More about Character and Education

The article I posted a couple of weeks ago (see:  Character Education:  Teaching Kids about Real Success) on this and some other blogs about character education drew some quick and sometimes very critical responses.   To some, character education programs are too greatly driven by philosophical and political biases to be worthy of incorporating into public education venues.  One reader was particularly pointed in their criticism of the programs.  But rather than simply post the comment they wanted to share, I thought I’d feature it in this article, not only because the writer has some valid and important points to make but also because I think some of those points merit further discussion.  Here’s the comment, only slightly edited for purposes of clarity and brevity:

Nice cheerleading on the subject, but the reality of your claim (and CEP’s) doesn’t pan out.

Sure! Who could be against anything as grand sounding as character education? Well, unless there was a conclusive study about it which proves that it does absolutely nothing except waste time and money.

In October 2010, a federal study, the largest and most thorough ever conducted, found that school-wide Character Education programs produce exactly ZERO improvements in student behavior or academic performance.

It’s no surprise. Just take a look at the lists of values and goals of the dozens of competing CE offerings. The lack of agreement between the lists is one of the most damning aspects of character education! It also becomes obvious that the majority of the values follow a conservative agenda, concerned with conformity, submitting to authority, not making a fuss, etc.  But the one thing all these programs do agree on is what values are not included on their lists of core values. Not found, even though they are fundamental to the history and success of our nation are such noted values as independence, calculated risk, ingenuity, 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, embodies values that would be antithetical to those found in today’s character education.

Notwithstanding what might be meant by the “claims” the writer insists that both I and CEP make that are unfounded (a complaint for which I still cannot find understandable grounds), some of the criticisms mentioned above have great merit, especially with respect to the issue of conflicting goals, standards and offerings within many character education programs.  But such problems are not unique to CE programs or studies that attempt to assess their effectiveness.  In fact, the results of just about any “outcome study” these days can drive a logical, thinking person crazy, especially when those results suggest that a well-intended effort to solve a problem really hasn’t accomplished anything.  What’s worse, the scientific journals are full of “definitive” outcome studies conducted over the years that appear to only contradict one another. This has been a longstanding problem for outcome studies on therapy.  When you look at data on particular therapeutic methods, and the relative effectiveness of including certain components in them, you often find support for the efficacy of various types of treatment, especially when therapies are matched well with certain targeted populations.  But there’s rarely rigor or uniformity in the implementation of “therapy,” and there’s also a big gap between what institutions and individual providers say they do “on paper” (in line with known best practice therapy methods) and what they actually do in practice.  So, it’s no big surprise at all that when you attempt to answer the global question: “Does therapy work?” and collect results from a sufficiently large and representative sample, you don’t get anything statistically significant.

The criticism that some CE programs are too politically and philosophically biased to advance necessary academic and social agendas also has some merit.  But it would be wrong to say that only conservative philosophies are promoted, inasmuch as many of the most commonly advanced program components such as anti-bullying and tolerance of minority populations have been primarily crafted and advocated by liberal-leaning minority groups.   Unfortunately, our philosophical perspectives and political philosophies enter into just about everything these days.  And I would could spend days presenting some pretty hard evidence that anyone who thinks science – most especially behavior science – is “pure” and free from such biasing influences is living in a fantasy land.  So, more than ever, we need to have a fair and honest debate about our values – a debate not so easily accomplished in an era of character impairment where true openness, honesty, and fairness are hard to come by.

I still unreservedly by the assertion I made about the importance of children being “prepared” character-wise to make the best of their educational experience.  There would be neither the impetus nor support for CE programs in the first place if educators didn’t know this all too well.  In fact, since the 70’s, several studies have shown self-control, and especially the ability to delay gratification is a much better predictor of academic achievement and personal success than I.Q.  So, it seems that character issues matter more than raw ability when it comes not only to preparedness to learn but also the ability to benefit from one’s educational experience.  But the criticism cited above raises some very valid points and those points attest to the frank and honest discussion we need to have not only about the values we want to promote and encourage, but also about whether the way we’ve chosen to go about promoting those values is having the intended effect.

As I assert in my book Character Disturbance, whether we like it or not, our kids are always learning (and I’m not talking here about academic material).  But exactly what we want them to learn, and to value and treasure, well…, that’s a whole other story! For now, I think we can expect lackluster outcomes from research studies on character education programs.  There’s simply too much ambiguity, inconsistency, and, frankly, too much discrepancy between say they’re doing on paper and their actual practices.  We still need a vigorous, frank, and honest debate about just what values need to be taught and which values and standards we can PROVE through truly objective research really make a difference.  We need a similar kind of debate on just how we want to define and measure personal and communal success. Personally, I welcome such a debate because it flushes out not only the serious problems we continue to have in this area but also the frighteningly deep divisions among us with respect to our values. The main point of my earlier article is that character is still the defining issue of our day and deserves our utmost attention.  More and more folks are recognizing that, and not just teachers.  Corporations have instituted character development programs of their own.  And the fact that we have such deep divisions among us about what qualities we think ought to be promoted and advanced in our young persons only underscores how important it is for us to address the issue.  We also need to honestly reckon with how well any of the approaches we might be taking to resolving the problem are working.  In the process, we’re likely to find ourselves discovering what true success really means to us as well as what we need to do to help ensure that success for our children.


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