Character Revisited, Singapore Style

I don’t mind being right, and I don’t mind revisiting something important that I think someone might have missed the first time around.  So, here we go.  About 18 months ago, I wrote about a Character Rubric that we had developed at the high school I co-founded in 2009 in New York City.  Now, this reprise of the story is getting a surprising Singapore twist.

The original story went something like this:

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 the traditional 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.

Chris Aguirre, our remarkable principal, and I came up with the idea of a checklist to assess our students’ personal traits—at least, the ones that could be displayed in school and that were important for school success.  These traits were drawn, in part, from the work of psychologists/professors Martin E.P. Seligman and Angela L. Duckworth (University of Pennsylvania) and Christopher Peterson (University of Michigan).  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 was a way for teachers to evaluate 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 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 the now-very-popular “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.

The Character Rubric turned out to be well liked by both teachers and parents and well tolerated by students.

Fast forward to an article that I read a few days ago (reprinted by BBC News), shockingly titled “Why high-flying Singapore is scrapping grades” and written by Dr. Lim Lai Cheng.  Dr. Lim is formerly the principal of the very prestigious Raffles Institution secondary school and now the Academic Director of the Office of the Provost and the Executive Director of the Academy for Continuing Education at Singapore Management University.  Here is a little background, courtesy of Dr. Lim:

It was no accident that Singapore created one of the world’s highest performing education systems in five decades.

Reminiscent of the examinations for selecting mandarins in old China, the road to success in Singapore has always been focused on academic credentials, based on merit and allowing equal access for all.

This centralised system helped Singapore to create social cohesion, a unity of purpose among its schools and an ethos of hard work that many nations envy.

But the purpose of the education system has changed and Singapore in 2017 is no longer the fledgling state it was in 1965.

Schools have become highly stratified and competitive. More advantaged families are better able to support their children with extra lessons outside of school, such as enrichment classes in mathematics, English, dance and music.

Those who can’t afford this have to depend on their children’s own motivation and the resources of the school to catch up.

Many of us in education have spent at least some time in the past decade admiring Singapore’s work on the education front, including the achievement of Singapore’s students on international tests.  Now, Singapore appears to find itself in a place not unlike some American communities, where more advantaged families can support and enrich their kids’ education handsomely and less advantaged families have to look to the schools for that support and enrichment instead.

What does this mean for Singapore?  Here is what Dr. Lim says:

The next update of the education system will have to ensure that Singapore can create a more equitable society, build a stronger social compact among its people while at the same time develop capabilities for the new digital economy.

Government policies are moving away from parents and students’ unhealthy obsession with grades and entry to top schools and want to put more emphasis on the importance of values.

Schools have been encouraged, especially for the early elementary years, to scrap standardised examinations and focus on the development of the whole child.

I didn’t see that coming, including that Dr. Lim is championing work on values—we called it “character”—from the primary grades right up through the high school years.  By the way, in her article, Dr. Lim also refers to the work of Dr. Seligman (one of our sources for our Character Rubric), whose model she says “advocates that academic success and well-being form a double helix, and that the best schooling must include educating children on values and character, as well as how to interact well with others, set goals for themselves and work towards achieving those goals.”

What does this new emphasis look like in Singapore’s schools?  Dr. Lim describes some of Singapore’s efforts this way:

“Character scorecards” and “reflection journals” have become the staple in many primary schools, to allow parents to follow the social and developmental progress of their children.

An important segment of the new curriculum, at the primary level is family time, and how parents should play an important role in inculcating the right values in their children.

At the secondary and high school levels, “values in action” programmes lie at the core of educating young Singaporeans to be empathetic, socially responsible and active citizens in their community.

For example, students work on projects that serve the elderly, reach out to migrant workers and read to latch-key children in day-care centres.

I like to think that those “character scorecards” are a lot like the Character Rubric we developed—an idea whose time has clearly come.  And who doesn’t love the idea of a “values in action” program for our older kids?  It’s like the community service hours that so many of our high school students already do; however, I get the feeling that it is more central to what Singapore is trying to achieve as a society.

But, here is where Dr. Lim really goes off the high board:

There have also been calls for more flexibility over admissions to local top schools and universities to encompass selection based on character traits such as drive, resilience and passion. . . .

All round, government leaders have expounded a wider definition of success beyond academic grades.

The media and elite schools have been discouraged from showcasing top students and their academic achievements.

