What is good character? Can/should it be taught in Northfield’s K-12 classrooms?

What if the Secret to Success Is Failure? KIPP Character Report Card

I’m intrigued by yesterday’s NY Times Magazine cover article: What if the Secret to Success Is Failure? A radical rethinking of how students should be taught and evaluated, by Paul Tough.

The accompanying page, Q. and A.: Can You Teach Character?, has a sample character report card, along with this list of the 24 character strengths identified in the book Character Strengths and Virtues, by Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman.

In most societies, Seligman and Peterson wrote, these strengths were considered to have a moral valence, and in many cases they overlapped with religious laws and strictures. But their true importance did not come from their relationship to any system of ethics or moral laws but from their practical benefit: cultivating these strengths represented a reliable path to “the good life,” a life that was not just happy but also meaningful and fulfilling.

Six years after that first meeting, Levin and Randolph are trying to put this conception of character into action in their schools. In the process, they have found themselves wrestling with questions that have long confounded not just educators but anyone trying to nurture a thriving child or simply live a good life. What is good character? Is it really something that can be taught in a formal way, in the classroom, or is it the responsibility of the family, something that is inculcated gradually over years of experience? Which qualities matter most for a child trying to negotiate his way to a successful and autonomous adulthood?

Also mentioned in the article: Character Education Partnership, "the leading national advocate for character education. Our goal is to strengthen our communities, nation, and democracy by empowering teachers, schools, and school administrators."

In 2008, a national organization called the Character Education Partnership published a paper that divided character education into two categories: programs that develop “moral character,” which embodies ethical values like fairness, generosity and integrity; and those that address “performance character,” which includes values like effort, diligence and perseverance.

The CARE program falls firmly on the “moral character” side of the divide, while the seven strengths that Randolph and Levin have chosen for their schools lean much more heavily toward performance character: while they do have a moral component, strengths like zest, optimism, social intelligence and curiosity aren’t particularly heroic; they make you think of Steve Jobs or Bill Clinton more than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi.


  1. john george said:

    Griff- In your faith community thread, you said this-

    It seems that there might be another “reliable source upon which to build a moral framework to understand right and wrong.”

    I think you should remember these verses in Galations 5:22& 23-

    22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

    When you find another source that supercedes these principles, let me know. I would be very interested in examining it. Until that time, I think I will stick with what I believe is true.

    Taking this passage apart (simply), if self control was taught in the schools and homes, we would not see the levels of adolescent sexual activity and drug experimentation in our culture, IMO. If kindness, goodness and gentleness were taught, we would not see bullying. But merely teaching these things intellectually is only part of the equation. The key to these attributes is that they are produced by the Holy Spirit. The door to the Holy Spirit is opened through beginning a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The way is narrow, and the gate is straight that leads to salvation, and, unfortunately, not many find it.

    September 19, 2011
  2. Griff Wigley said:

    John, we can agree that parenting often falls short when it comes to teaching character and moral values. Can we agree that the likelihood of our public schools adopting the beliefs and practices of a single religion, Christianity, to achieve those ends is extremely small?

    If so, then what’s the next best thing that can be done in the schools that could garner broad support?

    If you read the NY Times article, you’ll see that these schools are not just teaching about these values–intellectually, as you say. They’re actually putting into place practices in which the values are ‘lived’ inside and outside the classrooms. And the schools are even trying to give students measurable feedback on how the faculty sees them doing.

    What would be your objections to this approach?

    September 20, 2011
  3. john george said:

    Griff- Practice makes perfect. One historical thing to consider is that Christian moral principles were used as the foundation of teaching in schools up until about 50 years ago. Then, “progressive” ideals began to eclipse these simple principles. Even though there has always been crime in the population in our history, there was a societal suppression of it in general. It isn’t rocket science to see the results of that shift over the last half of a century. And now, according to the research cited in David Brooks column, moral relativism is the norm. Young people base there moral decisions upon how they feel in a particular situation rather than defering to an outside universally accepted standard.

    September 20, 2011
  4. Patrick Enders said:

    I had the good fortune to watch an historical documentary on Wisconsin Public Television titled “The Lord is Not on Trial Here Today.” It told the tale of the landmark 1948 8-1 decision of McCollum vs. Board of Education, which ended the widespread practice of ‘voluntarily’ teaching mainstream Protestantism (and sometimes Catholicism and Judaism) in our public schools.

