Wednesday, August 29, 2018

What John McCain's Example Teaches Us about Character in Schools

Watching all of the tributes to John McCain this week, it’s been hard not to think about how much character matters and wonder whether our schools do enough to develop it. 

McCain was of a complex character. By his own admission, he had plenty of weaknesses. But what made him worthy of so many honorifics was a slate of qualities: grit, moral compass, commitment to learning and improving, humility, pragmatism, a sense of duty and calling. He may have been born with some of these traits, but likely developed most through a set of teaching and life experiences at home, in the military, and—presumably—at school. 

According to my quick web research, McCain attended a long string of military and boarding schools as a child. His education was, by his account, largely subpar, and he didn’t distinguish himself academically. Along the way, however, he had influential teachers; in particular, a football coach whom he credited with helping to “repair the all-too-evident flaws in my personality.” By virtue of having enough smarts to do well on exams, McCain managed to get into the Naval Academy. A rebel who fought against oppressive military rules, “bullshit” hazing traditions, and traditional coursework, he graduated fifth from the bottom of his class, but with a lasting commitment to “having the honor of serving something other than my self-interest.”

What if John McCain hadn’t had chance encounters with coaches and teachers who helped him channel his maverick soul toward a higher purpose? What if he hadn’t been born into a military family and ended up serving his self-interest rather than our country? I’ve had plenty of disagreement with McCain the politician, but I, like so many, respect his leadership and service.

Schools don’t need to try to produce little McCain replicas but we do need more schools that are intentional about helping students wrestle with and develop values—schools that understand that character is one of the best determinants of long-term success. Military training and religious schools can’t be the only avenues for that. Public schools, which have largely stayed away from values-based education, need to do more. 

This is where charter public schools, schools that are designed to have a distinct organizational purpose, have the potential to shine. KIPP has always promoted values and norms (“Work hard. Be nice.”), an underappreciated aspect of their success. National Heritage Academies in the Midwest is very intentional on character attributes, and has developed sophisticated ways of measuring them. Democracy Prep’s emphasis on civic values has proven to be effective in increasing voting participation among graduates. But students from Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have emerged as passionate advocates on both sides of the political spectrum, underscoring the fact that district schools, too, can help share the fruits of a public education system that instills the values of civic engagement.

The next generation will have to confront a multitude of “wicked problems”—from the effects of climate change on human settlement to the impact of automation on the economy and labor markets. Our kids will need to approach these challenges not just with knowledge of the scientific, technological, and economic forces that drive them, but with a shared purpose, a sense of common good, and an understanding of the enduring values that shaped the institutions they will be asked to reinvigorate.

Too many of our schools have come to see instilling values and character as the job of families, not schools, despite increased interest in cultivating creativity and social emotional skills. The life of John McCain, who never stopped articulating a commitment to shared values that define Americans, should remind us that character may be the most important subject any school can teach.

Tue, 12/03/2019

Attackers and defenders of charter schools are free to pick cases and attach labels, but we shouldn’t lump actual corruption or theft in with debatably unwise uses of funds.

Wed, 11/20/2019

Our network participants are already showing the potential benefits of the shift toward local problem solving.

Mon, 11/18/2019

Settling for cherry-picked or incomplete evidence isn't necessary.