Assessing Students’ Character Traits—You Bet

Assessing Students’ Character Traits—You Bet on ParentChat with Regina: Getting Control of What Matters in Education | Walton Family Foundation is spending $6.5 million to help researchers figure out how to assess students’ character. The Foundation says that the grants are in “the emerging field of character research” (according to a well-reported article in the September 17 online edition of Education Week by Evie Blad).

Some of that grant money went to Professor Angela Duckworth, who has done exceptional work at the University of Pennsylvania on personal traits that make a difference in student success, including “grit.” Grit is exactly what you think it is—the willingness to dig down and do what it takes to accomplish something, even when things don’t work out the first time.

I first looked at Professor Duckworth’s research about four years ago when I was working with a high school that I co-founded in New York City. The principal, the teachers, and I were troubled by some of our students’ lack of concern about their work and their behavior. For example, they didn’t do their homework. It wasn’t that it was too hard or that there was too much of it. They just didn’t feel like doing it. Our students weren’t geniuses, even though ours was an Early College high school and the students were on a fast track to graduation (in just three years instead of four). They were average New York City kids—no better, no worse—and we all felt they could care a little more and work a little harder. Parents, perhaps you have students like this in your children’s schools or perhaps you have one at home.

Chris Aguirre, our remarkable principal, and I came up with the idea of a checklist to judge our students’ personal traits—at least, the ones that could be displayed in school and that were important for school success. After working with our teachers and testing out several versions of our checklist, we came up with what we referred to as our “Character Rubric.” It is undoubtedly not as scientifically correct as the work that will come out of the Foundation’s $6.5 million, but it worked. It was a way for teachers to judge students on six important traits—traits that we all felt would make a difference in their ability to succeed in school and later in life. As we said about our students in the introduction to our Character Rubric, “Without these character traits, all of their intellectual achievements cannot make them college ready and career ready.”

Teachers rated each student twice in each semester, using a rather simple scale from 0 to 3 to indicate how often the student exhibited each trait (not at all, rarely, sometimes, or usually). We also gave teachers examples of student behaviors that defined each trait so that we could agree on what teachers were looking for when making their judgments. For instance, “Is diligent” (our version of “grit”) came with behavior examples like “Does whatever it takes to complete an assignment,” “Finishes what he or she starts,” “Keeps trying in the face of difficulty,” “Tries hard to meet the teacher’s standards,” and more.

I had the privilege of presenting the Character Rubric to parents at a regular monthly PTA meeting and of talking to parents about it in many individual sessions. No parent ever found fault with it, argued with it, or expressed any reservation about it. It was a stunning success, from our parents’ point of view. They realized, immediately, that these were the traits their own children needed to work on.

Parents, I bet we all agree that kids need certain attitudes toward their schoolwork and that they need to develop certain traits that will serve them well at work and in life. Your work at home with your own children is a big part of developing those attitudes and traits, of course. But, at our school, we all believed that teachers needed to help nurture them in school and that teachers needed to correct students when they weren’t exhibiting them.

It is time to take a look at how teachers in your school or school district encourage your children to develop these important traits and how they let students know when they need to improve:

Ask your school board to talk about whether nurturing students’ character is an important part of the board’s vision. Is judging the results of that nurturing also part of the board’s vision? Does the board intend to look at how successful the district is in producing students with excellent character as well as excellent academic skills? This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to meet with the superintendent and other staff first to find out exactly what is being done in the schools to nurture important character traits.

You could ask your school board or your principal to come up with your own Character Rubric, if your school district or school does not already have one. You might expect to see a different one for elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools (the important student traits should probably be the same, while some of the sample student behaviors might differ).

If you are having trouble coming up with a Character Rubric on your own, have your superintendent or principal let me know. We have a great one you might want to see.

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