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Character Education, Teacher Strikes and “Reform”

By Nancy Flanagan — September 14, 2012 3 min read
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Back when it was a Hot New Thing, my school wanted to institute some kind of character education program. We didn’t have the cash to purchase one of the glossy whole-school “value of the month” programs (complete with hip posters, prepackaged lesson plans and even daily P.A. announcements) that were popping up--we were the do-it-yourself, discount model of character educators. We read books, formed a committee with parents and tried to figure out how to embed positive moral elements in our--pretty traditional--daily practice.

Which is harder than it looks. But well worth the effort and time spent discussing the human qualities that uphold knowledge-building, citizenship and industry--a fair summary of the purpose of public education. One of the most interesting questions that emerged in both adult and classroom-based discussions was this: Are there values--character traits and actions--that some people see as virtuous and others perceive as harmful, or even dangerous?

What about standing up for yourself and your beliefs, for example? Are the Chicago teachers, walking the pavement at this moment, courageously representing teachers across the country in fighting back against unproven “reforms,” firm in their convictions, risking their jobs to demonstrate the importance of the essential components of a high-quality public education for every single child? Or are they insubordinate and greedy? Where does the character meter come down on principled civil disobedience?

Larry Ferlazzo recently produced an excellent blog series on character education, including this brilliant metaphorical description of defining character in the context of education:

The Michigan Fish Test [is] a famous experiment showing a picture of three large fish in a sea scene. When people from the United States were asked to describe it, they focused on the large fish. When Japanese participants were asked to describe the same picture, they gave a much more holistic description of the picture. [It] demonstrates the difference between the typical American individualistic approach versus the more collectivist one found in Asian cultures. [The researcher] writes: "The divergent accounts point to differing narratives of what controls what in the world, and how individual people fit into it."
It seems to me that this "fish test" is also an accurate metaphor for education today. In efforts to improve our schools, the emphasis often can be focused on those three "big fish" -- changing teacher "techniques" to transmit information, moving towards pre-packaged curriculum, and concentrating on "accountability" based on test scores from standardized tests. But we can often lose sight of the bigger picture -- of why students would want to learn what we're teaching in the classroom, why they would continue to want to study when they're not with us, and how "non-cognitive" (self-control, perseverance, a "growth-mindset," etc) character traits influence academic achievement and what we can do to help students develop them.

This “individual heroism vs. collective action” dichotomy is why Hillary Clinton took so much grief for her book about the Village raising the child--and how “I built that!” (T-shirts now available!) became the Republican mantra at the 2012 RNC convention.

In Chicago, who’s seeing the big, collective picture? And who’s focused on reeling in the standardized fish? Who controls what in education reform--and how do individual people fit in?

My friend Cynthia Liu says that education “reform” seems to boil down to two questions:

Should market forces be applied to a human endeavor like education?
Do adult human beings have a role in the shaping of young human beings, or don’t they?

Both of these questions hinge on our personal values and character. For me, the idea of public education as fully entrepreneurial--the best ideas and materials available to those with the funds, or the lucky few who will play by the funders’ rules in exchange for charitable donations--is undemocratic. When we stop trusting adults--public educators--to shape the young, and start believing that knowledge, citizenship and industry can only be accessed via purchase, we’re on our way to a very different America.

So how did our homegrown character education program work out? Impossible to measure, of course. But--last Monday, one of my former students, Meryl Marsh, starred in a premiere of an amazing film--The People and the Olive--about a group of ultra-marathoners and social activists who ran, literally, 129 miles across Palestine, planting olive trees as a gesture of global community-building.

Meryl, who was at my middle school during our foray into character-educating, spoke on a panel afterward, about many of the character traits we were hoping to instill: Courage. Persistence. Respect. Trustworthiness. Responsibility. I was enormously proud of Meryl, but I can only take credit for teaching her how to shape a brass embouchure and handle a dotted quarter note. Her strength of character comes from the rich context of family, friends, school and community in which she was raised and now chooses as home. The Village, so to speak.

Should we keep pursuing character education in schools? Actually, we can’t help it. It’s part of everything we do and all our educational choices.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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