    The case – and in particular the documentary – are worth a gander. Unfortunately, the documentary does not seem to have been broadcast in MN, and it does not seem to be online as of now – though some clips are available.

    September 20, 2011
  5. john george said:

    Patrick- Here is a key phrase in your comment above-

    …the widespread practice of ‘voluntarily’ teaching…

    The watchdogs of education, whomever they may be, certainly no longer allow this to happen. I believe what was once a homogenous society has now been fragmented. Now, the teaching of an abosolute, or at least a societal majority accepted, set of moral vqalues is not tolerated, because it is considered intolerant. Interesting Catch 22 we have gotten ourselves into, IMO.

    September 20, 2011
  6. Patrick Enders said:


    The watchdogs in this case were the members of the 1948 Supreme Court, who ruled 8-1 that the common practice of mingling religious lessons in public education was unconstitutional.

    September 20, 2011
  7. Curt Benson said:

    Griff, your headline “What is good character? Can/should it be taught in Northfield’s K-12 classrooms?” implies that there aren’t any efforts to teach character in our schools. I can think of a number of efforts that our schools use to teach character–if you think character involves empathy, helpfulness, kindness, leadership, integrity etc. Here are some of those efforts:

    The “LINK” program. HS juniors and Seniors in the program get coached to help ease the transition for incoming freshman. The first morning of the school year, only freshmen and their LINK leaders are in the school. The incoming new students get shown around, answer questions etc. Hopefully, their fears are lessened. I’ve heard nothing but good comments about this program.


    The “Respect Retreat”. Ninth graders attend this program that is intended to increase empathy/decrease bullying etc. I’ve heard that it is pretty dramatic and emotional during the actual session. But it is questionable if there are lasting behavior changes. None-the-less, a worthy effort, IMHO.


    There are also a couple of programs that activities director Tom Graupmann has initiated. He has been really intentional about providing leadership (character) training for the captains of sports teams. My daughter took that training last year, and I’m a bit fuzzy on the exact details. She attended a number of sessions that were taught by a Carleton coach (I think). They were given a book on leadership and lengthy handouts which they discussed. If the captains took the training seriously and read the materials–which my daughter did–they would be sure to benefit. Hopefully this would be transmitted to their teammates.

    The RALIE club also has meetings with representatives from each team to try to figure out how to deal with issues that have come up in their activities. I think this has elements of character building in it too.

    Then there was something that happened at the end of the last school year that I thought was really a good idea. There is an Academic Awards banquet in which students are presented a number of scholarships funded by local civic groups, clubs and individuals. My daughter received one of these awards. With it, came instructions on how to get the monetary award applied to her college account. The students were instructed to write a thank you note to the persons or groups that supplied the award. After the note was sent, the students filled out a form for the district’s business office–and the money was sent to the college.

    My daughter sent a note. And she received a really nice response from the award givers. I’d like to think that she would have sent the note unprompted–or at least done so at her parents’ prompting, but–who knows?

    When I saw the school’s policy, I thought “this is pleasantly old fashioned”. I think it is great, to promote gratitude, and to help students not take the generosity of others for granted.

    I can think of other similar character building efforts in school. Maybe they need a little more publicity.

    September 20, 2011
  8. john george said:

    Patrick- Is this another example of separating church from the state by legal caveate? It certainly wasn’t what Thomas Jefferson had in mind. If you look at the histories of the old ivy league schools, you will find that their common original purpose was to train preachers how to acurately handle the word of truth.

    September 20, 2011
  9. Patrick Enders said:


    1) The Ivy Leage schools are private institutions.

    2) Thomas Jefferson didn’t found any of the Ivy League colleges, but he did found the University of Virginia. You might be interested in the principles he laid down in founding that institution:

    In 1802, then serving as President of the United States, Jefferson wrote to artist Charles Willson Peale that his concept of the new university would be “on the most extensive and liberal scale that our circumstances would call for and our faculties meet.”[11] Virginia was already home to one university, the College of William & Mary, but Jefferson lost confidence in his alma mater, partly because of its religious biases and lack of education in the sciences.[12] Although Jefferson flourished under the tutelage of W&M professors William Small and George Wythe, his concerns with the College became great enough by 1800 that he wrote: “We have in that State, a college just well enough endowed to draw out the miserable existence to which a miserable constitution has doomed it.”[13] Thus, he began planning a university more aligned with his educational ideals.[14]

