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Is Character Education
The Answer?


As incidents of in-school violence become more common, and strict disciplinary techniques and increased security measures fail to control the problem, many parents, educators, politicians, and social leaders are looking for reliable methods of prevention. Is character education the answer?

lt community need to do our part in helping build young people of high character. There isn't a more critical issue in education today." --- Sanford N. McDonnell, Chairman emeritus of the former McDonnell Douglas Corporation.
  • At Newsome Park Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia, all students participate in a service learning program, which integrates community service into every aspect of the curriculum. The youngest students exchange visits with senior citizens. Second and third graders provide food and clothing to needy families -- and exchange letters with the families as part of their study of the postal system. Fourth and fifth graders adopt a ward at the local VA hospital -- and learn about the technology used to treat patients there.

  • At Benjamin Franklin Classical Charter School in Franklin, Massachusetts, each month's curriculum focuses on one of the cardinal virtues of fortitude, temperance, justice, and prudence, while the school fosters a sense of personal and social responsibility through a variety of voluntary community service projects.

  • Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi, Maryland, features a "Virtue of the Week" program, a peer mediation program, and a rigorous community service graduation requirement.

Although the individual programs vary, each school has made a commitment to providing students with character education along with the more traditional disciplines. Each school was also a recipient of The Business Week Award for Instructional Innovation in 1998, sponsored by Business Week magazine, McGraw-Hill's Educational and Professional Publishing Group, and The Character Education Partnership.

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Books of Character: Eighteen Books for Teaching About Character Across the Grades
These books that might be used -- in or out of the classroom -- to spark discussion about character. Included: Titles arranged by age level, plus a link to a list of more than 200 other titles for teaching about character.

Singing for Societal Change... Again
Disrespect has become rampant in U.S. society, according to singer/songwriter activist Peter Yarrow of the trio Peter, Paul & Mary. Yarrow's curriculum, Don't Laugh at Me, teaches children to respect themselves and others.

The Giraffe Project: Encouraging Kids to 'Stick Their Necks Out' for Others
This organization shares news of individuals who are making a difference in their communities. Included: Comments from teachers and students who've been inspired by the Giraffe Project to "stick their necks out" to help others.

Character Education Getting a Boost
Some schools that received federal funding to pilot character education programs are now going to their state legislatures or local communities to continue them.

Be sure to check out our A-to-Z Glossary of School Issues.


"I believe that a values vacuum exists in American society, and that teachers must not be casual or apologetic about confronting it. We must make an explicit commitment to formal character education. We must integrate character education into the fabric of the curriculum and into extracurricular activities. We must train teachers in character education -- both pre-service and in-service. And we must consciously set about creating a moral climate within our schools." --- Bob Chase, President National Education Association

A survey conducted in 1992 by the Joseph and Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics found that thirty-three percent of all high school students admitted they had stolen merchandise from a store within the past year. Sixty-one percent of the students admitted cheating on an examination during that year, and 83 percent said they had lied to their parents. Thirty-three percent of students said they were willing to lie on a resume or job application or during an interview to get a job, and sixteen percent said they had already done so.

In addition, in a 1997 survey of teachers conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, more than half of the respondents reported perceiving a decline in student morality since they began teaching. Even among those teaching 5 years or less, forty-four percent said they have seen a decline in ethical values and an increase in illegal drug use among their students.

Clearly, a moral decline among our young people affects all of society. But is it the job of the school to address it? According to the Character Education Partnership (CEP), a nonpartisan coalition of individuals and organizations dedicated to promoting the teaching and modeling of character education, "there is no such thing as value-neutral schools or value-free education. Schools teach values every day, by design or default. When schools do not teach values, they are teaching that values are not important."

Furthermore, the CEP says, "Schools cannot achieve their educational goals in a values vacuum. To succeed, schools must teach such values as academic integrity, civility, responsibility, perseverance, cooperation, self-discipline, and respect for self and others."


"Clearly we can all agree about the importance of teaching our children, both as individuals and as members of society, the importance of common values such as respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, and citizenship." ---U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley

Many schools shy away from formal character education, citing a national diversity in beliefs and values that make such education a family, rather than an institutional, imperative.

Research shows, however, the existence of a national consensus that makes values education in public schools both possible and desirable.

  • A 1993 Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll found that more than ninety percent of respondents were in favor of schools teaching such values as honesty, democracy, tolerance, patriotism, caring, and moral courage.

  • Researchers at The Institute for Global Ethics report that five core values -- truth, compassion, fairness, responsibility, and respect -- consistently cut across cultural, religious, and socioeconomic lines.

