Karen Nussle founded and served as the president of Conservatives for Education Reform. Previously, she was executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, and served as an assistant to the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

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?  

My definition is one that I stole: Character is doing the right thing when no one is looking.

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?

Our schools are doing this anyway—and we expect them to do it even though we have never said so specifically. Schools are inherently value-laden places. There are consequences for “bad behavior” and we definitely expect and teach kids to respect others (particularly their teachers) and regulate their behaviors and emotions. Yes, we should teach these things. But it doesn’t have to be a “special” or “new” thing. It should be incorporated as part of the school culture and integrated into all of the academic learning students are doing.

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?

I think there can be guidance on this that is handed down from the state level but that allows districts and schools to implement it in their own way—one that is sensitive to what they know about their communities and student populations. I think there is a general agreement on the basics of what we want schools to reinforce with regard to character. I’m not going to list them all, but I don’t think you’ll find anyone who doesn’t want kids to be honest, empathetic, self-motivated and able to work in teams. But this doesn’t mean that we need to regulate and measure those things. Teachers do this naturally and should be allowed to continue to do so. Let’s just support them with good guidance and tools for when they run into a case they can’t seem to unlock.

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?

Who is “we”? The frame of this question is problematic in my opinion, but one I often hear asked. I do not believe there needs to be a measurement of these skills. Teachers and schools know when they are doing this well and when they are not. This is a school culture and leadership issue. And frankly, if they are not doing this well, it will be reflected in lots of other data we already collect, including academic and achievement gap data.

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 don’t think there is a huge difference between these things. But in today’s day and age, these words end up getting politicized. SEL advocates were trying to avoid some of the political baggage that “character” apparently carries. I do think the folks at CASEL should be commended for trying to concretely identify what SEL is meant to be and attempting to create evidence-based guidance about what SEL practice should and should not be.

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?  

Well, I think that’s just kind of crazy. It’s like saying parents shouldn’t do any academic teaching at home but rather should just leave it to schools. Learning happens in all kinds of settings, and this is as it should be. And like I said at the outset, schools are doing the work of character formation anyway. They always have and always will. So we might as well be clear—at least at the community level—about what we expect schools to reinforce when it comes to character and the values we share as Americans.

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

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