    …Jefferson explained, “This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”[15]

    An even more controversial direction was taken for the new university based on a daring vision that higher education should be completely separated from religious doctrine. One of the largest construction projects in North America up to that time, the new Grounds were centered upon a library (then housed in the Rotunda) rather than a church—further distinguishing it from peer universities of the United States, most of which were still primarily functioning as seminaries for one particular religion or another.[16] Jefferson even went so far as to ban the teaching of Theology altogether. In a letter to Thomas Cooper in October 1814, Jefferson stated, “a professorship of theology should have no place in our institution” and, true to form, the University never had a Divinity school or department, and was established independent of any religious sect.


    September 20, 2011
  10. john george said:

    Patrick- No, Jefferson did not found any ivy league institutions. Neither did he found any public education under higher level. He did write that there must be a wall of separation between the government and churches so as not to establish a state religion or to oppress any existing churches. It seems that the 10 Commandments carved into the stone of the Supreme Court building must have had some significance to that court when the stone was carved. What seems to grouse you atheists is that we believers would have the audacity to come out and say that there is a God who has set up a moral standard by which all people will be judged, and it would be prudent for us to know that and follow it. There was a lie given in Gen. 3:5

    …you will be like God, knowing good and evil.

    The Hebrew term translated “knowing” has the connotation of determining, or establishing. That is exactly what Griff is talking about when he wrote that there must be some other way to teach good behavior than through Christianity. That is also why David L. and I say we will stick with what has been established for 2000+ years. You folks can keep searching, and if you find a better way, I am certainly open to listening.

    September 21, 2011
  11. Patrick Enders said:


    You are mistaken when you say of Thomas Jefferson: “Neither did he found any public education under higher level.” As I quoted above, Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. Furthermore, he founded it as a public, secular university where the teaching of Theology was specifically excluded. See above.

    Regarding some of the rest of what you wrote:

    1) I am not an atheist, by common definitions of the word. I am a skeptic who doesn’t claim to know the Truth regarding the existencce or nonexistence of a supernatural being.

    2) The things you attribute to “you atheists” seem quite foreign and nonsensical to me. I do not think that they accurately reflect any thoughts that I have had. On the other hand, I cannot speak to what thoughts other persons might, or might not, hold.

    3) You seem to advocate that the government should teach morality based on Christianity – though it is not clear which variety of Christianity you would like to be taught.

    Would you feel the same way if the government decided to teach morality based upon principles of Buddhism, Islam, or Mormonism? Many of our citizens are Mormons, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and the like. I don’t see any reason why your religion should be taught by our public schools in favor over theirs.

    Can you explain why your beliefs should be taught in our public schools, while others should be excluded? Also, can you explain who would decide what is orthodox in the Church of The Public School, and what would be deemed heterodox? What principles would these arbiters apply in making these decisions?

    I really don’t see how your proposal would work in a democratic society where pretty much everyone’s religious beliefs deviate to some degree from everyone else’s.

    September 21, 2011
  12. john george said:

    Patrick- First off, please forgive me for lumping you in with the athiests. I keep forgetting that you are a skeptic, and I do differentiate between the two.

    I think you misread my comment. I possibly should have worded it, “Jefferson did not found any K-12 shcools.” I wasn’t refuting his founding of the University of Virginia.

    As far as religious based moral principles, why not teach what the various world religions say about morality? As far as the basics, not specific traditions, I think you will find some similarities amongst the various religions. The reason being is that God, at creation, wrote eternity upon our hearts. See Romans 2:13-15

    14 For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do [instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, 15 in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them,

    September 21, 2011
  13. Griff Wigley said:

    Curt, thanks much for taking the time to detail those examples of character-building programs at the Northfield High School. It’s easy for those of us without kids in the schools to be unaware of them.

    I see you linked to Nfld News articles. Are there pages on the Northfield High School website that can be linked to about these programs, too?

    September 22, 2011
  14. Megan Durkin said:

    Many schools, particularly Montessori schools, put into daily practice exactly what your discussion thread (with and without a lot of deep thought) is addressing. It was Dr. Maria Montessori who identified that it was ‘between the ages of three and six that children construct their own characters by a long and slow sequence of activities carried out by the child himself.’

