Magazine article Insight on the News

U.S. Schools Rediscover the Virtue of Virtues

Magazine article Insight on the News

U.S. Schools Rediscover the Virtue of Virtues

Article excerpt

In St. Louis, 183,000 school-age children participate in an educational program aimed at the character of students. The goal of the program, for students from kindergarten through grade 12, is to emphasize thrity core values, including "honesty, responsibility, cooperation and commitment."

St. Louis educators are cautious about calling the program a success, but half of the 1,000 area teachers surveyed reported that the program had improved student behavior or academic achievement, and 86 percent of the principals queried concluded that the program had had a positive impact.

They are not alone. Charactereducation programs are sprouting around the country, many too new to be truly evaluated or to have their efforts firmly recorded. School administrators say that many children no longer learn basic values at home or in the community, so the task has been left to the schools.

To assist them in the task, several national groups have sprung up which argue that character education can be achieved by focusing on agreed sets of virtues. Character Counts! is an organization launched by Michael Josephson, head of the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute of Ethics. It calls for schools to promote six character traits upon which our society presumably can agree: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. Another group is the Character Education Partnership, or CEP. Led by educators Diane Berreth, John Martin and retired McDonnell Douglas Chief Executive Sanford McDonnell, CEP seeks to transform several active programs from cities such as St. Louis, Miami, San Francisco and Louisville, Ky., into a national movement. Begun in 1988, the program encompasses 23 St. Louis-area school districts and 183,000 students. The national partnership boasts some heavy hitters, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser during the Carter administration; Barbara Bush; and William Howell, chairman of J.C. Penney Co. CEP has as its goal basic reforms in the curricula of 75 percent of public schools by the end of the century.

The White House is listening. In July it hosted a national conference on Character Building for a Democratic, Civil Society, organized by The Communitarian Network, a membership organization that has been campaigning for character education for four years. The conference drew 250 leaders in the field of character education -- educators, academics, policymakers, representatives of religious organizations, business executives, heads of labor unions and other community leaders.

Meanwhile, Capitol Hill has been slow to join in the enthusiasm. Early this year, Rep. Tony Hall, an Ohio Democrat, sponsored a modest amendment calling for a national conference and demonstration grants to promote the teaching of values such as honesty, responsibility and caring. In February, after heated debate in the Education and Labor Committee, the measure was soundly defeated, 22-6. That vote marked the fourth time that character-education legislation sponsored by Hall failed to make it through Congress.

"Politicians are the last ones to get the message on this issue," Hall told the Wall Street Journal. He said he was amazed at how little his colleagues knew about the character-education movement. However, in a rare bipartisan moment, Congress passed a resolution this year calling for a Character Education Week.

There is more in the rising popularity of character education than meets the eye. The public and the media are preoccupied with highly charged issues when it comes to values education. Tough questions are raised: Who should decide what is to be taught in this touchy area, parents or boards of education? Are books that try to legitimate homosexuality to be allowed into schools' libraries, let alone into the curriculum? Should creationism be taught, and if yes -- as a science? And are schools going to be subjected to national standards on value issues? …

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