What Makes Character Education Programs Work? - ASCD
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November 1, 1993

What Makes Character Education Programs Work?

Eleven elements are essential if character education programs are to improve student conduct and enrich the educational environment.

Instructional Strategies

The bell rang at Limerick Elementary School in Canoga Park, California, and students made their way to the playground for lunch. A few minutes later, the daily line of disruptive youngsters began to form outside the principal's office. Long after the other students returned to their classrooms for the afternoon, the long line of students waiting to be disciplined or counseled for misbehavior remained.

Principal Ronni Ephraim ushered children in and out of her office. She reported that she “rarely had time to do more than ask what they did, tell them not to do it again, and dole out some form of discipline.” She added, “I rarely talked with the children, especially those who really needed my attention.”

Fortunately, this scenario was being played out at Limerick School at the same time that the Jefferson Center for Character Education was identifying schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) that were willing to pilot a character education program. The Jefferson Center had developed a curriculum that had proven successful in other schools and wanted to demonstrate its effectiveness in a cross-section of elementary and middle schools in the sprawling Los Angeles megalopolis. LAUSD, for its part, hoped that the character education program would improve student conduct and enrich the educational environment.

Key Elements for Effective Programs

  • Direct instruction. Schools cannot assume that the language, concepts, behaviors, and skills of good character are written into the genetic code; learned at home, from television, or in the neighborhood; or absorbed through the invisible hand of the general curriculum. Like arithmetic, the teaching of character values such as “responsibility” and “respect” must be purposeful and direct. Students should hear and see the words, learn their meanings, identify appropriate behaviors, and practice and apply the values. Direct instruction builds a foundation for more advanced learning infused throughout the general curriculum; even then, direct instruction is necessary for infusion to be focused and effective.

  • Language-based curriculum. Children entering the schools today often lack the vocabulary for understanding basic value concepts such as “honesty” and “courage.” Even when they can define such values, they often fail to connect them to their own behavior. Successful character education programs focus students' attention on the basic language that expresses core concepts and links the words to explicit behavior.For example, at Newcomb School in Long Beach, California, students in Anna Wood's 3rd grade class learned the meaning of “courage.” Then, in cooperative learning groups, they developed lists of the ways in which children can demonstrate courage in the classroom. One group decided that students could show courage by “being nice to kids that other kids tease.”

  • Positive language. Students must know what is expected of them if they are to practice appropriate behavior. Therefore, common negative language such as “Don't be late” or “Don't forget your pencil” should be translated into explicit positive language as in “Be on time” or “Be prepared.”At Bellerive School in the Parkway School District in St. Louis County, Missouri, a new teacher was often heard telling her students, “Don't get out of your seat,” “Don't get up to look out the window,” and “Don't wander around the classroom.” Finally, a veteran teacher advised her to “tell the kids exactly what you want them to do.” The next day, the new teacher firmly told her students to “Sit down!” To her amazement, they did.

  • Content<EMPH TYPE="3">andprocess. In addition to teaching the content of consensus and civic values, an effective character education curriculum should provide a process for implementing those values when making decisions. At Parmalee Elementary School in Los Angeles, students are taught that honesty is better than dishonesty, being on time is better than being late, being polite is better than being rude. Building on this content, students learn a four-step process that teaches them to examine alternatives and consequences and then assess whether their choices are likely to bring them closer to goals such as personal and social responsibility. As students learn and practice the decision-making process, they develop the skills needed for making ethical choices.

  • Visual reinforcement. Character education is in competition with adverse desires, messages, and pressures in our society. The visual presentation of character values is, in effect, an advertising campaign intended to keep the words, concepts, and behaviors learned in class at the forefront of students' attention. Visual displays illustrate and reinforce good character. Thus, when students and staff traverse the hallways of Santa Barbara Junior High School in Santa Barbara, California, they encounter 4‘ x 8‘ silver and blue “character” signs hanging from the ceilings. The main hallway is adorned by a huge banner that prominently displays the word RESPECT.

  • School climate approach. Effective character education should spill over the boundaries of the classroom into the playground, the office, the cafeteria, the bus, and then into the home and neighborhood. This school climate approach generates a common language and culture that fosters positive peer recognition and encourages all members of the school community to exemplify and reward behavior consistent with core values and ethical decision making.During “Be Polite” month at the Bellerive School, the first thing that staff, students, and visitors see when they enter the building is a large calendar, which lists a different way to be polite for each day of the month. On the third day of the month, for example, everyone is reminded to be polite “by listening when others are speaking.”