Discouraged from showcasing top students?  Does that go too far?  Maybe so.  But more backing for having U.S. colleges look more broadly at applicants would be welcome indeed.  I spend a lot of time on my podcast, USACollegeChat, talking about college admissions and the inequities of the admissions game for so many students, especially for low-income students.  This call to action all the way from Singapore is intriguing and refreshing.

Dr. Lim says much more in her article, including about the connection between school and work, about putting counselors in the primary schools, about bringing in counselors with industry experience to advise students on both school and career options, about actual financial initiatives to promote lifelong learning, and even about “rotating experienced principals to schools that need more attention.”  Just go read her whole article.  Really.

Parents:  Here is some of the advice I gave you 18 months ago—before Singapore’s news.  It’s just as good today.

Take a look at how teachers in your school encourage your children to develop important character traits and values and how they let students know when they need to improve.

Ask your school board 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?  Ask the same kinds of questions of your child’s principal.

Ask your school board or your superintendent or your principal to come up with a Character Rubric to use, if they do not already have one.  If they are having trouble coming up with one on their own, they can probably get a great one from Singapore.


Teachers To Grade Parents?

Teachers to Grade Parents on ParentChat with ReginaTeachers to grade parents? Perhaps, if you live in Mississippi. House Bill 4, referred to as the Parent Involvement and Accountability Act, has recently passed the Mississippi House on a 75–43 vote—on its way to becoming a law. Introduced by Rep. Gregory Holloway, the bill grew out of visits he had made to schools outside of Mississippi. He had noticed that high-achieving schools had strong parental involvement and low-achieving ones did not. Yes, very likely to be true, Rep. Holloway.

Holloway’s bill was expanded with a controversial amendment right before the House vote, but that is a different story. What is surprising—shocking, even—is the following provision in the bill that he proposed:

(2) Each report card for students in kindergarten through Grade 12 shall include a section in which the teacher grades parental involvement as satisfactory, in need of improvement or unsatisfactory on each of the following criteria:

  • Parental response to requests for conferences or communication;

  • The student’s completion of homework and preparation for tests;

  • The frequency of the student’s absence and tardiness; and

  • The student’s overall grade per nine (9) week’s assessment. (quoted from House Bill 4)

Holding parents accountable—somehow—for not responding to a request for a conference? Okay. For their kids’ absences or tardiness? Probably. For their kids’ unfinished homework and preparation for tests? Maybe. But for their kids’ overall grade? Really?

That’s not all. House Bill 4 continues this way:

(3) A parent may appeal the report card parental involvement grade assigned by the teacher…through a process adopted by the local school board in which the principal, the teacher and the parent meet to discuss how the report card grade was determined. The meeting shall also provide information and feedback on the steps needed to improve the parental involvement grade, thereby improving the environment and elements that affect student learning. (quoted from House Bill 4)

This makes it sound as though the grades for parents counted in some way that would cause parents to want to make sure their grades were good. That seems so odd—incredible, really…and yet, it reminds me of an anecdote from about 35 years ago.

My organization was working with a school district outside of Chicago. We had been asked by the school board to investigate ways to improve test scores, and we were looking hard at parent involvement, among other strategies. We talked to parents in the district to find out what they were already doing at home to help their kids do well in school, and we turned those home-grown “best practices” into a questionnaire that we administered to all of the parents.

For each best practice, we asked, “How many times in the last week did you…?” For example, “How many times in the last week did you check your child’s homework before he or she turned it in?” There was quite a list of such questions. We asked parents to post the questionnaire somewhere convenient—like on the refrigerator—and then to keep track of which best practices they used with their kids and how often they used them during the week.

After a few weeks, we went to a parent meeting. One of the parents, who seemed a bit agitated, stood up and said, “I hate your questionnaire.”

“What’s the matter with it?” we asked, understandably concerned.

“Well, the questionnaire says, ‘How many times in the last week.’ If you had asked ‘How many times in the last month,’ I could have gotten a higher score.”

It was working. Parents wanted a “high score” on our questionnaire. As it turns out, parents will work for grades.

I guess that is the same motivation that might make parents want a good grade on report cards in Mississippi. So, maybe it’s not so crazy after all. By the way, Mississippi isn’t the first state to try something like this. What about yours?

ParentChat with Regina: Getting a Handle on What Matters in #Education #parents

Superintendents Talk About Parents: The Solution

Superintendents Talk About Parents: The Solution | ParentChat with ReginaMost schools are better at telling parents what children will be having for lunch than they are at explaining what children will be learning the rest of the day. So I was not surprised—though I was concerned—when a recent nationwide Gallup poll reported that only 32 percent of superintendents agreed or strongly agreed that “parents have a good understanding of our district’s academic model and curriculum” (quoted from the November survey report entitled Understanding Perspectives on Public Education in the U.S.—Results of a Gallup Survey of K–12 School District Superintendents: Survey 2).

