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A Question of Character.

Few school-related topics are hotter than character education, a movement to teach students positive values. Some schools are jumping on the bandwagon, but this vehicle's goals are hardly new to career and technical education.

At Cuillier Career Center near New Orleans and Charlottesville-Albemarle Technical Education Center (CATEC) in central Virginia, the educational infrastructure is buttressed by six "pillars of character"--trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. Cuillier students bring those qualities to life in skits they perform at local elementary schools. At CATEC, the pillars took center stage in a mock trial and are credited for an act of kindness that stunned a grateful teacher.

Instructors at Francis Tuttle Vocational-Technical School in Oklahoma City are using seven habits famously ascribed to highly effective people and eight "habits of the heart"--including friendship, nurturing attitude, hope and courage--to coax affirming discussion and help turn around students in a dropout-recovery program.

The numbers vary from place to place but the qualities and values stressed tend to overlap. Developmental psychologist Thomas Lickona's Center for the 4th and 5th Rs at the State University of New York at Cortland spotlights just two traits, respect and responsibility. A schools consortium in the St. Louis area that sought community views, meanwhile, identified 48 qualities--from caring and cooperation to service and self esteem--deemed worthy of special emphasis in one district or another.

What all the numbers add up to is character education--a surging wave in K-12 classrooms that has whetted interest even in career and technical circles, where such accepted traits of "good character" as honesty, selflessness and strong work ethic have always been stressed.

Past is prologue

From the earliest days of U.S. history, schools used the Bible, maxims and proverbs to exhort students to live exemplary lives. The most prominent textbook of the 19th century, the McGuffey Reader, was filled with biblical tales, poems and stories laden with moral lessons. In 1918, the National Education Association's Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education identified "ethical character" and "citizenship" as "cardinal principles" of education.

As the 20th century progressed, however, and more emphasis was placed on individual rights and freedoms, the kind of moralistic indoctrination once common in American schools began to decline. After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down school prayer in 1962, many schools questioned whether values should be stressed in classrooms at all. A "values clarification" movement of the early 1970s encouraged students to examine their own values but discouraged teachers from evaluating or judging those beliefs.

By the mid 1980s--with crime and drug use on the rise and the nation's schools receiving failing grades in studies of academic achievement--many felt the pendulum had swung too far. A renewed effort to spotlight values at school began to take root. Carrying the purposely benign tag "character education," the fledgling movement sought to defuse politically loaded questions like "Whose values?" by rallying schools behind what the Character Education Partnership (CEP), a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, calls "core ethical values such as respect, responsibility and honesty" that "can be both a matter of consensus and a model for our youth."

By 1996, a nationwide survey conducted by the National School Boards Association found some form of character education being offered in 45 percent of 399 responding school districts. Twenty-one states have received grants of up to $1 million since 1995 under the U.S. Department of Education's Partnerships in Character Education Pilot Projects Program. At least 14 states have encouraged or required an emphasis on character education since 1994, according to the Education Commission of the States, and one--Alabama--goes so far as to mandate at least 10 minutes of character education each school day at all grade levels.

"There are lots of indicators that the boom is growing," says Lickona, author of the 1991 book Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility. He adds, however, that much of the activity is concentrated at the elementary level, where teachers have the time with students and scheduling flexibility to innovate. "Everywhere I go, high school's the toughest nut to crack," Lickona says. "It's the biggest institution, the most impersonal, the most fragmented, the most difficult to lead."

Whatever the grade level, what character education means in real terms varies greatly from school to school. Ideally, says CEP Executive Director Esther Schaeffer, "What we are saying is that you should be integrating this into everything you do as a school." Such is the case, she says, at the 10 "Schools of Character"--including two high schools--that CEP identified last year after a nationwide search. At Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix, students use literature like The Crucible to address such character issues as the effects of prejudice and the battle between personal and community responsibility, and teens participate in such character-building community service projects as a food drive and street cleanups. At Pattonville High School in Maryland Heights, Mo., ethics are reinforced through infused academics and such activities as a student-run credit union and a counseling program in which students help younger children deemed at risk.

In some places, character education is taught as a separate course--often dryly and ineffectively, Schaeffer laments. At other schools, a commercial curriculum that may be a good first step into character education ends up being the only step taken. Even in states that require an emphasis on character education, the law in most cases "won't say exactly how you do it or what you do exactly," Schaeffer says. "You get very uneven implementation."

