Implementing an authentic character education curriculum.
Many probable reasons can be identified for increases in juvenile criminality. Britzman (2005) suggests that the rise in crime and inappropriate behaviors in schools (such as bullying) has developed due to a lack of shared values. Britzman's hypothesis is supported by a Public Agenda study (Duffett, Johnson, & Farkas, 1999), which reports that many Americans believe young people are not learning such values as responsibility, honesty, and respect. While a survey of young people found that 93% were happy with their character and ethics (Josephson Institute of Ethics, 2008), those same respondents also reported that: 1) 64% had cheated on a test, 2) 83% had lied to parents, 3) 23% had stolen from a relative, and 4) 30% had stolen property. The Josephson survey found that the young people's behavior was inconsistent with their shared beliefs. The concern about children's values led to actions by state legislatures and the federal government mandating that U.S. schools address character education.
According to the Character Education Partnership (2009), 18 states currently mandate character education, an additional 18 states encourage character education, and 7 states support character education without formal legislation. Four primary areas of limitations in the implementation of these programs have been identified, however (Berkowitz & Bier, 2006; Bulach & Butler, 2002; Howard, Berkowitz, & Schaeffer, 2004; Skaggs & Bodenham, 2006).
One limitation is the lack of a consistent definition for character education standards (Berkowitz & Bier, 2006). Since some individuals perceive character education as a non-essential program, stakeholders have no real belief, support, or understanding of roles (Bulach & Butler, 2002). An added difficulty lies with the assessment tools used to demonstrate the efficacy of character education programs. Many assessments are not appropri ate measures of a program's success. In addition, many character education programs adopted by the schools are not tailored to meet the specific needs of the students or the community (Bulach & Butler, 2002).
Given the uncertain value and vague definition of character education, we need to identify standards for an authentic character education program. This article describes standards for such a program, with suggestions for implementation and solutions for overcoming limitations.
Defining Character Education
There are as many definitions of character education standards as there are individuals writing about the topic, and many problems in judging their effectiveness (Berkowitz & Bier, 2006; Pearson & Nicholson, 2000; Robinson, Jones, & Hayes, 2000). One question, for example, concerns deciding which traits to use, how to teach them, and how to judge their impact (Berkowitz & Bier, 2006). In many ways, character education has become an umbrella term for many unrelated programs (Robinson, Jones, & Hayes, 2000), such as service learning programs, morals education, and civic education. Sometimes, character education has been taught in middle schools as a community service project (Stott & Jackson, 2005).
Berkowitz and Bier (2006) place the many character education programs into four types: 1) prevention of drug and alcohol abuse programs, 2) service learning programs, 3) social emotional learning programs, and 4) violence prevention programs. Howard et al. (2004) described numerous types of character education programs being used in the schools. Moral reasoning/cognitive development programs involve classroom discussions of moral dilemmas. Service learning programs use direct experiences to promote values (Gruener, 2006; Stott & Jackson, 2009). Conflict resolution programs teach peer mediation to help settle conflict (Howard et al., 2004). In moral education/virtue learning programs, stories and history are used to communicate virtues. Civics education is learning through academics how to be a citizen. Life skills education programs teach positive attitudes and practical skills. Ethics programs focus on teaching a set of ethics or morals. Caring community programs promote positive relationships in the school and classroom (Howard et al., 2004; Noddings, 2002). The purpose of health education is teaching students to stay away from unhealthy behaviors. Religious education programs teach character through religious morals.
Given that many related and unrelated programs fall under the broad rubric of character education, it is understandable that educators have problems in implementing them. The question becomes, what is the most effective program (or programs) to use with a particular community of learners?
No Clear Buy-In and Understanding of Roles by Stakeholders
Even if a consensus for defining character education can be reached, there is often no clear buy-in or support by such stakeholders as teachers, counselors, administrators, and families for implementing a character education program in schools (Bulach & Butler, 2002; Pearson & Nicholson, 2000). Educators often find they already face an overwhelming number of things to teach in the classroom, and so many regard character education as yet another burden (Bulach & Butler, 2002). If character education programs are not integrated into the curriculum and if stakeholders do not collaborate (Pearson & Nicholson, 2000), there is no buy-in for the program and it will not succeed. Berkowitz and Bier (2006) found that successful implementation of a character education program requires clear guidelines and expectations for all school personnel.
The specific roles of school personnel, such as counselors, administrators, and teachers, also must be clearly defined, as each plays a vital part in implementing the character education programs (Pearson & Nicholson, 2000). Of course, the roles that these individuals play in the implementation process can be different for each school.
It is difficult to judge the efficacy of a character education program, as there are no standard criteria (Skaggs & Bodenham, 2006). Instead, unrelated benchmarks, such as test scores and attendance, are being used to measure the effectiveness of a school's character education program. Using inappropriate benchmarks can give a misleading indication of the program's efficacy. While Skaggs and Bodenham (2006) found that the goals of character education and those of achievement have no relationship to each other, Benninga et al. (2006) cite a growing body of research (e.g., Berkowitz & Bier, 2006) showing that high-quality character education can promote academic achievement. In any case, to evaluate a program's standards, appropriate goals and objectives must be established.
Programs Not Specific to Schools
Another limitation is that character education programs often are not specific to schools. Schools need the freedom to tailor the standards for the population they serve. Bulach and Butler (2002) reported that many schools are using commercial programs purchased from vendors or borrowed from other school districts. This "one-size-fits-all" approach does not meet the many diverse needs of schools and communities, and can potentially exacerbate problems as the stakeholders do not feel an ownership of the program. For example, Berkowitz and Bier (2006) found that such programs as "Character Word of the Month" are not very effective. The absence of evidence-based outcomes makes it impossible to review the effectiveness of individually or school-based and -designed character education programs, and reiterates the necessity of incorporating measurable outcomes into the design of character education programs.
