Common Core: Building the Moral Infrastructure through Character Ed

Common Core

By Kristie Fink, CEP Education Advisory Council member

The Common Core has now been adopted by all but five states in the U.S., making it the topic of discussion in faculty rooms all across the country. It touts high standards that encapsulate the knowledge and skills students need for college, career and civic readiness in a 21st century global society, but will it really deliver on its promise?

There is much to like about the new Core. Governors and state superintendents all across the country collaborated to create it, reflecting our national ideals of state and local control of education. This collaboration has also resulted in developing high standards rooted in performance that meet our national goals of preparing every young person to be college-, career- and civically ready by high school graduation. The standards also draw heavily from best practices and research on what high-performing countries do.

The new standards could elegantly inform our journey a decade into this new century with a vision of what it means to be educated and prepared for the challenges of a new global society. The new Core proposes to make rigorous academic content accessible to all students so that all students can be successful. They represent a paradigm shift in that they move teachers away from an emphasis on preparing students for low level, multiple-choice tests to more real-world, performance-based assessments. The level of rigor has been increased, with daily reading and writing across the curriculum in a wide range of texts, including literary and informational, and increasing text complexity across disciplines.

So what’s missing that might help students grapple successfully with the increased rigor and expectation of performance in this new Core? While it lays out what students need to know and be able to do in a 21st century global society, it falls short on identifying what students need to “be like,” (term coined by Ivor Pritchard, senior researcher at the U.S. Department of Education) or the dispositions and qualities of character they will need to develop to be well-prepared for what it means to be educated in today’s world and beyond, and to be successful on high stakes performance tests. Some of these key learning, inquiry and literacy skills include collaboration, critical thinking, problem-solving, communicating, building arguments, creativity, planning, presenting and researching. Clearly character is implicitly built into the new standards, but is not explicitly named or identified as key to successful implementation of the standards. However, character is the important foundation and common denominator that will help students effectively cope with all of these greater demands.

The new Core makes it clear that it does not attempt to identify all that should or could be taught, or specify the supports that schools must continue to put in place to help all young people be successful. And these are standards—they don’t identify the curriculum or teaching and learning strategies that teachers will use. An important dimension of optimal school planning that will help both students and teachers transition effectively with the new standards includes a focus on the following:

•Explicit planning for the core civic and ethical values that young people will need to acquire to be college, career and civic ready, and to grapple with the greater performance demands of the Common Core

•Modeling core values and teaching a curriculum grounded in values so that young people have clearer visions of the kinds of people they might become

•Intentional planning and working towards a pervasive sense of community for every student and the caring relationships that foster optimal human development across all domains—intellectual, social/emotional and ethical

•Collaboration to create a school and classroom culture rooted in respect, responsibility and excellence, so that students not only develop moral character, (caring, respect, trustworthiness, for example) but the performance character they will need to successfully grapple with more rigorous standards, (diligence, effort, responsibility, for example)

•High quality teaching and learning with appropriate scaffolding and supports to help all young people be successful

•Collaboration among teachers, with support from administrators, to understand and plan for implementation of the Common Core

The Common Core lays out a clear vision of what it means to be educated in the twenty-first century. It will require educators to look deeply within themselves, reflect on what students most need to be prepared for a very different world than has existed in the past, and to move forward skillfully, courageously and gracefully so that every student can succeed, contribute and create happy and flourishing lives for themselves.


Member of Post-Columbine Generation Reflects on School Shooting

by Carol Dreibelbis, Education & Research Fellow

Monday, February 28th brought us news of another school shooting—this time in Chardon, OH. The entire country has been rocked by this violent act that killed three students and injured two others. This is news that we hope to never hear again.

I must admit that I was not shocked when I heard about the shooting. I had just turned 10 years old when the Columbine shooting occurred, so I’ve grown up with school shootings in the news. When I was in elementary school in Minnetonka, MN, a 5th grader brought a knife to school. Bomb scares happened every so often during middle school and high school, and gun scares were not unheard of on my college campus in Princeton, NJ. While some of us might deny that a school shooting could ever happen in our community, it seems all too possible to me.

Having graduated college back in June, I’m a relatively new employee here at CEP. Joining CEP has pushed me to think about issues such as school violence in new ways. I have realized that violence is something that schools can both prepare for—just as Chardon High School did by creating a response plan to deal with violence when it occurs—and prevent. Can we work toward a new future where shootings and other acts of violence are rarities in school settings? I think so.

We have all heard that instances of school shootings, teen suicides, and other violent acts have been connected to bullying and lack of acceptance at school. Given this, the shooting on Monday highlights the importance of creating safe and caring school communities. Comprehensive character education efforts can build an atmosphere where students feel included, connected, and part of their school community; where both students and teachers step up to report bullying and stand up for victims; where teachers check in with vulnerable or troubled students instead of hoping, “she’s fine” or “he’s too much trouble”; and where parents are involved and engaged. This may seem like just a dream to many, but it is achievable—just ask many of our National Schools of Character!

