Essay Education Reform Character

Character education is an umbrella term loosely used to describe the teaching of children in a manner that will help them develop variously as moral, civic, good, mannered, behaved, non-bullying, healthy, critical, successful, traditional, compliant or socially acceptable beings. Concepts that now and in the past have fallen under this term include social and emotional learning, moral reasoning and cognitive development, life skills education, health education, violence prevention, critical thinking, ethical reasoning, and conflict resolution and mediation.[1] Many of these are now considered failed programs, i.e. "religious education", "moral education", "values clarification".[2]

Today, there are dozens of character education programs in, and vying for adoption by, schools and businesses.[3] Some are commercial, some non-profit and many are uniquely devised by states, districts and schools, themselves. A common approach of these programs is to provide a list of principles, pillars, values or virtues, which are memorized or around which themed activities are planned.[4] It is commonly claimed that the values included in any particular list are universally recognized. However, there is no agreement among the competing programs on core values (e.g., honesty, stewardship, kindness, generosity, courage, freedom, justice, equality, and respect) or even how many to list. There is also no common or standard means for assessing, implementing or evaluating programs.[5]


"Character" is one of those overarching concepts that is the subject of disciplines from philosophy to theology, from psychology to sociology—with many competing and conflicting theories.

Character as it relates to character education most often refers to how 'good' a person is. In other words, a person who exhibits personal qualities like those a society considers desirable might be considered to have good character—and developing such personal qualities is often seen as a purpose of education. However, the various proponents of character education are far from agreement as to what "good" is, or what qualities are desirable. Compounding this problem is that there is no scientific definition of character. Because such a concept blends personality and behavioral components, scientists have long since abandoned use of the term "character" and, instead, use the term psychological motivators to measure the behavioral predispositions of individuals. With no clinically defined meaning, there is virtually no way to measure if an individual has a deficit of character, or if a school program can improve it.

The various terms in the lists of values that character education programs propose—even those few found in common among some programs—suffer from vague definitions. This makes the need and effectiveness of character education problematic to measure.

In-school programs[edit]

There is no common practice in schools in relation to the formation of pupils' character or values education.[6] This is partly due to the many competing programs and the lack of standards in character education, but also because of how and by whom the programs are executed.

Programs are generally of four varieties:[4]cheerleading, praise and reward, define and drill, and forced formality. They may be used alone or in combination.

1) Cheerleading involves multicolored posters, banners, and bulletin boards featuring a value or virtue of the month; lively morning public-address announcements; occasional motivational assemblies; and possibly a high-profile event such as a fund-raiser for a good cause.

2) Praise-and-reward approach seeks to make virtue into habit using "positive reinforcement". Elements include "catching students being good" and praising them or giving them chits that can be exchanged for privileges or prizes. In this approach, all too often, the real significance of the students' actions is lost, as the reward or award becomes the primary focus.

3) Define-and-drill calls on students to memorize a list of values and the definition of each. Students' simple memorization of definitions seems to be equated with their development of the far more complex capacity for making moral decisions.

4) Forced-formality focuses on strict, uniform compliance with specific rules of conduct, (i.e., walking in lines, arms at one's sides), or formal forms of address ("yes sir," "no ma'am"), or other procedures deemed to promote order or respect of adults.

"These four approaches aim for quick behavioral results, rather than helping students better understand and commit to the values that are core to our society, or helping them develop the skills for putting those values into action in life's complex situations." [4]

Generally, the most common practitioners of character education in the United States are school counselors, although there is a growing tendency to include other professionals in schools and the wider community. Depending on the program, the means of implementation may be by teachers and/or any other adults (faculty, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, maintenance staff, etc.); by storytelling, which can be through books and media; or by embedding into the classroom curriculum. There are many theories about means, but no comparative data and no consensus in the industry as to what, if any, approach may be effective.[7]


It has been said that, "character education is as old as education itself". Indeed, the attempt to understand and develop character extends into prehistory.

Understanding character[edit]

Psychic arts[edit]

Since very early times, people have tried to access or "read" the pre-disposition (character) of self and others. Being able to predict and even manipulate human behavior, motivations, and reactions would bestow obvious advantages. Pre-scientific character assessment techniques have included, among others: anthropometry, astrology, palmistry, metoposcopy, and chiromancy. These approaches have been scientifically discredited although they continue to be widely practiced.