Character education and how it is implemented are subjects of criticism in some quarters. Prominent education essayist Alfie Kohn loosed a firestorm of debate in the pages of the Phi Delta Kappan in 1997, for instance, with a piece charging that the character education movement takes an unduly dark view of young people's nature and is little more than "a collection of exhortations and extrinsic inducements designed to make children work harder and do what they're told."

Schaeffer responds that most character education initiatives emphasize "soft" values and a "caring environment"--and that the best programs "give kids a role in setting the rules." She counters that character education is engaging many thousands of students in school, reinforcing positive values, helping bring civility back to classrooms and encouraging community service. CEP has considerable anecdotal evidence, she adds, that "in just about every case where a school has tried to [implement] a comprehensive effort," figures on absenteeism, fighting, pregnancy and drug use have declined.

A strong foundation

Character education initiatives at both Cuillier Career Center and CATEC use the Character Counts! curriculum developed by the California-based Josephson Institute of Ethics. Character Counts! focuses on the aforementioned six pillars of character, which are promoted through posters and suggested activities.

"[Character education] is lacking in our state--an area of tourism, good times and fun and games," says Judith Underwood, a counselor at Cuillier who has put together a road show designed to promote loftier values. Bobble Sullivan and Temeka Patterson are among the Cuillier students who have given

the pillars voice in programs presented at local elementary schools, at the annual convention of the Association for Career and Technical Education in New Orleans last December and at Cuillier itself. Sullivan's pillar is character, Patterson's fairness.

Sullivan's message, he says, is that "you don't have to be bad to be popular. Be a good neighbor, get involved with your community." Patterson, whose mother died when she was 6, says she tells her audiences, "You have to come out from under that rock and build a life you can be happy with," whatever life's unfairness. Such frank talk has had a "tremendous effect" on the younger children, says Underwood, and lasting effects on the presenters themselves--who have become leading volunteer fund-raisers for a college scholarship program.

At CATEC, an elaborate mock trial was staged when a vending machine was vandalized and the perpetrators failed to come forward. A student jury found the unidentified vandals guilty of violating the pillars of respect, trustworthiness and citizenship. In a separate incident that "floored" the school's culinary arts instructor and Character Counts! coordinator, Delores Johnson, her students pooled their money at Christmas to repay money stolen from her months earlier. "That just absolutely knocked me out," Johnson recalls. "Things like that show you [the character message] gets in there." Another indication: The number of disciplinary cases in Johnson's classroom has dropped by half since last fall.

The character messenger at Francis Tuttle is Oklahoma author Clifton Taulbert's Eight Habits of the Heart--a book-turned-curriculum extolling the values'that held Taulbert's family and community together when he was growing up in the segregated South. (Taulbert also wrote the critically acclaimed memoir, When We Were Colored.) At-risk students dissected, discussed and wrote highly personal essays about the "habits" last fall, and the results were "powerful," says English and sociology teacher Donna Landrith--who also incorporated Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People into her lesson plans. "Those kids didn't want it to be over," she recalls, adding, "They treat each other with greater respect now."

At Brookhaven Technical Center in Bellport, N.Y., good character is "celebrated [school-wide] as an issue and discussed as a faculty," says principal Victor Amoroso. In many classrooms, transgressions are discussed and punishments assigned by faculty and students together during "town meetings." And Amoroso himself talks to groups of students throughout the school year "about having a sense of responsibility and respect for themselves and others."

What's now being called character education is a "neat vehicle" for teaching values, Amoroso says, but he maintains that career and technical educators were teaching good character long before it became a recognized movement.

In a Forum piece he wrote for the Vocational Education Journal in September 1995 titled, "For Kids' Sake, Let's Teach Values," Amoroso argued that many factors ideally suit career and technical education for inculcating desirable character traits. Teachers stress employability skills like honesty, punctuality and customer service--in classrooms where expectations are clearly posted and adhered to. And, he notes, "They're not afraid to discuss right and wrong."

He won't get any disagreement from Lickona, who calls character education and career and technical education "a natural fit." Even in Alabama, the state with the mandatory 10 minutes of character education every school day, officials say the requirement only emphasizes messages career and technical students already are getting.

"In career tech, [character education] just reinforces the things taught on a daily basis," says Nancy Beggs, Alabama's acting director for career and technical education. "[Teachers] know they're already doing it--and that they're probably doing a better job at it than anybody else is."