Many administrators and teachers—and even some board members, who should know better—think that very few parents have the time and background they would need in order to think constructively and critically about what their kids are learning in the classroom. But sometimes parents know more than you think.

The problem is to figure out how districts should provide parents with the help they need in order to get a good understanding of their district’s curriculum—because I would like to see those Gallup poll numbers go up next time around.

I have found that even school districts with curriculum objectives, approved by their own local school boards, rarely communicate those objectives to parents—that is, curriculum objectives that detail what students are supposed to learn. My nonprofit solved that problem years ago. I showed the solution to a savvy superintendent quite recently. He said, “If only we had it! It would make such a difference.” Well, here “it” is.

When my nonprofit organization was working in Cleveland for the Federal District Court, the school district was the subject of more Court orders on desegregation than you could count. Among other things, the Court was deadly serious about improving the reading achievement of Cleveland students and about closing the gap in the reading test scores of Cleveland’s black and white students. We did a lot of things in Cleveland to try to make that happen—with remarkably good results. But maybe the most surprising thing we did was to send home checklists of the newly revised and improved reading objectives to parents of all Cleveland public school children in grades 1–9.

Many people told Roger Lulow, the smart and gutsy State-appointed superintendent, that this idea was a waste of time. Lots of Cleveland parents won’t even be able to read the “parent checklists,” people said. After all, the objectives in the parent checklists were the exact same objectives that the teachers themselves were teaching in the classrooms. And even if parents could read them, people said, they wouldn’t be able to help their kids learn them. Fortunately, Roger didn’t listen.

Instead, we went on to write parent handbooks—one for each grade. Each handbook contained the reading objectives, of course. For each objective, we provided a short explanation of what the objective meant, a couple of easy-to-do activities for use at home to help kids learn it, and a test question just like the ones that would be used to test that objective in the new district tests we had written. The user-friendly parent handbooks turned out to be so helpful that churches and community groups started using them to tutor kids in after-school programs.

This is how a district can make its curriculum an open book for parents. This is how to get that Gallup poll number up.

A few years later, we were working in Savannah, where we had just revised and upgraded the K–8 English, math, science, social studies, and health curricula. Savannah’s new superintendent, the remarkable Ron Etheridge, decided to send parents all of the new curriculum objectives for the grades their children were in—just as we had done in Cleveland with reading.

We broke down the curriculum objectives into marking periods and sent them home every six weeks so that parents wouldn’t be overwhelmed. We formatted the objectives, as we had in Cleveland, as actual checklists with boxes in front of each objective so that parents could keep track of what their children were learning. People were worried that Ron was wasting the taxpayers’ money. But we knew that he wasn’t—because we had talked to Savannah parents first.

Ron persisted for a year, sending home checklist after checklist after checklist. The next August when school opened, the central office was late sending out the first parent checklists. Principals around the district said that their phones were ringing off the hook, with parents saying, “Where is my checklist? How do you expect me to help my child this year without my new checklist?”

We have sent out parent checklists in a variety of districts, including in one tiny rural northern California district filled with the kids of migrant workers. They always work.

Research and common sense tell us that a goal is much more likely to be reached when everyone is focused on that same goal. Parent checklists help keep everyone’s focus on student learning—objective by objective.

We often say to groups of parents in meetings, “How many of you would make any use at all of a parent checklist of the academic skills your child is expected to learn? For example, would you bring it to a parent–teacher conference? Would you talk to your child about some of the academic skills listed? Would you put it on the refrigerator with a magnet?”

In such an audience, some parents’ hands will always go up—sometimes half of them. Then we say, “What if half of you used the parent checklist in some sensible way? What if only 25 percent of you did? What if only 10 percent of you did? Would learning improve in your school?” The answer from parents is always the same—“Yes.” And that’s the truth. Learning would improve in a school if even 10 percent of the parents were paying attention to exactly what children were expected to learn.

We used to tell audiences of school staff members and board members that printing checklists to distribute to parents doesn’t cost much—maybe a dollar each. We used to say that districts couldn’t think of a better way to spend a dollar per student—that is, a cheaper way to improve learning. I guess now a district could put parent checklists on its website so the district isn’t spending anything at all on printing. Or a district could do both, because not every parent is going to go onto the website. And a district could print those checklists in whatever languages its parents speak. Districts still can’t think of a better way to spend a dollar per student.

