WASHINGTON (BP)–Character education is moving to the top of the school reform agenda. Sixteen states now mandate or encourage it through legislation. Thirty-six states and Washington, D.C., have received federal grants to develop character education initiatives. The two presidential candidates support it.
But skeptics and naysayers abound.
We hear that character education is mostly superficial, just another “add-on” that changes little. Moreover, we’re told that with all of the emphasis on testing these days, schools don’t have time for anything that takes away from academics.
This skepticism isn’t without foundation. In some schools, “character education” is nothing more than a few lessons that have little impact on the culture of the school or on student behavior.
It’s also true that in too many districts the pressure to raise test scores pushes everything else off the table.
The challenge for those who advocate teaching character in schools is to prove that it works — if it’s done right.
The Character Education Partnership met this challenge when it recently announced the 2000 National Schools of Character awards. Nine schools and one district were recognized for “their exemplary work to encourage the social, ethical and academic development of their students through character education.”
Consider Kennerly Elementary School in St. Louis. The school’s motto, “Friends Learning Together,” is reflected in everything from classroom lessons to extracurricular activities. Teachers routinely integrate discussions of core values into all subjects. Students frequently talk about problems and concerns in class meetings.
Visit Kennerly and you’ll find kids helping other kids through a variety of in-school service opportunities. Many are also involved in community service projects, from helping a nearby school devastated by a flood to collecting supplies for poor families with newborn babies.
For those who need quantifiable evidence that character education works, Kennerly reports that office referrals have declined 60 percent since the initiative began five years ago. Over the same period, the percentage of fourth-graders reading at or above grade level has risen from the mid-70s to 96 percent.
Although most of this year’s Schools of Character are elementary schools, South Carroll High School in Sykesville, Md., demonstrates that teenagers aren’t too old for character education. Teaching good character begins with the principal and the teachers who take responsibility for being good role models. Moral values are then infused into the curriculum, and the issue of character becomes part of many lessons.
In a science research course, for example, students are responsible for designing projects and writing grants to fund them. They’ve accomplished amazing things, from a conservation effort involving the Chesapeake Bay to building a wheel-chair-accessible wetlands trail behind the school.
Does creating a moral climate in a high school do anything to improve academic achievement? At South Carroll, SAT scores have risen steadily over the past five years. And the school won a state Blue Ribbon Award for exemplary academic achievement and a positive teaching environment.
In these and other Schools of Character, teaching and modeling core moral values such as honesty, caring, respect and responsibility are at the heart of the school’s educational mission.
When done right, character education isn’t a “program,” it’s an initiative that transforms the entire school culture.
To learn more about the National Schools of Character and the Character Education Partnership, visit the Character Education Partnership website (www.character.org) or call 1-800-988-8081.
Haynes is senior scholar/religious freedom programs with the First Amendment Center’s office in Arlington, Va. Your questions and comments are welcome. Write to Charles Haynes at the First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave. S., Nashville, Tenn. 37212. E-mail address: [email protected].