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Character Compass: How Powerful School Culture Can Point Students Toward Success

reviewed by Carmen Elinor James - October 23, 2014

coverTitle: Character Compass: How Powerful School Culture Can Point Students Toward Success
Author(s): Scott Seider
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1612504868, Pages: 296, Year: 2012
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Scott Seider’s book Character Compass: How Powerful School Culture Can Point Students Towards Success comes at a timely moment when character education has received increased attention for two disparate reasons. In the first camp, building character is seen as providing immediate benefits in improving performance on high-stakes tests. This view is a competitive and individualistic view of human performance. The second camp sees character as a humanizing element of education and a broader societal aim. Supporting the view of the second camp, recent research has shown that community and character development can increase student motivation, engagement, and academic success, as well as student ability to relate and work well with others.


Seider squarely addresses the first individualistic view of character education. Angela Duckworth, who helped design the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter school’s character program, believes that pre-set character traits, or ‘virtues,’ like grit and optimism, can be taught to ensure students’ academic, professional, and personal success (Tough, 2013). The enthusiasm behind harnessing the ‘power of habit’ (Duhigg, 2014) in schools to ensure academic, personal, and professional success is geared to an individualistic view of character education. Seider raises the concern that “the latest iteration of character education seeks to foster in students the qualities possessed by entrepreneurs and politicians” (p. 3), a project not only antithetical to the complex project of developing and forming character in individuals, but also potentially fraught with detrimental effects. Jeffrey Aaron Snyder (2014) similarly notes, “Following the KIPP growth card protocol, Bernie Madoff’s character point average, for instance, would be stellar. He was, by most accounts, an extremely hard working, charming, wildly optimistic man.”

Seider argues that the community must play a leading role in character education programs. In his view, the community creates the context in which character can develop. He believes the context will necessarily determine the exact type of character education program that works best, but in all cases context and community are essential ingredients. He engages in a two-year empirical study of three Boston area charter schools with a team of researchers with the aim of identifying and understanding a character education program that is holistic and exemplary. While not perfect, he believes these three schools have taken significant steps in the right direction. Seider covers lessons learned and underscores implications that he believes are relevant for public, private, and charter schools in an effort to “broaden the current dialogue about character education through portraits of three high performing schools” (p. 5). While not prescriptive, the research is meant to offer concrete examples of how character education can be done well.

Seider’s first chapter develops the idea of character as intertwined with culture and community by specifically looking at the role of the all-school meeting. The following six chapters discuss each school in succession: Boston Prep, Roxbury Prep, and Pacific Rim (with two chapters dedicated to each school). In the concluding chapter, “Building Powerful School Culture Through Character Development,” Seider returns to the role of the community in character formation. In contrast to the view that character is about unreflective and rote habits for attaining success, Seider emphasizes the moral dimension of character. Using the work of developmental psychologist Marvin Berkowitz, Seider defines character as a “set of psychological characteristics that motivate and enable individuals to function as competent moral agents” (p. 21) and character education as the process fostering this development.


Each school, though similar, took on distinct projects. Seider writes, “all three schools aspire to have a positive effect upon their students morale, performance, and civic character development, but there are also clear differences across the three schools in the particular character strengths they have chosen to emphasize throughout their curriculum, pedagogy, and practice” (p. 41). In this review, I focus on Boston Prep as it was the most successful model, assuming success is measured by high levels of ethical behavior. More specifically, Boston Prep showed the greatest levels of integrity and empathy.

Seider attributes the success of Boston Prep over the other two schools to its dual emphasis on performance character and moral character development, “such as integrity and respect” (p. 52). That is, the school focused on intellectual and moral development as equally important and relied on a common language for student growth.

The school’s strong culture of ethics is built on five virtues: courage, compassion, integrity, perseverance, and respect. All incoming students learn the virtues during at-home visits (p. 53) and during a weeklong orientation specifically dedicated to the virtues. Every week, a student who exemplifies one of the five key virtues receives a W.E.B. Du Bois award. Du Bois, the first African American to attend Harvard, is seen as exemplifying “scholarship, integrity” (p. 54), and the powerful force character plays in achieving one’s dreams. Students attend ethics classes throughout the year; each unit is dedicated to understanding a virtue through philosophical texts and dialogue about case examples and experiences from students’ lives.

Seider also shares Boston Prep’s challenges with the character program. In 2011, half the senior class refused to sign the Honor Code because of a clause stipulating that if students saw someone acting immorally and did not say something they were as responsible as the perpetrator of the unethical act. In this case, students believed that the clause could—in some instances—go against their own sense of what is right. The honor code forced students to contend with two conflicting aims (e.g., friendship vs. an obligation to the school), but did not equip them with ways of reflecting on and deliberating with one another about the conflict.  

