I do think it’s possible to help young people leverage their character strengths in the way you describe. In fact, that is one of the central strategies used by OneGoal, the nonprofit organization I profiled in the book that is working to increase college-persistence rates among disadvantaged high school students in Chicago. They have a list of five “leadership principles” – character strengths they want their students to develop and hone as a way to make it through college, including resilience, resourcefulness, and ambition. But rather than suggest that the students are lacking in these skills, OneGoal’s teachers send the message that the students already possess more than their fair share of the skills, because of the difficulties they’ve already overcome. And then the teachers work with the students to help them figure out how to direct those abilities in a focused way to achieve their central goal: a four-year college degree.
In your new book, you describe a partnership between charter schools, a private school and scholars to translate research into education tools that work in the field, so to speak. Could you tell us that story?
To give a shorthand version of the KIPP/Riverdale story: For the past few years, the KIPP charter schools in New York City and Riverdale Country School, a New York City private school, have been working with psychologists from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan to develop a list of character strengths that they have concluded are predictive of long-term success and especially valuable in school. They have come up with a list of seven: grit, zest, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity. At the KIPP schools in New York City, they’ve turned these character strengths into a character report card (now called a character growth card) that is given to students a few times a year, along with their regular academic report card.
I think the character project at KIPP and Riverdale is fascinating and important, but I don’t think that those schools have found all the answers to the important question you raise: how to translate the research around noncognitive skills into a strategy that works in the field. You’re right that this is a challenge -- a big one. There are some organizations and tools that I write about in the book that I think should be expanded and implemented more broadly. But for the most part, I think what we need now is more experimentation, more research, more people trying more approaches to helping children in this noncognitive/character/psychological dimension, especially kids who are growing up in deep disadvantage.
I know that’s not the answer that most grass-roots organizations want to hear – they’ve got enough on their plates already, and they want solutions that are ready to go. But I think that’s the stage we’re at: We know a lot more than we used to, but we don’t have all the answers yet.
In “How Children Succeed,” you draw lessons from extremely poor as well as extremely wealthy families. Where would you place your own upbringing along that spectrum?
I grew up in Toronto, Canada, and I had one sister. My parents are both educators. My dad actually was a professor of education, and my mom was a first grade teacher. My parents got divorced when I was young.
Like everyone, I think I was middle class. After my parents got divorced and my mom was a first-grade teacher, we were probably a little below the middle of the middle-class level, and before that we were probably above the middle of the middle-class level, but I think one of the things that’s different about Canada and the United States is that in Canada there really is a middle class. There are a lot of people who are making about the same amount of money, which you really don’t feel in a lot of American cities.
At the end of “How Children Succeed,” you’re much more outspoken about the policy implications of what you’ve reported than you were in the final chapter of “Whatever It Takes.” Was that intentional?
Yes. One of the responses that I got to the first book was, “So is [The Harlem Chiildren’s Zone] good or bad?” As a reporter, I came out of that New York Times tradition of “just the facts.” You’re not supposed to say what you think all that much. But I think it would have helped for me to have been a little more present in explaining what I thought, what I felt about the Harlem Children’s Zone. So I felt in this case it was useful to give readers more of a guide to how I feel about all this. It was partly also the effect of having written about [education] for eight or nine years and actually feeling like I’ve got some ideas and opinions that I feel strongly about and wanting to push toward those.
Any idea what’s next? I’m not sure that’s even fair to ask while you’re still on your book tour.
It’s fair, certainly. I should have a plan at this point, but I don’t. I still can’t quite see beyond the end of the book tour, which goes till Thanksgiving. And then I want to spend some time with my family, in particular my son, whom I’ve been ignoring for a couple of months after writing a book about how children need close bonds with their parents. So I need to hang out with him. I’m sure I’m going to write something else, but I’m not quite sure what it is.
Lionel Foster is a freelance writer from Baltimore. His column appears Fridays. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @LionelBMD.