Back to the future on character Maryland to encourage schools to teach right and wrong

November 24, 1996|By Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

NOT LONG AGO, Benjamin Foulois Traditional Academy in Camp Springs was like many urban public schools. About 30 students per year were suspended. Each day, teachers made about a dozen disciplinary referrals. School achievement was well below average and those families that could send their child to a private school, did so.

But in 1988, Principal Mary Aranha instituted a new curriculum that taught children not just fact from fiction but right from wrong. She worked with parents and teachers to ensure that the moral lessons parents taught at home were reinforced in the classroom. Every school activity, from the classroom, to the cafeteria, to the playground, was focused on promoting student virtues such as honest, fairness, and compassion.

Today, the school is almost unrecognizable from its former self. Test scores are up dramatically. Suspensions are almost nonexistent and disciplinary referrals are down to two or three per week. Parents who had sent their children to private schools are re-enrolling them in Benjamin Foulois. One recent visitor joked to Principal Aranha, "How much does it cost to send a child here?"

All public schools should be such a model of order and achievement. And they can be. Maryland is embarking on a bold education reform to encourage schools to teach the civic virtues that lie at the core of our culture. Virtues such as courage, respect, responsibility, compassion, and integrity. Recently, Maryland's statewide character education initiative began. It grew out of the work of the Task Force on Youth Citizenship and Violence Prevention of the Cabinet Council on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

The task force recommended and Gov. Parris N. Glendening and I have implemented, a strategy to teach students right from wrong and personal responsibility and service to the community. A new Office of Character Education, directed by the former principal of Benjamin Foulois, Mary Aranba, will coordinate this broad reform, helping schools implement new curricula, measuring success, and developing ways to train teachers and staff.

The idea is as old as schools themselves. Public schools were created not merely to give students the knowledge they would need to find a job, but to develop the skills and character necessary to strengthen our communities and maintain our democracy.

Until the 1960s, most, if not all, public schools explicitly encouraged positive character traits. However, in the 1960s, educators latched on to the idea of moral relativism: the notion that no set of values is superior to any other, and no one has the right to impose his or her sense of right and wrong on another. Gradually, the original charter of public schools was shelved as a pedagogical antiquity.

Yet, moral character is not programmed in our genes, as our stratospheric crime, drug use, and teen pregnancy rates prove so many times over. Children need to learn to be good, and they learn to be good the same way they learn anything: by hearing, by seeing, and by doing. That is, by being told what qualities are productive, by witnessing examples of such behavior, and by practicing these virtues themselves. This can't be done simply by adding a class titled "character." Moral questions aren't independent from our everyday lives. The best way to teach them is to integrate them into the everyday workings of the school. The whole culture of the school needs to be changed, not just the curriculum.

While character education is not a magic bullet, it can have a profound effect on children's behavior in and outside the classroom. A survey of nearly 200 schools that had instituted such a program found that 77 percent reported fewer disciplinary problem; 68 percent saw an increase in attendance; and 64 percent experienced less vandalism. In the first three years of a character education program at one New Haven, Conn., high school, teen pregnancies per year dropped from 16 to zero.

An example of how character education works in practice can be seen from a Baltimore County school where character education has been taught since 1984.

On teacher discovered that one of her best students, a member of the National Honor Society, had lifted a few sentences from a research book. Rather than expel or suspend the student, the teacher had the student organize a symposium on academic integrity for the National Honor Society, which at the time did not have a clause in its constitution on the topic. The members of the symposium discussed integrity before the entire school and then drafted an amendment to the society's constitution. The mistake the student made was used as an opportunity for the entire school to discuss a critical ethical question that every student faces, and make a difference.

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