Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Previously, he was U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, Vice President of the Maryland State Board of Education, staff assistant to the President of the United States and a legislative director for the late Senator Daniel P. Moynihan.

Do our public schools really need to focus on teaching character? Can’t we trust that educators will pass along lessons of character—things like honesty, diligence, public-spiritedness—naturally as part of their day-to-day teaching? 

We want to trust that this will happen in the course of everyday instruction, but today we can’t count on it because it hasn’t been made a focus for educator preparation, professional development, peer review and principals’ evaluations. Of course, some teachers do a fine job of it anyway, but if we want to be systematic about it, it needs to become part of the system, so to speak.

Should we think about character as something that is taught or something that is modeled? In other words, if we care about character, should we focus on standards and curriculum, or should we focus on developing educators who embody key virtues?

Modeling is critically important, probably more so than didactic instruction, so we need educators—not just teachers, also coaches, counselors, administrators, even janitors, bus drivers and lunchroom helpers—who understand that it’s their responsibility to set good examples. Our preparation programs and evaluation systems should attend to this, too. Don’t give tenure to a person who’s a whiz at math pedagogy but also lies and cheats! That said, history and literature, and sometimes other subjects, afford ample opportunities for the modeling of good and bad character to be illustrated and discussed within the context of the formal curriculum.

Is there a meaningful difference in your mind between character education and today’s more popular “social-emotional learning”? For example, does your preferred vision of character education add something that SEL lacks—or maybe you believe SEL helps us avoid problems caused by character education?

As Rick Hess and I have written, properly-conceived SEL will incorporate character as well as citizenship. If it doesn’t, it’s going to get in trouble with people who value those things and get ignored in a lot of places. Without character, virtue and citizenship built into it, SEL risks getting very squishy and focusing on things like self-esteem and sociability. At the same time, the moving train of SEL creates an opportunity for those of us who care about character, virtue and citizenship to make these part of the train crew. What worries me is how nervous a lot of the SEL folks get when character, virtue and citizenship are even mentioned, and how those things are pretty much absent from the famous CASEL “wheel” that purports to frame the essentials of SEL.

It’s one thing to measure reading or math proficiency—standardized tests can do much of that. But, how do we measure (and therefore hold teachers, schools or school networks accountable for transmitting) character and virtue? Or, said another way, how can we tell if we are successfully developing students of character?

Let’s admit that we don’t have good metrics for this, at least not the kind that meet standards of validity and comparability. Like citizenship—and also most things in SEL and the arts—there aren’t reliable assessments. There are subjective judgments. Yet we make those sorts of judgment about nearly everyone we have anything to do with—is he a person of good character? Is she a good citizen?—and we “know it when we see it.” Teachers can certainly rate and comment on how well individual students manifest these traits in class—as always used to happen on the left side of the report card when I was a kid. (“Deportment”! “Attitude”! Etc.)

Public school systems can be wary of engaging in anything that seems like instruction about morality because morality brushes up against faith traditions, the First Amendment, different conceptions of the “good life,” and so on. How can a school have a robust approach to forming student character and avoid the charge that it is veering toward religious instruction? 

This is a puzzle and often a dispute on many fronts, including “Bible as literature” and all the free-exercise and separation issues, on which there are many strong feelings. Certainly education in character and morality will be somewhat different in, say, San Francisco and Salt Lake City, or even between the East Village of New York and the nearby Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. It’s not going to be the same everywhere and that’s fine. But a good many virtues—kindness, truthfulness, courage, honesty, etc.—are pretty much universal across the U.S. so it’s entirely practical to have a sort of uniform “core” in the character/virtue realm and also a lot of local and school-level variability. That won’t satisfy every parent of every kid in every community; I get that; but particularly if we couple it with school choice it gets a lot easier to match what we might call family values with school teachings.

How do you respond to the argument that public schools should focus on knowledge and skills and leave the formation of character to families and voluntary associations? 

Schools exist for a great many reasons in our society. Imparting knowledge and skills is at the top of the list but we also want them to do their part to forge good citizens, transmit the culture(s), hold the polity together, create well-functioning communities, equalize opportunities and much more. Developing “good people” is part of the job. And since schools can’t do this on their own without help from allies outside, families and voluntary associations also come into play here.

(Read the full list of questions here. Find the other “Character Matters” Q&As as they publish here.)

Image credit: panitanphoto