Despite the disagreement between the students and the school, the community discussed the dispute openly together. Boston Prep’s sense of community, along with its common ethical language, is for Seider the greatest success of the school’s program.

Some teachers, however, worry that the students hear the language of virtue so much they “tune [it] out” (p. 69), and “the language of the virtue replaces genuine reflection rather than enhancing it” (p. 69). Others feel the language of the five virtues is a little forced.

The critique from teachers raises the question: what is the aim of teaching the philosophy of ethics to students and what framework guides the work? Seider incompletely addresses related and important work on teaching philosophy as a way to develop character and foster communities of ethical inquiry. He problematically characterizes Matthew Lipman’s work in Philosophy for Children as overly focused on developing academic skills such as critical thinking, rather than moral development. While Lipman views the moral and intellectual as inextricable, it is also worth noting that Lipman represents but one tradition addressing these questions. There is a range of ideas—from philosophizing about children, to teaching philosophy to children, to children doing philosophy—that vary in the degree to which students have a voice and are part of the philosophical project. Although Seider begins to introduce the subject, other research in this area merits the reader’s attention.

Boston Prep’s program is not easily defined by existing frameworks. In one of the examples Seider offers, students learn about friendship from Aristotle’s Ethics. The teacher guides the reading of the text and and leads discussion about how Aristotle’s view of friendship can inform their views. In examples with the older students, the students are encouraged to view themselves as part of a critically reflective community of inquiry. It is too large a topic to tackle here, but the question of how and in which way we should habituate students to virtues by explicitly teaching them virtuous behavior is a contentious one. Dewey and Rousseau might take issue with this kind of direct training, and current neo-Aristotelian philosophers have some trouble with the idea: Kristján Kristjánsson (2006) observes that “direct habituation, where the relevant virtues are made to seep into student’s personalities like dye into wool” is not effective, and worries that contemporary character education programs often draw on ancient notions of character in problematic ways. Nevertheless, direct habituation is the position Aristotle took; as Seider shows, it still merits attention.


A central conclusion Seider makes is that “the choices made by school leaders and faculty about which character strengths to emphasize [have] profound effects upon their students’ beliefs, values and actions” (p. 15). As he explicitly explores with Boston Prep, the shared language around virtues allows teachers, school leaders, and students to engage in ethical dialogue, evaluate moral activity, and set goals for improvement.

Seider’s central research question asks, “How precisely does a common language around the virtues promote the development of students’ moral character” (p. 65)? Articulating a clear answer to this question allows teachers, educational researchers, and administrators to organize themselves effectively to teach character education. Ultimately, since a community is not a fixed enterprise—instead a necessarily a fluid and adapting group—the answer to this question cannot be fixed.

In the end, Seider paints a picture of three schools seeking to engage in the difficult task of teaching character. He offers vivid, lively, and descriptive accounts of the community meetings and classes at each school. His accounts allow the reader to feel, if only for a moment, what it would be like to be sitting in each school. His positive and encouraging tone is an important reminder that it took courage for these three schools to engage in such a momentous task, and required perseverance for them to see it through. In short, the three schools embody the virtues they seek to teach in their relentless dedication to the project of teaching and learning.


Dewey, J. (1975). Moral principles in education. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Duhigg, C. (2014). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York: Random House.

Kennedy, D. (2012). Lipman, Dewey, and the community of philosophical inquiry. Education & Culture, 28(2), 36–53.

Kristjánsson, K. (2006). Habituated reason, Aristotle, and the ‘paradox of moral education.’ Theory and Research in Education, 4(1), 101–22.

Rousseau, J. (1979). Emile: or, On education. New York: Basic Books.

Snyder, A. J. (2014, May 6). Teaching kids 'grit' is all the rage. Here's what's wrong with it. New Republic. Retrieved from http://www.newrepublic.com/article/117615/problem-grit-kipp-and-character-based-education

Tough, P. (2013). How children succeed: Grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character. New York: Random House.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 23, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17733, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 11:50:43 PM

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About the Author
  • Carmen James
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    CARMEN ELINOR JAMES is a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University in the Philosophy and Education Program. She also holds a Masters degree from the same program. Her research focus is on the pedagogical and ethical habits of teachers and reflective and metacognitive practices in schools. She has presented at the The Second International Theorising Education Conference (2012), the Academy for Education Studies 2010 Critical Questions in Education Conference, and the Middle Atlantic States Philosophy of Education Society Annual Meeting. She completed her undergraduate degree at Harvard University, majoring in Comparative Literature.
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