So that’s my solution for how to get that Gallup number up.

It is time to take a look at what your superintendent is doing to make sure that parents in your district have a good understanding of your curriculum:

All parents: Ask your school board to discuss how important it is to the board that parents have a good understanding of the curriculum. Ask the board to get input from your PTAs as part of the discussion. Ask the board to have the superintendent rate district parents’ current understanding of the curriculum, just as the superintendents who responded to the Gallup poll did.

Ask the board to discuss the idea of creating parent checklists of the objectives that make up your district’s curriculum. Does your district have clearly written objectives that could be disseminated to parents? If not, should it? How should parent checklists be disseminated to parents—on the district website, at school open houses, by children taking them home, or by mail?

This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to talk with the superintendent about these ideas before the meeting.

If you are interested, you can download a free copy of one of the parent checklists my organization created for the Early College high school I co-founded in New York City. In these checklists, we used the New York State Learning Standards as the content. Your checklists could use state standards, too, if they are any good and if your district doesn’t have specific curriculum objectives adopted by the board. Read the cover letter from founding principal Chris Aguirre to his parents. You will see that he had expectations for everyone—not just for his students. 

ParentChat with Regina: Getting a Handle on What Matters in #Education #parents

Superintendents Talk About Parents: The Problem

Superintendents Talk About Parents: The Problem | ParentChat with ReginaOnly 32 percent of superintendents in a nationwide Gallup poll agreed or strongly agreed that “parents in my school district have a good understanding of our district’s academic model and curriculum,” according to the report of the November poll, Understanding Perspectives on Public Education in the U.S.—Results of a Gallup Survey of K–12 School District Superintendents: Survey 2. Almost as many superintendents (27 percent) disagreed or strongly disagreed, and the rest gave a neutral answer. While this was only one question in the survey, which covered a variety of topics, it is the question that concerns me the most.

So, let’s say this again: Only about one-third of superintendents thought that parents in their own district had a good understanding of their own district’s curriculum. So sad. (By the way, I am setting aside the notion of whatever Gallup meant by “academic model,” because even after 40 years of experience in curriculum and assessment I have no idea what “academic model” means.)

I am not blaming parents for the low score. It is hard for parents to get a good understanding of their district’s curriculum without help from the administrators and teachers in their district. Too many districts don’t provide that help. The Gallup poll numbers actually just confirmed that.

Over the years, I have met my share of administrators and teachers who didn’t really want parents to get too involved with the district’s curriculum. Their view was that curriculum is something that professional educators should develop and then protect. That attitude explains, in part, the low score.

But, what should districts do to give parents a good understanding of the curriculum, if most of us—at least most of us parents—can agree that it would be a good thing for parents to know what their kids are learning?

Well, many districts have some kind of curriculum night in the fall when parents come to school and meet with their kids’ teachers to hear about what students will be studying during the year. That’s fine, though it is difficult for lots of parents—especially parents who work more than one job or parents who work nights or parents who travel for work or parents who have to stay home with small children—to get to school on that one evening for such an event.

Many districts ask their teachers to hand out an overview of the grade or the course for parents and students on the first day of school. Most of what is usually in those overviews, however, is not curriculum. Curriculum is what kids learn—not how teachers teach or how teachers judge learning or how teachers run the classroom and discipline the students. There is very little actual curriculum in those teacher-generated overviews.

Many districts these days put their curricula online on their websites. A parent can simply click on the curriculum for third grade math or middle school social studies or high school biology. I’ve done that. Sometimes those curricula are clearly written and informative. Sometimes they are just confusing, containing a mixture of state standards, learning objectives, instructional resources, methods of assessment, and more. It can be hard for a parent to sift through all of that in order to get an understanding of the curriculum. In some cases, of course, a parent might not have easy access to a computer to check out the curricula. In some cases, the curricula on the website might not be provided in the language that a parent speaks.

I wonder how many of the superintendents who did not agree that parents had a good understanding of the curriculum—that was, in total, 68 percent of them—have done anything at all since the poll was taken last November to improve that situation in their own district. Making the effort to help parents gain that understanding is entirely in their control, of course.

So, what’s the solution? Stay tuned for the next installment of ParentChat with Regina. I promise you a solution and the steps parents (and their superintendents) should take before the next Gallup poll. Parents, we need the superintendents to give you a higher score.

ParentChat with Regina: Getting a Handle on What Matters in #Education #parents