Student Well-Being Explainer

Character Education

By Ron Skinner — September 10, 2004 5 min read
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Editor’s Note: For more recent information on character education, please read our 2022 special report, Social-Emotional Learning: What Really Works

In a large and growing number of schools around the country, students are learning more than just reading, writing, and arithmetic. They are learning what character education advocates call the fourth and fifth R’s: respect and responsibility.

The formal teaching of morals and values is not a new phenomenon; rather, it has been part of democratic thought throughout history. Plato and Aristotle in the Greece of the 4th century B.C.E. believed the role of education was to train good and virtuous citizens. John Locke, the 17th-century democratic philosopher, believed that learning was secondary to virtue. “Reading and writing and learning I allow to be necessary, but yet not the chief business [of education]. I imagine you would think him a very foolish fellow, that should not value a virtuous or a wise man infinitely before a great scholar.”

As public schools proliferated in the early United States, McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers, which consisted of collections of stories used to educate and transmit moral lessons, were “the most widely read books in 19th-century America” outside of the King James Bible (Gorn, 1998). The readers were used as school textbooks and were designed to instill both biblical values and train good workers by preaching sobriety, thrift, responsibility, and self-restraint. But the influence of McGuffey’s Readers waned in the early 20th century because of their reliance on religious precepts and because of changes in the way society viewed morality.

However, by the 1960s, the idea of teaching character and values in school was regaining prominence. But rather than prescribe a set of common values to be taught, popular programs of the time would “contribute to the development of the student in six areas of human interaction: communicating, empathizing, problem-solving, assenting and dissenting, decisionmaking, and personal consistency” (Casteel and Stahl, 1975). In such a program, the teacher would serve simply as the facilitator, with a mandate not to impose his or her own values on students

A program developed by the late Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg also became prominent during that time. Although based on democratic ideals derived from citing the U.S. Constitution as the moral document of American society, Kohlberg’s program held that students must be allowed a certain degree of moral reasoning and that values must not be imposed by the teacher (Power, Higgins, & Kohlberg, 1989). Under Kohlberg’s program, students would be told short stories that presented moral dilemmas, placing values like loyalty and honesty in conflict. While the stories were sure to incite lively conversation, critics argued that Kohlberg’s dilemmas assumed that students already had strong feelings about the values in question or promoted moral relativism, rather than helping children to define values (Kilpatrick, 1992).

Character education, as it is known today, began to appear in the early 1990s. A 1991 book by Thomas Lickona, Educating for Character, reintroduced the idea that there is a set of common beliefs and values upon which all people can agree. A year later, a group of educators, ethicists, and scholars met in Aspen, Colo., for a gathering that resulted in the Aspen Declaration and the beginning of the Character Counts Coalition.

Since the early 1990s, the federal government has embraced the idea of offering character education in public schools and has made grants available to states interested in piloting new character education programs in their schools. In response, for-profit and nonprofit organizations have developed character programs for schools, districts, and states. Most recently, first lady and former teacher Laura Bush has promoted the use of character education in schools, saying that “reading and writing are not all we need to teach our children.”

“Respect and responsibility are just as important,” Mrs. Bush continued. “And we need to make sure we’re teaching our children to be responsible citizens who have good values and ethics.”

Implementation of a character education program can be contentious. One of the first questions people ask when learning that their school plans to implement a character education program is “Whose values are you going to teach?” (Brooks and Goble, 1997). Most character education programs in use today are based on the traits developed from the civic virtues found in the U.S. Constitution and the United Nations charter—as well as common civil and moral values such as honesty, courage, and respect for others. Advocating that honesty is better than dishonesty, or that free speech is better than censorship, rarely invites controversy.

What has developed from this basis varies by program. For example, the Character Counts program is based on the “six pillars of character": trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. Character Works, used throughout Georgia, emphasizes 38 character traits, one for each week of a typical school year, including courtesy, integrity, creativity, fairness, and accomplishment.

The Character Education Partnership has drawn up 11 principles of effective character education that schools can use to guide their efforts. The principles include the advice that the term “character” must be well-defined, that the program must be integrated into the curriculum, and that parents and community members must be involved (Lickona, T., Schaps, E., and Lewis, C., no date). The final principle is the need to assess the progress of the school involved in the program. But while there has been much anecdotal evidence about the effects of character education, not much in the way of scientifically based research exists.

Of the few studies that have been conducted so far, a few suggest that “as you facilitate social development, you are concurrently, for many kids, advancing their academic function,” according to Stephen N. Elliott, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Citing one specific example, an Italian study in 2000 that found children’s positive social skills to be powerful predictors of academic achievement, Elliott suggests that social skills that are part of character education programs may be “academic enablers” (Viadero, 2003). The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning recently examined 242 health, prevention, and positive-youth-development programs. Its examination resulted in the report “Safe and Sound: An Educational Leader’s Guide to Evidence-Based Social and Emotional Learning Programs,” which reviews 80 nationally available, multiyear, sequenced programs for general education classrooms (2003). The report identifies 22 programs that are especially effective in preventing substance abuse, improving academic performance, promoting general health, or supporting other social behaviors.

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How to Cite This Article

Skinner, Ron. (2004, August 3). Character Education. Education Week. Retrieved Month Day, Year from https://www.edweek.org/leadership/character-education/2004/09

Sources

Brooks, D.B., & Goble, F.G., The Case for Character Education: The Role of the School in Teaching Values and Virtue, Northridge, Calif.: Studio 4 Productions, 1997.
Casteel, J., & Stahl, R.J., Values Clarification in the Classroom: A Primer, Pacific Palisades, Calif.: Goodyear Publishing Company, 1975.
Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, “Safe and Sound: An Educational Leader’s Guide to Evidence-Based Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Programs,” 2003.
Gorn, E.J., The McGuffey Readers: Selections From the 1879 Edition, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998.
Kilpatrick, W.K., Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
Lickona, T., Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility, New York: Bantam Books, 1991.
Lickona, T., Schaps, E., & Lewis, C., “Eleven Principles of Effective Character Education,” The Character Education Partnership, no date.
Viadero, D., “Nice Work,” Education Week, 22 (33), pp. 38-41, 2003.

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