Guest Viewpoint: Character education can transform schools
By Joseph W. Mazzola
Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character -- that is the goal of true education.” I agree with Dr. King. The mission of schools should include academic excellence and character development. As a nation, we’ve got serious problems on both fronts.
Only about one-third of all fourth- and eighth-graders are proficient in reading and math. The results are worse for low-income and minority students. And only about two-thirds of all ninth-graders will graduate from high school in four years.
The report card on the character front is not good, either.
Academic dishonesty is one indicator. Don McCabe at Rutgers University has studied high school cheating for years. His data show that about two-thirds of all high school students admit to cheating. Other researchers claim the rates are higher, especially for very bright students who are under intense pressure to excel.
Bullying is another indicator. The U.S. Department of Education reports that 60,000 students stay home every day for fear of being bullied at school. Also, one-third of students ages 12 to 18 say gangs are present in their schools.
Good governance of our public schools must include an emphasis on academics and positive youth development. High-quality character education addresses both areas.
The Character Education Partnership has managed the National Schools of Character program for 11 years and has accrued historical data with countless examples of how holistic character education initiatives transform schools.
Take, for example, Ridgewood Middle School in Arnold, Mo. It enrolls 500 students -- 42 percent from economically disadvantaged families. The school was ranked at the bottom among schools in the states in nearly all the normal metrics. It suffered from high absenteeism, low academic performance, serious disciplinary problems, disillusioned parents, and dispirited staff. Students felt no one cared about them.
When the leaders at Ridgewood decided to transform the school using character education as an intervention strategy, this is what happened:
• Academic performance went up.
• Disciplinary referrals dropped by 70 percent.
• The school failure rate dropped to zero.
• Attendance improved.
• School pride shot up.
• Attendance at parent-teacher conferences went from 44 percent to 75 percent.
• The school appeared on Missouri’s list of the top 10 most-improved schools four out of five years.
• Ridgewood was named a “National School of Character.”
Another example is Wilton Manors Elementary School in Florida, another National School of Character, where 72 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Since the school adopted a character education program, academic achievement and behavior have improved dramatically.
In the past, Wilton Manors had not met its adequate yearly progress goals. But it has met its AYP targets every year since it adopted a character education program.
In 2007-08, the school had just 14 disciplinary referrals for aggressive behavior, compared to 211 referrals in 2002-03. The school also went from a D rating on the Florida report card to A’s for the last four years.
Establishing an effective character education program is not easy. It requires visionary thinking, strong leadership, and total dedication. To work, the strategy must go beyond hallway posters, catchy slogans, or an occasional student assembly. The initiative must be woven into the entire school curriculum and culture.
Everyone must be on board. Administrators, teachers, coaches, and others must model good character in everything they do. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Who you are speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you are saying.” That is especially true when it comes to positive character development in schools.
There are two other crucial requirements. The first is tenacity. Results don’t happen overnight. When leading any journey of excellence, expect pushback. Some will say the initiative is just the latest fad for school improvement. Others will say that you’re adding more to their already full plates, that they can only focus on academics because of the pressures of No Child Left Behind, or character development is not their responsibility.
Don’t let these challenges stop you. Most of the naysayers will have “aha!” moments later on when they see magic taking place throughout the school.
The other crucial requirement is a broad, comprehensive strategy. This is where the Character Education Partnership can help.
You can download a free copy of CEP’s framework, The Eleven Principles of Effective Character Education, and a set of standards at the CEP website, www.character.org. These resources can provide guidance on developing a strategy and help you assess how well your schools are doing now.
If you genuinely want to transform your schools, consider comprehensive character education. If done right, it will help you achieve your strategic goals on two important fronts -- academics plus positive youth development -- and will help you put King’s vision for education, “intelligence plus character,” into action.
Joseph W. Mazzola is executive director of the Character Education Partnership, www.character.org.
Reproduced with permission from School Board News. Copyright © 2008, National School Boards Association. Opinions expressed in this newspaper do not necessarily reflect positions of NSBA. This article may be printed out and photocopied for individual or educational use, provided this copyright notice appears on each copy. This article may not be otherwise transmitted or reproduced in print or electronic form without the consent of the Publisher. For more information, call (703) 838-6789.