Race character[edit]

The concept of inherited "race character" has long been used to characterize desirable versus undesirable qualities in members of groups as a whole along national, tribal, ethnic, religious and even class lines. Race character is predominantly used as a justification for the denigration and subsequent persecution of minority groups, most infamously, justifying European persecution of Native Americans, the concept of slavery, and the Nazis' persecution of Jews. Though race character continues to be used as a justification for persecution of minorities worldwide,[8] it has been scientifically discredited and is not overtly a component of modern character education in western societies.

Generational character[edit]

Particularly in modern liberal republics, social and economic change is rapid and can result in cognitive stress to older generations when each succeeding generation expands on and exhibits their own modes of expressing the freedoms such societies enjoy.

America is a prime example. With few traditions, each generation exhibites attitudes and behaviors that conservative segments of preceding generations uneasily assimilate. Individual incidents can also produce a moral panic. Cries about loss of morals in the succeeding generation, overwhelmingly unsubstantiated,[9] and calls for remediation have been constant in America since before its founding. (It should be expected that—in a free country that supports children's rights—this trend will continue apace.)

Developing character[edit]

Eastern philosophy[edit]

Eastern philosophy views the nature of man as initially quiet and calm, but when affected by the external world, it develops desires. When the desires are not properly controlled and the conscious mind is distracted by the material world, we lose our true selves and the principle of reason in Nature is destroyed. From this arise rebellion, disobedience, cunning and deceit, and general immorality. This is the way of chaos. Confucianism stands with Taoism as two of the great religious/philosophical systems of China.

A hallmark of the philosophy of Confucius is his emphasis on tradition and study. He disparages those who have faith in natural understanding or intuition and argues for long and careful study. Study, for Confucius, means finding a good teacher, who is familiar with the ways of the past and the practices of the ancients, imitating his words and deeds. The result is a heavy scheme of obligations and intricate duties throughout all of one's many social roles. Confucius is said to have sung his sayings and accompanied himself on a 'qin' (a kind of zither). According to Confucius, musical training is the most effective method for molding the moral character of man and keeping society in order. He said: "Let a man be stimulated by poetry, established by the rules of propriety, perfected by music." [10]

The theme of Taoism[11] is one of harmony with nature. Zhuangzi was a central figure in Taoist philosophy. He wrote that people develop different moral attitudes from different natural upbringings, each feeling that his own views are obvious and natural, yet all are blinded by this socialization to their true nature. To Zhuangzi, pre-social desires are relatively few and easy to satisfy, but socialization creates a plethora of desires for "social goods" such as status, reputation, and pride. These conventional values, because of their comparative nature create attitudes of resentment and anger inciting competition and then violence. The way to social order is for people to eliminate these socialized ambitions through open-minded receptivity to all kinds of voices—particularly those who have run afoul of human authority or seem least authoritative. Each has insights. Indeed, in Taoist moral philosophy, perfection may well look like its opposite to us. One theme of Zhuangzi's that links Taoism to the Zen branch of Buddhism is the concept of flow, of losing oneself in activity, particularly the absorption in skilled execution of a highly cultivated way. His most famous example concerns a butcher who carves beef with the focus and absorption of a virtuoso dancer in an elegantly choreographed performance. The height of human satisfaction comes in achieving and exercising such skills with the focus and commitment that gets us "outside ourselves" and into such an intimate connection with our inborn nature.

Western philosophy[edit]

The early Greek philosophers[12] felt that happiness requires virtue and hence that a happy person must have virtuous traits of character.

Socrates identifies happiness with pleasure and explains the various virtues as instrumental means to pleasure. He teaches, however, that pleasure is to be understood in an overarching sense wherein fleeing battle is a momentary pleasure that detracts from the greater pleasure of acting bravely.

Plato wrote that to be virtuous, we must both understand what contributes to our overall good and have our spirited and appetitive desires educated properly and guided by the rational part of the soul. The path he prescribes is that a potentially virtuous person should learn when young to love and take pleasure in virtuous actions, but he must wait until late in life to develop the understanding of why what he loves is good. An obvious problem is that this reasoning is circular.

Aristotle is perhaps, even today, the most influential of all the early Western philosophers. His view is often summarized as 'moderation in all things'. For example, courage is worthy, for too little of it makes one defenseless. But too much courage can result in foolhardiness in the face of danger. To be clear, Aristotle emphasizes that the moderate state is not an arithmetic mean, but one relative to the situation: sometimes the mean course is to be angry at, say, injustice or mistreatment, at other times anger is wholly inappropriate. Additionally, because people are different, the mean for one person may be bravery, but for another it is recklessness.

For Aristotle, the key to finding this balance is to enjoy and recognize the value of developing one’s rational powers, and then using this recognition to determine which actions are appropriate in which circumstances.

