Opinion
Student Well-Being Opinion

Bridging the Character Education Achievement Gap

By Paul S. Sutton — February 26, 2009 6 min read

Throughout his now-famous “Last Lecture,” the late Carnegie Mellon University professor of computer science Randy Pausch talked about what he called the “head fake.” It is the idea that learning and education work best when they work on the personal and general levels simultaneously. It’s clear what calculus can teach a high school student. But beyond that learning, a character education lesson on the dialogues between Socrates and Crito can teach critical-reading skills and democratic dialogue, while also teaching personal and social justice and integrity. The study of both calculus and Socrates demands intellectual rigor, and yet these subjects are not valued in the same way in our public high schools.

Character education as a discipline is losing the argument that it deserves the same resources as disciplines affirmed by an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate curriculum. And this is because we have been selling and teaching it wrong. We miss one of the most important aspects of character education, the cognitive head fake, when our obsession with advanced coursework becomes myopic and overshadows the strength both areas could have if working to complement each other in high schools.

As the demands of high-stakes testing grow and ever-expanding achievement gaps continue to ask more of public schools, character education is too often left behind. Money for staffing and programs dry up as budgets shrink. When forced to choose, schools will take academic rigor over team-building, future college success over human interrelatedness. Why? Because all they see in the latter is an intellectual void. Most schools value character education in principle, but choose to cut it first in a crisis because they see more-pressing instructional needs elsewhere.

And when extensive research, such as the “Smart & Good High Schools” study, suggests the need for more, and more-comprehensive, character education programs, most schools and districts will reject the recommendation, seeing it as yet another unnecessary strain on their already stretched school communities. Whole-school initiatives may be noble goals, but in reality, most schools don’t have the resources or the will to go for broke on character education—even if problems such as cheating, bullying, or harassment may be rapidly escalating.

The assumption that a broad-based character education initiative could flow easily from whole-school transformation ignores the reality that change in high schools happens slowly, if at all, and usually in small pockets, not as a whole school.

Educators should start small, allowing a successful “pocket” to expand within the school community. Character education could be taught, for example, through a fully articulated “student leadership” class—a class most schools already fund. Although they are largely underutilized and misused, these classes are dedicated to student activities. They also should have academic goals and expectations, and be open to all kids and valued by the school and the district just as AP or IB classes are—through a rigorous curricular review.

To be taken seriously in public secondary schools, character education must go beyond mission statements and explore ways to connect such goal-setting exercises to concrete learning objectives that challenge students with scholarly content and approaches. To survive, it must compete with advanced courses for full-time-equivalent teachers by embracing high expectations for all kids and proving its worth year in and year out.

As James Traub, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, has noted: "[T]he issue is not whether we will have character education, but instead, what kind we will have and what relationship it will bear to the ongoing campaign to improve children’s academic skills.” Indeed, character education’s very survival depends on its quantifiably improving students’ academic skills.

A new character education model should be developed around principles that encourage college-level critical thinking and service to community. It should include the following elements:

1. We should teach dialogue and deliberation through Socratic seminars and consensus-building, so that students learn how to communicate with each other in a democratic setting and the ability to judge ideas on the strength of evidentiary support, not misinformed opinion.

2. We should teach core values and beliefs, so that students identify universal truths they are willing to speak for and work from that will guide the decisions they make as leaders and citizens of their communities.

3. We should teach historical models of leadership, so that students will understand that all great leaders are merely standing on the shoulders of others, and that the values of integrity and compassion don’t come easily. Figures taught could range from Gandhi and Lincoln, to the Bible’s King David, to the explorer Ernest Shackleton.

4. We should provide thoughtful teaching of inequity and inequality as they relate to race, gender, and class, so that students can learn how to speak to one another about diversity in a way that creates progress and does not reinforce stereotypes or systems of power and privilege. Students should be introduced to the writings of authors such as Peggy McIntosh, Cornel West, and James A. Banks.

5. We should teach democratic citizenship and leadership, so that students can learn how to use democratic systems to empower and give voice to all participants in a society to make communities more equal and just. Students should be introduced to scholars such as Walter Parker and historical documents such as the Federalist Papers and Washington’s Newburgh Address.

