The September 2000 Bastrop ISD school board meeting began in the usual fashion: Board president Kay Wesson acknowledged that a quorum of trustees was present and called the meeting to order, the room recited the Pledge of Allegiance, and a trustee led all in an opening prayer. Then Wesson announced a special presentation.
Ty Rutland, a fifth grader at the district’s Cedar Creek Intermediate School, was to be presented a special award for his demonstration of honesty, the character trait for the month of September under BISD’s character education program. family Ty had found a wallet on campus and immediately turned it in to the school’s office–without taking any money. Wesson asked Ty and his mother to stand, and presented them with a framed plaque describing the good deed. The audience applauded loudly, and the applause quickly became a standing ovation. His mother looked proud. Ty just looked confused.
Character education is a program that involves incorporating a set of values, or character traits, into schools’ curricula. The concept is not new; students have received organized character, or moral, instruction dating back to when America was a fledgling nation. The demand for character education has been cyclical throughout history, cropping up at times when communities have sensed a “moral decay” in American society.
The latest upswing in character education began in the mid-1990s and has surged since 1998, the year the shootings occurred at Columbine High School. Since that time, thousands of school districts in every state in America have adopted their own versions of character education. This year, several states, including Texas, are trying to take the program even further by introducing legislation that would encourage or even mandate a character education program.
One character education bill, HB 946, sponsored by Barry Telford (D-DeKalb), has already passed the House and passed the Senate Committee on Education by a vote of 8-0 on May 8. The bill authorizes, but does not require, school districts to adopt character education programs. It requires districts that choose to adopt such a program to involve parents in the process and requires each program to be reviewed and evaluated by the Texas Education Agency (TEA). The TEA will also award grants to school districts implementing innovative character education programs.
Character education differs from state to state and district to district, but each program is based on the idea of integrating supposed positive character traits, such as honesty, perseverance, and friendship, into a school’s curriculum. BISD’s character education program assigns a character trait to each month of the year (March is self-reliance). The district holds a character education rally at the beginning of the school year, and sends a letter to parents and churches each month, outlining the character trait of that month and suggesting activities that can be used to promote the trait with students. Throughout the year, teachers are expected to integrate traits into daily lessons. Individual schools honor students each month for understanding and acting out that month’s trait. Particularly noteworthy behavior, such as Ty’s, is honored by the school board itself.
BISD adopted its character education program in 1997, at the urging of one of its school board members, Evelyn Weilert. Weilert heads a non-profit group, Building Good Citizens for Texas, which disseminates resource guides to any Texas school district interested in the program. She herself first learned of Character Education in 1994 during a Texas Association of School Educators spring conference, where then-Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Moses encouraged attendees to adopt it in their schools.
A year later she met Frank Tucker, a Dallas attorney and strong supporter of character education, at a school board convention. (“I know it may sound strange but I really think meeting him was divine intervention,” she says.) Along with a team of Austin teachers and representatives from the Region XIII Education Service Center, Tucker and Weilert developed the framework for Building Good Citizens. The team consulted with Houston ISD, a district that had been running what many considered a model character education program since 1989. (Bush campaign contributor Jack Bowen, then Chairman and CEO of Transco Energy and now retired, initiated Houston’s program.) According to Weilert, Building Good Citizens’ character education program is not an exact replica HISD’s program but borrows several key aspects, such as assigning a character trait to each month and cross-referencing these traits to standardized test preparation objectives. Building Good Citizens also developed a marketing strategy–providing resource guides that outline the need for character education, explain the character traits, and suggest ways to incorporate the program into schools and communities. Weilert works with districts to train teachers and tailor the program to the district’s needs. She says interest in the program was slow for the first year, when she worked with 20 districts, but has since increased. Roughly 360 districts now run some form of character education program.
In addition to her heavy involvement in Texas education, Weilert is currently president of the Bastrop County Republican Women’s Association and describes herself as a devoted Christian. She swears by character education. At a time when school violence is all too common, Weilert believes the program offers a glimmer of hope to school districts and teachers desperately trying to undo some of the damage the media and negligent parents have done to children. “I have taught for 25 years,” she says,”and have been on a school board for 12. In that time I have seen–dozens is a safe bet–of programs come and go. I am convinced that this program can be far more successful in improving TAAS scores, reducing school violence, and encouraging the kind of school climate that every district I know wants than any other program. That is why I am so passionate about it.” Character education does not dictate morality, Weilert says, but rather guides kids and “shows them what these different concepts are–how they look, how they sound.”
Weilert concedes that after staff development, she has no way to track how a program is implemented. She considers the character education program in her own district to be mediocre, citing a lack of community involvement as a major reason. The model programs, she says, are in the Giddings, Lockhart, and Clifton school districts, where the community is involved and where all school employees, down to custodians and food service workers, played a role in its implementation.
Although character education may seem innocuous at first glance, the program has its critics.The most benign of the criticisms is simply that the program is difficult to monitor and its effectiveness is questionable. Tiffany Austin, a second grade teacher at Cedar Creek Elementary in BISD says she thinks the program works when it is used consistently from grade to grade, but this type of consistency is rare.
There is also no statistical evidence to suggest that character education programs reduce violence or improve learning environments. Santee, the California high school where a student recently shot a handful of his classmates, implemented a character education program shortly after the Columbine shootings. In addition, no one has discovered a correlation between character education programs and high education ratings.
Another question raised about character education programs is whether students take it seriously, particularly at higher grade levels. Jon Michael Williford, a 2000 graduate of Bastrop High School, says that by high school, students think character education is a joke. They see the hypocrisy of teaching morals, he says, because school employees do not necessarily practice what they preach. Williford taped a short news program for a journalism class his junior year that exposed one such inconsistency. A teacher’s car was damaged by debris ejected by a lawnmower that was being manned by a district employee. The incident occurred in October, the month to which the character trait “responsibility” is assigned. BISD refused to accept responsibility for the damage and would not pay for repairs. Williford says his news piece landed him on Weilert’s blacklist.
Critics also question whose values students are being taught. Weilert and supporters of the program consider the selected character traits to be universally positive values. However, according to Samantha Smoot, Executive Director of the Texas Freedom Network, character education gets government and schools involved in matters that have traditionally been personal and private.
“We do have common, accepted civic values that are transmitted in classrooms already,” says Smoot, whose organization monitors and lobbies against initiatives of the religious right. “Personal and subjective teachings in schools cross into an uncomfortable area… It comes down to whose character education are we talking about? Should we teach values as described by civil liberties organizations or character education as proposed by religious political extremist groups?” Smoot says the language of the current character education legislation appears to echo biblical values, rather than so-called universal ones. Responds Weilert: “We have an obligation to introduce these concepts to kids who don’t learn them at home,” she said. “In large numbers students aren’t going to church and are no longer communicating with the clergy.”
Even if HB 946 passes into law, implementation will undoubtedly be varied and sporadic. The bill budgets $2.6 million to be divided among any Texas districts with “innovative” character education programs; that amount is not large enough to have much of an effect. If character education follows its historical course, it will eventually go back into remission.
Dana Lachman is a reporter for the Bastrop Advertiser.