    Do humans just automatically acquire ‘good character’ as they develop from childhood to adulthood? Or is there a means, an approach or a path to follow to allow such a person natural healthy development? Observers of human behaviour, undeniably affirm, that there are quite practical ways, expedient paths to follow, and understandings to appreciate, in each plane of development, which will allow children to develop with strong healthy characters. The high school level of Montessori education is called the “erdkinder” and one can find many wonderful examples of such schools practicing today. Just as in the first plane, they learn that work is pleasurable and the division between work and leisure need not exist.

    “And how far, we may ask, does it take one to hold a degree these days? [Written in 1949] Can one be sure of even earning a living? …And how do we explain this lack of confidence? The reason is that these young men have spent years in listening to words and listening does not make a man. Only practical work and experience lead the young to maturity.

    My vision of the future is no longer of people taking exams and proceeding on that certification from the secondary school to the university, but of individuals passing from one stage of independence to a higher, by means of their own activity, through their own effort of will, which constitutes the inner evolution of the individual.”

    —Dr. Maria Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence

    However, we are certainly not talking about moulding of character or behaviour modification. Dr Maria Montessori led the way for both educationalists and social reformers when she publicized her observations concerning character development. She placed faith in the natural unfolding and revealing of the true nature of the young child, as opposed to manipulation, rewards and punishment intended to induce behaviour modification.

    ‘Character formation cannot be taught. It comes from experience and not from explanations.’

    Moral sense is not a code committed to memory (even if one is especially adept at memorization and recitation of scriptures) and requires much practice in daily life. Maria Montessori said that ‘he who is conscious of his values is victorious over life.’ Young adults can become visionary citizens of the world, willing to stand up for human rights, aware of global issues and have a tradition of volunteer work, often outside their physical comfort zone.

    Thank you, to all who work with our students!

    September 22, 2011
  15. Kathie Galotti said:

    Your comment about ‘putting into daily practice’ is such an important one! And it gets to why I am much less of a fan that Curt is about things like the LINK and Respect (Kindness, Wisdom, Fairness, name your own virtue) retreats–they are one-shot deals of unknown effectiveness.

    My kids’ friends mocked many of these. Sure, they liked the day off from classes–and who could blame them–but I don’t see much evidence that they made anyone feel more respected or treated more kindly or whatever.

    I think if we want to teach kids to treat each other kindly and respectfully, we have to intentionally and repeatedly build in those virtues to the school day. Not with some sort of “rah rah kumbaya” activities, but quietly, intentionally, explicitly. Kids need to be treated, consistently, with kindness and respect by ALL teachers (not just some or most) and violations of kindness or respectful treatment (esp. those by staff in a power relationship to students) need to be dealt with. Quickly and intentionally. And effectively enough so they don’t keep referring.

    In my opinion, both the middle and high schools have LOTS of work to do to make that happen. Also in my opinion, some at the middle school seem to be (finally) trying to get their acts together. Not so much at the high school.

    September 22, 2011
  16. Kathie Galotti said:


    Are you kidding? The NHS website is a total joke. They won’t even tell parents when report cards are coming home–or when the deadlines to sign up for AP tests are–or when PAC meetings are going to happen (unless you search for hours down to the very last link). Last year NHS put out a whopping total of ONE newsletter–and they seem to be on track to get that lowered this year!

    NHS is not about parent communication. NHS is about keeping parents as in the dark as they possibly can.

    September 22, 2011
  17. john george said:

    Megan- This is a good comment

    Moral sense is not a code committed to memory…

    I think it points out that education in itself does not bring about good character. If this were the case, our country should have one of the highest moral levels in the world. It doesn’t take much research to recognize we do not. There is a scriture that my wife and I found valuable in raising our own children. Proverbs 22:6 says this

    Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it.

    One of the biggest challenges for parents is understanding how each of their children interacts with the world around them (the way he should go). Each one of them is different. When we understand that, it is much easier to teach them moral principles. Morality is not learned by rote. It is learned by demonstration and envolvement, and knowing our children gives us wisdom on how to accomplish this. We need to not only talk it, we need to live it.

    September 23, 2011
  18. Griff Wigley said:

    David Brooks has a column this week on amateur sports in which he parenthetically comments about character and morality at the college level:

    Over the decades, the word amateur changed its meaning. It used to convey a moral sensibility, but now it conveys an economic one: not getting paid. As many universities have lost confidence in their ability to instill character, the moral mission of the university has withered. Commercialism and professionalism have filled the void.

