someone equated racism, racist action and segregation as being part of their culture. The US has done an admirable job of eliminating that way of thinking based on the culture of the offenders, now we are so far past Jim Crow that we can address ethical behavior where people can view that as part of their identity.

Bill Cosby is probably at the forefront of this.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 10, 2008 11:30 AM

"Let's assume green people turn out to be collectively less moral than purple people: What do you do about that?"

It's telling that they can provide no answer for this - they just insist that you have to highlight disparities in order to know to do SOMETHING - but the obvious action the layman can take is to discriminate against green people indiscriminately and use this official state data to justify doing so.

The reason the progressive academics hand wave the natural results of their dedication to "disaggregation" is probably because most of them don't have to deal with the outcomes - since the situation is usually that of the well-off whites tending the Negroes.

The black academics, meanwhile, are drunk on a "talented ten" mindset - they'll save their race from atop, having already secured their position in life. And since these black academics are usually women, they too comfortably escape implication from the "black males" broad brush that's popular with the racial politics community.

Posted by: Jeremy Jones | April 10, 2008 11:37 AM

"But my guess is that you do not live in a diverse community by the way you phrased your post."

I don't know, I'd say my community is somewhat diverse. True, it's predominately black. It's been that way historically, but their are a sizable number El Salvadorans here too, as well as a couple of whites. In fact every neighborhood I've lived in my entire life has been notably mixed racially. So I'm not sure how that's supposed to tell me why the state should grade races on their character.

Posted by: Jeremy Jones | April 10, 2008 11:55 AM

And since these black academics are usually women,

Like Cornell West? Henry Louis Gates Jr? John Hope Franklin? Kenneth Clark? Gerald Early?


Your post is just unethical.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 10, 2008 11:55 AM

This is more about NCLB's B.S. around "character education" that I have been telling people about for years. The idea that the "Black child" is devoid of character and needs to be saved by the good christian white folk is what this character ed is all about. The stats are to be used exactly as you said (to discriminate) - or to allow the power structure (most whites, conservative Blacks) the freedom to freely assert that Black children are immorally inferior without feeling they would be called racists. The real deal here is if such stats are found to be acceptable, they have huge policy implications - meaning the justification of wasting millions of dollars trying to "improve" the character of poor, mostly Black children, instead of investing dollars in improving schools. Remember the "GODFATHER" of this character ed movement is Bill Bennet (wife founded the biggest character ed program - Best Friends Best Men - which Fairfax uses) who besides getting in trouble for gambling issues a few years back, also stated on record that the best way to reduced crime would be to abort all Black babies (he said he was speaking hypothetically of course).

Posted by: Danny | April 10, 2008 12:16 PM

I think it is time to do a character/morality test on the faculty and administrators in Fairfax County.

I have had my son introduced to his Alg I teacher (by his guidance counselor) at the beginning of the school as "and here is Sam, the kid who is going to fail your class".

My other son told me he would rather die than return to school (after second grade) because the teacher treated him like he was stupid. He could not participate in the parties because he had difficulty reading. She would not answer his questions in class. etc.

I could numerous examples...

My children are brilliant, but have learning difficuties; but the biggest barrier to their success is how they have been treated by teachers and other authority figures. Many children in special ed are not going to score high on the "character test" because their weakness is what is being tested. For example, a child with auditory processing issues may not "listen and follow directions" like other children simply because he needs to see the directions in writing.

This is just another way to sterotype children, continue the list of negative behaviors associated with these groups, and
further justify discrimination. How children are treated determines how they perform; all educators and school board members should be required to read A Class Divided by (or watch the video) by William Peters. Also, our teachers need to be required to take more classes about learning disabilities so that they are not children and their parents that they are lazy, stupid, or that they have a bad attitude.

My son does have two good teachers this year, but that does not make up for the fact that he has emotional scars from being verbally abused by faculty.

Character classes are not the answer as long as those teaching are the perpetrators.

Posted by: cindy | April 10, 2008 12:39 PM

Why not allow voluntary segregation by race? Let students opt into segregated classes or even schools by race. See the results.

Posted by: Old Atlantic | April 10, 2008 12:44 PM

'bout time somebody had the guts to tell the truth.

If you don't face the facts you can't change the problem. Hiding the problem just means it will continue, no matter how much you try and sugar coat it.

Now that the problem has been identified, we have two choices:

(1) Take steps to correct the problem.
(2) Ignore the problem and try and blame something else.

Looks like the school board is choosing #2.

Is anybody surprised by that?