The views of nineteenth-century philosophers were heavily indebted to these early Greeks. Two of them, Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill,[13] had a major influence on approaches to developing character.

Karl Marx applies Aristotle's conclusions in his understanding of work as a place where workers should be able to express their rational powers. But workers subject to capitalist values are characterized primarily by material self-interest. This makes them distrustful of others, viewing them primarily as competitors. Given these attitudes, workers become prone to a number of vices, including selfishness, cowardice, and intemperance.

To correct these conditions, he proposes that workers perform tasks that are interesting and mentally challenging—and that each worker help decide how, and to what ends, their work should be directed. Marx believes that this, coupled with democratic conditions in the workplace, reduces competitive feelings among workers so they want to exhibit traditional virtues like generosity and trustfulness, and avoid the more traditional vices such as cowardice, stinginess, and self-indulgence.

John Stuart Mill, like Marx, also highly regarded development of the rational mind. He argued that seriously unequal societies, by preventing individuals from developing their deliberative powers, affect individuals' character in unhealthy ways and impede their ability to live virtuous lives. In particular, Mill argued that societies that have systematically subordinated women have harmed men and women, and advised that the place of women in families and in societies be reconsidered.

Contemporary views[edit]

Because women and men today may not be well-positioned to fully develop the capacities Aristotle and others considered central to virtuous character, it continues to be a central issue not only in ethics, but also in feminist philosophy, political philosophy, philosophy of education, and philosophy of literature. Because moral character requires communities where citizens can fully realize their human powers and ties of friendship, there are hard questions of how educational, economic, political, and social institutions should be structured to make that development possible.[citation needed]

Impressed by scientific experiments in social psychology, "situationist" philosophers argue that character traits are not stable or consistent and cannot be used to explain why people act as they do. Experimental data shows that much of human behavior is attributable to seemingly trivial features of the situations in which people find themselves. In a typical experiment, seminary students agreed to give a talk on the importance of helping those in need. On the way to the building where their talks were to be given, they encountered a confederate slumped over and groaning. Ironically, those who were told they were already late were much less likely to help than those who were told they had time to spare.

Perhaps most damning to the traditional view of character are the results of the experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s and Philip G. Zimbardo in 1971. In the first of these experiments,[14] the great majority of subjects, when politely though firmly requested by an experimenter, were willing to administer what they thought were increasingly severe electric shocks to a screaming "victim." In the second, the infamous Stanford prison experiment,[15] the planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended after only six days because the college students who were assigned to act as guards became sadistic and those who were the "prisoners" became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress. These and other experiments are taken to show that if humans do have noble tendencies, they are narrow, "local" traits that are not unified with other traits into a wider behavioral pattern of being.

History of character education in U.S. schools[edit]

The colonial period[edit]

As common schools spread throughout the colonies, the moral education of children was taken for granted. Formal education had a distinctly moral and religion emphasis. In the Christian tradition, it is believed that humans are flawed at birth (original sin), requiring salvation through religious means: teaching, guidance and supernatural rituals. This belief in America, originally heavily populated by Protestant immigrants, creates a situation of a-priori assumption that humans are morally deficient by nature and that preemptive measures are needed to develop children into acceptable members of society: home, church and school.

Character education in school in the United States began with the circulation of the New England Primer. Besides rudimentary instruction in reading, it was filled with Biblical quotes, prayers, catechisms and religiously charged moral exhortations. Typical is this short verse from the 1777 edition:[16]

Good children must,
Fear God all day, Love Christ alway,
Parents obey, In secret pray,
No false thing say, Mind little play,
By no sin stray, Make no delay,
In doing good.

Nineteenth century[edit]

As the young republic took shape, schooling was promoted for both secular and moral reasons. By the time of the nineteenth century, however, religion became a problem in the schools. In the United States, the overwhelming dominant religion was Protestantism. While not as prominent as during the Puritan era, the King James Bible was, nevertheless, a staple of U.S. public schools. Yet, as waves of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and Italy came to the country from the mid-nineteenth century forward, they reacted to the Protestant tone and orthodoxy of the schools. Concerned that their children would be weaned from their faith, Catholics developed their own school system. Later in the twentieth century, other religious groups, such as Jews, Muslims, and even various Protestant denominations, formed their own schools. Each group desired, and continues to desire, that its moral education be rooted in its respective faith or code.

Horace Mann, the nineteenth-century champion of the common schools, strongly advocated for moral education. He and his followers were worried by the widespread drunkenness, crime, and poverty during the Jacksonian period they lived in. No less troubling were the waves of immigrants flooding into cities, unprepared for urban life and particularly unprepared to participate in democratic civic life.