    September 23, 2011
  19. john george said:

    Griff- That is a pretty astute observation.

    September 23, 2011
  20. Patrick Enders said:


    You don’t need my forgiveness for calling me an atheist. Most atheists I know are exceptionally caring, moral, and upright citizens, with whom I would feel privileged to be associated. Depending upon the definition used, I might even be described by some as an atheist. However, none of the atheists I know personally seems to fit your strange description of what atheists think.

    September 23, 2011
  21. john george said:

    Patrick- When I misstate something, I need to ask forgiveness. It is part of my moral code. You are correct, also, in that the attitude I refered to is probably not universal. There have been some posts here on LGN that would lead me to believe that many atheists are as astounded that we believe in God, as we are probably astounded that they do not believe.

    September 23, 2011
  22. Ray Cox said:

    The real place to ‘put things into daily practice’ starts in the home. I think we ask far, far too much of our schools as far as social responsibiility goes. We are now talking about all sorts of anti-bullying laws and teachings—this has to be done in the home. Schools should not be asked to deal with this other than to remove people that bully. Bullies learn their behavior in the home, or have it tolerated in the home.
    In the same manner, we see schools presenting breakfasts for students. If parents cannot get up out of bed to fix breakfast for their children then we have serious, serious problems in this country. And yes, I know there are some families where a shortage of food may be the problem. If so, then deal with that through county social programs and private programs so there is food, don’t ask our schools to perform that function.
    We have schools providing before and after school day-care for children. Again, are parents incapable of taking care of their own children so that they have to turn to government to do it?

    September 23, 2011
  23. john george said:

    Ray- I and others have been saying for some time that we have serious problems in this country. I have not had children in school for 10 years, but my experience with the values teaching is that I had to undo so much of what was done in school. When you and I were growing up, what was taught at home was reinforced in school. That was not my experience with my own children before I put them in private school. I think another aspect of our society is that we have become dependent upon experts. I have heard some educators actually say that they hope that more children can be involved in preschool programs so that they are not “ruined” by poor parenting. This may be true, but what programs, aside from church related programs, are actually being provided for parents? My kids did not come with any instructions, but, fortunately, I was familiar with the designer’s manual. Not everyone has that privilege.

    September 23, 2011
  24. Phil Poyner said:

    Ray, for the most part I agree with you on this topic. As the son, step-son, and brother of teachers, I feel are schools are already overloaded with burdens that I don’t consider the responsibility of the school system, often to the detriment of core tasks. When the topic of teaching character in schools came up, I just had to shake my head. It looks like yet another opportunity to set teachers up for failure. The American public school system isn’t like a British boarding school; parents are actually around their kids here! Whereas the boarding schools, out of necessity, have no choice but to teach “character”, here we can keep still leave that as (primarily) a parent’s responsibility.

    September 23, 2011
  25. kiffi summa said:

    Totally agree here with Phil…

    It bothers me that parents expect too much from schools, but then are also willing to criticize the school when the school’s guidance conflicts with that of the parents.

    On the other hand, schools must not tolerate anti-social behavior for fear of aggravating the parent.

    Parents and teachers must stand together, guiding the child forward in his knowledge of how to deal with an ever-expanding world.
    No room for adversarial positions there, just confuses the child as to who’s authority is the guide.

    September 23, 2011
  26. Ray Cox said:

    Phil….I too am the son of a teacher, the grandson of a teacher, the parent of a current teacher, and served on the Northfield school board for 16 years. I absolutely believe that education is what made America great,and I’ve done all I can to provide personal support for quality education. But I also believe that poor eduction can and may just very well be the undoing of America. And by poor eduction I am not simply dumping on teachers. As people have indicated in this thread, there is a HUGE responsibility for parents to be good parents and help their children to be good students. If America’s parents continue down the slope they are on, I fear that we all will suffer greatly as a country.

    Interesting article by Katherine Kersten in the Strib this morning about how effective a charter school in the Twin Cities is in creating a successful learning environment for minority and lower socioeconomic students. It is wonderful to think things like that are going on.But notice that they are in school for long days, and also for 200 days per year. Lots more learning time going on there.

