Apodaca: Trying to find the balance between academic learning and building character


Trends in education come and go, and sometimes come back again.

Straight from the everything-old-becomes-new-again department comes a theme that’s generating attention at the moment. It’s a bit squiggly to grasp — think: eating Jell-O with a fork — but it loosely involves a set of core qualities known as character, resilience and grit.

This line of thinking argues that, instead of focusing so intently on traditional measures of intelligence, we should gear our efforts toward building these real-world traits.

Books and articles have touched on this theme in recent years. One that’s fueling discussion is Paul Tough’s “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character.”


Tough’s well-researched book cites many studies and statistics, and includes anecdotes from the author’s observations at the most challenged, impoverished school settings to the most elite. From this vast and sometimes meandering mix of information he draws the general conclusion that success follows from tenacity and determination, not from high SAT scores.

Well heck, I could’ve told you that.

I’m picturing a young, penniless Benjamin Franklin, full of pluck and blessed with a sharp wit, but little formal education, arriving on the streets of Philadelphia in search of his fortune.

I’m also reminded of my middle-school history teacher, Mr. Powers, who was famous for his entertaining rants. One of his favorite lines, delivered with great gusto: “Give me a solid ‘C’ student who worked hard for that grade over someone who gets an ‘A’ without trying any day.” (Note that this was back in the day when a ‘C’ wasn’t considered a near failure.)

It seems simply common sense to suggest that certain character traits engender success and accomplishment. But what makes Tough’s book, and many others with similar themes, so interesting is not this conclusion. It’s the depth of new understanding on why this is the case, and how we can better use this information, that makes the renewed focus on character so compelling.

For example, Tough cites intriguing research into the true damage done to children from disadvantaged upbringings, including findings that show that those hardships create not only psychological, but real physical responses that make it nearly impossible for those kids to learn.

Nearly impossible — but not entirely, for Tough also examines ideas and strategies that are having some impact on reversing that damage. And he punctuates that discussion with some heart-wrenching stories of young people trying desperately to rise above their circumstances.

Books like this make not only for good reading, but will hopefully stimulate thought-provoking discussions that could lead to some realignment of our educational goals. With the focus so intensely placed on standardized testing of late, it’s hard not to worry that we’ve lost our way when it comes to producing strong, productive citizens. It’s not enough just to hang a few posters around campus. We need to walk the walk.

Unfortunately, Tough’s thesis is weakest when it comes to his contention that formal measures of intelligence, such as high SAT scores, are less an indicator of future accomplishment than the more amorphous qualities of strong character.

While that is undeniably true — gifted students, for example, are among the most at-risk groups — and no one loves SAT bashing more than I do, he doesn’t get there from here. He seems to just throw in an occasional line suggesting the irrelevance of high SAT scores, as if such an achievement lies in direct opposition to the goal of building traits such as perseverance and good social skills.

It’s interesting, though, that such thinking comes at a time of mounting controversy over the whole notion of standardized testing.

Teachers went on strike in Chicago last week, in large part because they object to using student test scores to evaluate their effectiveness. It’s tempting to mention the delicious irony of teachers revolting against testing. (You hear that kids? Teachers think tests are unfair too!) But the implications of the walkout are serious indeed.

The vigorous debate over the role of standardized testing will come to a head at some point, but where that will lead is anyone’s guess.

I consider it an encouraging sign that many colleges have signaled of late that less weight will be given to SAT scores. Grades, of course, are given top priority, and that’s appropriate. But many colleges also tease out information about prospective students’ backgrounds and those very qualities of character that Tough and others write about. I often hear admissions representatives say they don’t just want to know what students have done, but if they pushed themselves.

But we’re a long way from finding the right mix of academic rigor and character building in our schools. While the two aren’t mutually exclusive — far from it — they are generally treated as such, and therein lies the problem.

I recall once discussing my son’s progress with one of his teachers, at one point wistfully remarking that he was working so hard. I was rendered speechless by her reply that it didn’t matter how hard he worked; the end result was all that counted.

If I were a Tiger Mom, I guess I would have agreed. But when it comes to educating our kids and preparing them for what lies ahead, I have to believe that the hardest-to-measure qualities — the will to strive, persevere, and improve — are the surest path to a life of intellectual curiosity and achievement.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.