Reading, Writing, and Right and Wrong
'Back to basics' in schools increasingly includes moral lessons
The future success of American schools may hinge on something other than teaching the three R's. Increasingly, educators are being asked to instill a forgotten fundamental: character.Skip to next paragraph
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After years of being warned away from offering moral interpretations, hundreds of school systems are weaving values into their curricula. English instructors point out courage and honesty in "To Kill a Mockingbird." Coaches focus more on the importance of fairness. Science teachers discuss ethical dilemmas.
Character-education programs lack a defined curriculum, but they typically aim to permeate a school's activities, highlighting qualities such as integrity, responsibility, and trust in classes from history to chemistry.
The trend reverses years of more values-neutral education that started in the 1960s and '70s, when many argued that America's collection of cultures made it impossible to teach common values. Educators and parents alike now are pinning hopes on character education as at least a partial solution to the rise in everything from student cheating to violence - and some warn that schools ignore it at their peril.
If the character-education movement fails, "I predict it will be the death of public education," says Kevin Ryan, director of the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University. "Society will not put up with value-neutral education."
As a result, hundreds of school systems have adopted character education in the past few years. Some districts, such as the one in Worcester, Mass., have just mandated a character-education program for this fall. The concept has captured the attention of the entire city of Albuquerque, N.M., which extends moral messages beyond the classroom to public-service ads and bumper stickers. The idea has gained broad, bipartisan support from politicians. And the nation's two major teachers' unions have endorsed the concept.
Here in Bridgeport, Conn., a grimy industrial city struggling with high rates of youth violence and truancy, a group of students gathers at Longfellow School for what is ostensibly a drama class. But actress Jennifer Vermont Davis turns the summer improvisation course into a lively discussion about good morals.
In one skit, an employee in a typing pool gets fired for making personal calls on company time. Hamming it up, the boy shouts, "You can't fire me, I quit," and stalks out of the room. The class convulses with laughter.
"So what do you think about the boss?" Ms. Davis asks. "Do you think he was fair?"
"Yes," says one student, "because the employee was making all his co-workers work harder."
"He should have just unplugged the phone," jokes another.
Officials in the city's police department, which funds the pilot program, say character education is already making a difference.
"This school sits in an area where one-fifth of the murders in Bridgeport take place," says Cathy Santossio, a youth coordinator with the police, as she drives past shuttered factories and rundown Victorian homes. "But you can really see the difference in the children's attitudes."
Drawing on tradition
Although it draws on innovative techniques, character education is actually a throwback to a more traditional public school curriculum. "Schools are not just for crowd control," says Mr. Ryan. "They are the middle ground for society, a place to say 'This is how we treat one another.' The language of morality needs to be central."
Polls show broad public support for that view. In 1994, the Gallup organization asked parents if values should be taught in public schools. Forty-nine percent said yes. Support grew stronger - to 90 percent - when parents were told what would be taught, such as industry, compassion, and civility.
To be sure, some parents have already lost faith in public schools. Those who can afford to send their kids to private schools that stress values increasingly do so. Others have started up their own publicly funded charter schools, where parents and teachers have more control over the curriculum.