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Curriculum & Instruction        < Previous        Next >


Character Development


Q. You hear so much today about all this cheating in high school and college, even among the top students, who are supposed to be the leaders and setting the example for everybody else. Then there's vandalism, and theft, and sexual promiscuity, and violence in our schools. What has happened to the role of the schools in establishing good character and citizenship among our youth?


It's related to the breakdown of the traditional, two-parent American family. Children who feel that their legs have been kicked out from under them by family chaos have a tough time aligning to standards of behavior. And boy, does that show in schools today, with the increasing numbers of children identified as having behavior management issues, and the cheating epidemic that you describe.


There's not much schools can do to promote the stable, two-parent married household, which research shows is the best environment for a child. But there are some good character development programs going on in schools.


One of the best is selecting quality, classic children's literature for the classroom. The great books model good character, and show the consequences of bad decisions, better than any "discussion circle" or classroom poster ever could. Storytelling is the best way to teach children, and getting those classics back into the classroom is a key reason to support phonics-ONLY reading instruction in the early grades, so that by middle school and high school, the students can read well enough to understand those classics. In many, if not most, school districts today, the classics have gone by the wayside because the kids' reading ability is too low, and that's a shame.


And there are some quality character ed programs on the market that school districts can purchase and use. Here are some links to one quality program worthy of note:


Character Counts!


Josephson Institute for Ethics


Institute for Character Development


There are many others that schools are employing. But there are also red flags about some developments in, well, developing character. One is this: under the guise of "character development," it would be far too easy to purposely shape children's attitudes, opinions and beliefs toward a particular slant, politically.


That appears to be happening in one effort led by Alma Powell, wife of retired U.S. Gen. Colin Powell. She heads up America's Promise Alliance, composed of businesses, education associations, faith groups and others whose current priority is to keep kids in school. Visit the website and you'll see how the "five promises" basically substitute government services for what individual families should be doing.


Now, helping at-risk kids do well in school certainly sounds good, since the U.S. has more than one million dropouts a year, which is an atrocious situation. And character development proponents say that schools with effective character education have lower dropout rates, better academic achievement, and fewer discipline problems. Learn more on


The bottom line is, character education is great, but there are conflicts over who should be teaching children about character. It's easy to teach kids right from wrong, but it's pretty tough to teach them WHY some things are "right," and some things are "wrong," when the adults in the community can't even agree.


And there are real questions about how appropriate or effective it is for a unit of government - the public schools - to be teaching children about values and beliefs in the first place. Chief among the concerns is that the public schools have expunged themselves of religious values, so any values that are then introduced are by definition amoral and non-religious. How can anyone of faith think those values are then "good"?


To the extent that character ed ventures into values clarification and situational ethics, which the programs espoused by Mrs. Powell and others do, it becomes closer to attitude-shaping on a political agenda, rather than keeping at-risk kids in school.


Look carefully when a character education program is promoted as a way to teach children what it means to be an "ethical, engaged citizen in a democracy." Those sound like good ideas. But how you interpret the meaning of those words is likely to be vastly different from how an ultra-liberal person would interpret them.


Is it "ethical" to wear a T-shirt to school with a Bible verse that proclaims that homosexual behavior is wrong? Not according to the new character-ed programs, for the most part. They put preserving other students' feelings ahead of the constitutionally-protected right to free speech.


On the other hand, is it "ethical" for an educator to encourage a troubled youth to join a Gay-Straight Student Alliance Club in a high school, even though homosexuality violates his parents' religious beliefs, they are paying for the boy to have counseling to try to understand why he is having problems establishing a normal sexual orientation, and joining that club would disobey their instructions? Even though to any rational person, that would be highly "unethical" for the educator to undermine the parents, but it wouldn't be "unethical" according to these new programs, which seek to align students' opinions with government policy rather than the standards of their own parents and the taxpayers who foot the bills.


Keep in mind that ultra-liberals are in charge of school systems, putting "spin" on what curricula to buy, including character education curricula, and you can see how it is getting into our schools.


Too often, those programs result in un-American activities such as "decision by consensus" (undermining leadership by substituting groupthink), "peer mediation" (giving some students, who are by definition immature, power over others) and "conflict resolution" (resolving difficulties between students by forcing them to compromise, instead of finding the truth about what happened and achieving justice).


So what should parents do?


1.       Make sure your child can read well enough to read the great books.

2.       Tell school officials and your school board to use quality curriculum to teach character, rather than a stand-alone program, because of the risk of inculcating a leftist agenda.

3.       Take your child to a church or synagogue for religious education, study of your faith's holy books, and quality mentoring from trained religious professionals, consistently, through high school.

4.       Talk, talk, talk to your child about character issues in your own lives, in the newspaper, in the workplace, and within your child's relationships, to use stories of everyday life to instill good character in your child.



Homework: Print out this brochure on the Six Pillars from Character Counts! and put it on your fridge or the family bulletin board for all to see and reflect upon every day:


By Susan Darst Williams Curriculum 13 2008


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