Resistance to Character Education

by Sarah Twardock, Fundraising and Research Fellow at CEP

The mere mention of the words “character education” inevitably sparks resistance among certain populations.

If my students don’t get certain test scores, my job is in jeopardy, asserts the overworked teacher. I don’t have time to teach math AND character.

“What do you mean, you’re going to teach my child character?” questions a suspicious parent. “I don’t want the school to teach him something against my values.”

 People are going to be mean no matter what you try to teach them, argues the jaded teenager. All of these “character” programs are a big joke.

These statements are valid—if you are referring to a very limited, narrow approach to character education. We all know the type. It’s characterized by inspirational posters on the wall, times set aside throughout the school year to didactically teach students about a particular character trait, and outdated videos that oversimplify the nuances and challenges facing young people developing a personal code of ethics. Yes, the core values highlighted on the posters and in the designated “character times” are concepts we can all agree upon—surely, that suspicious parent would not object to her son learning about respect, responsibility, integrity, and perseverance. Yet this rather half-hearted attempt to promote the values essential to a student’s (and society’s) optimal development while appeasing the naysayers is not particularly effective, and it has created a widespread misconception of character education as the “soft” part of education that is difficult to dispel.

Difficult, yes, but impossible, no. The case for character education is certainly there. Numerous studies (Angela Duckworth’s grit scale and Joseph Durlak’s meta-analysis of SEL programs come to mind) have shown that particular character traits—such as being able to persevere in the face of failure, make responsible decisions and goals, recognize and manage emotions, establish positive relationships, and constructively handle interpersonal situations, among others—predict success above and beyond IQ. Given that schools were created to equip young people with the skills necessary to succeed in and eventually lead our society, it seems irrefutable that they should not only help their students to attain certain test scores, but also intentionally work to develop these personal qualities in students that enable them to succeed beyond the classroom as well.

The framework for developing a comprehensive, successful character education program is also in place. A growing number of schools across the country have used the Eleven Principles of Effective Character Education to bring staff, parents, and, most importantly, students, together to create a more caring and productive learning environment. Those schools that have received the highest marks according to the 11 Principles assessment tool saw numerous concrete indicators of whole school improvement. For example, students were treating others with more respect. Violence and bullying decreased. Substance abuse declined. Teacher morale and retention improved. Parental involvement increased. And, of course, that lynchpin of all good schools, academic achievement, also significantly improved.

The question remains, then, how to take these success stories to the masses and publicize what effective character education really looks like. If teachers knew that effective character education is the cultivation of a nurturing classroom culture rather than an additional item to fit into the busy school day, they wouldn’t feel as though their agenda were too jam-packed for character. If parents knew that their children would be encouraged to reach their fullest potential in a more respectful environment, they wouldn’t view character education as an attempt to undermine their role as primary moral educators. And if students were involved in creating their own character development initiatives, they wouldn’t dismiss them as an outdated waste of time.

Please help CEP spread the word on what effective character education is and what it is not. We’d love to hear your ideas on how we can further the movement!


Technology and Character Education

By Lindsey Wright

The use of technology has been a growing force in education. Once, classrooms were relatively isolated, nestled into a school in a suburb, small town or city. Now, regardless of physical location, today’s students have access to the larger world through the Internet. However, the focus of education itself has not necessarily changed.

Educating has always been about preparing students to be successful citizens, in whatever way possible. Strong reading, writing and math skills continue to be important, as does character. Being able to get along with others, having self-control and patience, being honest and trustworthy: these have always been traits teachers have hoped to instill in their students, and that remains true today.

Strong character is essential in the use of technology used for classroom learning. The Internet itself is a wide source of knowledge, as well as being the gateway to further content. As students attending traditional and online schools alike begin to use the Internet more and more for research, they need to learn how to utilize this tool in an ethical manner. Thus, teachers should inform students how to find credible websites when working on research projects as well as how to properly cite their sources in order to avoid plagiarism. Teaching students how to use the Internet responsibly early on will not only help students academically but also teach them to respect the work of others.

Good character is also imperative when using the Internet in a more social way. As students interact on the web, they are becoming digital citizens. Just as they must learn to adapt to their role as members of their school community, they must learn that, when they participate online, they are creating an identity representing themselves, and possibly their school.

The use of social networking has the potential to create problems, as students use sites like Facebook to connect and communicate. As a result, issues such as gossip and bullying are no longer left behind when the school day ends, since student communication continues online. Bullying, in particular, has reached new levels with the advent of cyberbullying. Luckily, there are several things students, parents and teachers can do to prevent this. A website created to help promote positive interaction on the Internet gives some excellent tips.