    September 25, 2011
  27. Kathie Galotti said:

    Two things:

    1) I don’t see how anyone can teach and NOT teach values, at least implicitly. What you choose to include in the curriculum reflects the teacher’s value about what’s important to learn and what’s not as important to cover. That’s a value. How the teacher sets up the classroom and the procedures reflect values. How she or he responds (or doesn’t) to student behavior absolutely embodies values. Discipline, order, accountability are values–and so are respect, fairness, kindness. Sure, one can never mention the values in one’s class explicitly, but those values still get observed and in many cases internalized by the students.

    2) Ray, I too, read the Kersten article. I don’t often agree with her, but if the facts about the Harvest Prep school are as she presents them, then it is a wonderful model that I’d like to see our local schools pay attention to. Especially for the students who don’t come from privileged SES. i note that the success seems to come from more time providing kids direct instruction–something I’ve written about a lot here.

    September 25, 2011
  28. Kathie Galotti said:

    Ray, you complain of parents expecting schools to care for kids before and after school. A) The KidVentures program (which my daughter attends and my son before her) is a fee-based program, and it’s actually pretty expensive on an hourly basis, relative to home day cares. The school district is NOT subsidizing it–in fact, the program is a financial workhorse of the district–it brings in a profit. B) At least some parents (e.g., me and several other families I know where all the parents have jobs outside the home) have my kids in the program because we are working parents. If I want to keep my full-time job at Carleton, I feel honor bound to give them a honest week’s worth of work–that means NOT leaving at 3 in the afternoon to go bake cookies with my kids. I think you’ll find that the days when every or even most families have a mom at home everyday to watch the kids are a thing of the past.

    September 25, 2011
  29. john george said:

    Ray- I read Kersten’s column, and there are a couple things, among many, that stood out to me. One is the concentration of low income minority students in the school. This seems to contradict the practice of forced integration to supposedly provide better learning opportunities for minorities. The other thing is the concentration on group identity (uniform dress for all, school slogan) rather than focusing on individuality. Each person’s value is increased by how they fit into the group rather than how they are different from the group. These are interesting concepts, and if academic performance is any guage, it appears to be successful. As far as the increased amount of time spent in school, this has been a practice in Europe for years. Increased time devoted to education is only productive if the methods involved are effective.

    September 25, 2011
  30. Ray Cox said:

    Kathie….I am in agreement with you on more time with students. What I don’t understand is why we continue to arrange our schools around an 1800’s agrarian society. We pretend that we still are in the mode. But wake up folks, its 2011. Many countries are flying by us in school performance but we don’t do anything about it. By the time we do something about it, I suspect it will be too late. We cannot continue to toss away generation after generation of students.
    As noted in Kersten’s recent column, the Harvest Prep school is doing a remarkable job with their students, most of which are low income. I for one have never subscribed to the idea that low income equals low brain power, and Harvest Prep is showing that big time.

    John, I suspect one of the reasons Harvest Prep does such a good job is the fact that by wearing unifoms you essentially remove the ‘victim group’ status from the students. There is no one to say to them, “oh poor you, you don’t need to do well becuase you have a tough background”.They manage to stir the pot and blend everyone so that they stand on their own successes. We need much more of this. We cannot move forward if we create a society that continues to separate groups, call some victims of circumstance, and then try create government programs directed only to those victims. We are all in this together folks.

    September 27, 2011
  31. Paul Zorn said:

    Ray, Kathie,

    I read the Harvest Prep story, too, and found many things to like and admire about HP. They seem to do a remarkable job of helping kids excel despite (I’m guessing) considerable non-school challenges for some of them.

    But I have some reservations, much more about the article than about HP.

    First, I find the title, “… usual excuses don’t apply”, slightly snide or even denigrating. All research I know of points to socioeconomic factors as real challenges, not just “excuses”. Suggesting otherwise could minimize the really admirable efforts of HP teachers and students who succeed anyway. (I realize that the title may not be Ms Kersten’s work.)

    Second, Ms Kersten pooh-poohs “lots of folks — including school board members, superintendents and state officials — [who] insist we can’t narrow the achievement gap without boatloads of new money.” Leaving aside the rhetorical exaggeration, one might observe that longer-day and longer-year programs like that at HP probably would cost considerably more (I’m not familiar with the “boatload” unit) than standard programs, especially if scaled up broadly. (I have no idea how HP itself is financed; perhaps teachers sacrifice a lot.)

