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Character Education, Part Two: The Debate Over CE Programs Continues

Tuesday, February 27, 2001 at 7:15 AM

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A movement to bring good character back to America's children has been underway in public education for the better part of a decade, and it's gaining strength. Proponents say principles like honesty, respect and integrity are sorely lacking among many school kids. More than 50 school districts in Ohio have implemented character education programs with the help of state and federal grants. Last week we introduced you to a Character Ed program at Cleveland's John Marshall High School. Today we look at some of the history and current debate surrounding such programs. 90.3's Bill Rice reports.

Bill Rice- The teaching of virtue and character, according to Gary Bechner, is nothing new in American Education. Bechner heads the Association of American Educators, which enthusiastically endorses character education in public schools.

Gary Bechner- What it is is a back-to-the-future movement. Because the philosophy of education even from Horace Mann, who developed our public school system, saw that the product at the end of this not only should be good students, good worker, etc. That the education process should make sure at the end of this should make sure that we have people should not only know how to count, but know what counts.

BR- Bechner says that was lost in the 1960’s, when character issues began to be associated with church doctrines, and cast a shadow over public school teaching. Many feared potential lawsuits that would challenge the teaching of morals and values as violations of the establishment clause of the constitution. The response was a new concept called values clarification, which Bechner says may have warded off lawsuits, but left kids little guidance in distinguishing right from wrong.

GB- Values Clarification didn’t clarify values at all. It didn’t say what this country valued or what human beings should value as a good thing or not a good thing. All it did was—a better term would be values nuetral movement, where they didn’t want to teach anyone’s ideas about morals or values or ethics or character because who’s to say your ideas are better than mine.

BR- Wanda Harewood-Jones remembers Values Clarification well. Now the Character Education Project coordinator for the Ohio Department of Education, Jones’ career as a guidance counselor began at the height of Values Clarification’s popularity.

Wanda Harewood-Jones- As a guidance counselor when we did those kind of lessons we were not supposed to give our opinion, even if it was something we really disagreed with. We were supposed to allow students, other fellow students, to make comments about it and not be an authority, because everyone has values and has a right to their own values.

BR- Values Clarification lost favor among educators and parents, Harewood-Jones says, and was eventually abandoned by most schools. Character Education, on the other hand, is focused on concrete ideas about right and wrong. It isn’t universally accepted. Constitutional issues still linger. Some educators say it takes time away from essential academics, and besides, promoting good character is a given in the profession.

But the National Education Association, which previously resisted Character Education, now cautiously endorses it, and more schools are quickly adopting programs—sometimes too quickly, according to some.

Henry Huffman- We in education unfortunately have a tendency to make bad decision because we quickly embrace change without studying adequately what it is we’re about.

BR- That’s Henry Huffman, Director of the Character Education Institute at California University in Pennsylvania.

HH- So one of my concerns is that CE is a blue chip growth stock. There are lots of people out there offering pgms. Schools are feeling pressure to adopt them, and they’re not taking the time necessary to study what it is they’re about to adopt and what the implications are.

BR- Huffman believes that Character Education can be, and often is, approached too simplistically. So does Karen Bohlyn, who directs the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University

Karen Bohlyn- Character Education really should be about achieving the twin goals of cultivating intellectual and moral excellence, not one with out the other. Otherwise you do have the feel-good slogans approach, the therapy in the classroom approach, or the simple random acts of kindness week, which are sort of spotty, flash in the pan approaches to taking something which is quite serious and trying to celebrate it, but not in a meaningful way.

BR- Bohlyn says recognizing good deeds is necessary, but downplays the idea of celebrating them by giving rewards, or, likewise, overtly and publicly punishing students when they fail to show exemplary character. She says avoiding punishment or getting a reward for behavior is, by itself, a poor motivator.

KB- We need to really help students want to lead a good life for its own sake, we need to help them see the impact of their actions, and to see that they’re not just a victim of circumstance but are crafters of their own lives.

BR- That takes considerable skill on the part of teachers, which is why Gary Bechner of the Association of American Educators continues to push for additional government funding. He wants more summer academies that explore, in depth, the finer points of character ed. Because, he says, most schools of education still don’t. Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

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