Chapter Eleven

Character Education

Character education is about basic values such as honesty, respect for others, compassion, and self-discipline--the foundations of group life that have been recognized by virtually every society in history. The call for an increase in the teaching of such values in the public schools has wide support. Seven out of 10 people in each group asked--African Americans, whites, principals, teachers, public school parents, and private school parents--responded that the Little Rock School District should increase its teaching of values. The Nashville, Tennessee, Metropolitan Public Schools at the elementary level, and the Allen Elementary School in Dayton, Ohio, have developed and implemented character education programs.

Sometimes someone just needs to say it; then a chorus of people will respond, "Yes!" That appears to be the case in Little Rock and across the nation regarding the issue of character education.

Survey Findings

Figure 11-1 shows the responses of African-American and white households with children in the Little Rock public schools when asked if the Little Rock School District (LRSD) should increase or decrease the teaching of values.

Values such as honesty, compassion, self-discipline, and integrity are generally agreed upon to be important for young persons to learn. Should the LRSD increase its teaching of values, decrease its teaching of values, or continue its existing practices?
Figure 11-1a Figure 11-1b
African-American Households with children in Little Rock Public Schools
White Households with children in Little Rock Public Schools
Source: LRSD 1 Telephone Survey and LRSD 2 Telephone Survey, UALR Institute of Government, 1996
What one sees in Figure 11-1 is that seven out of 10 respondents (72 percent) of both races favor increasing the teaching of values. Among the 26 principals who responded to the mail survey of the Task Force, 20 (76.9 percent) chose "increase." Among 467 teachers who responded to the mail survey, 387 (82.9 percent) chose "increase." Of the 77 households in the community survey who had children enrolled in private schools, 43 (73 percent) also answered "increase" to this question.

If the school board, central office administrators, principals, or teachers decided to increase the teaching of basic values such as honesty, compassion, self-discipline, and integrity, they would operate from a wide base of public support.

This is not just a local issue. A 1994 Public Agenda report on national opinions about the schools said this: "People want schools to teach values, but they especially want schools to emphasize those values that allow a diverse society to live together peacefully."1 The report identified honesty, respect for others, and resolving differences peacefully as values at the top of the list, with more than 90 percent of respondents wanting those values taught in the public schools.2

Why Is Character Education an Issue?

Character education is an issue because many youngsters in the schools show by their behavior that they have not learned basic values that govern the relationships of people in all societies. Why have they not learned such values? A thorough response to that question would be beyond the scope of this report. However, the most often cited explanation is weakness in the family structure today. Parents should be the first teachers and models of such values, but some are not.

The issue is not confined to the public schools. General Charles Krulak, Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, has been outspoken on the issues of values and morality in the Marine Corps and is initiating programs to attack the problem, including extending time in boot camp to instill basic values.3

A Clarification: Religion and Character Education

The values dealt with in character education are basic values that must prevail if people are to live and work together. Honesty, respect for others, personal responsibility, compassion, peaceful resolution of differences--these are the kinds of values addressed in character education. Religion is not the business of the public schools; and character education is not involved with prayer in the schools, abortion, or imposing conservative or liberal religious convictions on children. The distinction between religion and character education might be pictured this way: religion deals with a vertical relationship (person to Deity); while character education deals with horizontal relationships (people to people). Character education teaches basic values that have been common across virtually all civilized societies, irrespective of place, century, or prevailing religious beliefs.

In summary, here are three relevant facts: (1) Increasing numbers of children today become of school age without having been taught these basic values. This is the bad news. (2) The behavior of students must reflect such basic values if there is to be a good learning environment in the classroom. This is self-evident. (3) Such values can be taught by teachers in the public schools. This is the good news.

An Example from Nashville, Tennessee
A number of public school districts across the nation have already developed programs of character education.

Inset: K-4 Character Education in the Metropolitan Nashville, Tennessee, Public Schools

One of the most ambitious efforts can be found in the neighboring state of Tennessee. The Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools in 1994-95 implemented a district-wide K-4 program for teaching positive character attributes and primary life skills. The program is entitled "Project: Solution" and is sponsored by the newspaper, The Tennessean, in a $750,000 program. The curriculum is based on 18 student performance expectations, or "character descriptors," such as respects self, respects others, accepts responsibility, forgives, practices honesty, and demonstrates gratitude. Lesson materials have been developed and workshops have been provided for teachers. It is too early to determine the results of the program. But it is a sign of the times.

An Example from Dayton, Ohio

Another example, with dramatic results, comes from the Allen Classical/ Traditional Academy (previously named Allen Elementary School) in Dayton, Ohio. There the principal and teachers developed a program built around a "word of the week" to transform the culture of the school. Examples of words of the week are honesty, punctuality, and respect. This program has been in place since 1989--long enough to demonstrate whether or not it is effective.

