Character education can transform students and schools

Sunday, October 17, 1999

Most Americans will tell you that character education in schools is a good idea. According to pollsters, 90% of us want schools to teach core moral values. But what should “character education” look like? And more important, does it work?

Last week the nation got some compelling answers to both questions when the Character Education Partnership announced the 1999 National Schools of Character. The winners — 10 schools and one school district — prove that effective character education programs can transform schools.

Take a look at Marion Intermediate School in Marion, S.C. Discipline referrals were down 50% in the first year character education was implemented. Each school year begins with staff and students setting goals related to good character. Then, for the next nine months, learning about core moral values is integrated into the teaching of history, literature and other subjects.

Or go across the country to Youth Opportunities Unlimited in San Diego — a school for “at-risk” urban students. Once a war zone, the school now has the lowest suspension rate in the school district. What turned things around? Emphasizing and teaching core values in all school activities and throughout the curriculum.

Another winner, Traut Core Knowledge School in Fort Collins, Colo., is a charter school with a waiting list of 500 students. A strong focus on 12 core values throughout the school culture has contributed to high academic achievement at Traut Core. The school now ranks first in reading and in the top five in math out of the 26 schools in the district.

Private schools are also on the list. The Montrose School in Natick, Mass., has daily homerooms that focus on character discussions and leadership, and the school provides many opportunities for service to others. At Montrose, moral development is inseparable from academic achievement.

The district winner — Wake County Public Schools in North Carolina — is a case study in how to get comprehensive character education programs going in every school. Beginning in 1992, the district appointed a task force with broad representation from the community. Public meetings were held, surveys sent out, and other efforts made to ensure that character education in the schools would be built on the shared moral values of the citizens in this large and diverse district.

Today, character education is part of the mission of every Wake County school. The district provides in-service training and resources for teachers, encourages parental involvement and evaluates the results.

Higher academic achievement, lower drop-out rates, fewer discipline problems, a more positive and caring school environment — who doesn't want schools like these? And who wouldn't like to see students who are more caring, respectful, honest and responsible?

These award-winning schools help to dispel longstanding myths about character education. Myth one: “We can't agree about whose values to teach.” Wrong. Myth two: “Character education can't be done without imposing or ignoring religious commitments.” Wrong again.

The evidence is in. When schools and communities come together to consider character education, they are able to find consensus across religious and ideological differences about what to teach — and how to teach it.

Does your school district have a quality character education program? Is it being carried out in a way that is comprehensive and effective? If the answer to either question is “no” — or even “I don't know” — then maybe it's time to get to work. Teaching moral character and civic virtue should be at the heart of the mission of every public and private school in America.

For more information about how to get started — and about the National Schools of Character awards — contact the Character Education Partnership at or call (800) 988-8081.