The most successful textbooks during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the famed McGuffey Readers, fostering virtues such as thrift honesty, piety, punctuality and industry. McGuffey was a theological and conservative teacher and attempted to give schools a curriculum that would instill Presbyterian Calvinist beliefs and manners in their students.

Mid-twentieth century[edit]

During the late-nineteenth-century and twentieth-century period, intellectual leaders and writers were deeply influenced by the ideas of the English naturalist Charles Darwin, the German political philosopher Karl Marx, the Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, and by a growing strict interpretation of the separation of church and state doctrine. This trend increased after World War II and was further intensified by what appeared to be changes in the nation's moral consensus in the late 1960s. Educators and others became wary of using the schools for moral education. More and more this was seen to be the province of the family and the church.

Still, due to a perceived view of academic and moral decline, educators continued to receive mandates to address the moral concerns of students, which they did using primarily two approaches: values clarification and cognitive developmental moral education.[17]

Values clarification. Values change over time in response to changing life experiences. Recognizing these changes and understanding how they affect one's actions and behaviors is the goal of the values clarification process. Values clarification does not tell you what you should have, it simply provides the means to discover what your values are. This approach, although widely practiced, came under strong criticism for, among other things, promoting moral relativism among students.

Cognitive-developmental theory of moral education and development sprang from the work of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and was further developed by Lawrence Kohlberg. Kohlberg rejected the focus on values and virtues, not only due to the lack of consensus on what virtues are to be taught, but also because of the complex nature of practicing such virtues. For example, people often make different decisions yet hold the same basic moral values. Kohlberg believed a better approach to affecting moral behavior should focus on stages of moral development. These stages are critical, as they consider the way a person organizes their understanding of virtues, rules, and norms, and integrates these into a moral choice.

Character education movement of the 1980s[edit]

The impetus and energy behind the return of a more didactic character education to American schools did not come from within the educational community. It continues to be fueled by desire from conservative and religious segments of the population for traditionally orderly schools where conformity to "standards" of behavior and good habits are stressed.[18] State and national politicians, as well as local school districts, lobbied by character education organizations, have responded by supporting this sentiment.[19] During his presidency, Bill Clinton hosted five conferences on character education. President George W. Bush[20] expanded on the programs of the previous administration and made character education a major focus of his educational reform agenda.

21st century developments[edit]

Grit is defined as perseverance and commitment to long-term goals. It is a character attribute associated with University of Pennsylvania professor Angela Duckworth who wrote about her research in a best-selling book[21] and promoted it on a widely watched Ted Talks video.[22]. Initially, lauded as a breakthrough discovery of the "key character ingredient"[23] to success and performance, it soon came under wide criticism and has been exposed, like other character interventions, as suspect as a character construct, and where attempts have been made to implement it in school programs, shows no more than a weak effect, if any. Moreover, the original data was misinterpreted by Duckworth.[24] Additionally, the construct of grit ability ignores the positive socio-economic pre-requisites necessary to deploy it. [25]

Modern scientific approaches[edit]

Today, the sciences of social psychology, neuropsychology and evolutionary psychology have taken new approaches to the understanding of human social behavior.

Personality and social psychology is a scientific method used by health professionals for researching personal and social motivators in and between the individual and society, as well as applying them to the problems people have in the context of society.[26] Personality and social psychologists study how people think about, influence, and relate to one another. By exploring forces within the person (such as traits, attitudes, and goals) as well as forces within the situation (such as social norms and incentives), they seek to provide insight into issues as wide-ranging as prejudice, romantic attraction, persuasion, friendship, helping, aggression, conformity, and group interaction.

Neuropsychology addresses how brain regions associated with emotional processing are involved in moral cognition by studying the biological mechanisms that underlie human choices and behavior. Like social psychology, it seeks to determine, not how we should, but how we do behave—though neurologically. For instance, what happens in the brain when we favor one response over another, or when it is difficult to make any decision? Studies of clinical populations, including patients with VMPC (ventromedial prefrontal cortex) damage, reveal an association between impairments in emotional processing and impairments in moral judgement and behavior.[27] These and other studies conclude that not only are emotions engaged during moral cognition, but that emotions, particularly those mediated by VMPC, are in fact critical for morality.

Other neurological research is documenting how much the unconscious mind is involved in decision making.[28] According to cognitive neuroscientists, we are conscious of only about 5 percent of our cognitive activity, so most of our decisions, actions, emotions, and behavior depends on the 95 percent of brain activity that goes beyond our conscious awareness. These studies show that actions come from preconscious brain activity patterns and not from people consciously thinking about what they are going to do.”

