By David Holmes
American education is on the cusp of a revolution.
Recent years have brought serious concern about the pathologies of American education: resentment of “high-stakes” testing; young men and women pushed to win the competition for a small number of slots at the most selective colleges or independent schools; high levels of depression and suicide among students at every level; an admission system that is perceived to reward students through traditional cognitive measures at the expense of students with an array of character strengths.
A result of this concern, many in the educational sector have begun paying attention to attributes of character—perseverance, resilience, grit, optimism, self-control, etc.—in educating American youth. Educational conferences and publications, which are good reflections of emerging ideas and priorities, are replete with sessions on character. Angela’s Duckworth’s TED talk and 2016 best-selling book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, are well known among educators. Most importantly, many schools and their faculties are taking a fresh look at what and how they teach.
These events are reinforced by a growing body of research that shows that the non-cognitive domain, including character traits, is a legitimate avenue of inquiry and intervention. In fact, studies by Duckworth, James Heckman, Nathan Kuncel, and others have found that GPA and college persistence are correlated strongly with character traits such as self-control and perseverance.
The “character movement” has not gone unnoticed by the admission staff at colleges and schools. Admission professionals are asking how they should adapt their work to address this rising tide of interest in character education. In addition, organizations including The College Board and ACT at the collegiate level, and The Enrollment Management Association in the independent school world, are helping to bring innovative measurement science to bear in how admission decisions are made.
There is exciting potential is these developments. If (1) schools and colleges evolve toward deep attention to character development and (2) admission practices and decisions, in fact, adapt to this priority, we will be at a watershed moment in American education. It will mark a definitive step towards assessing character strengths in a standard, valid, and reliable way and will demonstrate broadly, to students and parents alike, the importance of character strengths to success in college and work. The move will be a departure from the intensely academic, success-driven world that we have known for more than 60 years.
The Institute on Character and Admission as a Catalyst
Recognizing the growing interest of educators across various levels and roles in elevating character attributes, the Institute on Character and Admission came into being at a gathering in September 2016 in Columbus, Ohio. Organized by leaders at both the collegiate and secondary levels, the goal of the initial meeting of the Institute on Character and Admission was to explore ways to change admission practice at the secondary and higher education levels to reflect the significance of character strengths in attaining success in school, college, and work.
The Institute included important constituencies across the educational landscape, including college admission deans, testing experts, school placement directors, representatives of educational associations, secondary school heads, independent educational counselors, researchers, and educational reformers. Speakers included Angela Duckworth, Rick Weissbourd of the Turning the Tide project; Bill Hiss, former Vice President of Bates College and leader of the Bates “test optional” project; admission deans from several selective colleges; and researchers from the Educational Testing Service.
In addition, Jinghua Liu, chief testing and research officer at The Enrollment Management Association, spoke about the development of the Character Skills Snapshot, a new tool for use by admission offices in independent schools. It is noteworthy that the Character Skills Snapshot is at the forefront of thinking and practice in how to embed character attributes in the admission process.
The outcome of the meeting was unanimous agreement on 28 action-oriented initiatives and on continuing the work of the Institute into the future. For more information, please visit the website at www.character-admission.org. The Institute aims to expand the number of educators and institutions committed to its common purpose.
David Holmes is the executive director of strategic initiatives for Community School (ID) and co-director of the Institute on Character and Admission