Character education real need in schools

Sunday, April 25, 1999

The terrible events at Columbine High School are unfolding on CNN as I sit down to write this column.

With millions of other shocked Americans, I watch the SWAT teams move in as students flee the school in panic. Ambulances arrive to take away the wounded. Anguished parents are in the middle of their worst nightmare.

Ironically, the column I am writing focuses on a report released earlier today calling for schools of education to prepare teachers to teach good character. The news from Colorado makes the report's message even more urgent.

For the next few weeks our hearts will rightly focus on the parents, students, and family members most directly devastated by the horror at Columbine. Once again — just as we did following Paducah, Jonesboro and all the other shootings — we'll ask how this could happen. And once again we'll struggle to find ways to make our schools safer.

We'll hear a lot about keeping guns away from children, the need for metal detectors in high schools, the scourge of TV violence — all subjects worthy of discussion and debate.

But once we get beyond the immediate shock and anger, we need to step back and take a broader look at how to address the underlying moral crisis among young people. That's why the report released today — “Teachers as Educators of Character: Are the Nation's Schools of Education Coming Up Short?” — is so significant and timely. It turns our attention to the hard work of creating and sustaining a strong moral climate in our schools.

Polls show that the vast majority of parents want character education in schools. But according to this report prepared by the Character Education Partnership (CEP) and Boston University's Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character, schools of education aren't preparing teachers to foster good character and strong ethics in their students.

This is alarming. At a time when growing numbers of school districts are adopting character education programs and when some states are even beginning to mandate that they do so, teacher educators are doing little to train teachers to integrate character development into their teaching.

Most deans of education schools believe that core moral values should be taught in public schools. But they readily admit that their institutions aren't doing much about it.

Why? It may be that some schools of education are still influenced by an earlier era when it was widely believed that schools should be neutral on values. There's still a fear of “indoctrination” of any kind and confusion as to whether teaching values means imposing religion. I have even heard some teacher-educators invoke the First Amendment as a reason for not undertaking character education.

But let's be clear: The First Amendment requires that public-school officials be neutral toward religion; this doesn't mean they must be neutral on moral values. Public schools promote values one way or another all day long. The issue isn't whether or not to teach values. The issue is which values to teach and how to do it.

There's now a growing consensus about what constitutes high-quality, comprehensive character education. According to CEP, an effective program “helps students develop good character, which includes knowing, caring about, and acting upon core ethical values such as fairness, honesty, compassion, responsibility, and respect for self and others.”

This can be done under the First Amendment. Teaching good character and citizenship in public schools can be accomplished without invoking religious authority and without undermining the religious commitments of students and parents. Hundreds of school districts are doing it right now with great success.

As I write these words, the terrible tragedy in Colorado continues to unfold. At least 18 students have been taken to nearby hospitals, some in critical condition. Others still inside the school are feared dead. Tearful parents are finding and embracing their shocked and frightened children.

One parent looks into the camera and says: “Now we'll have to ask ourselves: Are we doing all that we can do?”

The answer is clearly “no.” There's no quick fix for the moral breakdown that causes students to shoot students or to take drugs, join gangs or self-destruct in other ways. But character education — more than metal detectors or police in the hallways — is the most effective, long-term strategy that public schools can adopt.

We have had enough wake-up calls. It's time to put character education high on the agenda of our schools of education and our public schools.

Advocates often say that character education is as important as academics in schools. It's not. Educating for moral character and civic virtue — creating a moral climate in every school-is the most important mission of public education.

Copies of “Teachers as Educators of Character” may be ordered by calling the Character Education Partnership at (800) 988-8081.