Evolutionary psychology,[29] a new science, emerged in the 1990s to focus on explaining human behavior against the backdrop of Darwinian processes. This science considers how the biological forces of genetics and neurotransmissions in the brain influence unconscious strategies and conscious and proposes that these features of biology have developed through evolution processes. In this view, the cognitive programs of the human brain are adaptations. They exist because this behavior in our ancestors enabled them to survive and reproduce these same traits in their descendants, thereby equipping us with solutions to problems that our ancestors faced during our species' evolutionary history. Ethical topics addressed include altruistic behaviors, deceptive or harmful behaviors, an innate sense of fairness or unfairness, feelings of kindness or love, self-sacrifice, feelings related to competitiveness and moral punishment or retribution, and moral "cheating" or hypocrisy.

Issues and controversies[edit]

Scientific studies[edit]

The largest federal study, to-date, a 2010 report released under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Education found that the vast majority of character education programs have failed to prove their effectiveness, producing no improvements in student behavior or academic performance.[7] Previous and current research on the subject fails to find one peer-reviewed study demonstrating any scientifically validated need for[9] or result from character education programs. Typically, support is attested to by referring to "correlations" (e.g., grades, number of disciplinary referrals, subjective opinion, etc.).[30][31]

Functional and ideological problems[edit]

1) An assumption that "character" is deficient in some or all children[32]

2) Lack of agreement on what constitutes effectiveness [33]

3) Lack of evidence that it does what it claims[31][34][7]

4) A conflict between what good character is and the way that character education proposes to teach it[32][35]

5) Differing standards in methods and objectives. Differing standards for assessing need and evaluating results. Some attempts have been made.[36]

6) Supportive "studies" that overwhelmingly rely on subjective feedback (usually surveys) from vested participants[7]

7) Programs instituted towards ideological and/or religious ends[20][37][38]

8) The pervasive problem of confusing morality with social conformity[4][39][40][41]

9) There are few if any common goals among character education programs. The dissensions in the list of values among character education programs, itself, constitutes a major criticism that there is anything to character education that is either fundamental or universally relevant to students or society.[42]

10) It might be said that there is agreement in as much as what values do not find inclusion on lists of core values. Not found, even though they are fundamental to the success of modern democratic societies, are such noted values as independence, inventiveness, curiosity, critical thinking, skepticism, and even moderation. "Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!" the famous saying by Ms. Frizzle on the much celebrated TV show, The Magic School Bus,[43] embodies values that would be antithetical to those found on today’s character education lists.

