Jean-Claude Brizard is the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools and superintendent of the Rochester City School District. A lifelong educator, he previously served as a middle and high school teacher and high school principal in New York City.

Do you have a go-to, straightforward definition for “character” and/or “virtue”? If not, can you provide some rough outlines for those terms that might be helpful for educators and education-policy experts interested in helping form students? 

I don’t have a go-to definition and, frankly, avoid the term altogether. I find most definitions to be subjective and/or paternalistic. There are many past leaders that we now consider to be heroes who may have been judged as lacking in character because they pushed against the norm. I much prefer to lean on civics and, more importantly, civic identity (a multifaceted and dynamic notion of the self as belonging to and responsible for a community or communities.)

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? 

Education is much more than math and literacy proficiency. Education involves the integrated, dynamic and individual nature of human development. As John Dewey outlines in his 1938 work Experience and Education, education is not preparation for life, education is life itself. If we develop educators to understand the full meaning of education as human development, they will understand their role in developing the whole child.

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?

Developing the whole child is the role of every educator and every school. States and school systems can lean on the science of learning and development, adopt one of several frameworks and ensure that adult capacity is developed to do this work well. Policymakers can set a framework, but the work is always best done by those closest to students.

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? 

The old line “What is measured is what is taught” has always worried me. Accountability never forces anyone to do anything well (please note that I am not anti-accountability). Putting my strong aversion to the term “character” aside, I know of no good ways to measure character objectively. Second, adding another set of high-stakes measures will only hurt children. Imagine a “credit score” outlining which young people have “character” and which ones don’t. I don’t need a crystal ball to predict which children will fall below the acceptable score.

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?

I guess this is what I have been outlining above. The term reeks of dominant culture and invites a ton of bias. There’s good research that shows how some students who demonstrate agency are seen as belligerent. Mitigating bias in our work is critical.

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 worry about conflating these two terms. SEL is part of a whole child frame (e.g. physical health; mental health; complex social, emotional and cognitive development; core academic skills and knowledge; positive identity formation; agency). I worry that it’s become a catchall for some.

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?

With caveats outlined above, I don’t see how one doesn’t focus on both. We need to outline the integration in curricula, units of study, lessons, and we need to build adult capacity and understanding. In the whole child frame, I often hear that to have “whole children” we need to have “whole adults.”

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? 

I believe that a whole child frame avoids this issue, but I have seen some navigate this by leaning on spirituality. I also believe that guiding students to their own evolving definition of the “good life” is another way of managing this challenge.

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? 

Those who make this argument fail to understand the full purpose of education and a school’s role in fulfilling that purpose. 

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