6. Since moral reasoning is integral to these pursuits, students should be taught to think their way through ethical and moral dilemmas and how to make choices that benefit all and that foster the strength of character to persevere through failures. Lawrence Kohlberg’s “stages of moral development” is a great place to start.

7. We should teach ethical and collaborative decision making and problem-solving, to empower students to change dysfunctional systems and communities. This should teach them that problem-solving is not the sole responsibility of one leader or group, but of a whole community working together.

8. We should give students opportunities for practical application of these precepts and practices, so they can test their new knowledge within the community and attempt to make positive improvements. These opportunities could be through schoolwide community-service projects, school philanthropy projects, and various other school improvement projects that encourage all students to participate.

Whether this kind of learning comes through a student leadership or character education class, schools should encourage students to register and attend. Several levels should be taught, becoming increasingly sophisticated and challenging. To maintain standards of academic achievement, students within such a program should be assessed on their ability to produce a high level of scholarly written work and to add quantifiably and positively to the school’s climate and culture through active leadership.

If we are bold enough to change our thinking and accept that character education must become a part of the academically rigorous landscape of public high schools, students taking these classes will benefit, along with the schools that offer them.

A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2009 edition of Education Week

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Safe Return to Schools is Possible with Testing
We are edging closer to a nationwide return to in-person learning in the fall. However, vaccinations alone will not get us through this. Young children not being able to vaccinate, the spread of new and
Content provided by BD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
Meeting the Moment: Accelerating Equitable Recovery and Transformative Change
Educators are deciding how best to re-establish routines such as everyday attendance, rebuild the relationships for resilient school communities, and center teaching and learning to consciously prioritize protecting the health and overall well-being of students
Content provided by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Addressing Learning Loss: What Schools Need to Accelerate Reading Instruction in K-3
When K-3 students return to classrooms this fall, there will be huge gaps in foundational reading skills. Does your school or district need a plan to address learning loss and accelerate student growth? In this
Content provided by PDX Reading

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Spotlight Spotlight on Student Health & Safety
In this Spotlight, assess what the data says and how educators can play a part in protecting their students, and more.
Student Well-Being Thousands of Kids Lost Parents to COVID-19. Schools Must Prepare to Help the Grieving
While some may view the back-to-school season as a return to “normal,” for those students who’ve lost someone, it will feel anything but.
9 min read
Vickie Quarles, a widow in Memphis, Tenn., lost her husband to COVID-19 in December 2020. She is now raising their five daughters alone. Her older daughter, Alyssa, 18, comforts her in their home.
Vickie Quarles, a widow in Memphis, Tenn., lost her husband to COVID-19 in December 2020. She is now raising their five daughters alone. Her oldest daughter, Alyssa, 18, comforts her in their home.
Karen Pulfer Focht for Education Week
Student Well-Being Nation's Pediatricians Call for All Students, Staff to Wear Masks in School
Countering recent guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, the physicians say even vaccinated students should wear face coverings
5 min read
Students are reminded to wear a mask amidst other chalk drawings on the sidewalk as they arrive for the first day of school at Union High School in Tulsa, Okla., on Aug. 24, 2020.
A sidewalk-chalk drawing reminds students to wear a mask as they arrive for the first day of school last August at Union High School in Tulsa, Okla.
Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP
Student Well-Being The Pandemic and Politics Made Life Especially Rough for LGBTQ Youth, Survey Finds
More than 80 percent of 13- to 24-year-olds who say they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning said 2020 was very hard.
2 min read
People wave pride flags and hold signs during a rally in support of LGBTQ students at Ridgeline High School, Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in Millville, Utah. Students and school district officials in Utah are outraged after a high school student ripped down a pride flag to the cheers of other students during diversity week. A rally was held the following day in response to show support for the LGBTQ community.
People rally in support of LGBTQ students at Ridgeline High School on April 14, 2021, in Millville, Utah. The day before a high school student ripped down a pride flag to the cheers of other students during diversity week.
Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP