What If Schools Put Character Building First and Standardized Tests Second?

Atticus Finch and Tom Robinson in 1962’s movie To Kill a Mockingbird

True excellence takes sacrifice, mistakes, and enormous amounts of effort. ~ Rafe Esquith 

What if schools focused more on each child’s character development and less on standardized tests?


Rafe Esquith author of Teach Like Your Hair is On Fire uses Lawrence Kohlberg’s Six Levels of Moral Development to help his economically challenged 5th grade students become the highest beings possible.  He goes over the levels with his students on the first day of school.  He doesn’t preach. He doesn’t use fear as a motivator. He creates awareness and embodies humility.  He incorporates music, theater and travel into the curriculum – think School of Rock with Shakespearean plays added in. He spends twelve hours a day six days a week (or more) 52 weeks a year with his students. Rafe is a teacher but his goal isn’t to have the best test scores in the district.  Rafe cares deeply about the character and souls of his students AND their education. Perhaps that is why he won Oprah’s Use Your Life Award and the Compassion in Action Award from the Dalai Lama. 


Kohlberg’s Six Levels define the stages of moral growth humans go through on their way to inner wealth.


Kohlberg’s Six Levels of Moral Development


I.                   I’ll do anything to avoid trouble.  I fear punishment.

II.                Reward as motivation.  I’ll do it for a cookie or a big salary. 

III.             I’ll do anything to please someone.  Mommy is this good?

IV.              I follow the rules.  Rule #27 No independent thinkers.

V.                 I have empathy for others.  I am considerate.

VI.              I am guided from within.  I don’t need recognition to be a good person.


As I read through each level I naturally place my own children at certain stages.  I also try to figure out where I land.  I honestly think I bounce around between Levels IV, V and VI (I’ve seen the light, it’s a flicker but it’s there) with an occasional dip down to Level I (more than I like to admit).


Level I:  Fear of trouble.  Most kindergarteners have a fear of getting in trouble with the teacher.  I know at my kids’ school they have red, yellow and green cards.  Kids start each day with a green card. If a child misbehaves he is asked to take a yellow card.  If she misbehaves repeatedly she is asked to take a red card and parents are notified.  My oldest son spent kindergarten paralyzed by the almighty red card.  The first thing he told me when he got off the bus each day was who got red cards.  He had to take a yellow card twice and about lost it. Did this fear affect his schoolwork?  Yes.


Level II: Reward as motivation. We all know individuals who would sell their soul for a grape.  Toys and money are their language of love.  But they are the extreme.  Most of us just want an atta’ girl or a pat on the back.  Year end bonuses and employee of the month plaques are nice but would we do the right thing if there was no reward?


Level III: Working to please others. Even the nerdiest nerds with few material desires often work their lives away for letters behind their name or fancy certificates to hang on the wall to please well-meaning parents or an idolized mentor.  What would they do if they navigated from their own hearts?


Level IV: Here are the rules. It’s comforting to know the rules.  It’s important to have boundaries and guidelines. It’s nice to have them spelled out so there is no second guessing.  I know I’ve posted House Rules in our kitchen with the hope that our kids would read and internalize them.  They couldn’t deny them because they existed in black and white.  I thought I was being open minded when I included the kids in the creation of the rules.  But when the rules got wet or torn down because I was on to my next hippie idea, they were quickly forgotten.  They weren’t following them because they believed in them.  They were following them because they existed or because they had to.


Level V: I feel you.  I think living on this earth two or three decades makes it easier to reach this level of development.  It takes a few bumps and bruises of our own to walk in someone else’s moccasins. True Level Fivers consider others’ feelings and needs.  Imagine people who do not talk loudly on their cell phones in public places, who allow others to merge in front of them in traffic and who genuinely want to help others with their skills and products. They are openly kind and considerate.

Level VI:  I know what I must do.  It is the rare individual that reaches Level VI status.  Lee Harper’s fictional character, Atticus Finch, of To Kill a Mockingbird, is a good example.  As a white southern attorney in the 1930s, he defends an innocent black man even when the community is eager to hang the defendant and willing to cause harm to Atticus and his family.  African anti-apartheid leader, Nelson Mandela is another Level Sixer.  They are humble, not flashy, heroes who have a code of behavior derived from within, not based on external motivation or recognition.  Do they have easy lives?  Are they revered or persecuted?


How Does This Stuff Go Over With Privileged Suburban Kids?


My husband and I sat in the living room with our three children and went over the six levels.  The poor kids, all they want is a mom who takes them to Dairy Queen and buys them cheap crap from Target, but no, sorry.


Our youngest had the most questions.  She wanted to understand and place herself.  The boys listened earnestly for a while as they remembered our family viewing of To Kill a Mockingbird.  They all could name teachers who use the fear of punishment style of teaching. They all pointed out times when we (the parents) rewarded them for behaving nicely. So Level II of us.  But then their attention dwindled. They went from slight couch slouching to faces between the cushions, bodies twitching.

I’m not sure how Rafe Esquith does it, although I suspect injecting music, theater, art and old fashioned hard work into the curriculum helps.  Even he loses faith sometimes when he gets beaten down by the system and apathy.  Most of his former students do not achieve perfect scores on their SATs or attend Juilliard but they do credit his small L.A. classroom for teaching them responsibility, trust, humility and passion for life. Rafe makes it clear that teachers, parents and students must respect each other and be willing to put forth great amounts of effort in order to be better humans, not just better mathematicians or musicians.  It is not easy and the motivation must come from within.

I’d like to think some of the character building ideas sunk in with my kids. Maybe someday I’ll catch them being an Atticus Finch when no one else is looking.  I can’t imagine a higher achievement.



Do you know anyone who has reached Level VI?  What kind of life do they lead?  Where do you fall in the stages of development?



More on consciousness development:

Are You Part of the Pecking Order or Are You Marking Your Territory?, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (meeting basic needs in order to reach the higher capabilities of creativity, consciousness and wisdom) and the Six Stages of Power by Janet Hagberg (powerless through powerful to power-free).**

More on school system alternatives and educational reform: Freedom to Learn  by Peter Gray

Related space2live posts:

15 Ways Art Saves Children from the Stupor of Standardized Tests 

More Than a Mom-Droid: Letting Children See Your Soul

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