  • Teacher-friendly materials. Teachers must be able to implement the character education curriculum with limited training and preparation. They should not have to write lengthy lesson plans, prepare student handouts, search out supplementary materials, or decode impossibly complex instructional manuals. Keeping curriculum materials simple and straightforward greatly increases the probability that the lessons will get taught consistently and effectively. Otherwise, teachers are likely to perceive systematic character education as an “add-on” rather than as an essential component of their teaching mission.

  • Teacher flexibility and creativity. Teachers not only need a basic framework to work with, but they also should be able to adjust character education lessons to individual teaching and learning styles. A successful character education curriculum is sufficiently flexible to allow teachers to exercise creativity in addressing special classroom circumstances while still adhering to school-wide standards. Thus, one teacher may have the class designate four or five ways to practice tolerance while another teacher may decide to have individual students select a specific tolerant behavior for practice. The teachers' approaches may vary even though the same language and concepts are taught in both classrooms.

  • Student participation. Character education is most effective when students develop a sense of ownership. It is not enough to tell students how to behave. They must participate in the process of framing goals in order to achieve them. At the Kauluwela School in Honolulu, Hawaii, each student in Leona Englehart's 5th grade class decides on individual character goals and how to meet them. Typical individual goals include, “I will be on time,” “I will do all my homework,” or “I will be polite to classmates.” Each student writes his or her name and goal on a cutout of a foot. The cutouts are then placed on the classroom wall in an ascending pattern that represents the “Steps to Success.” Students develop a sense of ownership because they have chosen the goals and means for achieving them.

  • Parental involvement and then some. Character education programs are most effective and enduring when the school routinely confers with parents, lets them know what is being taught, and involves them in the curriculum. Corona del Mar High School in Newport Beach, California, kicked off its “Respect and Responsibility” program by hosting a Character Education Day that drew together school board members, administrators, teachers, students, parent groups, and community leaders to discuss local needs and goals. Bellerive School helped to sustain and enrich its character education program, first by keeping parents informed of the “theme of the month,” and then by providing suggestions regarding how parents could encourage theme-appropriate behavior at home.

  • Evaluation. Implementation of a character education program must include a pre-assessment of goals, occasional consultation during the program, and then a post-evaluation of results. In the planning stages, school staff members should clearly articulate their expectations and explicitly detail the various goals they hope to accomplish. As they implement the program, periodic meetings will help teachers to keep goals in mind and adapt classroom lessons accordingly. Finally, the program evaluation should assess the outcomes in terms of anecdotal reports from teachers (“My students seem to be more responsible.”) and appropriate data on measurable changes in key variables (Have absences decreased? Are office referrals down? Do more students make the honor role?).

Implementation Leads to Results

The staff at Limerick School decided to participate in the Jefferson Center-LAUSD pilot project by implementing a character education curriculum that contains the 11 elements described above. Some teachers approached the pilot with an air of pessimism. The veterans had tried “savior” programs over the years and had become somewhat cynical. Nonetheless, they moved forward. Within three months, they were reporting positive changes in classroom behavior. Ronni Ephraim noticed that the lunchtime line outside her office was getting shorter. At the end of the school year, she reported that “the line was gone.” Indeed, only three or four students per day were being referred to her. “Those who were sent to the office really needed to be helped. Now I have time to work with them.”

The effectiveness of character education at Limerick School was not unique. At the 25 elementary and middle schools completing the Jefferson Center-LAUSD pilot during the 1990–91 school year, major discipline problems decreased by 25 percent; minor discipline problems went down 39 percent; suspensions fell by 16 percent; tardiness dropped by 40 percent; and unexcused absences (which often translate into lost revenue) declined by 18 percent. In addition, surveyed teachers generally felt that students did learn to take greater responsibility for their behavior and schoolwork while principals reported a noticeable increase in the number of students on their honor rolls.

Schools are, essentially, a community of their own. If the whole school community fosters the language, culture, and climate of good character, then the students who spend a significant portion of their time there will acquire the words, concepts, behaviors, and skills that contribute to good conduct, ethical decision making, and a fertile learning environment.

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