The Pros and Cons of the Bush Character Education Plan

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One of the big selling points of the school at which I taught for three years (and attended from seventh through twelfth grade) is that its students don't just learn academic skills, they learn character. The goal of its 75 year-old Honor Code, which allows students to take exams unproctored or even at home, is to teach students to do what is right even when it is most difficult to do so.

So I have been fascinated by President Bush's push to dramatically increase federal funding for character education. His motivation, of course, is not to replicate schools like mine but rather to placate social conservatives skeptical of the rest of his education plan, and, less cynically, to help schools navigate this new world of Columbine, Conyers, Jonesboro and Santee, where kids seem crueler and more prone to violence than ever before. Just this week three girls from Boonville, California — two 8 year-olds and one 9 year-old — were charged with attempted murder for allegedly sneaking pellets of gopher poison into the lunch sandwich of a classmate. They said they did it simply because they didn't like the victim.

Bush asked Congress for $25 million a year — three times current Spending — to pay for character education. The House and Senate, confident the program will be popular at home, recently upped the funding to $50 million a year. Before we rejoice in the new teaching of virtue, however, we need to confront two problems, one philosophical, the other practical. First, the underlying idea behind the rest of Bush's education package is to give states more flexibility in return for holding them more accountable for performance. That's why Bush wants to streamline federal programs — so he can demand results without telling states and schools exactly what to do. But the character education grants do just the opposite. To get the cash, school districts will be required to teach several specific government-approved values: caring, civic virtue and citizenship, justice and fairness, respect, responsibility and trustworthiness. (Districts are free to add their own).

More important, there's no evidence the federal government, regardless of how much it spends, can make sure these traits actually get taught (and learned). Thousands of schools have already introduced character education programs, in many different forms and with varying results. The most popular program, which now reaches more than one million students, is Character Counts! It avoids the kind of pedantic (and typically useless) lectures on virtue that many critics fear will be encouraged by the Bush grants. Schools that use Character Counts! integrate values-teaching throughout the curriculum: each month is devoted to one character trait, which teachers then incorporate into their lessons (the Helen Keller story, for example, becomes a case study in courage and persistence). Many schools that use the program report higher test scores and fewer disciplinary violations.

But the evidence of success is strictly anecdotal. James Hunter, professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Virginia and author of "The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil," argues that the actual effectiveness of character education programs is "highly dubious." He writes that "even the very best of these programs  are unimpressive — not only in their long term but also in their short-term effects." His conclusion is especially devastating:  "At the end of the day, these programs may do more for adults than they do for children. At least they salve our conscience that something constructive is being attempted."

Does this mean character education is doomed to be the next DARE, the 18 year- old federal anti-drug program taught in 75% of school districts nationwide despite scads of evidence that it does little or nothing to curb drug use? My own experience tells me there has to be some value in trying to teach character, even if it doesn't show up on surveys of future behavior. But in the end what matters most is not how well-planned the program, or carefully defined the Congressional vocabulary, or how venerable the Honor Code, but rather the quality of a school's role models. Children learn what is modeled for them day after day, year after year, by their teachers, their parents and their friends. It probably won't hurt to bribe schools to add character to the things they try to teach (and $50 million a year is less than one half of one percent of the proposed education budget). But it'd be foolish to think a limited federal program can turn lousy teachers and parents into positive role models.