A word per week cuts the matter down to bite size, but to talk about the word of the week is to convey an overly simple picture of the program. The words were vehicles for a profound approach. The words provided a focus within the school and a means to reach the students regarding basic values.

Inside the school, the main thrust was in changing the culture. There was a focus on trust relationships--among principals, teachers, students, and parents. The whole program was developed through a team process. Much emphasis was placed on caring, on honoring differences, on creating a family atmosphere involving everyone. Teachers were empowered to make decisions. Teachers modeled the desired behavior.

This program has been carried out without special materials or special funding. The words of the week also facilitated reinforcement outside the school. The local newspapers, TV stations, and ministers all joined the effort in highlighting and discussing the word of the week and what it meant to live it.

By conventional wisdom, as noted earlier in Chapter Eight, Allen Elementary was not a likely candidate for success in 1989. With more than 500 students, it was not a small school. It was 60 percent minority with 59 percent of its students from single-parent homes and 78 percent from families receiving Aid for Dependent Children (figures which have risen since then).

Table 11-1
Yet Table 11-1 shows an amazing turnaround. The number of suspended students dropped from 150 in 1989 to 8 in 1995. The number of students submitting homework increased from 10 percent to 87 percent. And the school went from 28th out of 33 to 1st out of 33 among elementary schools in the district in student achievement scores, with the average percentile moving from 36.5 in 1989 to 62 in 1995. (See Figure 11-2.) This school shows what can be done.

Figure 11-2

Initiatives in Little Rock

The Task Force spoke with some Little Rock School District teachers who have, on their own, tackled this issue in their classrooms. They report that the need for character education exists at all levels--K-6, junior high, and senior high. One school--Pulaski Heights Elementary--recently implemented a word-of-the-week character education program reminiscent of the one in Dayton. The Racial and Cultural Diversity Commission of the City of Little Rock awarded Pulaski Heights Elementary a $1,500 grant to purchase materials for the program.

A Fifth Grade Teacher

The issue of character education was addressed recently by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. In a study published in 1995 entitled The Basic School: A Community for Learning, Ernest L. Boyer, late president of the foundation and one of America's most eminent educational authorities of the last quarter-century, included a section entitled "Commitment to Character." He included the following brief story:

One afternoon we talked with a fifth grade teacher in a large urban school. She commented on the pressures children face and her own personal commitment to character building. She described the challenge this way: "I look around at the world my students are growing up in, the violence on the streets and on TV, and ask, 'What can I do?' I decided that I can teach them to be courteous in my class, to respect one another, to be honest with one another and me, to learn to care about each other, and respect what belongs to each other. I can refuse to have foul language in my presence, to teach them to say 'thank you' and 'excuse me.'"

"It didn't take long." she said. "When swear words slipped out, students were catching themselves, saying 'I'm sorry,' or 'excuse me.' Property that had been taken was 'mysteriously' found. The classroom climate changed. Student performance improved. I felt I was teaching them not only how to learn, but how to live."

Character was being built through the climate of the classroom.4

Boyer advocated such character education. He believed that each school's community should identify basic values to be taught in the school, and he was confident the values identified would be remarkably similar from school to school. He himself offered for consideration this list of what he called basic virtues: honesty, respect, responsibility, compassion, self-discipline, perseverance, and giving.5

Observations and Options

The Little Rock School District could continue the status quo. This would mean that an individual teacher or an individual school could, on its own, initiate a character education program. A status quo approach would not square with either the sentiment of the stakeholders or the needs of the school district.

The LRSD could develop and implement a district-wide character education program with a common curriculum and common supporting materials. This would follow the Nashville model. Begun in 1994-95, the Nashville model's impact, as noted above, is yet to be determined.

The LRSD could establish a policy that the principal and faculty at each school would develop and implement a character education program. The Allen Elementary School in Dayton is an example of a successful program developed at the school level. We are of the view that this is the more promising approach--school by school. The climate and culture which so strongly affect student behavior are those specific to a school. Also it is at the school site that the front-line commitment of principals and teachers must be made. Therefore a strong case can be made that any program should be designed at the school site.

Whatever option might be chosen, involvement of the greater community--parents, churches, newspapers, TV stations--can reinforce and provide better results, as shown by the Allen Elementary School in Dayton.


1. Jean Johnson and John Immerwahr, First Things First: What Americans Expect from the Public Schools--A Report from Public Agenda, 1994, 24.

2. Johnson and Immerwahr, 46.

3. John Diamond, "Marines Add Moral Values to the Drill," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 6, 1996, 1A.

4. Ernest L. Boyer, The Basic School: A Community for Learning (Princeton: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1995), 190.

5. Boyer, 183-185.

Chapter 12
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