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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.

By Mike Rose / January 23, 2013

Khadeeja Miller compares items with her daughters at the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry in Indianapolis Nov. 27, 2012. Op-ed contributor Mike Rose says 'My worry is that we will embrace programs that are essentially individual and technocratic fixes – mental conditioning for the poor – and abandon broader social policy aimed at poverty itself.'

Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters


Los Angeles

The foster care system failed Sam miserably. There wasn’t a nurturing household in his long string of placements. He grew up on his own, got into trouble with the law, kicked around in odd jobs, and found the community college where he turned his life around.

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Sam is 25, a big guy with a full smile who cares deeply about education and leading a meaningful life. Though he was sleeping in his car for a semester, he’s maintained strong grades, participates in student government, and works on campus as a tutor and in a summer program for middle school kids.

Sam’s progress toward his associate degree has been stalled, however, because severe budget cuts forced his college to limit course offerings during the year and pretty much eliminate summer classes. Illness from when he was living in his car made it harder to concentrate – though he maintained a full load. And he had to miss classes when his car was impounded because of lapsed registration and parking tickets he couldn’t pay. Still, as he puts it, nothing will stop him.

There is an emerging opinion about poverty and the achievement gap that holds that America can boost the academic success of poor people like Sam – and younger incarnations of Sam particularly – through psychological and educational interventions that will help them develop the qualities of personality or character needed to overcome their circumstances. These are qualities that Sam displays in abundance: perseverance, self control, and belief in one’s ability.

No doubt these are powerful attributes, and they contribute mightily to a successful life, regardless of how old you are or where you sit on the socioeconomic ladder. But policymakers need to be careful not to assume that character education is the long-awaited key to helping the poor overcome the assaults of poverty. My worry is that we will embrace programs that are essentially individual and technocratic fixes – mental conditioning for the poor – and abandon broader social policy aimed at poverty itself.

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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