Content of whose character? Is character education in schools working?

Getting a definition of character education from an educator is a little like asking a cook to explain a casserole. There are similarities to be sure; but there are also multiple varieties, definitions, and approaches. Understanding what is meant by character education is helpful. For example, there is the character education that refers to whatever schools do in the broad sense (non-academic, hidden curriculum) to ensure that students grow up to be good people who make good choices. All schools have this type of education. More narrowly, though, there is character education that refers to specifically what is to be taught and how. That is what most people probably think when you mention character education. It usually denotes a program, initiative, or otherwise packaged curriculum.
Few would dispute that there are more complex issues and greater discipline challenges now than in the past. Each year, more stories come out chronicling out of control behavior by males and more recently females. School shootings, extreme hazing, and bullying are all increasing even in the face of more character education than we have ever had. To answer the question, schools have been forced to assume the bulk of the burden of what used to be an equal partnership with the home and the faith community.
Programmatically, character education programs have a very similar look or approach. There is typically a certain day, week, or month dedicated to whatever trait(s) have been selected. Respect, honesty, trustworthiness…you know the list. Then one person out of many is chosen because they exemplify respect more than anyone else does. How productive is it to set up a system where it is by its very nature exclusive and sets up a competitive element into a supposedly altruistic endeavor. You are now someone who is standing in my way instead of someone who I want to help. I worked as a camp director for a few summers and one day I complimented a child on picking up paper without being told (which I rarely do for this reason). Another child picked up a piece of paper and I saw her in my peripheral vision but did not comment. You know what she did? You know what she did. She put it right back down and picked it up when I was again “watching”. You probably know the impulse—when they don’t see you put the money in the tip jar. Alfie Kohn would say that when we attach rewards to moral behavior that we are actually trying to just “get them to do what we want them to do without regard of thoughtful reflection and dialogue.” This is more likely to produce individuals who will do what is right when there is reward and will reject it otherwise. There has been no thought about why I should be kind, helpful, thoughtful, or respectful. No one has ever had to be paid or bribed to do something they do naturally.
Remember, this is not a question or whether or not character education (values, morals, citizenship, etc) should be taught—Where might we be without it?—but, rather, will it reverse the apparently negative decline in adolescent behavior? And if it isn’t the answer, where can it be found?


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