Some schools that received federal funding to pilot character education programs are now going to their state legislatures or local communities to continue them. Included: Links to character education resources from Utah and New Jersey.
Encouraging results from federally funded pilot character education programs have prompted some educators to request -- and receive -- state funding to continue the efforts. And when legislators did not approve money in some states, school districts have supported the efforts on their own.
"There seems to be a great demand for [character education] in the local school districts," according to Kathleen Plato, program supervisor for character education for the Washington State Office of Public Instruction "The key is to have the community buy into it -- ask the community what character education is, and try to integrate it into the curriculum."
Character education generally means including examples of behavior such as honesty, respect, tolerance, and cooperation into the curriculum and using separate activities to encourage those traits among students.
Interest in character education programs has grown since the shootings at Columbine High School in April 1999 because, some educators believe, teaching students to respect others can help reduce violence. According to a Press Release on Preliminary Results of 2000 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth, a survey conducted by the nonprofit Joseph & Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics, 8,600 9th- through 12th grade students gave some troubling responses.
Seven out of ten said students said they had cheated on a test at least once in the past year, 92 percent said they had lied to their parents, and 78 percent said they had lied to a teacher in the past year. Sixty-eight percent said they had hit someone because they were angry. One in six also reported coming to class drunk at once in the past year.
Even before those survey results were released, New Jersey state legislators recently approved $4.75 million to continue character education programs for all grades. The state's pilot program was funded through a federal grant for the past three years and involved several schools in Newark. Experience with implementing the programs in Newark and anecdotal reports of improved school climates and student behavior from the programs prompted education officials to draft a proposal for state funding, according to Philip Brown, coordinator of the state's character education program.
Although the program is voluntary, response has been good so far from the state's 596 school districts, according to Richard Vespucci, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Education. "We hope it will reduce school violence," Vespucci told Education World. "Parents and community members are working with teachers to ensure they are on the same page" in developing the content, he added.
In Utah, four years of federal funding for character education since 1995 has paid for staff and professional development and helped educators develop a model for character education, according to Kristin Fink, character education specialist for the Utah State Office of Education. In 2000, the legislature allocated $400,000 to fund local efforts through the Utah State Board of Education Character Education Plan.
Utah has been funding character education for about 15 years and made its state funding available to local districts to use, Fink added. The state also developed a character education plan and state code before receiving federal funding. "The federal grants helped us move ahead and develop plans -- what values to teach and the approach to teaching them," Fink told Education World. Fink also said her position as character education specialist was the first in the nation to be funded by a state.
References to character education also are in Utah's core curriculum, and teachers have integrated character education into lessons, she added. "[Teachers] talk about values in literature, hold classroom discussions on how to manage problems. They see ethics issues in classroom discussions. They try to teach kids it's OK to help one another."
In Washington, positive changes in student behavior after four years of the federally funded pilot program prompted teachers, parents, and students to speak in favor of a bill before the state legislature to provide funding for character education this year.
Students and teachers told legislators at state hearings that the program helped decrease bullying and harassment among elementary school students, said Plato, of the Washington Department of Education. High school students from Toppenish, Washington, also said that activities designed to develop student leadership helped draw some students from gangs.
Although the bill failed to pass, most school systems are continuing efforts on their own, Plato told Education World. "Those who had [character education] know how to implement it now," she said.
Although the Georgia state legislature mandates character education and the state department of education received a $1 million, four-year federal grant in 1999, only three school districts will receive funding to develop character education programs. An urban, a rural, and a suburban district have been asked to develop pilot programs.
In 1999, the Georgia legislature mandated teaching character education, but it has declined to fund it, according to Paul Weimer, director of the Georgia Center for Character Education, part of the Georgia Humanities Council, a nonprofit organization that supports character education. "I think it is partly based on thinking in the legislature that a lot of character education goes on regardless of funding," Weimer told Education World. "They see it as not requiring a lot of external funding."
As for the rest of the state, individual school districts are subsidizing programs, but there is no requirement for them to report back to the state on what they are doing, Weimer said. Teachers have been asked to assess where character lessons occur naturally in the curriculum, and if possible, to capitalize on opportunities to build in character messages.
Experience has shown that students who feel comfortable in school and with their peers are less apt to be disruptive, said Fink of the Utah State Office of Education." If kids feel like they belong, they will buy into the message of the school."
Ellen R. Delisio
Copyright © 2000 Education World