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November 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 3

Character Education Without Turmoil

When districts build commitment from staff and community members from the beginning, the journey to values education doesn't have to be turbulent.

Three years ago, when our new superintendent discovered that the district was considering values education, he had great concern about the potential for a political firestorm. Over time, however, his apprehension diminished. A situation that might have turned into chaos is proceeding quite calmly. As he and I pondered the reasons, we realized that a combination of our process, rationale, and content has produced a high level of community support for the undertaking. Possibly the how, why, and what of our values education journey offer a lesson for others.

How We Began

Our journey started in 1989, when the president of our teachers' association, the president of our PTA Council, and I discussed our common belief that the schools should play a role in character development. To define what that role might be, we formed a study group of 10 people, including teachers, parents, and administrators. We read the research, defined terms, debated issues, and contacted various resources.
Our first priority, we agreed, should be to increase staff and community awareness of the issues surrounding character education. We brought Tom Lickona, author of Raising Good Children and Educating for Character, to the district for a daylong program for staff and an evening program for parents. More than 100 teachers and administrators signed up for a workshop that could accommodate only 60 people. For the evening program, more than 700 people paid two dollars each to hear Lickona.
As a result of that productive day, we identified a critical mass of staff and parents committed to schools' playing a major role in character education. In the months following the workshop, 40 teachers joined an expanded values education study group, which met after school (without any monetary compensation to participants). Later, when 25 teachers, administrators, students, school directors, and parents assembled to write a Strategic Plan for the district, three of the nine strategies they identified directly addressed character education.
After writing the district's Strategic Plan, we formed committees to develop action plans for each of the nine strategies. This meant that the number of people involved in character education grew once more. For us, the important lesson of our journey was building commitment to values education through a series of activities that progressively enlarged the number of participants. As the circle of shareholders grew, so did commitment. When the Strategic Planning Team pointed the district in the direction of character education, district leaders were not surprised. They had seen an initiative taking form and commitment building among staff and parents from the outset—a factor that may be critical for most districts, given the potential volatility of values education.

Why We Continued

The original group that studied character education identified three compelling reasons for schools to play a prominent role in nurturing the development of values.
First, America's public schools have historically viewed character development as a major mission. In fact, our early schools treated the transmission of knowledge as secondary to character development. Students needed to be literate in order to read the Bible. Anyone who has ever examined a McGuffey Reader knows that moral messages were an integral part of the series. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, many public schools abandoned systematic, formal attention to character education beginning in the late 1960s.
Second, values education is an intrinsic part of teaching. A teacher can't establish classroom rules, relate to kids, or discuss a piece of literature without communicating values. If a teacher fails to treat a student with dignity, the teacher conveys a value. If a teacher allows cheating in the classroom, he or she conveys a value. As a former English teacher, I could not lead a discussion of Great Expectations without exploring the values behind the actions of Pip and the other characters.
Third, there are compelling social reasons for schools to play a role in character education. A quick sampling of studies conducted by academicians, nonprofit organizations such as the Girl Scouts of America, and law enforcement agencies such as the FBI suggest a culture that is racing down a moral rapids. The data reveal significant increases in violent crimes committed by children (Postman 1982), cheating and lying as the norm, and the greatest moral ambiguity among the children of taxpayers in the highest brackets (Coles and Genevie 1990).
In 1940, when a radio network conducted a survey about discipline concerns in the schools, the top seven problems were talking, chewing gum, making noise, running in the halls, getting out of turn in line, wearing improper clothing, and not putting paper in the wastebasket. When the study was replicated in 1980, the top seven problems were drug abuse, alcohol abuse, pregnancy, suicide, rape, robbery, and assault. Also listed in this survey were arson, gang warfare, and venereal disease. The changes offer a powerful commentary on our society.
Although many district teachers were nurturing values in their classrooms, as a school system we lacked a formal, systematic program for character development. Our Strategic Plan generated that program.

