KIPP – Knowledge is Power Program – is a chain of college-preparatory charter schools. They are known for their long hours, lofty academic demands and high graduation rates. However, a recent Times article sheds light on a problem that KIPP is facing.
Almost every member of the cohort did make it through high school, and more than 80 percent of them enrolled in college. But then the mountain grew steeper, and every few weeks, it seemed, Levin (co-founded of KIPP) got word of another student who decided to drop out. According to a report that KIPP issued last spring, only 33 percent of students who graduated from a KIPP middle school 10 or more years ago have graduated from a four-year college.
The article goes on to describe that along with GPA, educators and positive psychologists such as Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson are realizing that character is an important trait that contributes to academic success.
For the headmaster of an intensely competitive school, Randolph, who is 49, is surprisingly skeptical about many of the basic elements of a contemporary high-stakes American education. He did away with Advanced Placement classes in the high school soon after he arrived at Riverdale (Randolph is the headmaster); he encourages his teachers to limit the homework they assign; and he says that the standardized tests that Riverdale and other private schools require for admission to kindergarten and to middle school are “a patently unfair system” because they evaluate students almost entirely by I.Q. “This push on tests,” he told me, “is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human.”
The most critical missing piece, Randolph explained as we sat in his office last fall, is character — those essential traits of mind and habit that were drilled into him at boarding school in England and that also have deep roots in American history. “Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”
The KIPP statistics and Randolph’s story brings me to an important study highlighted in Timothy Wilson’s latest book Redirect. Wilson and his colleague targeted college freshman who were worrying about their grades and not doing well academically. They brought the students into their lab and told them they were surveying first-year students’ attitudes toward college life (this was a cover of course). Over the next thirty minutes, the freshman read survey results that highlighted many students who overcame early academic problems. They also watched videotaped interviews of upper-class students describing similar stories. One student, for example, “reported a steady increase [in GPA]… getting a 2.0, a 2.6, and then a 3.2.”
What happened over the next four years is noteworthy. In Wilson’s words, “compared to a randomly assigned control group of students who didn’t get any information about grade improvement, those who got the story prompt achieved better grades in the following year and were less likely to drop out of college.” How did a small indirect intervention have such a large impact?
Wilson explains that students who do poorly at the beginning of their collegiate academic career’s typically follow two paths: a pessimism cycle or an optimism cycle. As the graphic below illustrates, those in the pessimism cycle are quick to doubt their intellectual abilities and easily deem themselves failures. Those in the optimism cycle, on the other hand, usually blame their poor work ethic and strive to improve. In short, Wilson’s study encouraged students to filter into the optimism cycle and out of the pessimism cycle.
A few years back Dweck and her team studied how praise affects student performance. Her team ran experiments on 400 fifth-graders. First, they pulled the students out of their classrooms for a nonverbal IQ test; it was fairly easy and most kids did fine. The important part came after the test. Once the kids received their scores they were told one of two things: “You must be smart,” or, “You must have worked really hard.” Next, the students were asked to choose between two tests, one that was more difficult than the first and one that was as easy as the first. They found that those praised for being smart tended to opt for the easy test while those praised for their hard work almost always opted for the more difficult test.
The connection to Wilson’s study is obvious – hard work pays off, and blaming or relying on intelligence can actually be harmful.
Back to KIPP and Randolph. The takeaway from the Times article is that character is an important part of education and it is often overlooked because test scores and GPA cannot capture it nor do they incentivize it. Wilson and Dweck are suggesting that with just a bit of intervention students learn how important a good hard-working attitude is. That is character. Hopefully educators have their ears on this conversation. If schools are smart, they will adopt Wilson and Dweck’s findings into their curriculum to improve character along with test scores.