I recently listened to an amazing podcast on how teaching ‘character’ is missing from public education. This has a direct link to preparing our youth with Career Connected Learning.
The podcast is Hidden Brain, hosted by NPR’s Shankar Vedantam. In this episode, he interviewed Nobel Prize-winning economist Jim Heckman who is based at the University of Chicago. You can listen to the episode and/or download a transcript of the episode here.
Jim Heckman studied the GED (high school equivalency exam) in its early days and studied life outcomes of GED graduates. His discovery was that individuals who had dropped out of high school but then earned a GED were on par academically with high school graduates. However, over the longer term, they had worse life outcomes than graduates. GED earners, in general, quit jobs more often, struggled to maintain consistent relationships, and were more prone to have problems with the law.
Heckman postulates that while their academic skills were strong enough, they didn’t have the skills for striving, coping, and persisting that leads to personal success.
As he explored the phenomenon, he observed that in the late 1950s, America’s schools abandoned their longtime emphasis on character development, and instead narrowed the focus to academic subjects. Part of this was driven by the emphasis on math and science achievement after the Sputnik scare. Another factor was that much of historic school-based character development was associated with religious Protestant traditions. As public schools became more pluralistic and diverse, character development that was associated with religion fell out of favor but wasn’t replaced. Certainly, the Nation at Risk report continued to drive the emphasis on student academic shortcomings. There were tests for academic knowledge, whereas ‘character’ is difficult to assess with a mass administered test.
Heckman says, “I realized that the whole educational establishment, at least the establishment that looked at test scores and that valued schools and valued people by these test scores, really was just missing important dimensions of human behavior. And so that brought me onto a subject which has fascinated me and which I think is really important for success and understanding success and failure, and that is the notion of what I called noncognitive skills. By noncognitive skills, I meant skills that weren’t measured by these tests. And what I found and that surprised me was that those noncognitive skills were extremely important.
And then when you think about it, you say, well, what an idiot. Of course, these are important.“
There is much more to the episode, but his insights completely align with what employers say they’re looking for in their workers and which is in too short supply: The ability to work hard and long on a task; the ability to take direction and receive feedback; the ability to work cooperatively in teams; the ability to show up on time, among others. What Heckman calls ‘noncognitive skills’ or ‘character,’ also go by the names ‘employability’ and ‘workplace’ skills.
One question I have is – I know character education was quite the buzz in elementary schools during the last 20 years, what happened to character education? Did it get squashed by the emphasis on academic achievement during the No Child Left Behind era?
Was the shortcoming of character education that it was aimed only at elementary school children, not pre-teens and teens? If it was just delivered to children, I think we can surmise that character education (like other education interventions) just doesn’t really stick as the student moves from elementary to middle and to high school. Also, children may not be able to make the translation that “character” can also be thought of as “employability” and “workplace success” skills. Except for CTE programs which often very explicitly teaches employability skills and even includes these skills as part of the classroom grading system. In general, these notions of character and employability are absent from middle school and high school classrooms.
As a society, we are experiencing the results of eliminating character (or what we at NC3T call ‘Career and Life Readiness’) from the curriculum. Many individual teachers and private schools continue to explicitly teach and emphasize character, but the overall emphasis on test results sends a message that character doesn’t really matter.
Perhaps the ground is finally shifting in our schools to a broader understanding of what makes for a successful adult, and we’re learning to talk about character in a civic context, so it is not associated with only one faith tradition.
I’m excited that many schools that are embracing career readiness as well as life readiness, or character. Of course, let’s hold on to high standards and expectations for our students for academic preparation, but let’s also renew our expectations and capacity for character that supports true Career and Life Readiness.
Hans Meeder is President of NC3T, the National Center for College and Career Transitions (www.nc3t.com). NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance and tools to help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.