Student Well-Being Opinion

Building Character in Crisis

By Patrick F. Bassett, Paul D. Houston & Rushworth M. Kidder — July 14, 2009 6 min read
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In a single week late last year, federal agents arrested three high-profile Americans. Then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois was rounded up for allegedly soliciting bribes to fill President Barack Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat. Marc S. Dreier, a respected New York lawyer, was bagged for bilking investors out of $400 million in a brazen financial scam. And Wall Street trader Bernard L. Madoff was reeled in for running a $65 billion Ponzi scheme.

Fraud, sadly, is a daily affair. What distinguished that week, however, was the sheer gall and scope of the perpetrators—and the fact that all three were so smart and successful that they could have been poster children for the nation’s schools. All they lacked was a moral compass. But personal ethics never stuck with them from their schooling—a failure that finally overshadowed and negated everything else they’d learned.

As educators, we find this failure profoundly disturbing. We’re not so naive as to think that every child taught ethics will learn it. What disturbs us is how little effort is being put into character education in most of America’s schools—especially during a period when failures of integrity have such direct impact on our economy. But if crisis invites introspection, this time of financial and economic turmoil may be exactly the moment for educators to seize upon the topic. As the national conversation moves from issues of finance to questions of ethics—from numbers and budgets to corruption and self-dealing—there’s a new seriousness in the air about who we are, what we value, and how we care for one another. Those are deeply ethical questions intimately related to our long-term security.

Only as we teach character and integrity will tomorrow's kids be ready for democracy. Only as we provide a clear moral compass will they be able to avoid the ethical lapses underlying the current recession.

Our ancestors knew this. Integrity and character were once ineluctable features of both public and private schooling. The Phillips family, in founding both Phillips Academy (Massachusetts) and Phillips Exeter Academy (New Hampshire), insisted that the teacher’s “attention to the disposition of the minds and morals of the youth under his charge will exceed every other care.” And as early as 1821, the Maine legislature decreed that public school teachers “shall use their best endeavors to impress on the minds of children and youth … the principles of morality and justice and a sacred regard for truth,” thereby leading their students into “a particular understanding of the tendency of such virtues to preserve and perfect a republican constitution.”

Maine was no anomaly. All across America, public schools were deliberately constructed as places where civic virtue would be taught. Even a cursory examination of early textbooks suggests that lessons of virtue and ethical behavior took precedence over reading, writing, and arithmetic. Now, however, those lessons are under stress in the public schools. After an efflorescence in the 1920s—when ethics, largely misconstrued as moralizing, was lathered on with platitudinous zeal—the pendulum slammed over into the deliberately “values-neutral education” of the 1960s and 1970s. That legacy of purposeful aloofness, recently coupled with an excessive attention to test scores and the pressures of lawsuits and state and federal mandates, has twisted the public system away from its first mission.

The typical independent private school has fared somewhat better. Guided by specific missions and often by individual philosophies, private schools have long encouraged their faculties both to teach scholarship and to model the virtues their schools stand for. Such schools enroll more than one child in 10, making up a sizable sample of the nation’s children. Having greater flexibility, they can often test new initiatives more rapidly than their public school counterparts. So they constitute a useful laboratory for private and public educators to learn what works in character education.

With that in mind, the Institute for Global Ethics teamed up with the National Association of Independent Schools in 2005 to learn what values, habits, and practices characterize “schools of integrity.” With funding from the John Templeton Foundation and the Esther A. and Joseph Klingenstein Fund, we focused on independent schools with strong academic standards that had promulgated a conscious posture of integrity across the entire institution. We selected 10 schools that, in the eyes of leaders at peer institutions, were successful in imparting ethics and character to their students. Then, in extensive interviews and site visits, we identified the most important hallmarks of each school’s culture of integrity.

Not surprisingly, the word “trust” reverberated throughout our interviews and site visits. Under that heading, 10 key findings stand out:

Ethics as a crosscutting dimension. Attention to values permeates these learning environments at both the adult and student levels.

Ethics as driver and connector. Higher-order thinking skills are emphasized and deliberately linked to the moral realm.

Integrity fueling relationships. Students in these schools develop trust through strong relationships with people committed to honest self-examination.

Cultures of open feedback. Teachers in these schools speak their minds without reprisal, take different tacks without rebuke, take risks with support, and take feedback as an expression of caring.

Trustees as keepers of the moral compass. Many trustees view their primary role as developing and sustaining trust.

Tone at the top. The ethical actions, decisions, and communications of the school head are noticed and appreciated throughout these cultures.

Tolerance for ambiguity. Heads and other adults in the environment admit they constantly have doubts, but they trust their personal ability to see things through.

Professional development from the ranks. Professional-development topics are as likely to be about moral as pedagogical matters. Educators readily build on colleagues’ or students’ learning in a creative synergy, rather than feeling competitive or defensive.

Authentic student input. Teachers and other adults naturally welcome serious student input in a variety of aspects of these school communities.

Growth, not punishment. Since schools of integrity constantly search for “the teachable moment,” student disciplinary bodies are empowered to provide consequences that educate, rather than simply punish, student rule-breakers.

While these findings come from the experiences of independent schools, they speak directly to the needs of all schools. Those needs, as framed by the American Association of School Administrators, include: (1) getting kids ready for school by focusing on health, family, and early-childhood education; (2) getting schools ready for kids by transforming a one-size-fits-all model to a framework that personalizes instruction; and (3) getting kids ready for democracy by preparing them to live in and contribute to a system based on personal ethics and mutual responsibilities.

If, in President Obama’s words, we’re entering “a new era of responsibility,” this third thrust provides a call to action for every educator in America. Why? Because only as we teach character and integrity will tomorrow’s kids be ready for democracy. Only as we provide a clear moral compass will they be able to avoid the ethical lapses underlying the current recession. And only as we extend character education just as fully to schools with names like P.S. 137 as to those with names like Country Day will they see that building trust is everyone’s business.

We know what schools of integrity look like. We know how to build them. It’s time for school leaders to get out in front of the crowd and make it look like a parade.

A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week as Building Character in Crisis


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