Character Education: Testing the Value of Values

by Scott Banks

Based on the premise that if education can make children smart people, it can and should also make them good people, public education in the U.S. began with the concept of character education built into the academic curricula. “However, for the last half century, we have seen a shift away from thinking of schools as a place for the socialization of youth,” said Martin Berkowitz, Ph.D., a national leader in character education.

“Right now, there’s national pressure to be monomaniacal about testing,” he said, “and despite proof of success, many schools take no comprehensive approach to character development.”

Those resistant to integrating character education back into the system say that parents, rather than schools, should mold a child’s character. Yet, with or without intentionality, schools shape children’s character, and their character impacts society. As Berkowitz puts it, “The best way to make a more just and caring world is to make more just and caring people.”

The first step in implementing comprehensive character education involves reaching agreement as a community—school leaders, parents, teachers, staff, and students—on positive ethical values. A typical list includes caring, respect, responsibility, fairness, and honesty. Most find this part of the process easy; the controversy surrounds application. “When people get upset, it’s not the words. It’s the instruction. They want to know, ‘How are you going to do it?’ ‘Who is going to do it?’ ‘What if I don’t trust the teachers?’ ‘What if some teachers don’t understand religion the same way I do?’” he said. “What I do is I ask, ‘Would you be willing to join me in figuring out how to make this work?’” This phrasing points toward a critical aspect in Berkowitz’s view of character education: that the school community affords all members a meaningful voice.

Equally important, the school’s leadership must prioritize school-wide character education. It cannot be effective if isolated in a single class or program. Ivy Yee-Sakamoto, Ph.D., APU professor of education, explains the problem with isolated approaches. “Without school-wide consistency, students perceive character education as misplaced, as if they were receiving a grammar lesson in a math class.”

Berkowitz reviews effective character education practices in his upcoming article “What Works in Values Education” in The International Journal of Education Research. Specifically, he cites peer interactive strategies. In this approach, teachers guide students into meaningful and caring exchanges with each other. Examples include cooperative learning, peer tutoring, and cross-age buddying.

Beverly Hardcastle Stanford, Ph.D., APU professor emerita, has successfully employed cross-age buddying to develop character. In her project, sixth graders collaborated with first graders to write storybooks. The sixth graders brought pictures to first grade buddies, and the first graders told stories to go with the pictures. The sixth graders took notes and edited the stories into books, and then returned to read the stories to the first graders, who each got their own book to keep. By jointly creating meaning and using the steps of the writing process, the sixth graders discovered the power they have to affect others. In turn, the first graders gained positive role models. “If you want children to care about others,” Stanford said, “give them opportunities to mentor younger children.”

This activity exemplifies the effective practice of service learning, which combines learning with service to others. Such service promotes the intrinsic value of caring for others and inculcates it as a moral habit.

In contrast, many schools often grapple with student character in the form of misbehavior. Too often, in Berkowitz’s view, schools only reward behavior or punish it. Research increasingly supports developmental discipline, in which educators help students address the problems that shape their misbehavior and guide students to see the effects of their actions on others.

Yee-Sakamoto recounts a story to illustrate this point. A girl received a profane and bullying phone message from some girls at her junior high school. The school principal punished the girls by making them pick up trash, but Yee-Sakamoto points out that the consequence does little to promote ethical growth. “It might prevent the girls from doing it again,” she said. “But it won’t help them see the effect their behavior had on this little girl.”

A school with a comprehensive approach to character education would have deeper resources available. Yee-Sakamoto suggests that in a school that teaches compassion, the principal could cite that shared goal. He could then ask the girls, “How are we doing? What did you do, how was it wrong, and how could you do better next time?” A discussion like this, she says, requires time and personal relationships. The principal might rely on key people in the lives of all the girls to reach out and help them grow. The school might even have a peer mediation system, in which specially trained students help others resolve problems.

Berkowitz encourages this kind of school community by including both “trust” and “nurturance” on his list of proven practices. He offers four ways for parents to help their school promote character education. “Let the school know you want to support their character education efforts,” he said. “Offer to join whatever committee is responsible. Ask the school what they need to be effective. And, if you are interested, become an expert.”

Stanford advises parents to build a positive relationship with their school. “Engage with your child’s school not as an antagonist or a critic, but as a partner. Teachers must do the same. Only as partners can you work together for the benefit of the children.”


Scott Banks is a freelance writer who lives in Claremont and teaches high school in Los Angeles.