The Pathways to Success
In the early stages of developing a character education program, standards must be defined. Schools may do well to learn more about the Character Education Partnership (CEP, 2008), an organization whose goals are to distribute findings regarding effective character education programs, publicize the need for and benefits of character education programs in K-12, and help communities and schools in establishing character education initiatives. CEP's Eleven Principles of Effective Character Education (Lickona, Schaps, & Lewis, 2008) can be used as the foundation to build a character education program and can assist in program evaluation. Ideas from brainstorming sessions by the school staff on the standards of character education should then be presented at parent-teacher association meetings. Input from staff members, parents, and the school's advisory committee must be incorporated into the definitions of the school's character education standards. Needs assessment results also might be used to design the program. Berkowitz and Bier (2006) found 33 character education programs that were effective for different populations of students, and that met the scientifically based research standard set by the No Child Left Behind Act. Some of those mentioned for elementary-age students were: the Seattle Social Development Project, the Child Development Project, and Second Step.
After gathering all stakeholders' input, a consensus model for standards of character education can be determined that will form the basis of the character education framework for the school site (Deroche & Williams, 2001). The consensus model may include outcomes and expectations for the program. Then, the character education program can be introduced to parents in an orientation session.
The stakeholders' roles should be agreed upon (Berkowitz & Bier 2006). A committee of stakeholders can be assigned different tasks in the program implementation process. For instance, the implementation team would include school personnel trained to instruct the other staff members. The team could lead the training for the staff and be available for instructing and modeling lessons.
Once a clear definition and standards have been set, the school then can decide on program goals and objectives. These goals and objectives must be developmentally appropriate and fit the multicultural needs of the school's population. The program also must be integrated throughout the overall curriculum (Bulach & Butler, 2002).
The program must consist of a teacher-designed curriculum and activities, and must be designed by grade-level teams. Prepackaged activities, such as anti-bullying programs, are appropriate if they fit the school's character education framework and the school's needs. An example of an effective anti-bullying program is Bully Busters (Browning, Cooker, & Sullivan, 2005).
Inservice training is necessary before the program starts and during the implementation (Berkowitz & Bier, 2006). Planning and training should be scheduled over the summer to allow time to phase in the program at the beginning of the school year. There should be school-wide implementation so that there is consistency throughout the school (Berkowitz & Bier, 2006; Bulach & Butler, 2002). Training also must be provided to support staff and parents.
The type of teaching found to be most effective in character education programs is interactive in nature, using real-world examples and cooperative learning (Berkowitz & Bier, 2006). Discussions of multicultural literature would be an example of an effective method.
Parents, school personnel, and people from the community at large can serve as role models. Role models are the basis for a good character education program (Pearson & Nicholson, 2000). Bringing in community members to model equity, fairness, respect, and caring (Benninga et al., 2006) can be vital. Other necessary components of an authentic character education program are mentoring and community service programs (Berkowitz & Bier, 2006; Swick et al., 2000). Community service programs can be an opportunity for all the stakeholders in a school to work together. An example of a community service project might be students visiting a nursing home as part of an Adopt a Grandparent program. Students could interview their adopted grandparents and then write biographies to present later as a gift. Or older students can read to younger students as part of a reading buddies program. Another type of community service activity involves students, teachers, and parents working together to beautify the school grounds by planting flowers.
Authentic character education should emphasize a culture of caring, an important building block to character (Benninga et al., 2006; Noddings, 2002). These caring schools are filled with relationships that are positive and are basic in the building of a culture of caring (Benninga, Berkowitz, Kuehn, & Smith, 2006; Noddings, 2002). Keeping the same teacher or teachers helps to build relationships with particular groups of children (Noddings, 2002), and supports that caring culture.
Parents can be involved in the school's character education program in numerous ways (Benninga et al., 2006; Berkowitz & Bier, 2006). For example, a character education newsletter can inform parents about the school's character activities. In addition, the newsletter could feature a section for parents written by parents. Each classroom could post the newsletter on the school's website, to further showcase students' character education activities at home and school. In order to be most effective, every orientation should include information on the school's character education program and should invite feedback.
A school committee of school partners and stakeholders should complete an evaluation of the school's character education program (Benninga et al., 2006; Berkowitz & Bier, 2006; Character Education Partnership [CEP], 2008; DeRoche & Williams, 2001; Noddings, 2002). One such self-assessment tool is called "Character Education Quality Standards" (CEP, 2008). Various means of collecting data could include questionnaires, surveys, observations, portfolios, journals, and tracking attendance and number of bullying incidents. The evaluation should be based on predetermined outcomes and objectives of the program. Monitoring of the program is very important. Results from the evaluation can assist in determining what changes and improvements are needed (Benninga et al., 2006; Berkowitz & Bier, 2006; CEP, 2008; DeRoche & Williams, 2001; Noddings, 2002).
Now more than ever, an authentic character education program is needed in P-12 schools. Authentic character education should be a basic construct woven into the school-wide curriculum that pulls together all the associated programs in the school.
It should be the norm of the school climate and not a finite program that only temporarily affects the school climate. To implement an authentic character education program, a school must become part of a community of caring for the students.
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by Sally V. Lewis, Edward H. Robinson III, and B. Grant Hayes Social Sciences, Division of Education, University of South Florida Polytechnic, Lakeland. Edward H. Robinson III is Professor and B. Grant Hayes is Professor and Chair, Department of Educational and Human Sciences, University of Central Florida, Orlando.