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Character education is not enough to help poor kids

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Western cultural history – from Aristotle to the humanistic psychology of Abraham Maslow – affirms the qualities of persistence, self-discipline, and self-esteem, and they’ve been part of our folk wisdom about success since well before Dale Carnegie made millions by promoting the power of positive thinking. But they’ve gained even greater luster through economic modeling, psychological studies, and the technological advances of neuroscience.

Because brain imaging allows researchers to see the frontal lobes light up when someone weighs a decision, the claims about the power of character development seem cutting edge. It is this aura of the new that contributes to a belief that we have found a potent treatment for the achievement gap.

A diverse group of players is championing this concentration on character, nicely summarized in an engaging new book by journalist Paul Tough, “How Children Succeed,” and in a September 2012 airing of Public Radio International’s popular show “This American Life.”

Nobel Laureate in economics James Heckman advocates early childhood intervention programs that emphasize the development of character for poor kids. Charter schools like KIPP infuse character education throughout the school day. And a whole range of smaller extra-curricular and afterschool programs – from Chicago’s OneGoal to a chess club in a public school in Brooklyn – focus their efforts on helping the children of the poor develop a range of mental strategies and shifts in perception aimed toward academic achievement.

I have worked with economically and educationally disadvantaged children and adults for 40 years and know the importance of efforts like these. They need to be funded and expanded, for poor kids carry big burdens and have absurdly limited access to any kind of school-related enrichment, especially as inequality widens.

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