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • Arthur, J. (2003). Education with Character, New York: Routledge Falmer
  1. ^"Character Education: An Historical Overview". 
  2. ^Wanda Robinson-Lee (2008). A Framework for Understanding Character Education in Middle Schools. ProQuest. pp. 32–. ISBN 978-0-549-51817-4. 
  3. ^"Character Education: Organizations and Initiatives". 
  4. ^ abcd"What's Right and Wrong In Character Education Today".  
  5. ^"Leading Children Beyond Good and Evil (Includes a list of conflicting "pillars" among competing character education programs.)". 
  6. ^Revell, Lynn; Authur, James (March 2007). "Character Education in Schools and the Education of Teachers". Journal of Moral Education. 36 (1): 79–92.  
  7. ^ abcd"Efficcacy of Schoolwide Programs to Promote Social and Character Development and Reduce Problem Behavior in Elementary School Children"(PDF). The Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. 2007.  
  8. ^Howard Adelman (Editor), Astri Suhrke (Editor) (2000). The Path of Genocide. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 0-7658-0768-8. 
  9. ^ ab"Character Education After the Bandwagon has Gone?"(PDF). 
  10. ^Confucius. Analects. pp. chapter 8, verse 8. 
  11. ^"Taoism". Standford University. 
  12. ^"Moral Character: Some ancient Greek views". Standford University. 
  13. ^"Moral Character: Marx and Mill". Standford University. 
  14. ^Thomas Blass (2004). The man who shocked the world: the life and legacy of Stanley Milgram. Basic Books. ISBN 0-7382-0399-8. 
  15. ^"Stanford Prison Experiment: A Simulation Study of the Psychology of Imprisonment Conducted at Stanford University". 
  16. ^"The New England Primer: 1777 edition". 
  17. ^"Moral Development and Moral Education: An Overview"(PDF). 
  18. ^Kohn, Alfie. "How Not to Teach Values".  
  19. ^"Character Counts! Coalition (US)"(PDF).  
  20. ^ ab"George W, Bush, National Character Counts Week Proclamation, 2001". White House.  
  21. ^Duckworth, Angela (May 3, 2016). Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Scribner. ISBN 978-1501111105. 
  22. ^"Grit! The power of passion and perseverance Talks". TED Talks. 
  23. ^"Grit: The key ingredient to your kids' success". Washington Post. 
  24. ^Credé, M.; Tynan, M.C.; Harms, P. D. (September 2017). "Much ado about grit: A meta-analytic synthesis of the grit literature". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 113. doi:10.1037/pspp0000102. 
  25. ^Rose, Mike (May 14, 2015). "Why teaching kids to have 'grit' isn't always a good thing". Washington Post. 
  26. ^"What is a Social/Personality Psychology?". Society for Personality and Social Psychology. 
  27. ^"Investigating emotion in moral cognition: a review of evidence from functional neuroimaging and neuropsychology". British Medical Bulletin. 84 (1): 69–79. December 1, 2007. 
  28. ^"Unconscious Decisions". Scientific American. 
  29. ^"Evolutionary Psychology". Standford University. 
  30. ^"Moral Education - A Brief History of Moral Education, The Return of Character Education, Current Approaches to Moral Education".  
  31. ^ abDavis, Michael (2003). "What's Wrong with Character Education?". American Journal of Education. 110: 32. doi:10.1086/377672. 
  32. ^ abFabes, Richard A.; et al. (1989). Effects of Rewards on Children's Prosocial Motivation: A Socialization Study. Developmental Psychology.  
  33. ^"Evaluating character education programs and missing the target: A critique of existing research". Educational Research Review. 1 (2): 148–156. 2006. doi:10.1016/j.edurev.2006.08.001. 
  34. ^Greenburg, Barry; Fain, Stephen. "An Exploratory Study of the Impact of the Character Education Program within the Dade County Public School System".  
  35. ^"A Critique of Character Counts! as a Curriculum Model for Explicit Moral Instruction in Public Schools"(PDF). Augusta State University. 
  36. ^"Character Education Quality Standards"(PDF). Character Education Partnership. 
  37. ^Yu, Tianlong (2004). In the Name of Morality: Character Education and Political Control. Peter Lang. ISBN 9780820467252.  
  38. ^Talvi, Silja J.A. "Cult of Character: How the 'secular' Character Training Institute is working to build evangelist Bill Gothard's vision of a First-Century Kingdom of God – one city, one state, one school board, one police force and one mind at a time". InTheseTime. 
  39. ^Dune, Jonathan (1997). "A Critique of Research Evaluating Moral Education Interventions". Archived from the original on 2000-01-09.  
  40. ^Juhasz, Joseph; Shepard, Lester. "The Character Education Dilemma".  
  41. ^Whitley, Joseph Garland. "Reversing the Perceived Moral Decline in American Schools: A Critical Literature Review of America's Attempt at Character Education (Covers the range of critiques from lack of pre-assessment and no evidence of effectiveness, to the damages of rewarding behavior and flaws in implementation)". College of William and Mary, School of Education.  
  42. ^Smagorinsky, Peter; Taxel, Joel (2005). The Discourse of Character Education - Culture Wars in the Classroom. Psychology Press.  
  43. ^"Magic School Bus Wins NEA Award". 

The debate over how to improve K-12 public education in America has long been highly charged and contentious, but in recent years,  it’s taken on a polarizing either or  mentality. Charter schools or public schools? Eliminate teacher tenure or keep it?

Here’s a closer look at some of the ideas reformers have coalesced around: teacher reforms, charter school experimentation, character education and efforts to address non-school related factors.

Charter Schools

Charter schools are the fastest growing sector of American education, and for the past couple of years, they’ve been at the forefront of reform efforts.

Though they receive some public funding, charter schools are run by private groups and aren’t required to operate under the same laws or restrictions that govern public schools. Instead, each school sets a “charter” that details its mission, methods, goals and accountability procedures, subject to state law. Students, sometimes restricted by location, can apply for admission to a charter, and if demand exceeds supply, public lotteries determine which students are admitted. The idea, charter proponents argue, is to offer “school choice” that allows parents to opt for a better-performing public school than they might otherwise be assigned.

“One of the key lessons we’ve learned from charters over the last 20 years is that increased autonomy at the school level allows us to attract more entrepreneurial leaders, and allows them more room to innovate and design the schools that work for kids,” says Colorado state senator and charter proponent Mike Johnston.

