Joshua Starr is the Chief Executive Officer of PDK International. Previously, he was the Superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools (MD) and Stamford Public Schools (CT). He began his career teaching special education in Brooklyn, N.Y.  

Assuming there are at least some legitimate differences of opinion about what constitutes character or virtue (or which aspects of character should be prioritized), shouldn’t we decentralize this area of education and allow districts and schools decide what to do? That way, different communities can choose for themselves how their students should be formed. Or, is there a role for something more standardized at the state level?

Districts and schools are able to choose how they approach all subject areas, as long as they’re addressing state standards. Setting standards for something as nebulous as “character education,” would be subject to extensive hand-wringing and political debate, which is likely why most states have avoided it. Yet, character education can be built into curricular decisions at the local level through content selection and the design of units of study. By comparing, contrasting and analyzing how fictional and real people throughout history (both American and world) make choices and solve problems, students can develop an understanding of character. Through project-based learning and group work students can build character by learning how to problem solve and collaborate. Perhaps if state character standards were process-based rather than content-based, we could develop a more universal approach to teaching about character.

A critic might say that “character” is nothing more than the norms of the dominant group. If that’s the case, families who don’t identify as part of that group—whether because of income, race, religion, heritage or something else—might always take issue with aspects of democratically developed character education. What should we make of that?

Schools have always reflected the culture of their communities, and the best school and system leaders understand that they need to be deeply engaged with their communities in order to effectively lead. After all, superintendents are the stewards of the community’s values. As such, they have a responsibility to find common ground wherever possible, while also taking a strong stand against morally and ethically perverse stances (gay conversion therapy comes to mind). The question of character education could be a powerful opportunity to bring people together in a community to discuss their shared values and visions for education. After all, they decided to live in the same area, they might as well get to know each other.

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?

I think there’s a sort of Venn diagram between SEL and character education. While SEL programs and curriculum aren’t explicit about addressing character, they do so in a de facto way. However, the framing of SEL oftentimes suggests that it’s an intervention and not an aspiration. By placing it within a continuum of mental health services rather than framing it as an opportunity to coalesce around the kind of school community they envision, educators do a disservice to SEL’s true potential. I’d like to see schools focus on how we can aspire to create the kind of learning environments that build on and teach aspects of great character, which includes most components of SEL, rather than use it as a cudgel when students misbehave.

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? 

When Horace Mann was arguing for common schools that serve the common good, he was explicit about the religious and moral aspects of his vision. Today, we’re afraid to talk about it, which is an incredible disservice to our kids and communities. Much like the question regarding state standards v. local decisions, by embedding character education in explorations of religion as history, perhaps schools could help students understand the relationship between religion and character.

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?

It hasn’t worked thus far, why not try something different? Schools implicitly help form character by what and how they teach to whom and when. By differentiating access, allocating resources, and responding to political demands and vocal parents, school and system leaders regularly show their character. In our increasingly polarized society, we have an obligation to start changing this dynamic (and perhaps organizing toward a new common school for the common good). If not schools, what?

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

Image credit: Sensay