  • And the CEP endorses the teaching of the core ethical values of caring, fairness, trustworthiness, citizenship, responsibility, and respect for self and others, calling them "values that form the basis of good character" and "principles that are common to all cultures and religions."

Nationally, many different state and local programs have been, and are being, established to incorporate character education in our public schools.

  • In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, schools recently launched the Your Environment Education Program, designed to help children succeed by improving their behavior both in and out of school. (See an accompanying article in this week's issue of Education World, One Character Education Program That Works!)

  • The Connecticut State Department of Education is working with Character Counts!, a nationwide initiative supporting non-partisan character education, to involve schools, parents, and businesses in a statewide commitment to character education.

  • In Missouri, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is establishing a Show Me Character Education Partnership to build on their existing Personal Responsibility Education Partnership (PREP) program and to extend character education in state schools.


"To educate a man in mind and not morals is to educate a menace to society." ---Theodore Roosevelt

The programs may differ, but the basics of character education possess certain common characteristics. According to Dr. Thomas Lickona, director of  The Center for the 4th and 5th Rs, a national resource for character education, all schools should teach students that a person of character:

  • is trustworthy -- possessing honesty, integrity, and loyalty.
  • treats all people with respect -- demonstrating courtesy, politeness, tolerance, and acceptance.
  • acts responsibly -- acting with accountability, reliability, and self-control, and setting a good example.
  • is fair and just -- treating all people fairly.
  • is caring -- showing compassion, kindness, sensitivity, and charity.
  • is a good citizen -- accepting legal, civic, community, and environmental responsibilities.

    Character education programs may differ, but CEP endorses eleven principles of character education. Schools committed to character education, CEP says, must:

  • Define core ethical values in terms of observable behaviors and hold all school members accountable to standards of conduct consistent with those behaviors.
  • Help members of the school community recognize, value, and act upon core ethical values.
  • Integrate character development into all aspects of school life and deliberately plan ways to develop character rather than waiting for opportunities to present themselves.
  • Imbue every area of the school environment -- including the classroom, the cafeteria, the hallways, and the playground -- with evidence of core ethical values.
  • Provide students with real-life challenges to help them develop a practical understanding of the moral requirements of the core ethical values.
  • Provide a meaningful and challenging academic curriculum that respects all learners and helps them succeed.
  • Develop students' intrinsic commitment both to core values and to the academic curriculum.
  • Involve all school staff in modeling and promoting core ethical values, and provide staff with the same opportunities for personal and academic growth afforded students.
  • Require strong moral leadership from both staff and students.
  • Recruit the help of parents and community business, religious, government, and media representatives in promoting core ethical values.
  • Continuously assess the progress of character education by evaluating the character of the school, the character of the students, and the success of the staff as character educators.


"Virtue and vice will not grow together in a great degree, but they will grow where they are planted, and when one has taken root, it is not easily supplanted by the other. The great art of correcting mankind consists in prepossessing the mind with good principles." --- Noah Webster

Craig Cunningham, in A Certain and Reasoned Art: The Rise and Fall of Character Education in America, points out that character education has been a goal of public education since the establishment of the public school system in this country. It was only in the 1950s, he says, that an emphasis on academics supplanted character education in as an educational priority.

"Today," Cunningham states, "there is a renewed interest in character education, as the perception grows that many American youth are getting out of control. Drugs and gangs, teenage pregnancy and suicide, and the breakdown of school discipline, have led many educators and political leaders to once again look to the schools to educate not only the minds but also the consciences of children."


For additional information on character education or for tips on establishing a character education program at your school, contact one of the following organizations:

  • The American Federation of Teachers, 1555 New Jersey Ave., NW, Arlington, VA 20001
  • The Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character, School of Education, Boston University, 605 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, MA 02215
  • The Center for the 4th and 5th Rs, SUNY Cortland, Education Department, Cortland, NY 13045 (Email: [email protected])
  • Character Counts! National Office, 4640 Admiralty Way, Suite 1001, Marina del Rey, CA 90292-6610 (Email: [email protected])
  • The Character Education Institute, 8918 Tesoto Dr., San Antonio, TX 78217 (Email: [email protected])
  • The Character Education Partnership, 918 16th Street NW, Suite 501, Washington, DC 20006
  • The National Education Association, 1201 16th St., NW, Washington, DC 20036
  • Your Environment Inc. Character Education, 300 N. Mononghela Ave., Glassport, PA 15045

    Article by Linda Starr
    Education World®
    Copyright © 2009 Education World

    Originally published 02/01/1999
    Links lasts updated 05/04/2009