    Third, HP’s commitment to “drill and kill” (Ms K’s words) learning, continual assessment, and teacher evaluation based on students’ “learning gains” may perhaps work well in that context. But such methods are not obviously best in all circumstances, or readily replicable. In the world-beating Finnish schools, for example, there seems to be very little “continual assessment”, at least through standardized tests. It’s hard to know from what Ms K tells us (fair enough … it’s just an editorial), but conceivably a Great Books curriculum would do as well with such dedicated students and teachers.

    My takeaway: Well done, Harvest Prep! But let’s be cautious about drawing broad lessons.

    September 27, 2011
  32. Curt Benson said:

    Parents were mentioned only once in Kersten’s article–and that was to say that about 70% of the children are from single-parent families.

    I’d like to know more about the role of the parents at Harvest Prep. I’m guessing that the students at this school aren’t just a random selection of kids from the area. I bet they have parents who buy into HP’s methods and chose to send their children there. I bet HP has expectations for the parents too.

    And as if to answer the question in Griff’s headline–“What is good character? Can/should it be taught in Northfield’s K-12 classrooms?”–Kersten writes about HP, “At its heart is a school culture that instills moral character.”

    “A culture of manners and civility permeates the building. Students are addressed as “scholars,” say “please” and “thank you,” and greet visitors politely. Weekly ceremonies recognize children who achieve academic success through hard work, who sacrifice to help struggling classmates, or who demonstrate moral courage and truthfulness.”

    “The obligation to “give back” is constantly discussed. “We don’t just want great test-takers and smart children — we want children who do good things,” says Mahmoud. He cites Mary McLeod Bethune, a 19th-century black education reformer. A sign above the door of a school she founded read, “Enter to learn; go forth to serve.” “

    September 27, 2011
  33. Kathie Galotti said:

    Yeah, Kersten is often unsufferably snide. And yeah, one can’t just take her editorial and start exporting the model she describes to all public schools–that’s not what I am suggesting. Nonetheless, it is an AMAZING achievement to get the success at reading proficiency that they have–and that shouldn’t be minimized either.

    September 27, 2011
  34. When I look back to my youth, one of the things that still stands out in my memory is how confused I often felt about what was right. Raised Catholic, I always did what the Church laid out, but because my two older sisters, who also attended the same school, were more inclined towards materialism and financial success, I often felt bad for my part in trying to make the world a better place through beauty and service which translates into low paying jobs, but for me with great reward. So, the inconsistency is everywhere…billboards, magazine covers, movies, other people. Teach the kids how to wend their way through that maze, but don’t control them.
    That’s what they rebel against, the control.
    When I taught art, I set up the material place, the comfortable atmosphere, the genuine appreciation of the student, and the loose structure, clearly explained for the project of the day and an alternative, and those kids ran to my classroom everyday because of that recipe for learning. The same can be applied to teaching moral character in schools. It’s a fine line between too much control and neglect. Find that and you’ve got yourself a plan.

    September 28, 2011
  35. kiffi summa said:

    I have to go back and find the Kersten article and read it, but I quit reading her a long time ago as she is a constant proponent of restructuring education to ‘separate’ rather than ‘equal’.

    IMO she often couches her writing in terms that seem to be positive to all readers, but upon more careful observation is really advocating something not quite so positive and universally appealing.

    Her home base, The Center for the American Experiment, is a long standing very conservative think tank… one of those that likes to label itself with a progressive sounding name… but upon closer examination is rigidly conservative and non-egalitarian.

    Talk to the teachers at NF’s Alternative Learning Center; there are many kids who do not have the benefits of a secure and predictable structure in their home lives; it is not just urban kids from poor neighborhoods and single parent families.

    There is no question that all kids benefit from secure, supportive, and predictable life situations; Ms. Kersten’s motives have over the years been , again IMO, discriminatory and showing a inclination toward a less than egalitarian society.

    September 28, 2011
  36. Griff Wigley said:


    At this school, usual excuses don’t apply by Strib columnist Katherine Kersten.

    African American boys: ‘Too important to fail’ by Dane Smith, president, Growth & Justice and Shawn Lewis, board member, Pan African Community Endowment of the St. Paul Foundation.