Charters have strong support in Washington, where, in 2011, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill to expand charter schools across the country. President Obama called the schools “incubators of innovation” when declaring “National Charter Schools Week” last May. Additionally, his “Race to the Top” program, which allows schools to compete for federal money through an evaluation process, encouraged states to lift restrictions on the growth of charter schools.

Today, there are more than 5,600 charter schools across the country attended by more than 2 million students, about the same as the number of children who are home-schooled. In the 2011-2012 school year, enrollment in charter schools rose by 200,000 students compared over previous school year. But even with its rapid rise and prominent position in the education reform debate, less than 5 percent of American students are enrolled in charters.

Critics warn that charter schools shift limited district funds away from traditional public schools, resulting in teacher layoffs and programming cuts. Still, studies, like this one from Ball State University [PDF] and this one from the pro-charter group [PDF] the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, suggest that most charter students get on average less money than their public school peers.

Others are concerned about the potential for abuse in charter schools run by for-profit education management organizations (EMOs) and about increased school size as a result of EMOs seeking to grab more of market share.

Perhaps the most damning criticism of charters is performance: A much-cited 2009 Stanford University study found that 17 percent of charter schools provided a better education than local schools, 46 percent provided a comparable education and 37 percent provided a “significantly worse” education. A study by the Rand Corporation [PDF] in the same year found that charter schools produced “achievement gains that are, on average, neither substantially better nor substantially worse than those of local [public schools],” but also determined that the charters that had been operating longer had better results.

On the whole, research suggests that charters vary widely in performance by state and by type. “There are strong charters and there are weak charters,” says Johnston. “But charters represent a possibility for innovation that helps us find good practices we can adopt or scale.”

That variability leads some to some contend that the debate shouldn’t be about whether charter schools themselves are the best option, but about which policies charter schools experiment with that result in better performance.

But Johnston, a former district school principal, also points out that it’s not just charter schools that are experimenting today. In Colorado, there are innovation schools that are still district schools, “We’re seeing a whole spectrum for innovation,” he says.

Teacher Reforms

Questions about tenure, training, evaluation and how to better support educators have often pitted teachers and some reform advocates against each other, in perhaps the most divisive education policy debate.

High-profile teacher unions and other supporters of tenure — contracts that vary by state but essentially are intended to protect public school teachers from being unfairly fired — argue that it is simply a right to due process. Tenure opponents, including former D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, say that existing tenure policies hurt students by giving teachers a “job for life” and making the process of firing ineffective teachers extremely difficult and long.

Facing union opposition, most opponents have not been able to eliminate tenure altogether, but have been able to pass state laws that establish a greater threshold for tenure. Last August, for example, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) signed a law that requires four years of teaching (rather than three) before a teacher can be granted tenure. It also enforces a ratings-based model to evaluate effectiveness for granting or revoking tenure.

Today more than two-thirds of states are currently in the process of transforming how they evaluate teachers, but there’s still a great deal of disagreement over how to — and who should — evaluate teachers for tenure or for dismissal. And despite years of testing new procedures in states like Tennessee, where schools have complained they bring more paperwork than they do results, there’s also little data to show whether student achievement is higher as a result.

Though she never succeeded in eliminating tenure within D.C. public schools, Rhee developed a teacher evaluation system based on students’ test scores that resulted in the dismissal of more than 100 teachers. The move won her acclaim, but also elicited strong backlash within D.C. and stoked a broader conversation about whether student test scores are a fair measure of teacher effectiveness or should be used to determine teacher pay.

Opponents cite research, like this study from the Economic Policy Institute [PDF], which they argue shows that student test scores alone, even when measured with the most sophisticated statistical applications, aren’t a sufficiently reliable or fair measure of teacher effectiveness. They also caution that tying test scores to dismissal could demoralize teachers and dissuade them from wanting to take work in schools with the most needy students.

“Focusing obsessively on test scores has predictable results: narrowing the curriculum (some districts and schools have dropped the arts and other subjects to make more time for testing); cheating; teaching to the tests; and distorting the whole education system for the sake of scores,” warns education scholar Diane Ravitch, one of the authors of of the EPI study.

She argues that if reformers are serious about improving schools, greater effort should be made to better train teachers and provide them with more support and better working conditions. Advocates like Ravitch point to high teacher turnover: 50 percent of entering teachers leave the profession within their first five years of teaching, often because of difficult working conditions, poor resources and stress.

In December, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, publicly proposed a “bar exam” of sorts that would test teachers at the end of education school on knowledge of their subject and of teaching. And just last week, the New York Education Reform Commission, which included Weingarten, issued a report recommending higher standards for admittance to teacher and principal preparation programs.

