Measuring Character

November 14, 2014 Jonathan E. Martin
Measuring Character

 The research keeps coming: Non-cogs matter. This month it comes from Brookings and its Center on Children and Families. Entitled “The Character Factor” it establishes a pair of most important non-cog “strengths,” reviews available measures for them, and demonstrates their great importance to success in school and life. This free, concise, and easy-to-read study is worthy of attention.

Regular readers of this blog and followers of the national conversation which has continued since the publication of Tough’s How Children Succeed (2012) recognize the muddled morass of the non-cog swamp and the challenge presented in choosing what to skills to focus upon (and even whether to call them skills, rather than traits, attributes, qualities, or factors).

Brookings cuts through the swamp and is decisive on both questions. As to the second, they’re calling them “strengths,” believing that that term sits neatly between the opposite poles of “skills,” which are relatively easy to teach and develop, and “traits,” which are more “essential aspects of a person.” As they explain, “strength implies greater depth than skill, but greater malleability than trait.”

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Drive and prudence are their twin towers of non-cog strengths. No hemming and hawing, no long lists, not even much discussion ofall that they are leaving out: it is simply their view that these two are what’s most important, calling them “the ability to work hard even when faced with challenges (drive), and the ability to choose tomorrow over today (prudence).”

For measures of character, Brookings establishes three categories: surveys, with which we are all familiar; behavior in the real world, which makes inferences about strengths from documented individual activities such as punctuality, attendance, disciplinary offenses, etc.; and tests, which evaluate performance and preference in controlled environments which may or may not parallel the choices and actions in real world situations. They settle on one particular large, national, longitudinal survey of youth, the NLSY, which tracks students with reports from their parents (surveys) on students’ focus/persistence and impulsivity/thinking before acting. And yes, they matter. High strengths (compared to average) in these areas contribute more than mathematical skills to the likelihood of high school graduation, and on the flip side, low strengths in these areas detract more from graduation than do low reading or math skills.

As helpful as it is to have research evidence to support our perceptions, this report’s conclusions are only a confirmation of the obvious. Of course drive and prudence matter for high school graduation (and good grades, college graduation, and not being arrested, the other outcomes they evaluate). What’s left out is any consideration of a downside to these essential strengths: do we see a loss of creativity, curiosity, exuberance, joy, spontaneity, originality, and the like if we overly emphasize drive and prudence? Is it possible they are “curvilinear?” That is, might they be positive contributors to life success up to a medium-high point, and then become less positive after that point, as they reach an extreme? This one research report from Brookings just doesn’t go there.

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But the “Character Factor” report doesn’t stand alone, thank goodness. Helpfully, Brookings has paired it with a set of 17 brief (2 pages, mostly) “Essays on Character and Opportunity,” which is far more the real prize of the two. In these essays a wide variety of voices weigh in on the nuances and nuggets of character development. Joseph Fishkin points out that no individual’s character sits in isolation from his/her experience; context always matters. Seligman argues that it is much harder to leverage one’s character to seize successful opportunities without deep “future-mindedness,” accomplished through “demonstrated interventions that build hope and optimism.” Roberts, in a singularly essential piece, writes about the phenomenal correlative significance of the personality trait “conscientiousness,” which quite effectively captures both drive and prudence, and can be developed with evidence-based actions, but should be done so with care and caution.

Also included in this set of essays is one from one of our own member school heads, Dominic Randolph, Head of Riverdale Country School, and it speaks straight to the heart of the topic of this blog and the important work being done at SSATB. Identifying the many cultural and societal problems created by poor non-cognitive skills, Randolph declaims against the imbalance in our schools favoring the academic, and speaks seemingly straight to recent SSATB initiatives when he asks “Why don’t we have a SAT for character if non-cognitive capabilities are so correlated with common measures of success?” His concluding sentences states the argument powerfully: “If we focused on the development of character skills as much as we focus on the development of scientific, programming, or literary skills, I believe we would live in a much better world. It is not an either/or proposition—we need both.”

Recommended Reading:

Two other recent articles are suggested readings for those interested in these topics, if you haven’t seen them already:

1. In the New York Times, Wharton/Penn Professor Adam Grant writes that “the college admissions system is broken… leaving many colleges favoring achievement robots who excel at the memorization of rote knowledge, and overlooking talented C students.” What we need to add to the process is sending applicants new “assessment centers to gauge their values and their social, emotional and creative capabilities.”

Some of what Grant describes matches closely to the kind of collaborative problem-solving assessment activities that we’ve been writing about and recommending in the SSAT special reports on the future of assessment. Perhaps some type of “assessment center,” physical or virtual, could be in SSAT’s future? Perhaps; Grant’s ideas are fascinating and his arguments compelling, and it is worth thinking about.

2. The journal “Inside Higher Education” brings reports of an engineering college, Rose Hulman, requiring applicants to complete a self-assessment to generate a “locus of control” rating. Though the article doesn’t mention it, those of us in this field recognize right away that this is something Choate has done for years.

Rose Hulman’s Admission Director explains in the article that “over his 28 years in admission work, he has been left wondering increasingly about the value of traditional criteria. "The longer you are in it, the more it's clear that the measures we use are just not adequate." Essays, which he noted have been seen as a way to get to an applicant's personality, are frequently the result of coaching, and evaluating them can be "subjective." What Rose Hulman is trying to do, he said, is to get "to the essence of success." 

The school is implementing the locus of control survey after several years of study and determining its meaningful correlation with academic success. Interestingly, they also tested curiosity measures, and found them lacking value, and so are not using them. As explained in the article, the self-assessment survey works as just a simple adjunct to the online application, just as is done at Choate.

About the Author

Jonathan E. Martin

Principal Jonathan E. Martin Educational Services (AZ) Jonathan Martin has 15 years experience as an independent school head, most recently as Head of St. Gregory College Preparatory School (AZ). He holds degrees from Harvard University (BA, Government, cum laude); Starr King School for the Ministry (M.Div., Unitarian ministry preparation); and the University of San Francisco School of Education (MA, Private School Administration). In 2008, he was a Visiting Fellow at the Klingenstein Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. He previously headed Saklan Valley School (CA) and Maybeck High School (CA). In the first stage of his educational career, he taught History, Social Studies, and English at Maybeck, and served in a role equivalent to Dean of Students. From 2010-12 he was a member of the board, and Program & Professional Development Chair, of the Independent School Association of the Southwest (ISAS). He was a contributor to the new National Association of Independent Schools publication A Strategic Imperative: A Guide to Becoming a School of the Future.

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