Be Quiet! Sit Up! Listen! Tie Your Shoes! Character Ed Takes It on the Shins!

Why was I not surprised to read the Education Week story on a new federal study, “the largest…to date,” says Ed Week, that pooh-poohs character education? (ie. It doesn’t work.)

Just two days before this story appeared (pat me on the back), I had emailed a friend, who was working on a character ed story:

There is a lot of “character education” out there and most of it reminds me of the teen pregnancy programs from the 80’s: they miss the point.  We have to stop thinking that you change behavior by lecturing. You teach character by having students sit up, pay attention, and do their homework. You EDUCATE about character by having them read Aristotle, Plato, and St. Augustine, among others.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the urge to teach kids how to behave and realize that it’s a mini-cause in the ed reform movement. (See these well researched reports in Education Next: here and here and here.)

For years I have watched schools react to social problems – or be made to react to them by misguided policymakers and legislators – by instituting a special class on it. Columbine unleashed a wave of Codes of Conduct. Drugs lead to DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education). Gangs give rise to anti-gang education programs.  We are now on the cusp of a wave of anti-bullying curricula, books, teachers guides.  My favorite, however, has been the reaction to obesity: a PE curriculum, with texts to read and tests to take, but no physical exercise.

Educators are not alone in this particular weakness — if I write it down, it will happen – but the syndrome is especially common in our schools.  If I just give kids information, they will do the right thing.  (Johnny, would you please read Dr. Schneider’s new book on “the advantages of sitting down when standing up will get you slapped”?)

More than twenty years ago, while working on a report for the Carnegie Foundation about teen pregnancy, I stumbled on a series of reports by a Washington Post reporter named Leon Dash that upset the apple cart about the then-popular notions about “the teen pregnancy crisis.”   Since condom keychains, sex education, and — remember the headline, “the pill goes to school”? – school-based “clinics” were then the rage, especially in the philanthropy world, my report was not greeted with smiles: I sympathized with Dash, who had discovered – and documented, quite persuasively — that kids had babies, not because they were ignorant of the plumbing, but because they wanted to have them.  Dash turned that revolutionary notion into a 1989 book — When Children Want Children: The Urban Crisis of Teenage Childbearing – and I learned a valuable lesson about education:  you don’t modify basic behavior by instituting a class about it.  You teach what smart people believed and how smart people reacted (once known as “history”) while telling kids to PAY ATTENTION!  (I love when schools invite the local mayor or council member, about to be indicted for one petty crime or another,  into the school to lecture about “civics” — instead of assigning readings by George Washington or James Madison.)

A couple of years after discovering Leon Dash, I was listening to E.D. Hirsch answer my question about what his Core Knowledge curriculum did to promote self-esteem.  “The best way to teach self-esteem,” my hero-in-the-making said, “was to teach them something.”  If you’re not sure what Hirsch means, go here.  Or check out Fordham’s new report on the common core standards.

Mark Bauerlein has picked up on the subject and, quite splendidly, written about the senseless literalness of our schools’ current approaches to “teaching” in an essay about the “the arts-saves-kids rationale” to justify the humanities.  I blogged on this in August.

(And check out Ed Next’s home page What We’re Watching video, Sir Ken Robinson lecture that wonderfully devastates the lemming-like rush to “21st century skills.” How are we going to prepare kids for this new economy, he suggests, if our experts don’t know what’s going to happen next week?)

For a complete absurdist take on the descent of schools into behavior-modification, see my Baby, Think it Over, an account of the attempt – short-lived, I hope – to thwart teen pregnancy by making 8th-graders carry computer-assisted babies around. (The 21st century version of babysitting an egg or sack of sugar as a way of teaching responsibility.)

But don’t take my word for it. Go to the new 656-page federal study, which says (in part):

A variety of universal school-based programs designed to help elementary schools foster positive student behaviors, reduce negative behaviors, and, ultimately, improve academic performance are available; however, more evidence from rigorous evaluations is needed to better understand their effects. Such information is important because the development of social competencies during middle childhood has been linked to adjustment to schooling and academic success, while the failure to develop such competencies can lead to problem behavior that interferes with success in school (Bennett et al. 2003; Carlson et al. 1999; Farrington 1989; Fors, Crepaz, and Hayes 1999; Malecki and Elliot 2002; McCord et al. 2000; Najaka, Gottfredson, and Wilson 2001; O’Donnell, Hawkins, and Abbott 1995; Trzesniewski et al. 2006; Wentzel 1993).”

Hey, folks. If the adults don’t get it – and can’t explain it to other adults — why do we suppose that kids will understand?  My suggestion: read “letter from the Birmingham jail,” then make kids write an essay about it — or else!

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