Character Education in the Age of Measurement

By Wade Sutton

Character is more than behavior. It is the heart, thought and feeling behind an action. It is also inaction; what we consider doing, what we imagine doing, and what we do not do. This makes evaluating character education a most complex challenge for schools because, while behavior can be assessed, as teachers we cannot assess character itself. Moral imagination, by its very nature, is subjective and surpasses the rubric. We cannot quantify it.

Compliance is not a sign of successful character education. It is frustrating to administrators and policy makers that character education is more than behavior, but that is the way it is. Character education measured by behavior has the fatal flaw of completely missing character, while the data we collect creates only the appearance of success. This does not mean schools cannot improve and have a place helping develop character in our students, but first we do need to recognize that we are not the primary place.

Schools must face their own limitations. Family life and values are the linchpin for a child’s empathy, motivations, values and judgment. Public school is secondary. School policies must carefully reflect this reliance on home and accept that school is a servant to parents. Even if there are no parents at home or apathetic parents, they are still responsible for character. This is difficult to accept, but it is the way society is built.

When we realign our educational values to become holistic, more about the human and less about the test score, then character will be nurtured. Character is developed in a person’s moral imagination and its foundational elements must be targeted to build true character: creativity, divergent thinking, imagination and metaphoric understanding.

1. Schools must target creativity, but it breaks rules and takes time. Creativity is essential to morality. Schools can only provide opportunity for creative minds to thrive. Many schools are forced to emphasize order and rules just to avoid chaos. Creativity thrives in classrooms that are small and flexible, where educators have the liberty to encourage students to experiment. (A national limit on teacher/student ratio would not be amiss.) However, when policy fixates on test scores and money is short, character is a collateral sacrifice in assembly-line education.

2. Schools must allow for divergent thinking rather than proscribed actions. Many schools follow behavior-modification models that require compliance rather than thought. As a result, the divergent are punished for being “outside the box.” When we measure character by compliance, we actually work against the moral imagination. It is not the obedience to authority but the internal process of choosing where education belongs. Our policy must be to hire administrators and educators who have the character to delve into student motivation before applying the handbook.

3. Schools must foster the imagination. The ability to consider the current world and explore the possible world is not easily measurable. We can catch glimpses in art, music and drama, but districts tend to cut these “nonessentials.” History and science projects promote imagination but take time and innovative teachers. Creative writing lets students live new lives, but public schools cling the state comprehension tests. Classroom practice must shift away from demonstrating mastery of facts toward exploring what students can create with those facts.

4.  Educators must mentor and model empathy, the ability to see through another person’s eyes. This is the universal “golden rule.” Whether it’s through a peer, literary character, or historical person, educators show everyday the value of metaphoric understanding. However, educators have neither the time nor liberty to understand who they are teaching when they have to over-document and prove the learning of proscribed facts. Character cannot be nurtured in a production line, not is it a curriculum. Schools need to show empathy if they are to encourage it. Schools must truly partner with their communities and discover the people they teach. They need to be more “public” and less institutional. True educators are not working an 8 to 4 job; mentors cannot clock out. This is why parents really are the key to character education. We must court their permission and invitation. For better or worse, schools must recognize that the control and choice of education is in the hands of parents.

Our school organization and goals must be relational, while mentoring creativity, allowing for divergent thinking, and developing problem-solving skills. We need this flexibility because character is subjective. It is influenced by subtle (and not so subtle) cultural aspects like values encouraged, faith followed, bonding, informal conversations, stories told or not told, love shown or not shown, quality time spent or abandonment, actions observed or not observed. In short, character cannot be a curriculum. So what should schools do to fan the inner spark of character? What should public school policy reflect so that it encourages this in its education?

We need policy leaders who understand the geometry of character education and moral imagination. Leadership must draw to itself only the best educational leaders and those gifted in relationships. The best leaders are intuitive and model the mentorship that character education requires. The “administrator” personality does not need to be distant from students and classrooms. Administrative programs must only accept those who have eight to 10 years experience in the classroom, not a meager three years. This will show that they have not only survived the gauntlet, but thrived in the classroom. Administration must be the most creative and imaginative teachers available, able to problem-solve and understand holistic learning.

Educator training, research and evaluation must look for character traits and values that foster the moral imagination. Entry into education programs must become more selective and require internships to reveal character. Teachers who simply hand out information, worksheets and quizzes must be retrained and led toward educating students to be creative and imaginative. Classes must have small size limits so educators can be mentors alongside others in the community.

Most of all, power in public schools needs to shift so that the vacuum of responsibility rests more fully on parents. Moms and dads are responsible. But if the family is in shambles, can public school intervene and be the surrogate? Not really. Like it or not, family is what defines a child’s character. Community has some effect, but when parents have the moral judgment to fully invest in their child’s experiences in life, then character is a byproduct whether educators can measure it or not.  Schools need to stop trying to fill the void with programs. Families, not public school, are the hope for society.

Wade Sutton teaches 7-12 grade English at Indus School in Birchdale, Minn. He was a member of the VIVA Minnesota Teachers Writing Collaborative that produced the report 360 Degree Leadership: Evaluating Minnesota Principals.

Character Lessons

Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, is a wake-up call for all of us in the education reform movement: We have to be even more clear-eyed about what we expect from an individual teacher and how we create a community (thank you, Hillary Clinton and happy birthday!) that inspires scholarship and great judgment.

It takes more than the Three Rs to turn children into full, participating members of our society. Reading, ’riting and ’rithmatic are important, but they may not be the most important thing teachers teach students who will succeed over the long term.

Educators have understood this need to help children build character for many years. And they do it every day in big ways and small.