While there are potential problems in the use of technology, it is an excellent instructional tool for developing good character. Social interactions within the school, in the classroom, in the cafeteria and on the playground have always provided excellent teaching opportunities. The Internet simply provides another venue. Teachers can teach proper behavior and take opportunities to get involved and correct when needed. Finally, teachers can model good behavior by considering what they say online, and being cognizant that nothing is private on the Internet.

With the increase in the use of technology, a focus on the basics of good character must be maintained. Being able to interact well with others has always been crucial, but perhaps even more so now, as students are conversing with people across the world, and of many different backgrounds and races. As the world gets smaller, being able to participate in that world in a positive way is more than important than ever.

This post was written by guest contributor Lindsey Wright, a freelance writer who is fascinated with the potential of emerging educational technologies, particularly the online school, to transform the landscape of learning. She writes about web-based learning, electronic and mobile learning, and the possible future of education.

To learn more about educating students for digital citizenship, don’t miss the keynote panel at the upcoming National Forum on Character Education and the remarks of digital citizenship expert, Dr. Jason Ohler.


Where Gardens Grow Character

We believe gardening in schools is a necessity.

Most of us probably know that school gardens are a great teaching tool that can be used to enrich curriculum and improve physical health, but we believe in gardens as a way to grow character.  We see this everyday in our garden.

We see children sharing, working hard, and being kind. We watch kids grow responsibility as well as vegetables. We see kids engaged, excited, motivated, and proud of their school.  We watch as kids make connections between their school, their community, and the planet.

New research published by the Royal Horticulture Society (and who knows gardening better!) shows that as well as helping children lead happier, healthier lives, gardening “helps them acquire the essential skills they need to fulfill their potential in a rapidly-changing world and make a positive contribution to society as a whole.”

In fact, evidence suggests that gardening can play such a vital role that we believe every child should be given the chance to experience the benefits. So we will be sharing what we’ve learned along the way- how to start and maintain a school garden, how gardens create opportunities to embed character education principles, and what kids, teachers, and families have to say about gardening at the 18th National Forum on Character Education.

Our presentation “Where Gardens Grow Character”  on Friday, Oct. 21 at 2:15 will include opportunities to share your school garden stories and you’ll walk away with: a list of gardening resources we’ve found helpful; a bibliography of garden research; and a hand made memento from our beloved garden.

Please join us!  Because gardening in schools is a necessity.

Posted by Susi Jones, Tricia Elisara, Nancy Younce, Julian Elementary School, a 2010 National School of Character


Start the School Year Off Right

Students set personal goals at the start of the year.

 A focus on the whole child and each child’s moral and social development pervades the program at Beauvoir the National Cathedral Elementary School, a 2011 National School of Character. The school invests a great deal of time and resources into the “social curriculum,” which is seen as being just as important as, and even part of, the academic curriculum.

All classes spend the first 6 weeks of the school year developing class norms according to the Responsive Classroom methodology. Part of this is the development of class constitutions, contracts, or promises.

Students also set specific personal goals called “hopes and dreams.” Both are posted and referred to regularly in each classroom. During daily morning meetings in each classroom, students greet each other, play a game together, share something of importance to one or more students, and read the morning message.

Even the youngest Beauvoir students start the year with learning the social curriculum in age-appropriate ways. When entering Pre-K, all students are given stuffed bears that they name, make clothes for, and then use for role playing throughout their first two years at Beauvoir. The bears are a tool to teach empathy teachers adapted from the book Bears, Bears, Everywhere by Luella Connelly.

Beauvoir is one of five cathedral schools located in the U.S. and one of three on the beautifully maintained grounds of the National Cathedral located in Washington, DC. Beauvoir is a private primary school, serving preschool aged children through third graders.

Beauvoir will be presenting at the 18th National Forum on Character Education in San Francisco, Oct. 19-22.


Attending the Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools annual conference

Federal education conference emphasizes the importance of school climate

by Lara Maupin, Director SSOC/NSOC

Kristen Pelster, Principal at Ridgewood Middle School in Missouri

Joe Mazzola and I attended the Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools annual conference this week. We were quite pleased to see the Department’s emphasis on how school climate can enhance the conditions for learning reflected in the selection of keynote speakers and workshops. Researchers and practitioners shared how improving school climate can improve academic achievement and reduce bullying.

We were especially thrilled that the Department asked dynamic principal Kristen Pelster of Ridgewood Middle School in Missouri to be the kickoff keynote speaker. Kristen told her school’s powerful story of transformation from the worst school in the district to National School of Character. How did they do it? Character education! By holding kids to high expectations and giving them the support they needed to meet those expectations, Ridgewood culture began to change. Over time, Kristen was able to empower her teachers and students. Without changing anything about how they taught academics, Ridgewood students improved academically. Of course, this is a story we know well at CEP. We see it repeated time and time again in our Continue reading