    If we can accept the premise that huge banks and insurance companies and major U.S. automakers are too big to fail, why can’t we embrace the notion that an entire generation of millions of African American boys is too large and “too important to fail?” That’s the compelling message of a new documentary with that title that aired on TPT-TV last Sunday.

    September 28, 2011
  37. Kathie Galotti said:

    I took a look at the Harvest Prep website.

    They list three basic principles for success:

    • Strong basic skills instruction
    • African culture and heritage
    • Active Parental involvement

    Kersten emphasizes the first–she glosses over the second (I think, if she even mentions it), and Curt Benson (comment 13)is right about the third.

    It’s the third that I’d like to highlight here. Northfield could do a MUCH better job with parent involvement, particularly at the high school. The middle school as well, but at least, judging by today’s annual report on curriculum and instructions, THEY recognize it as an issue and are actively trying to address it.

    I sent a long, (overly detailed) letter to the school board this summer, highlighting recurrent problems of communication, feedback, and parental involvement at the high school. All the female members of the board thanked me politely. All the male members of the board, as well as the Superintendent, ignored me. (which pretty much illustrates the problem). The principal replied, but it was mostly along the lines of “NHS is a great school already but thanks for writing.” So I am not holding my breath waiting for substantive change. But it frustrates me.

    Increasing substantive parental involvement and communication is almost free–and research shows its one of the single best predictors of student success. Sad that we don’t do the free stuff. Another illustration of NPS’s complacency and indifference.

    September 28, 2011
  38. john george said:

    Kathy- I don’t know what would be too much parental involvement, but I suppose it is possible. I don’t think that is happening here, though. One thing I think you do is that you don’t wait for the school to come to you. You go to them. I think that is a good trait to be modeled in Northfield, so keep it up. When my kids were in school, I did the same thing. Be encouraged! You are on the right track!

    I would interject that parental involvement, though possibly monetarily free, does cost something. It costs the time it takes to do it. I can attest to the value of the return on this investment, though. It is beyond putting a price on it.

    September 28, 2011
  39. Kiffi, when you support “equal” are you referring to equal inputs (e.g., all schools get same per-student and have access to the same quality of teaching and extracurriculars) or are you referring to equal outcomes?

    The evidence seems to be that equal outcomes requires improving the inputs, which would seem to imply much stronger involvement in pre-school issues, that is, ensuring that student who is coming to learn the three R’s is already well founded in the three W’s:

    Well fed (better nutrition implies better outcomes).

    Well behaved (better self-control predicts better outcomes).

    Well loved (better empathic ability predicting better socialization and less disruptive).

    These attributes are, for the most part, outside the purview of the school system, being much more about family and social structures. And it is in that arena that at risk populations tend to turn to faith rather than reason. Would I prefer to see a society of inquisitive self-actualizing free thinkers living the enlightened and mindful life. Of course I would. But do I think that we have evolved to that level yet? The clamor for madrassas, parochial schools, and home schooling suggests not.

    September 30, 2011
  40. kiffi summa said:

    Bruce: I think you know me well enough to realize that I would prefer “equal”input to the levels to assure equal outcomes, and therefore tailored to needs, rather than strictly “equal inputs , so as to achieve as equal outcomes for all students as possible.
    And for the most part I think this is best done in the public school setting, not in ever-increasing differentiations and segregating of student populations.
    This is my main objection to Katherine Kersten’s opinion writing; although she seems to be thoughtful on the surface, I think she pushes a very discriminating agenda in its identification of groups as ‘other’, and needing some separate environment in order to be productive learners.

    I believe almost every child can be successful in learning to their ability, if started from an equal base. The equal baseline is what ultimately needs to be achieved.

    The most reasonable goal, IMO, is that public schools satisfy the goal of creating an educated public which can both debate and solve the problems of its society.

    September 30, 2011
  41. David Ludescher said:


    The clamor for madrassas, parochial schools, and home schooling may also suggest that schools (to many parents) are unable to teach the broad range of human knowledge – including an exploration of the transcendent in the past, present, and future.

    September 30, 2011
  42. Griff Wigley said:

    On MPR’s Midmorning yesterday: Character development in the classroom.

    Many students work to achieve high GPAs, but what about CPAs, or character point averages? Certain educators and psychologists say that character development in the classroom is the key to student success.


    Dave Levin: KIPP Co-Founder and Superintendent.

    David Shenk: award-winning author of six books, including The Genius in All of Us.

    October 6, 2011

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