First, the basics

May 27, 2002

LET'S GET one thing straight from the start: Everyone wants children to develop good character traits - particularly these days, when so many challenges are thrown at them so young. That does not mean Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's push for expanding in-school character education represents solid thinking at this juncture about schools.

Ms. Townsend, who recently raised the idea as one of the initial themes of her gubernatorial campaign, has been advocating such programs for years; Maryland already is among the nation's leaders in character education.

As a nice, middle-of-the-road platitude, it makes obvious political sense. But it misses the mark as measured by the state's more critical educational needs.

The real problem with devoting more time and money to character education is that it does not directly address the academic problems of children across this state. To assert so would be to buy into the sort of now-discredited humanism that infected public schools in the 1960s and 1970s. That's when educators begin forsaking the hard task of teaching academics for the much easier work of teaching self-esteem, on the mistaken assumption that feeling good would somehow lead to more learning (rather than the other way around).

Time is school's most finite and perhaps most precious resource, and much of it is squandered: Most "time on task" studies of precisely how much of a six-plus-hour school day is actually spent on academics come up with under three hours. The rest of the day involves lunch, moving between classes, non-academics, disciplining students, preparing to get down to work and all manner of other distractions. Adding to the lost time for reading and writing are the many social agendas - such as character education - now heaped on schools, eating up limited school time.

Right now, state education officials - with the first chunks of newly increased state funding about to arrive at schools and with new state tests and a new state curriculum in the works for next school year - are boldly promising a new era of academic accountability in Maryland's schools.

We look forward to hearing the lieutenant governor's plans for focusing the state's resources - first and foremost- on raising academic performance in such areas as reading and math. Once there's widespread evidence of that achievement, then let's talk about more character education.

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