ST. LOUIS — Posters on respect and responsibility dot the walls at elementary schools nationwide. Teachers use "Charlotte's Web" to teach about loyalty or discuss Helen Keller to define courage.
After a 10-year boom in character education, children in thousands of American classrooms are now being taught values.
But one question looms: Are they absorbing anything?
The answer is a very qualified yes.
Experts warn against overblown expectations. And they say there's no such thing as quick-fix character education. But with substantial effort, children can start to assimilate values taught in school and begin applying them to their lives.
Take, for example, 50 kids in Oakland, Calif., who had intensive character education from kindergarten to eighth grade.
Compared with "nonprogram" children, they were more spontaneously helpful, friendly, and collaborative in the classroom. Their conflict-resolution skills were more advanced. And they were less "socially anxious" and less lonely in school.
But all this comes only with hard work. "You really need to change the moment-to-moment, day-to-day experience of schooling for kids," says Eric Schaps, president of the Oakland, Calif.-based Development Studies Center, which tracked the kids.
The Oakland program focuses on simultaneously nurturing students' intellectual, ethical, and social growth.
Reading materials must offer positive lessons for students and class discussions revolve around moral and ethical issues.
Teachers are encouraged to be models of good behavior and seize opportunities in the regular curriculum to discuss common values, such as what it means to be helpful, caring, honest, and kind.
Connections between home and school are fostered through "Family Reading Nights" when students and parents join with teachers for an evening of stories and discussion at school.
Every few weeks, teachers also assign "family homework." For example, parents and students may share opinions on household chores or research the family's ancestry.
The project is continuing in about 50 schools in several school districts nationwide, including Louisville, Ky., White Plains, N.Y., and Cupertino, Calif.
What really makes a difference is the "hidden curriculum," Mr. Schaps says. "It's not just what the kids are told but whether they experience their schools as a caring community in which they feel they are valued, contributing members."
Effects tough to chart
But even with extensive programs, it's tough to measure any effect on behavior.
Schaps warns that the evaluations are "slow and tricky."
Another evaluator puts it more starkly. "Sometimes I feel like I'm trying to figure out if going to church makes people better," says Michael Grady, a St. Louis University professor who is measuring a St. Louis program's success.
"There are a lot of churchgoers in jail, of course," he quips.
The St. Louis program, Personal Responsibility Education Process (PREP), involves 213,000 students in nearly 400 schools and 28 districts. Rather than a single approach, this is a collection of programs that receive funding and training support through PREP.
Most of the school districts have reached consensus on the values their communities want to stress through character education. From there, individual schools and districts come up with their own programs.
Getting an 'A' in character
Some emphasize community-service projects. One school began "catching" students on campus exhibiting a PREP quality - such as honesty or helpfulness - and sending home a postcard announcing that Johnny was caught being good.
Another school district has started a pilot program that grades students on their character. Rather than old-fashioned citizenship marks, these elementary students now get graded on how well they live out the qualities most valued in their community.
Since its beginnings a decade ago, PREP has conducted formal evaluations at participating schools.
The findings suggest that cognitive development of character has increased. Students can better recognize character traits in stories and define them.
"In those districts which have taken it seriously and implemented it fully, character education has had some impact," says Professor Grady. "Students are certainly more aware of character education. But it's still an open question if it has [affected] behavior."
While the research is still too thin to determine whether character-education has a long-term impact on student behavior, researchers are reaching consensus on the kinds of programs that are most likely to succeed.
One yardstick for success
Thomas Lickona, author of "Educating for Character," has developed a survey that helps schools measure success.
His "Eleven Principles Survey" asks school officials, teachers, parents, and students to document how well their school is implementing certain basic criteria. These include the use of conflict resolution, providing good role models, making use of literature that teaches virtues, and including parents in the character-education process. (See box at right.)
This is a first step to the later hope of determining the impact on students. "It's only to the degree that you know teachers are actually implementing quality character education that you can make sense of student outcomes," Dr. Lickona says.
But the expectations for character education may be out of sync with reality, some say.
"If you read the rationale for character education, it says we have a drug problem, a crime problem, a sexual promiscuity problem, and if we'd only do character education in our schools, we could fix all these problems," says James Leming, a professor of education at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
"We have to be realistic about what we can expect from these programs," he adds.
"It's naive to expect teachers to wave a magic wand and turn everyone into good little boys and girls by doing lessons in their classrooms."
11 PRINCIPLES OF CHARACTER EDUCATION
These are summaries of criteria for effective character education programs developed by Thomas Lickona and the Alexandria, Va.-based Character Education Partnership.
1. Ethical values are defined as the basis of good character. Qualities such as "caring, honesty, fairness, and responsibility" set the standard by which the school and students are evaluated.
2. Students succeed in "thinking, feeling, and behaving" in line with these "core values."
3. Each activity and environment in school is geared toward teaching character.
4. School is a "caring community" that fosters caring relationships between students and adults.
5. Students apply what they learn by cooperating in groups and settling arguments.
6. The academic curriculum is intellectually challenging and helps students value themselves, and each other, as learners.
7. Rules promote a sincere interest in doing good - minimizing material rewards and punishments.
8. The school staff shares responsibility for, and lives by, the "core values."
9. Various committees are administered by staff and students who volunteer and are elected to serve as these groups' "moral leaders."
10. The school involves parents and the community in advancing "core values."
11. There is an assessment of the school's character, the staff's success in cultivating character, and the student body's character overall.