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.
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.
Character education has its detractors, however. Some conservatives say that values cannot be separated from their religious roots. Civil libertarians warn that some teachers may smuggle their religious views into class.
"Part of this comes from the idea that parents are not doing a good enough job of teaching values," says Loren Siegel of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York. "It's a dangerous notion that government can do a better job than parents."
"Character education seems like a diversion at a time when schools are crumbling and there are 45 kids in a class," she adds. "There are more basic things we should be working on."
For its part, the Christian Coalition gives cautious support for teaching character skills, as long as they reflect the community's basic values.
"We believe that someone's values are already being placed in children's minds," says Jeff Baran, executive director of the Christian Coalition's state chapter in Clarence, N.Y. "But schools should reinforce what is being taught in the home and not undermine it. Children should learn that there are some things that are right and some that are wrong."
The creators of virtue-based programs such as Character Counts! and the Character Education Partnership in Washington say that a focus on civic virtues such as respect and citizenship helps to bridge any ideological gap.
"We tell parents that we are not trying to solve the great issues like abortion and condom distribution," says Michael Josephson, the creative force behind Character Counts! and founder of the nonprofit Josephson Institute of Ethics in Marina del Rey, Calif. "We accept that there are issues that we will disagree over, but can we agree to be honest with the facts and to treat each other with respect?"
"Look at society," he adds, quoting a recent national survey of student attitudes. "Over two-thirds of students admit they cheat in high school. One-third admits they have stolen from a store in the past year. Over one-half said they would lie to get or keep a job. If character education was already being done, we wouldn't need a program like Character Counts!"
The recent shift toward character education has come in response to a growing dissatisfaction with the type of moral guidance students have gotten at school - if they have gotten any at all. One target has been the self-esteem movement, which critics say often encourages high self-value regardless of achievement. Some detractors say this has led to discipline problems in the classroom.
"For 20 years, education avoided the hard task of character and put its energy into the soft task of self-esteem," says Thomas Lickona, an education professor at the State University of New York in Cortland and a proponent of character education. "But if you want to feel good, then you should do good. Self-worth is a by-product of good works."
Growing interest in character education has made Dr. Lickona a hot ticket on the teacher-training circuit, and numerous schools are offering seminars to help teachers keep up. And while some teachers express doubts, others welcome the new emphasis.
Debbie Frank, who teaches emotionally disturbed youths in Worcester and recently attended one of Lickona's sessions at Assumption College there, says she is taking the seminar because her city has mandated character education starting this fall. Most of her colleagues are scrambling, she says, but they "regard it as an absolute necessity."
Gathering her notebooks after the seminar, she says, "It's hard to argue with the concept of mutual respect. If you don't have honesty, trust, respect, it's hard to function as a society."
"We spend too much time disciplining those behaviors," says Barbara Wreschinsky, a teacher in Holden, Mass. If we shaped the virtues first, we could get to the education."
In California, Mr. Josephson admits he once supported the academic fashions of the 1960s. "When I got out of law school in the '60s ... I thought the only thing wrong in the world was to be judgmental," he says. "Then I became a father in 1970. I realized I owed my son more than just telling him, 'Whatever works for you.'"