What We Want to Accomplish

The action plans developed by the committees reflect the thinking of character educators who believe that schools must take a comprehensive approach in order to positively influence the ethical development of students (Lickona 1991). That is, all segments of the school community must feel a responsibility for nurturing the moral development of students. Character education must pervade all aspects of a school's operation and influence its ethos.
  1. Identify a core of values as the heart of our character education efforts. After a brainstorming activity, we came up with more than 40 values. After comparing our list to one developed by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (1988), we concluded that, with minor changes, that statement would meet our needs. These values are being incorporated into each of the character education action plans.
  2. Present the strategies to the staff and community. To increase support for the character education strategies and to recruit volunteers for the committees responsible for implementing the plans, we brought Tom Lickona back to the district. In a presentation to all district employees, he emphasized the importance of our undertaking in the context of a growing national movement. For community members, we presented a series of programs sponsored by the PTA and a local mental health agency.
  3. Write the core values into the existing K–12 curriculum. Rather than add a separate curriculum to our program, we feel that our current offerings provide a better way of approaching the core values. The committee, which has spent a year studying how to integrate the core values into the curriculum, was directed to use approaches that combine the character education and stage development schools of thought. At the elementary level, the committee selected the Heartwood Program, a multicultural, literature-based program that will fit easily into the district's reading curriculum. The committee is currently investigating ways of merging the core values into the secondary program.
  4. Ask each school in the district to write a behavior code that reflects our core values. Notice that I used the word behavior, not discipline. Certainly, the behavior code will have a disciplinary element, but we are seeking a code that reflects the moral discipline approach advocated by Lickona (1991); that is, one that is pro-social and problem solving in orientation, and that describes the behaviors we want students and staff to exhibit as evidence of a caring school. The committees developing these codes at the building level will consist of parents, students, and staff.
  5. Encourage all employee groups to acknowledge their role in the development of ethical students. Each employee group will provide a representative to a committee that will develop a district code of ethics. Then, each employee group will be asked to adapt that plan for its own group's use and to display it in its work area. Again, this plan reflects our belief that character education efforts must involve all parties with a stake in the outcome.
  6. Provide an ongoing character education parenting program for the community. This program will offer different options for parents of preschool, primary, intermediate, middle-level, and high school students. Here, the district's role will be that of broker rather than delivery system. We have developed partnerships with two local mental health agencies to provide the parenting program.
  7. Develop community service programs at both elementary and secondary levels. This plan reflects the core value that “... the morally mature person demonstrates active responsibility for the welfare of others ...” (ASCD 1988). A controversial aspect is the required participation of high school students. Critics argue that mandatory public service runs counter to the altruistic spirit that should characterize the undertaking.
  8. Ask each school to “create a caring environment that ensures the success of each student.” At the elementary level, committees are examining developmentally appropriate practices. At the junior high school, middle school practices such as advisory programs and teaming are being set in motion. The high school is engaged in leadership training and other activities.

A Commitment to Character Education

What will these changes mean in the lives of our students? How will we know whether the character education strategies have any impact? Those are difficult questions, which we are just beginning to discuss.
Looking at studies coming out of programs such as Heartwood (Buttram et al. 1992), the Child Development Program (Murphy 1988), and the Baltimore County Program (Kalish 1992), we conclude that the effects of character education programs can be measured, and the results being realized by those programs give us reason to believe that schools can effect positive character development. At the very least, we have already realized a commitment to character education that has achieved broad staff and community support without a political firestorm.

ASCD Panel on Moral Education. (1988). Moral Education in the Life of the School. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Buttram, J., J. Kruse, and J. Sidler. (July 1992). “Evaluation of the Heartwood Program: Final Report.” Philadelphia: Research for Better Schools.

Coles, R., and L. Genevie. (March 1990). “Special Report: The Moral Life of American's School Children.” Teacher 1, 6: 43–49.

Kalish, J. (Spring 1992). “Values Education in Baltimore County Public Schools.” Ethics Journal: 1, 6.

Lickona, T. (1991). Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility. New York: Bantam Books.

Murphy, L., ed. (Winter 1988). “Portrait of the Child Development Project.” Working Together 17: 1–15.

Postman, N. (1982). The Disappearance of Childhood. New York: Delacorte Press.

Henry A. Huffman has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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