• Primerrily Crew Contributor

Want your kids to build character at school? Try these 3 recs


We’ve all heard (from the media and from our kids) a lot about bullying -- the kind on the playground and the kind in cyberspace. Often those who identify as center-left bemoan the loss of new-age sensitivity while those center-right bemoan the loss of good old fashioned politeness. Perhaps both sides of center can agree that kids aren’t being taught enough of what they need to know to play nice in the sandbox or in the game of (real) Life.


Well, good news from Education Next, an editorial platform of the Harvard Kennedy School, which published optimistic research about the future of character-building education. The piece also lays out how educators (parents included!) can be more mindful and intentional in the area of character-building education and how to help shape it in our kids' classrooms.


Want the highlights? Here are the top 3 recs. Want more information on what they entail? Read below and click the link for the full article.


  1. Have your town’s citizens discuss what character is and how it is taught and modeled.

  2. Decisions about character education ought to be made as close to home as possible.

  3. Parental choice in education should go hand-in-hand with stronger character programs.

An Encouraging Consensus on Character Education: Some recommendations for developing compassion, courage, determination, fairness, grit, honesty, patience, respect, responsibility, self-motivation, and temperance.


Education policy scholar Andy Smarick finds consensus among a diverse range of teachers and and recommendations on what makes for good character-building education (not necessarily a subjective matter). He opens with:


We may be witnessing the resurgence of character education. There seems to be renewed interest in what was, for eons, a core element of education—teaching young people the attributes of a good family member, neighbor, and citizen.

Part of the reason character education fell out of vogue is that it forces us to talk about the common good, the good life, and personal duties. In a continental, highly diverse, democratic republic, there will be differences of opinions on such matters.

I was curious if there might be enough agreement to serve as a foundation for a new character-education agenda. So I posed a set of questions to 18 experts from various corners of education research, policy, and politics. These leaders span the ideological spectrum; have worked on urban, suburban, and rural issues; and have served in an array of important positions—as elected officials, big-city superintendents, federal appointees, college professors, think-tank leaders, classroom teachers, and more.

. . . almost everyone agreed, formal definitions aside, that there are core features of character education around which people can rally. Respondents offered the same set of skills and attributes that students should acquire or develop. These included compassion, courage, determination, fairness, grit, honesty, patience, respect, responsibility, self-motivation, and temperance. A recurring theme was that character education need not be a polarizing topic. Families and educators want it, and there is widespread agreement on a collection of subjects and competencies.

Based on this consensus, Andy also makes suggestions for how schools and districts can be more mindful in this newfound interest in character-building education. For instance, matters such as deliberation, localism, and choice are offered as three ways of understanding and responding to the challenge of “good character” having a range of definitions. To summarize:


Schools aren’t merely in the business of developing young people capable of passing reading and math tests; they are forming friends, neighbors, colleagues, volunteers, citizens, and public leaders. Character matters greatly for all of these roles. . .


[While] respondents were aware of and sensitive to the fact that there are different visions of the good life, that character is tied to moral traditions, and that any form of character education would inevitably run afoul of one or more families’ deeply held beliefs. Respondents offered three ways of understanding and responding to this challenge.


First, several highlighted the value of having an area’s citizens discuss what character is and how it is taught and modeled. Schools reflect their communities, school leaders are stewards of community values, and dialogue about values can help bring a community together. Enabling families and community members to take the lead ensures policy is set by them, not done to them. Character is a shared community responsibility, and people best learn about character through dialogue with others. History and literature can be contentious as well, but we don’t stop teaching them; we have conversations about what is best for students.

Second, decisions about character education ought to be made as close to home as possible. Since different areas will have different priorities and visions of the good life, we should decentralize power and allow different communities to make different decisions. States can set broad standards, frameworks, and guidelines, but districts and schools should have a great say on the details and implementation.

Lastly, many of the respondents argued that parental choice in education should go hand-in-hand with stronger character programs. If families are allowed to select from among an array of schools, and if social entrepreneurs are able to develop new schools with distinct approaches to character, then matching is facilitated. Parents can find schools that align with their views. The other side of this coin is the power of exit. A local school board may establish a vision for character education that is supported by the majority of community residents but adamantly opposed by a relatively small minority. Enabling those dissenting families to go elsewhere respects their values and preserves the legitimate democratic process behind the board’s decision. A more modest version of exit and choice is opting-out; a school or district could recognize the discomfort caused by its approach to character and allow dissenting families to excuse their children from particular lessons.

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We encourage all parents to read on at Education Next for more findings on the core features of character-building consensus. Remember that we parents are the primary educators of our kids' development, and that primary parental education will go even further if our kids’ classmates and educators are in general agreement on what makes good character. So we hope you’ll take some good bits from this, and then share it with your neighboring parents, teachers, principal, school board, or district superintendent.