Here’s what Tough had to say about character development in a Valerie Strauss column on

“As for the question of how helping kids develop grit and optimism might help them learn how to read Homer or learn geometry: I don’t go into this too deeply in the book, but I do think there’s pretty strong evidence in the psychological literature that if we can help young people improve their sense of self-efficacy – if we can help them develop what the psychologist Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset – they do better not just in the long run, but right away, in class. Dweck’s data shows that students who believe that they can improve their own abilities deal better with setbacks and apply themselves more energetically to difficult tasks – all of which would be very useful to a student about to tackle Homer or the Pythagorean Theorem.”

Thanks to journalist Paul Tough, the concept of helping students develop “grit”–the character traits they need to persevere when life gets difficult–has burst upon the public consciousness.

This national dialogue comes at a fortuitous time for VIVA Teachers. We are in the midst of a VIVA Teachers Idea Exchange in New Jersey that asks teachers about how they teach character to their students. The goal is that teachers across New Jersey (and elsewhere) will benefit from
the classroom expertise of their fellow professional educators, some of whom teach in schools with an explicit mission to help students become self-sufficient and grow up to be good decision- makers. New Jersey is firmly committed to a student-centered education system and is making lots of changes to achieve that goal. We partnered with the University of Pennsylvania, the source of some of the cutting-edge research on grit, to undertake this work. We are eager to hear from teachers across New Jersey about what a school as a whole can do to support instruction and instill the wider-ranging skills so students are equipped for wise choices and self-sufficiency. Please share the link with any you know!

My “It” Moment at VIVA Teachers

By Charlene Mendoza
VIVA Arizona Teachers Idea Exchange

As teachers, we know that moment when “it” happens. That moment when we know the bait was taken, the interest engaged, the inquiry begun or the spark ignited. That moment when the energy begins to flow and the classroom transforms into an active, engaging learning environment. For me, that describes my experience participating in the VIVA Arizona Charter Teachers Idea Exchange.

When I first saw the invitation to participate, I was mildly interested. As a teacher, my inbox is flooded with messages that appear to be similar in nature. Check this out! Buy this resource! Tell us what you think! Stop this! Start that! I am accustomed to being asked for a “teacher’s perspective” which often seems to give credence to another initiative or plan which typically does not really represent what I said, wrote, feel or believe. It is more like a celebrity endorsement…I talked to a “real teacher” and so my (fill in the blank here) is valid. Needless to say, I was skeptical.

Joining the Idea Exchange Conversation

I participated in an Idea Exchange about implementing the Common Core Standards in Arizona. As the topic was relevant to me, I logged on. At first, there were not a ton of responses, so, I decided to make a post that was relatively benign. Then, I began to get notices of responses to my post, questions from other teachers, ideas from other teachers, challenges from other teachers and suggestions of resources from other teachers.

I began to read other posts and respond to them. I was hooked! I had discovered a forum where a group of interested, articulate teaching professionals were engaged in a collaborative, collegial, constructive, critical conversation on my own schedule!

Although I was intrigued, I did not recognize at the time how valuable that experience was and still is. I continue to be enriched by the experience. Too often, talk in education devolves to complaints about what is being forced upon us or why whatever “it” is really is not much different than whatever “it” was before.

Rediscovering My Voice

By participating in the Idea Exchange, I rediscovered my voice and reignited my passion and found a place to use both.

This certainly does not mean that we all agreed about everything or even that we all became lifelong friends or anything like that. What it does mean, though, is that participating in the Idea Exchange connected me to others who were willing to be interested and engaged in real life conversations that pushed my thinking, sparked my interest and helped me to work more effectively with my students and colleagues.

I hope you accept the invitation to participate in the VIVA New Jersey Charter Teachers Idea Exchange! The experience is more than worth it.


Witnessing the Start of Something Truly Great

By Tina Nolan, Ed.D.
Moderator, New Jersey VIVA Idea Exchange

Last fall, I had the pleasure of being the research partner for the first ever VIVA Idea Exchange in Chicago. I was privileged to witness more than 600 Chicago Public School (CPS) teachers share their thoughts on how to redesign the school day, week and year. Their ideas stemmed from their own practice in the classroom. Rooted in real schools, in real classrooms, with real students, these teachers were the experts about how best to use time for learning.

Arming the teachers with research summaries based on their ideas, I was proud to support teachers as they informed policy decisions coming from the CPS central office. Out of that work came a report called, “Time, Teachers, and Tomorrow’s Schools.” Many of the recommendations provided in their report were adopted by the CPS administration. And I believe that students will be the biggest beneficiaries of this work because this group of teachers stepped up to say what they believed.

But I witnessed something else, too. The Chicago VIVA project created a community of teaching professionals who are still connected even though their work on the VIVA project is complete. Some have left the district, and some have moved into different positions within the district, but the group is still connected and supporting one another in the complex art of teaching.

Giving Teachers a Powerful and Collective Voice

The VIVA project in Chicago gave teachers a powerful and collective voice. It provided them an opportunity to speak directly to the Mayor of Chicago, the CEO of CPS Schools, and the President of the Chicago Teachers Union. The VIVA project provided a space for teachers to shine as the experts and leaders that they are.

*Chicago VIVA Project Teachers present their recommendations to CPS CEO Jean Claude Brizard

The New Jersey VIVA Teachers Project: Powerful Online Collaboration

Through the VIVA project I have witnessed the power of online collaboration around important issues, and I am excited about the work ahead with the New Jersey Charter School Association and its membership. As the moderator for this project, my aim is to connect you and your ideas together as you articulate what successful character education looks like in your settings. Defining success in your own terms, based on your classroom experience, and rooted in the latest research on the subject makes for powerful and impactful decision-making in schools.