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The School Reform Equivalent Of Playing “Mary Had A Little Lamb” With A Stradivarius


I read something truly awful today in The New York Times Magazine article, What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?

But before I share what it was, I’d like to preface it by restating my concerns about a pattern I see of some school reformers taking ideas and practices that have a huge learning and teaching potential and, instead, warping them so their benefits disappear and  can actually become destructive. The title of this blog post comes from one I wrote last year explaining how the Gates Foundation was doing just this with its use of videotaping teachers and using student surveys. In that post, I explained that:

Using videotaped teacher lessons and student surveys for the primary purpose of connecting them to teacher evaluation by test scores is like using a Stradivarius and a Grand Piano to play “Mary Had A Little Lamb” to evaluate the musician. In both instances, the tools have far more value to everyone if used in more expansive ways.

In that post, and in a subsequent column for The Washington Post titled Videotaping teachers the right way (not the Gates way), I discuss at length how my school and I use both tools — completely outside the formal evaluation process — and how that is critical for the enormous success we’ve had with both.

Now, how does this connect to the truly awful thing I read in The Times today?

In that article, Paul Tough examines two efforts at incorporating “character education” in schools, including one done by KIPP Schools. The KIPP program is particularly focused on the ideal of helping students develop “performance character” traits like self control, perseverance, and “grit.” According to the article, they decided to implement it after they saw that many KIPP graduates were not succeeding in college, and concluded that a greater knowledge and understanding of their importance could make a difference.

I am certainly all for helping students develop these kinds of traits, and focus a lot doing just that in my classroom. I write extensively about these lessons in this blog (see My Best Posts About Helping Students Develop Their Capacity For Self-Control and The Best Resources For Learning About The Importance Of “Grit”) and share them in detail in my book Helping Students Motivate Themselves.

But here is where the pattern of some school reformers warping valuable ideas comes in — now, the KIPP middle-schools in New York City actually grade their students on each of these traits and twice a year give out “character report cards”:

Teachers at all four KIPP middle schools in New York City had to grade every one of their students, on a scale of 1 to 5, on every one of the 24 character indicators…

Incredible! They decide that these traits (though, come one, 24?!) are essential for life after school, so they decide to go against what all the research says about the negative learning impacts of incentives (see My Best Posts On “Motivating” Students) and grade them?

It sounds like the schools might be doing a lot of other great learning and teaching activities on these traits. But why mess it up with grading them? Focus on encouragement, self-reflection, helping students see how these traits are in their long-term self interest. If you start grading them, then you’re emphasizing that the grades are the primary reason why these traits are important. You may not say that to the students — you may say that it’s about the long-term. But actions speak louder than words, and the grades are what counts now.

Videotaping teachers, student evaluations of classes and teachers, and now character education — what’s the next great idea that some school reformers can suck the life (and learning) out of?


Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. Hi, Larry,
    I really admire your collection of wonderful resources and thoughtful input on current trends in education. I also sympathize with your aversion to boiling down character traits to number (with the false precision of “rounding to the second decimal, no less!)– I’ll even confess to a certain automatic suspicion I have of anything that shows up in the New York Times– a personal bias, my apologies.
    However, I can see the value of “character grades”– they encourage thoughtful reflection and attention on the teacher’s part. They encourage a dialogue on the subject between teachers, students, and parents. The task of assigning and explaining a specific number could correspond with a specific and targeted explanation of that number, that could be far more valuable than the number itself.
    I am sure it could be done better– perhaps this could be a starting point. If you where the administrator, how would you ensure that sufficient attention was paid to these character traits?

    • Jo,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment and question. The most ambitious study of “social emotional learning” (the generally accepted term used to describe this kind of character development efforts) found:

      “having simple lessons incorporated by teachers in their classroom were more successful than larger “multi-component” efforts that included school and community-wide programs.”

      I’ve posted about it at

      I think these kind of classroom lessons, combined with periodic reflective activities, are the way to go, and I describe them at length in my Helping Students Motivate Themselves book. If you click on the book cover on my blog, you’ll see a link to the publisher’s webpage. It has a free link to the first chapter in my book that gives a more specific plan on what I and my colleagues do at our school.

      Your question is a great one. If you’d like, I’d be happy to answer it more extensively at my Education Week column. You can find info on how to submit it there:


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