There are, of course, countless reasons why acts of violence take place in schools. Still, recent events in Chardon remind us that schools—together with parents and their communities—can work to minimize these occurrences. Let’s work together to make each student feel safe, valued, and strong enough to do the right thing.

Question: How does your school work to create a safe and caring school community? Please let us know by posting a comment below!


Character Education: “Not a quick fix, but well worth the effort”

Katie Hood

Katie Hood, Web Content Coordinator for CEP

Being a relatively new CEP staff member (I started in Sept.), I’m still learning a lot about character education. I know the basics now – start small, get leadership on board, engage your out-of-school community – but I am still amazed when I hear the National Schools of Character stories. True learning happens in these schools because students want to learn, teachers want to teach, and parents and community members support them.

I recently listened to a radio show that discusses issues in American education. This day’s particular show focused on character education, and featured CEP’s National Schools of Character director Lara Maupin, and Crestwood Elementary School (MO) principal Scott Taylor.

The most striking thing I realized while listening to the show was that the most common issues in education: bullying, poor academic performance, pressure for students to reach test scores rather than truly learn just aren’t issues at NSOCs.

Scott talked about how his school earned the “Nobel Prize of Education,” according to his superintendent. His school was the only school in 2011 to be distinguished as a Blue Ribbon School and also a National School of Character. He said in the show, “It’s a tremendous honor –really the highest honor you can achieve in education – and certainly we would not have accomplished that without the character program that we have in place.”

That struck a chord with me because the correlation is really becoming clear about how character education relates to students doing better and being better. They said that teachers have more time to teach when they use character education as the foundation of their pedagogy. Students hold themselves and each other accountable to the virtues and values that they establish as important in their school. These values are typically respect, responsibility, honesty, doing your best – standards that most agree are positive. That way, teachers can spend their time teaching instead of disciplining students’ bad behavior.

It is important, they say, for the school community (students, parents, teachers, administrators, community leaders) to all discuss and reach consensus about the values taught. There is no one-size-fits-all character education program that works for everyone, but there are principles that can help guide all schools in providing quality character education. And these principles work for all types of schools – urban, rural, suburban, rich, poor, middle-income, minority, homogeneous, you name it.

Character education is not an add-on. It’s the foundation. And “when parents, staff, and students come together – great things happen,” says Principal Taylor. The proof is in the 170 NSOCs. Lara says, “In all of our NSOCs, we’ve seen the metrics go in the right direction, for both academic and discipline and behavior.”

Listening to this show really helped me understand how effective, comprehensive character education can be a part of the reform so obviously needed in American schools.


When Legal Isn’t Enough: Penn State’s Administrators’ Moral Character Issues

Joe Paterno, head football coach of the Nittany Lions for 45 years, lost his job after failing to report child sex abuse to legal authorities. He did alert proper university authorities.

As you have probably heard by now, Penn State’s illustrious football program is in shambles following allegations that several boys were molested by Jerry Sandusky, former defensive coordinator, in a Penn State facility as part of a program hosted by the school.

The school officials’ decision not to report the assault to the police is disappointing, shocking, and unfathomable for many.

The events are not only an embarrassment to the school, but raise serious issues about the school’s quality of ethics in its leaders. The university fired legendary coach Joe Paterno and several other high-ranking officials since they failed to report the abuse to authorities.

A letter from Penn State University president Rodney Erickson stated his commitment to reinforce the moral imperative of doing the right thing, to lead by example, to be transparent during investigations, to respect the victims and their families, and to provide resources to help prevent future attacks.

Sadly, however, this is not the first time Penn State (and other colleges and universities nationally) has turned a blind eye to sexual offenses. It’s common practice, according to a 2010 report by the Center for Public Integrity.

46 forcible sex offenses were reported at Penn State from 2008-2010 as part of the Clery Act, yet only two were deemed actual offenses by Pennsylvania State Police. No arrests were made.

So the questions are:

How do we ensure that our leaders lead with integrity? That power is held through doing what is morally and ethically correct? That our children are raised in a world of upstanders instead of bystanders and abusers?

How are you starting the conversation in your classrooms or homes? Does one bad act make someone a bad person? How is character fostered, and how can it be shattered? What’s more important: reputation or character?

What can character educators and leaders do to better stress doing what is morally and ethically right, rather than just doing what is legal?

Matthew Davidson, leading researcher and expert on excellence and ethics, posted an interesting and insightful reaction to this case. Read it here.

Share your thoughts here. We care what you have to say!


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.