Many supporters believe character education could help improve student achievement.
Many school administrators are realizing character education, once thought of as an intrusion on the school day, can actually help students perform better.
A growing body of research supports its effectiveness, and educators say they've seen a difference in students when positive value lessons become part of the school's culture.
“Good character education is good education,” said Marvin Berkowitz, a professor of character education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
"If kids come to schools where they feel valued, safe, and feel teachers have their best interests at heart, … they commit themselves," said Marvin Berkowitz, a professor of character education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "They work harder, there are fewer distractions, and kids are more motivated. Of course they learn more."
Character education often entails a school embracing a set of values that are taught in regular advisory sessions or integrated into classroom lessons or both. Supporters say character education is simply about how people treat each other, and the ideas are fairly universal. The primary traits that schools promote, according to Mr. Berkowitz, are respect, responsibility, caring, fairness, and honesty. It is seen more in elementary schools, sometimes getting squeezed out at the secondary level to make room for more intense academics. But experts say resistance is lessening in some places.
Yet some challenge the notion of the public schools, rather than families, being charged with teaching values. They are concerned about whose values will be taught. Others, however, maintain that schools and families should share the job of nurturing character.
Signs of a Renaissance
While many think of character education as a curriculum, the values permeate all interactions in schools where it is effective.
"It's hard to call it a program because it's really embedded in everything we do," Julie Williams, the principal of Russell Middle School in Colorado Springs, Colo., says of her school's emphasis on what it calls the rocks values—respect, ownership, choices, knowledge, and safety. "We don't stop the day to talk about character education. We do it in every day, in every class. It's how our family works."
Since implementing character education at Russell eight years ago, discipline referrals have fallen, test scores have increased, and the school has been recognized nationally.
The popularity of character education ebbs and flows in reaction to issues of accountability, bullying, and school violence. Some say it is gaining momentum as part of the comprehensive whole school reform movement.
Concern over sexting, bullying, and the need to get students college-ready are also factors for the increased interest, according to Scott Seider, an assistant professor of education at Boston University and the author of last year's Character Compass: How Powerful School Culture Can Point Students Toward Success.
Continue reading how character education can improve student achievement.