What Business Needs From Schools: Character Education

by Robert Pondiscio
January 10th, 2010

“Teaching kids to be good is low hanging fruit with a lifetime payoff making for a productive society,” write a trio of high-ranking Wisconsin business executives in an opinion piece in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel calling for character education as a way to save public schools.

To people who run companies, honesty and punctuality are as important as computer literacy. Traits such as these are about respect for ourselves and others; they make up our character. Without character, quality work is almost impossible to produce no matter the number of employee incentives.

The trio, which includes the former CEO of Harley Davidson, represent a local chapter of the Character Education Partnership (CEP), a 17-year-old organization that encourages the teaching of ethical values  along with “supportive performance values” such as diligence, a strong work ethic, and perseverance.  Character education is essential, they write, and cost-effective. 

Curriculum experimentation is expensive and confusing to children. New equipment is expensive.  Instructing principals and teachers how to encourage children to exhibit good character, especially by modeling it, is not expensive.”

When teachers, students and school administrators respect each other, reading, math and science scores go up, the trio notes, without a change of curriculum, text books or the addition of expensive equipment.   “We’re not Luddites; we’re for technology, but if a school is in turmoil how will the students learn to use it?” they add.

Amen for this breath of fresh air from the business world, on a subject they know something about.  Personally, I was happy to read a prescription for schools from business executives that for once wasn’t about a lack of accountability, performance pay, how unions protect bad teachers, international competitiveness, the need innovation and to shatter the ”status quo.”



  1. This is not new. Character education has been going on in many California schools for at least the last seven years. When the clarion call to build character went out, ed leaders predictably decided, “Oh, we need to BUY a character education curriculum!” Not, we need to emphasize questions of right and wrong, virtue and wickedness, in our history and literature classes. The result, often, is a separate morning class called Advisory with an off-the-shelf (and NOT cheap) curriculum like Positive Action. We suffered through PA’s wretchedly corny, imbecilic lessons for four years. Instead of teasing out a notion of good character from great literature, the creator of this curriculum writes a host of third-rate poems, short stories and mini-plays that reek of propaganda. I went to the Department of Ed website to see if there was anything better out there. To my horror, the Dept of Ed ranked PA as the #1 most effective character ed program in the country. Digging deep into the footnotes, I found that this ranking was based not on studies performed by the DOE or any respected institutions, but by the owner of the the PA company herself! Talk about character, eh? We have a somewhat better pre-packaged (and costly) program now, that focuses on quotes from famous thinkers like Confucius and Martin Luther King Jr. and includes video clips of Hollywood movies that raise moral issues. I’m glad that kids are at least HEARING that we want them to be virtuous. But I’m still not convinced that a pull-out program is worth it. A lot of character issues came up when my seventh graders and I read “A Christmas Carol”, but even if they don’t become better humans as a result, at least they got a lot of new vocab, knowledge about Dickens and his style, information about London during the Industrial Revolution, etc. The character ed curricula are one-dimensional; great literature is multi-dimensional.

    Comment by Ben F — January 10, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

  2. I don’t know anything about PA, Ben, but I wonder if there’s not a tendency to confuse character education with any of a number of conflict resolution and violence prevention programs out there. Personally I think character education is more a function of the overall school environment and the values that are preached and practiced by every adult in the building, every day. The writers of the piece I posted about (I think) get that, to their credit. It’s less about creating a curriculum than a school culture in which character matters.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 10, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

  3. Creating a pro-virtue school culture sounds good indeed. Still, I wonder what a good one looks like and whether a good one in fact exists. Reporters can be easily misled by appearances. Posters about integrity in every room. Daily announcements about integrity. Does a PR/propaganda campaign pushing these disembodied virtues really work, or does it just go in one ear and out the other? Is “character education” just another attempt to abstract something from the liberal arts curriculum, like “reading skills” or “critical thinking skills”? Another quest for a quick fix for something, like reading comprehension, that is in fact a “slow-growing plant” that cannot be rushed? I’m playing devil’s advocate here. This is one fad that may in fact have some merit.

    Comment by Ben F — January 10, 2010 @ 1:47 pm

  4. I agree with Robert that “character education” ought to be about school environment and expectations. But I think there is an increasing view that teachers know nothing intrinsically, and all curricula must be purchased.

    That aside, I think there are pitfalls to an over-emphasis on things like punctuality. Elementary schools and middle schools often structure their grading to reward diligence and effort. But the complaint is then that grades don’t reflect students mastery of the material.

