Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Character Education

At All-American High we've been thinking a lot about character education this school year. At the beginning of the year there were several fights that took place on campus, an occurrence that had been unusual in prior years. We also had a streaker at one of our football games. These events happening so early in the year caused us to take some time out to evaluate what we've been doing in regard to promoting good character among our students and how effective it's been.

We've had several programs in place for a number of years, including announcements each morning that are keyed to our district's core values, recognition of students for good attitude as well as for other more common areas of recognition such as academics and athletics, and an extensive program that encourages students to volunteer in the community.

Still, in our process of evaluating the program this year, teachers have brought up concerns about cheating, disrespect toward staff and students, compliance with school policies, and student use of drugs and alcohol. When asked what traits an "ideal" All-American High student would exhibit in regard to character they list things like honesty, responsibility, respect, tolerance, and good judgment. That's hard to argue with, but the question is how do we get there?

What I notice is that many, many of our students already have these traits. As usual, it's the ones that don't who stand out, leading some of our teachers to lament "the state of youth today." Comments were made in a meeting today about how "values just aren't being taught at home like they were when we were young." Don't worry, parents of today, I stood up for you. I mentioned that as a parent of younger children I objected to that generalization. The response was, "Well, of course you're doing a good job, but fewer parents today are than they used to."

This brings me to my questions of the day. What should schools be teaching kids about values? In your opinion, what's the best way to get that message across? And, the big ones, do kids have less character today than in previous generations, and are today's parents falling down on the character education front?

4 comments:

Doc Thelma said...

I think the most important character lesson that schools can teach is not to bully others, physically or verbally. Of all undesirable behaviors that could crop up with kids, this is the one that is most harmful to the learning enironment.

Frankly, I think schools and kids are better about this now than they were when I was in school

Christina said...

Had a discussion with another parent who lives in our high school district. The biggest issue in our are has to be entitlement. We have a lot of spoiled, financially pampered kids. They are used to being bailed out, rescued, bought out of sticky situations (think of our President, cough cough). Anyway, the other mom suggested that instead of sending kids to camps in the wilderness, we should drop bus loads of them off into the roughest, poorest areas of town and see how long they survive! Of course that is terribly drastic, but a variation on that idea might not be a bad lesson for some very privileged kids to learn ;->

Hifi said...

Your article about character education has left me greatly concerned. Your statements repeat much of character education myth. The truth is that character education is not at all what it's cracked up to be.

I am continually baffled at how character education - which on the surface of it sounds great - can win funding and accolades while never demonstrating evidence of either need or results. Is all that is required for adoption is a slick marketing campaign to the politicians and school boards in order to acquire popular support (complete with entreaties to emotional and fear issues and a healthy dose of language from pop psychology and a wink to Christian religion) and then you are done? Who could object to "character education", right?

Moreover, the phrase functions wonderfully as political catchword. Yet, even President Bush, asks that "the adoption of public programs should be results-based". In that view, the adoption of character education in our community should be seriously questioned.

Research on the subject and has yet to turn up one peer-reviewed study demonstrating any scientifically validated need for or result from character education programs. On the other hand, flaws in the "research" showing "correlations" are well documented. There is really no excuse for a reputable study to not have been conducted at this point - especially, when considering that character education has no basis in accepted educational theory in the first place. such a dearth of validity makes it hard to just give it the benefit of the doubt.

What's worse, the actual peer reviewed studies that have been done, show character education programs to be not only ineffectual, but "negatively correlated" with results!

Today's character education would seem to fall right in line with a string of similarly flawed and famously failed school programs: "religious education", "moral education", "values education"... However, not to be deterred by lack of results, character education programs abound, forging ahead – each trotting out entirely different lists of politically-entangled core values and means for implementing them! Their criticisms of each other are enlightening.

Certainly it is unfortunate for the entire field that there is no valid psychological definition of "character". The term has no clinical meaning; which probably explains why there can be no way to measure if an individual has a deficit of it, or if a school program can improve it. If there was anything quantifiable, one might be able to judge the benefit of one approach over the other – or any benefit at all.

It is telling, perhaps, that the one thing they all agree on is that the end goal is the child or employee's compliance with authority and conformity with conservative values. Is that, now, how we wish to define the greatness of America's national "character" these days? What about the spirit of inquiry, independence and innovation that defines the true character of a great nation? On the "Magic school Bus" TV show, the class slogan is "Get Messy, Take Risks, Make Mistakes", just the opposite of the goals on character education lists.

To his credit, Michael Josephson, founder and head of Character Counts!, admits in personal correspondence that I may be right on these points, because... well, who really knows?

Sure, on the surface of it, who wouldn't be in favor of something as grand sounding as character education? Yet, slick marketing aside, that is not enough to justify exposing our children to such an unknown, ideologically-driven quantity. As far as the schools go, even if character education could be proven to achieve its aims, public education has no business taking the culture wars to our children.

The best academic minds in the business recommend, instead, focusing on an even playing field for all people by correcting antagonistic factors in the social structure; and in the case of students, provide solid verifiable information, the critical thinking skills to separate the "angles" and hype from the truth, and then let them decide for themselves what kind of society they will create for themselves.

In sum, character education sure sounds good - if only it worked.

For references, please see http://members.cox.net/patriotismforall/character_ed_links.html


"Teachers and schools tend to mistake good behavior for good character. What they prize is docility, suggestibility; the child who will do what he is told; or even better, the child who will do what is wanted without even having to be told. They value most in children what children least value in themselves. small wonder that their effort to build character is such a failure; they don't know it when they see it."

-- How Children Fail, John Holt

Rambling Mom said...

lsm - "The state of youth today" is nothing new ....

I'll offer two opinions - not my own ....

Children today are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.

Socrates (469 BC - 399 BC)

More recent (but certainly not yesterday)

(from Bye Bye Birdie) (first performed in 1960)

Kids!
I don't know what's wrong with these kids today!
Kids!
Who can understand anything they say?
Kids!
They are disobedient, disrespectful oafs!
Noisy, crazy, dirty, lazy, loafers!
While we're on the subject:
Kids!
You can talk and talk till your face is blue!
Kids!
But they still just do what they want to do!
Why can't they be like we were,
Perfect in every way?
What's the matter with kids today?
Kids!
I've tried to raise him the best I could
Kids! Kids!
Laughing, singing, dancing, grinning, morons!
And while we're on the subject!
Kids! They are just impossible to control!
Kids! With their awful clothes and their rock an' roll!
Why can't they dance like we did
What's wrong with Sammy Caine?
What's the matter with kids today!