Posted by: DC Voter | April 10, 2008 1:32 PM

Just when I think the morons on FCPS School Board can't possibly outdo themselves-they do!!

This "morality test" is just another excuse this school system has created to give them an excuse for failing these kids.

The minority achievement gaps are widening and this way they can say-geez, there is nothing we can do-these kids are immoral.

How could you possibly suggest that you can judge the morality of an 8 year old based on whether they do their homework???

This whole survey is laughable.

Posted by: FCPS Parent | April 10, 2008 1:43 PM

From your online chat:
"not a single person has come up with even the suggestion of a way in which that information could help teachers improve the moral or ethical judgment of kids"

Um, actually, I did. To try again, this time more explicitly: let's say you have a theory about how to improve 4th-grade kids' ethics. Now, you test this theory by tracking two classes, one which gets your great new method and one that doesn't. The results come out and show no difference between the two classes. So is your method worthless? You might say so, but I, armed with this data, might note that the class that got your method was "demographically predisposed" to be less "moral" than the one that didn't, so the fact that the testing showed them equally "moral" would suggest that your method is actually valuable and should be promulgated to other classrooms.

Posted by: qaz1231 | April 10, 2008 2:00 PM

Apparently the publicity is focusing on 3rd graders. The statistics(a different set) for older students show a narrowing gap. Assuming(a big stretch) the 3rd grade data is valid it could possibly explain lower test scores, but would not appear to explain gaps in graduation rate, SAT scores or achievement levels of older students.

Quote from the article:
"For older students, the report's findings on moral character were based on the number of state-reported disciplinary infractions, a measure where minority students tend to be overrepresented. Disparities among groups were found, however, to be slimmer for eighth-graders and negligible for 12th-graders."

Posted by: Verbal | April 10, 2008 2:05 PM

Verbal: I was wondering about the narrowing of the gap in later years too. It could be taken at face value, or it could also be due to one or both of: 1) the worst kids eventually dropping out of school or being placed in special ed classes, 2) the metrics at the higher grade levels being much cruder.

Posted by: qaz1231 | April 10, 2008 2:16 PM

"My next door neighbor told me that her daughter raised her children to think it was ok to steal from corner stores where the proprietors were not of their race because they exploit "their" community."

"How is this negative? My son is dealing with a kid in his class whose father told me that he's raising his son to be tough which the father equated to his race and actively berates his son and makes him aggressive and is literally causing his failure IN KINDERGARTEN! So this kid is raised to think that people of his race do X and people of another race learn how to use scissors correctly."

So let me see if I get this straight (I am a Black graduate of the Fairfax County school system so my judgment may be off.)

Two of you can cite examples of minorities raising their children to be aggressive thieves so, by extension, all minorities must be aggressive thieves?

Most serial killers are White men; what does that say about the morality of White people? Neither my parents nor grandparents condoned stealing. If either my sisters or myself had been caught stealing I'm pretty confident we would've been grounded until we were 35, for starters.

How about the goodness and morality of our current Administration or the people who made millions in bonuses while they drove their companies into the ground? Or into being bailed out by the Fed? Takes a special kind of morality to bankrupt your company yet walk away with a golden parachute and a smile on your face.

Posted by: disgusted in Fairfax | April 10, 2008 2:48 PM

But, "disgusted in Fairfax," as a white person I know that diversity training is very often specifically targeted at white people as an attempt to deal with ingrained social notions that white people are culturally exposed to. I don't say to myself, "well, I'm not a racist, I live in an integrated community, so I shouldn't have to go to this." I'm a man and I don't say, "I'm never going to harass a woman at work, I won't go to harassment training." You write as if this suggestion, that ethnic groups might be targets of special training is novel or strange, but I promise you that diversity training is very much targeted toward erasing stereotypes that are thought to be of a white southern background without addressing stereotypes that are part of, let's say Japanese culture or South Asian culture, right now! It's been happening for 15 years. Is that now wrong too? We know racism and sexism is real and must be educated against. Don't we know that as much as we know the results of this study? This is the part that confuses me about all this. Doesn't this study offer up usable proof?

Posted by: Anonymous | April 10, 2008 3:03 PM

Have we gone so far to the outer edge of Political Correctness that now we have to prepare results so not to 'hurt feelings?"

If chldren are acting out in schoool and not interacting well, why are so many people "disgusted" to learn where the problem lies and address it at the source.

This study has nothing to do with racism, it has to do working with problems so ALL children can learn with minimal disruptions in the class room.

