March 14, 2001 | Commentary on Education
Too bad this character education is a novelty, not the norm, in public schools. As the recent school shootings in California, Pennsylvania and Maryland show, there's a deficiency in moral education that has to be addressed just as much falling test scores.
Fifteen-year-old freshman Charles "Andy" Williams, who is being held in the shooting in California that left two students dead and 13 wounded, was reportedly the butt of jokes, a weekend drinker and one who hung out at a local skate park with kids who did drugs. Had he and his peers received meaningful instruction in "character formation," there's a good chance their sense of respect for themselves and others would have curbed the ridiculing and created a more wholesome atmosphere.
President Bush took note of this kind of problem in his recent address to Congress, pointing out that children must learn "not only reading and writing, but right from wrong." He issued a welcome call to triple federal spending for character education. But what has happened to society when the president must devote part of a major address to what we can do to reduce the moral deficiencies of our students?
Boston College professor William Kilpatrick, author of the 1992 book "Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong," has an answer. Schools have always taught values, he says. But for the last 30 years, students have been taught to identify and celebrate their own values, rather than draw upon a common set of morals when making decisions. We taught our youngsters to reason, but we didn't teach them that there are absolute truths.
"Many youngsters have a difficult time seeing any moral dimension to their actions," Kilpatrick writes. Consequently, schools stress academic achievement but don't always identify and reinforce the habits that students need to become virtuous.
But there's hope. More and more schools, from the tony suburbs to the crumbling inner cities, are realizing that good test scores aren't enough if students aren't taught to be responsible members of society.
Take Morse Elementary School in Cambridge, Mass. It adopted a Core Knowledge program that provides a rich, content-based curriculum across all disciplines. But to achieve the school's mission of shaping informed and responsible citizens, the staff also adopted a Core Virtues program, a literature-based course that includes discussion of character. The program has proven so successful, it's been adopted at more than 100 other schools nationwide.
At the Advantage Schools, a for-profit charter school group operating in New Jersey, Texas, Arizona and other states, character education is a key part of the school day. They use a "code of civility" that identifies 10 virtues, including truth, responsibility, respect and fairness. The code is used to support an orderly learning environment and reinforce high academic standards.
I also wove character education into my lessons as a third-grade teacher at Disney Elementary in Burbank, Calif. We had a "virtue of the month," and each day after lunch, my class read a story demonstrating that virtue. The lessons produced academic benefits, too. After reading Aesop's "The Tortoise and the Hare," one student who was having trouble learning multiplication raised his hand and said: "Learning the times tables is really hard, but I know I need to persevere."
High expectations for good behavior also have helped students academically at Cleveland Elementary, the Washington school that holds the weekly gentleman classes. Last year, it scored in the 70th percentile in reading on the Stanford-9, a national achievement test, and in the 86th percentile in math-well above the average for many affluent suburbs.
We can't afford to lose any more children to actions that spring from moral ignorance. Parents and schools must provide children with a strong academic foundation, but they need to teach them common values as well. Virtue is a lesson that ladies and gentlemen in all schools can-and must-learn now.
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