The centrality of excellence and ethics, performance character and moral character, for success in school, work, and beyond, which has been the hallmark of our work at IEE, was again on display in research highlighting the link between character dispositions and college and career readiness. In this recent Ed Week article researchers at Michigan State found that:
“the biggest predictor of success is a student’s conscientiousness, as measured by traits such as dependability, perseverance through tasks, and work ethic. Agreeableness, including teamwork, and emotional stability were the next best predictors of college achievement.”
One can look to the work of Anders Ericcson and colleagues and their work on expertise and expert performance, Daniel Pink’s work on drive, Carol Dweck’s work on mindset, Angela Duckworth’s work on grit, and so many more like these for what I truly believe is overwhelming evidence linking character competencies and success in all phases of life. So shouldn’t this knowledge change the priorities of schools and organizations? Shouldn’t this knowledge lead to a transfer of at least some of the weight of our personal and organizational energies to developing these essential character competencies? Shouldn’t knowledge like this change policy and pedagogy?
Unfortunately, knowledge rarely changes behavior. It’s the time of New Year’s resolutions, right? How many people will stop smoking, lose weight, exercise, drive slower, put down their phones in the car, etc. etc. etc.? There are so many things that solid research and practical experience tells us we should do; but that doesn’t mean we change our behavior. So, what’s the problem? If we know that developing things like hard work, perseverance, work ethic, teamwork leads to school and career readiness (and I would call it, “preparation to flourish,” more so than “readiness”) then why aren’t we developing it?
Here are a few thoughts based on our experience: first, most would argue (in spite of the evidence to the contrary) that WE ALREADY DO THIS. My goodness, if I had a dime for every time I heard a principal, teacher, coach, parent, or business leader say, “Oh yeah, we do that. We develop those skills.” Even though we point out, they have no data on these outcomes to support their claims, and their success measures show plenty of room for improvement. There’s some about character and culture that leads people to think “we do that,” which is closely linked to a second commonly held belief that “YOU CAN’T MEASURE THIS STUFF.” It’s so much easier to argue, “we do this” when you’re basing that belief on intuition instead of evidence. The truth is we can measure character and culture. Our Culture of Excellence & Ethics Assessment (and shorter CEEA Inventories) provides one such measure that can be a vital part of a comprehensive assessment system.
This may surprise some to know, but based on our experience, we have not found a high school in America with systematic data on the character and culture of excellence and ethics. In other words, high schools in America may claim to “educate the whole person” and to develop the social, moral, and performance character needed for success in school, work, and beyond, but the only evidence they site in support of these claims are disciplinary data (which frankly report the absence of problems not the presence of assets) test scores and college admissions. When you consider the graduation rates from post-secondary institutions, I’m hardly persuaded. (In fact most high schools report college admissions, not college graduations—who gets in, not who gets through—data that is obviously fairly easy to gather). I hate to be jaded, but in this case, the absence of data on these essential character and culture outcomes protects everybody from having to spend the time and money to address the problem.
Which are, by the way, the two very next things that are cited as preventing schools and organizations from addressing the gap in dispositions for success as indicated by the college and career readiness research: WE DON’T HAVE THE TIME OR THE MONEY. So, in our pitch to schools, we challenge them a bit and they concede they don’t have data to defend that “they’re already doing this” and that their college and career readiness indicators are, well, not convincing, they immediately go to the “we simply don’t have time or money.” Now, on the one hand, we’ve worked with enough schools to take them at their word. In many schools the schedule is so tight students don’t have a lunch period. Many teachers are doing 4-5 preps and teaching hundreds of students. There are so many passing mandates, so many unfunded mandates, so many fads and get rich quick schemes that have come and gone, that it’s hard to believe that something that is simple (yet not easy), timeless (and yet backed by convincing, current research) could provide a solution to enhancing success in school, work, and beyond. All that to say, the time and money “excuses” aren’t always an excuse—they’re a real barrier to addressing these needs.
In other instances, however, “we don’t have time and money” are in fact excuses for not doing the hard work that it takes to develop the essential character competencies needed for true and lasting success. I have personally had educators from very good schools openly admit that developing students moral and performance character would require them to work harder, and that frankly, they don’t need to because their students test well and get into good colleges. I’ve also had many—way too many—educators use “lack of motivation” and “it won’t make a difference because of their home-life and the media” and “kids don’t want or like to work on these things” as excuses for doing the hard work that it takes to develop the character assets that will serve kids for a lifetime.
We know that developing the culture and competencies of excellence and ethics makes an empirical diffference on many of the most important outcomes–and that it is persistently neglected in its development. So what do you call it when you have knowledge outlining need, but you can’t effectively communicate that knowledge or mobilize the requisite behavior change? Whatever you call it, that’s the challenge we’re going after in earnest at the start of 2011. It’s a challenge that intertwines communication, public relation, education, and social change—to name a few. So what are we at IEE doing to translate what we know about the power of moral and performance character into action?
We’re working on more effective ways of communicating the essential notion that “character is power”—an age-old idea backed up by more and more cutting-edge evidence. We’re translating that knowledge into replicable programming (not a bunch of “you should” but a lot of “here’s how to do it”). We’re making that programming cost- and time-effective, using a mix of delivery options that include curriculum, professional development, and online resources so that teachers, coaches, parents, and business leaders can access resources they need. Check out our website to see the Unit 1 example of our Foundations Curriculum, and our free CEEA assessment tools, and look for many new forthcoming resources in 2011 (including our new Excellence & Ethics Parent Newsletter).
We can do this, we can measure it, and we can’t afford NOT to spend time and money on it—we either pay now or pay later, but we will indeed pay if we don’t develop moral and performance character.