    Maybe there need to be separate grades for work habits and subject matter knowledge

    Comment by Rachel — January 10, 2010 @ 1:52 pm

  5. I like this. But we can’t do it… there is no standardized test for this.

    Comment by Mike Parent — January 10, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

  6. Character education is worthy of reinforcement in our schools but as some above have suggested it’s probably appropriate for this to start at home (or in church). Robert’s notion of this being part of the school’s culture also makes a great deal of sense, without a formal curriculum.

    We had several posters around school with a similar message: “Your character will be judged by how you act when no one is watching.”

    In the classroom I always made it a point to emphasize the “golden rule.” That was global enough to cover a number of important bases.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 10, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

  7. Mike Parent, above, nailed this one.

    Comment by TFT — January 11, 2010 @ 1:58 am

  8. I’m with Ben on this one. Prepackaged values-enhancing curricula make a lot of shaky assumptions: character can be affected by posters, teachers whose weak character is on display to students can “teach” character via materials, schools should be responsible for having a positive impact student traits even when the cultural surround supports and reinforces low morals. While strength of character should start at home, as Paul notes, what many schools are left with is remedial character education–countering the well-established ideas that it’s OK to lie or cheat if you don’t get caught, OK to make fun of others outside the cultural norms, OK to present yourself as sexually available in the 7th grade–ideas reinforced by media.

    That’s not to say that students don’t absorb great deal of influence on character development in school–they do and always have. And they are the first to pick out hypocrisy in the adults who are supposed to be role models. Giving students cell phones for perfect attendance, or gift cards when they raise their test scores–that is certainly “character education” (and perhaps just what the business leaders in the article are looking for). I am always suspicious when business leaders begin talking about schools as the place where character is inculcated–but am willing to give Harley-Davidson the benefit of the doubt here.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — January 11, 2010 @ 8:41 am

  9. For students in our schools–punctuality and honesty; putting forth consistent effort from day to day; showing up; getting along well with others; contributing to a positive school climate; working from the fact that every child is accountability to become educated–it can’t be done by others. All of this matters a lot. We have lost sight of the obvious. Thank you, Milwaukee, for reminding us!

    Comment by Miriam Kurtzig Freedman — January 11, 2010 @ 9:12 am

  10. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by rpondiscio: Op-ed from business execs on character ed. Nice break from the usual accountability and performance pay stuff. http://bit.ly/7ffkcU

    Trackback by uberVU - social comments — January 11, 2010 @ 10:13 am

  11. Isn’t this what the no excuses/sweating the small stuff schools do – consciously teach and reinforce character and values that will help the students, even those from chaotic/challenged backgrounds to be successful in school and in life?

    Comment by Mia Munn — January 11, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

  12. Let’s not forget that some business titans of the past decade showed less than stellar character, which contributed to our current economic hiccup. As your headline suggests, schools aren’t the only institutions that have to learn about character.

    Comment by Claus — January 11, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

  13. I want parents to deliver character education at home.

    Having said that, I’d like schools to value character more than they do.

    I’d point out that it’s folly to charge schools with an important task when they’ve failed demonstrably with the simplest tasks… but then this would turn into a much longer comment.

    Comment by Matthew K. Tabor — January 11, 2010 @ 10:43 pm

  14. Matthew makes a good point: character education can serve as yet another excuse for us to take our eye off rich academics.

    Comment by Ben F — January 11, 2010 @ 11:56 pm

  15. Schools are taking on too many missions. Just because something is good doesn’t mean that the school should do it. It’s long past time to stand up and demand that parents do their job. Schools’ primary mission should be academic; there’s too much emphasis on “soft” stuff that takes away time from academics. My school day, in the 50s, contained far more academic time and far less “other.”

    Comment by momof4 — January 12, 2010 @ 5:06 pm

  16. Ben F….you were quite clever to look up the source for the character education program you were required to use.

    Look up the work of Smargorinsky& Taxel (2005) The Discourse of Character Education. Influential conservatives met in 1992 to push traditional teaching of character traits through the legislature. These same people developed the canned programs the following year. A requirement for teaching of character traits is mandated in order to get federal funds. None of this is based on research.

    By the way there is a viable field of moral/character studies, to teach people to make good decisions, which is nothing like the Character Counts! version. Think cause/effect, think about outcomes. Look up the work of Narvaez, Lapsley, Sanger, Huitt, etc. As educators, why aren’t we guided by research, not entrepenures of canned programs? As educators we need to use critical thinking about our craft, too.

    Comment by Jelane — January 13, 2010 @ 5:17 am

  17. Jelane,

    The first thing that occurred to me when I found out about Positive Actions’s spurious #1 ranking was that Gloria Allred, its founder, probably was a big Republican campaign donor. Isn’t there a Bush who runs a for-profit ed company? Pigs at the trough.

    Comment by Ben — January 13, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

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