As for existing teachers, training and professional development programs have taken on an increasingly important role in schools across the country.

But though the federal government gives local districts more than $1 billion each year for training, there’s little independent research showing which kinds of training programs work.

“There is a sense that professional development in the teaching field isn’t very successful,” says Doug Lemov, who founded the charter network Uncommon Schools and is perhaps the most recognized advocate of teacher training. He says that’s because a lot of professional development programs are done “at teachers, instead of by them,” explaining that teachers often don’t participate in their design or development, and are likely to be driven by philosophical perspective rather than the relevant, practical problems teachers face. “One of the least acknowledged parts of the teaching profession is that it’s performance based, and while every other professional that does live work, like a surgeon or an athlete, practices before they go into the game, teacher professional development almost never involves practice,” he says.

Lemov argues the best way to solve the problem is by studying the best teachers, trying to learn from them and disseminate their methods. In 2004 he  set out to do that, using data sets to identify those teaching high poverty children who were also getting high results. His ensuing book Teach Like A Champion identifies 49 teaching techniques that he argues put students on the path to college. Among them are techniques that emphasize more student participation, students developing a habit of translating their ideas into writing and building a positive behavioral culture in the classroom. For example, “the cold call” technique encourages teachers to call on students whether or not they’ve raised their hands, which Lemov argues allows teachers to better evaluate how well a class is learning and builds a culture of engagement. And within Uncommon Schools, teachers are specializing techniques based on subject and grade level.

Lemov says his team at Uncommon Schools knows the techniques work, but are gathering data on where and how they work best through partnerships with the “New Teacher Project” in D.C., the Houston Independent School District and Roland Fryer’s Apollo 20 schools in Houston. But he’s also cautious. “My biggest fear for Teach Like A Champion is that people see input as the outcome,” he says. “I think the key thing is for teachers individually to still be accountable for their results to their principal, as opposed to being publicly published, and ultimately teachers will be the best judges for what gets them there.”

Character Education

Some of the most acclaimed charter schools, including Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and Democracy Prep, emphasize what’s known as “character education,” or teaching non-cognitive skills like perseverance, respect, self-confidence, curiosity, self-control, grit and discipline. Though these skills aren’t measured by IQ or standardized tests, character education proponents tout a growing body of research that suggests these sorts of skills are critical to a child’s future success. The goal is to mold students to become positive contributors to society and lead engaged, purposeful lives.

Perhaps the most well-known exponent of character education is Paul Tough. In his book How Children Succeed, he explores experimental models that seek to teach these skills in the classroom. For example, Tools of the Mind, an early childhood program that Tough calls out as promising, focuses on teaching children to regulate their social, emotional and cognitive behaviors. Self-regulation, the organization believes, has a stronger association with academic achievement than IQ or entry-level reading or math skills.

Some schools are adopting these ideas on a much broader scale. The KIPP charter schools in New York City, which incorporate character development into the classroom, promote seven character strengths: zest, self-control, gratitude, curiosity, optimism, grit and social intelligence. Several times a year, students are evaluated based on their character development, which Tough says he observed serving more as a conversation piece than it does as a traditional report card.

Despite the buzz around character education, there’s evidence that existing models might not be working to raise student achievement. A recent study by the National Center for Education Research [PDF] found that none of the large-scale character education programs in the country affected student outcome.

Tough acknowledges there’s more research and work to be done. “I do think [these character skills] can be taught in the classroom,” he told The Washington Post. “But I don’t think we yet have an ideal model for exactly how to teach them in the classroom.”

Non-School Factors

What if the education problem isn’t just about schools or teachers? University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber found that 60 percent of the differences in student test scores are explained by non-school factors like like family background and poverty, while the influences of school accounted for about 21 percent of student achievement.

Some reformers have been pushing for more public investment in low-income communities with low levels of student achievement. For example, the Harlem Children’s Zone, a charter network, provides social services to those within its 100-block neighborhood in Harlem, including one-on-one counseling to families, health clinics, community centers and an employment training center, whether or not they are affiliated with students in the schools. But this Brookings Institute report found that students who live outside the zone had the same outcome as those students living inside it, calling into question whether expensive community investment programs are the practical way forward.

But Colorado state senator Mike Johnston says we no longer have to wait to fix poverty to fix educational problems. “We know that fixing education depends mostly on highly effective teachers and highly effective leaders,” he told FRONTLINE. “We as adults just have to be able to build high expectations and support students as they try to reach those expectations.”

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