Writing in the Atlantic last July, high school teacher Paul Barnwell expressed fears that his students have broken moral compasses. At the same time, he reports, they are enthusiastic in classrooms discussion that address deeper levels of morality. Yet schools frequently steer clear of moral instruction because, Barnwell believes, they are too busy trying to meet narrowly defined federal academic success standards. The result? A crisis in character of the rising generation.
As educators ourselves, we concur with many of Barnwell’s observations. And we know we aren’t alone. Witness the rapidly growing interest in character education among philanthropies, researchers, policy advocates, and public schools. And recent legislation has encouraged a more holistic approach by requiring states to include non-academic factors in their accountability systems.
While we applaud efforts to promote character education, folding it into school accountability schemes is fraught with peril. Some argue that if it’s not measured, it’s not valued. But as psychologist Angela Duckworth notes, current measures for non-cognitive outcomes are limited by self-reporting and reference bias. Adding character to the testing regime at this stage would be premature and counterproductive.
Off-the-shelf character programs may be a tempting fix for schools already juggling multiple demands, but most such programs fall short. A study conducted by the Institution of Education Sciences concluded that only two out of sixty measured outcomes were statistically significant. In fairness, as Duckworth notes, these kinds of outcomes are extremely difficult to measure well, in part because character formation itself is not easy to do well. Continue reading
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