Student Well-Being Opinion

Bridging the Character Education Achievement Gap

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


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