The study was conducted by the very people who no doubt spend more time with the children than anyone else [even the parents in most cases] - the teachers.

I encourage parents who are so "outraged" by this study to spend a day or two as an observer in their child's classroom. There's nothing like the "hands on" to see that little Johnny and Suzy are the sweet little darlings they think they are.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 10, 2008 11:16 PM

As usual, if you're not telling Sambo or Paco that he's the best thing since sliced bread, then you are a no good racist!

I don't understand why minorities have to think if you say something negative you must mean each and every one of them! You know whether or not you're a good person. So, why do you take it personally? Or, do you take it personally because you see the same flaws in yourself? I donno!

Posted by: Lee Yang | April 11, 2008 5:32 AM

The results of the study should come as no surprise. They track perfectly with racial differences in crime rates.

Posted by: Jared Taylor | April 11, 2008 1:23 PM

Couple gets into fight in video store over which gang their 4 year old son should claim his allegiance to, the Crips or the Westside Ballers.

Link above.

In all seriousness, and without malice, when people believe everyone will act according to morals that we all think are taught to each of us, we are fooling ourselves. This little 4 year old, caught in a battle between rival gangs, is going to need extra education to get him out of that failure spiral his parents are in. There is NOTHING wrong with targeting that message toward specific group using the language, using the situations, and using the cultural mores of that group. This is done countless times from everything from mathematical word problems to holiday education. If a school system developed a class on ethics and morals that utilized the known signs and signifiers of MS-13 to combat that group's message then it's win/win for the kids and the community. Otherwise the message simply won't be as effective.

because Marc, the children of MS-13 members are in our elementary schools right now.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 11, 2008 2:25 PM

k4pnjzfuly qtwh7u0la1

Posted by: dgiuhrgdwa | April 11, 2008 5:00 PM

If you "disaggregate" scores and tell people that black students are not doing as well a white folks, then liberals like the author of this article love it, AS LONG AS they can call it a "legacy of slavery" (i.e. it's all Evil White Folks' fault since they kept black folks out of school, etc).

But if the racial "disaggregation" is for issues like morality, then white folks cannot be blamed because morality is personal, not racial.

And if we cannot blame white folks and make them guilty, the only people left to blame are black folks, and we cannot blame them for anything.

In short, "disaggregation" by race only bothers the author and other liberals if it reduces white race guilt. Anything that reduces white race guilt and white racial responsibility is bad. Any disaggregation that decreases white race guilt, and by extension increases black race guilt is Bad, Bad, Bad.

Don't believe me? Ask yourself this:

Did the author ever say that racially "disaggregating" math or reading scores was a bad thing? Of course not -- because it can always be blamed on white folk and white racism.

Did he ever complain about "disaggregating" incomes and showing that blacks earn less than whites? Most definitely not -- since any difference in income is all white folks' fault, too.

The only difference is where the author can lay the blame. If he can chalk it up to white race guilt, then "disaggregating" white scores from black scores is A Good Thing.

Posted by: Big Bill | April 11, 2008 7:54 PM

To disgusted in Fairfax:"most serial killers are white man." Why don't you google "black serial killers"? As blacks are about 12% of the U.S. population they are actually overrepresented among the ranks of serial killers.

Posted by: alex | April 11, 2008 8:41 PM

Late ot the party, I know. But I've finally figured out why liberals are belatedly enthusiastic about reporting academic test data by racial category and, yet, bristle so conspicuously when "morality" and "ethics" are assessed and reported by race, as we see now in Fairfax.

In the former case, evidence of a "race gap" shows minorities (some anyway) to be victims---victims of history, victims of the economy, victims of a racially discriminatory educational process. But in the latter case of morals, measured "race gaps" paint minorities not as victims but as victimizers (at least as a matter of disproportion). It is for the same reason that so many self-described civil rights activists clamored for years in support of "hate crimes" laws and data collection, only to be mortified later when it turned out that Black Americans commit far more numerous violent "hate crimes" than any other racial/ethnic group in the US.

So very confounding for liberals when all that precious data collection backfires and shows not bias, not discrimination, but a substantial "values gap."

Posted by: Staticphoto | April 11, 2008 9:42 PM

There is no gap by 12th grade because they worse kids have long since dropped out of school.

How could this study be a surprise to anyone on the school board? Surely they've seen the suspension and expulsion data by race.

Posted by: Susan | April 11, 2008 10:40 PM

audi so"


Posted by: vnbnbnvnfjjjfjr | April 24, 2008 12:20 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company