Room to grow

Kevin Ryan, founder and director of Boston University's Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character, offers a grimmer view of character education's future than that offered by CEP, on whose board he sits.

While allowing that some schools and districts are doing "magnificent things," he calls such efforts "a drop in the bucket. All this is very much in danger of just being another blip on the educational screen," Ryan warns. "I don't see the kind of public will translated into pressure on the educational establishment to do anything serious."

Lickona, also a member of the CEP board, takes a more optimistic view: Where character education is being implemented, educators recognize the entire school culture must change. "I really don't think there's anyone out there who's trying to do character education who's naive enough to think it can be done superficially," he says.

Cuillier's Character Counts! presentation at the ACTE convention provoked much interest and discussion. Oklahoma's school-to-work office is considering using Eight Habits of the Heart materials statewide in community training, business and industry training and vocational student organization curricula, coordinator Belinda McCharen says. Beyond such specific initiatives that are readily identifiable as character education, however, career and technical programs will keep addressing character building as they always have.

At Great Oaks Institute of Technology and Career Development in Cincinnati, for example, character development is woven into an employability course that all juniors take and a continuous quality improvement course that all seniors take. "There's empathy training there--how to live in a multicultural society--goal setting, time management, conflict management and work ethics," says Jane Bledsoe, the school's continuous improvement process manager.

"[Character education] also is built into our mentoring program, where industry comes in and emphasizes the importance of those [positive values]," adds Cliff Migal, Great Oaks' president and chief executive officer. "Really, it's part of just about everything we do."

RELATED ARTICLE: Ten Tips for Building Character

Develop a school code of ethics. Distribute it to every member of the school community. Refer to it often. Display it prominently. Make sure all school policy reflects it.

Encourage students to identify a charity or in-school need, then collect donations and help administer the distribution of funds.

Enforce a zero-tolerance policy on swearing. Prohibit vulgar and obscene language in the classroom and on school property.

Use morning announcements, school and classroom bulletin boards and the school newsletter to highlight the various accomplishments--particularly character-oriented ones--of students and faculty members.

Prohibit the display of any gang symbols or paraphernalia on school property. Remove graffiti immediately--including in student bathrooms.

Let students take some responsibility for the maintenance and beautification of the school. Classes could "adopt a hallway," plant flowers and so on. Post signs identifying the caretakers.

Tell your students who your heroes are and why you chose them.

Lead by example. Pick up the piece of paper in the hall. Leave the classroom clean for the next teacher. Say thank you.

"Catch students being good" and write or call parents to report it.

Invite graduates to return and talk about their experience in the next stage of life. Ask them to discuss what habits or virtues could make the transition to work or college successful and what bad habits or vices cause problems.

This list is excerpted from "One Hundred Ways to Bring Character Education to Life, "in Building Character in Schools, by Kevin Ryan and Karen E. Bohlin. This book is available from the Association for Career and Technical Education for $28 ($25 for ACTE members). To order, call (800) 826-9972, ext. 317.


Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character, Boston University, offers conferences, workshops, publications, surveys and teacher guides. Call (617) 353-3262 or visit

Josephson Institute of Ethics, Marina del Rey, Calif., is the developer of the Character Counts! curriculum and organizer of the Character Counts! Coalition of about 250 schools and education, youth and community organizations. In addition to curriculum, this group offers teacher training, seminars, workshops, publications, audiocassettes and videos. Call (310) 306-1868 or visit

Center for the 4th and 5th Rs, State University of New York at Cortland, offers conferences, seminars, workshops, a four-day summer institute, publications, resource materials, surveys and videos. Call (607) 753-2456 or visit

Jefferson Center for Character Education, Pasadena, Calif., offers curriculum, teacher training, teacher guides, videos, articles and audiocassettes. Call (626) 792-8130 or visit

Character Education Partnership, Washington, D.C., is a coalition of schools, universities, foundations, publishers and civic and educational organizations--including the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the American Association of School Administrators. The partnership offers advocacy, newsletters, forums, information on federal funding and other resources. Call (202) 296-7743 or visit

Learning for Life, Irving, Texas, offers curriculum and schoolbased programs. Call (214) 580-2428 or visit

Personal Responsibility Education Process (PREP), Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis, is a school-business community partnership in character education. This group offers curriculum, school-based programs, consulting, conferences, workshops, seminars, publications, audiocassettes and videos. Call (800) 478-5684 or (314) 516-4500. Or visit
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Author:Ries, Eric
Date:May 1, 1999
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