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Character education is not enough to help poor kids

Character education – teaching kids to be responsible and to persevere – isn't enough to bring poor students out of poverty or close the achievement gap. Policymakers need to tackle the underlying causes of poverty and the significant obstacles poor children face.

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But it is difficult for enrichment programs alone to lead to educational mobility. Children from poor communities need social policy that involves schools and enrichment programs, but also need programs to address the conditions that devastate students' lives: poor nutrition and healthcare, inadequate housing, parental unemployment, violent streets, and a dysfunctional immigration system. When we ignore these broader conditions, we turn an ungenerous scrutiny on the children themselves.

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America has a longstanding shameful tendency of attributing all sorts of pathologies to the poor. Writing in the mid-19th century, the authors of a report from the Boston School Committee bemoaned the “undisciplined, uninstructed…inveterate forwardness and obstinacy” of their working-class and immigrant students. There was much talk in the Boston report and elsewhere about teaching the poor “self-control,” “discipline,” “earnestness,” and “planning for the future.” Sound familiar?

Given the political tenor of our time, we can easily fall into the trap of blaming the poor for their circumstances – attributing them to character deficiencies and championing character development as the way out of their problems. There’s as much variability among the poor as in any group, and we have to keep that fact squarely in our sights, for we tend toward one-dimensional generalities about poor people’s character and motivation.

Sam could be the poster boy for the advocates of character education; he possesses exactly the qualities they are trying to engender in young students. But what happens to Sam if after his Herculean effort he leaves the college that has given his heretofore chaotic life structure and finds limited jobs, or none at all? What if he slams up against discrimination? What if he can’t afford to leave a neighborhood that has weighed on him for years? What if he gets in an accident or gets sick?

Sam has been able to hold onto his dream with stunning tenacity, but what happens, in short, if the material world around him continues to threaten his drive and hope?

And beyond that, is it fair or moral that a young person in the United States should have to expend superhuman effort to complete a standard, even basic, education that will in the end benefit both him and society? The exertion required of Sam becomes another measure of inequality. He’s traversing the achievement gap all right, but with a backpack full of lead and a head-splitting level of stress.

Given a political climate that is antagonistic toward the welfare state and has further shredded our already compromised safety net, psychological and educational interventions may be the only viable political response to poverty available. But can you imagine the outcry if, let’s say, an old toxic dump was discovered near Scarsdale or Beverly Hills and the National Institutes of Health undertook a program to teach kids strategies to lessen the effects of the toxins but didn’t do anything to address the toxic dump itself?

We seem willing to accept remedies for the poor that we are not willing to accept for anyone else. We should use our science to figure out why that is so – and then develop the character and courage to fully address poverty when it is an unpopular cause.

Mike Rose is a professor of education at UCLA. His most recent book is “Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education.” He blogs at


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