Katherine Mangu-Ward is editor-in-chief of Reason.

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?

All institutions shape character. To pretend otherwise is simply to accept that they will do so haphazardly and without self-reflection. But the strongest influences on students may be less about the rectitude of individual teachers and more about the incentives created by institutional structures. Traditional public schools currently incentivize box-checking and obedience. Kids who keep their heads down and follow instructions will be better rewarded than kids who arrive at conclusions in more creative ways or in their own time. At their worst, those same schools also prompt cheating by overemphasizing performance in a few high-stakes tests. Academic tracking discourages persistence in the face of challenges. Status, meanwhile, hinges on sports prowess and physical beauty. Creating academic and social structures that reward creativity, perseverance, kindness or honesty isn’t impossible; but it is a very different model than most traditional American public schools.

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?

The successful development of students of character must be evaluated as close to the individual as possible and over a long period of time. Because so much of a person’s character is driven by personality traits that are highly determined at birth, there’s very little sense in trying to sand off kids’ rough edges to get them to fit into a standardized, uniform understanding of character. Instead, this means empowering families to choose and develop their kids’ schools to reflect and encourage the traits their community prizes, as well as to lean into the virtuous traits their children already possess.

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?

You can’t measure character by filling in bubbles on a multiple choice test. But it’s far from impossible to see the impacts of traits like honesty, prudence, creativity or kindness. What is required for meaningful character evaluation are long and deep relationships with the evaluators, who must themselves be part of the life of the school and the community. To know if someone demonstrates good character, you must know them well and share (or at least have a deep understanding of) their values.  

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?

Rare indeed is a lecture so wildly compelling, so action-packed and so expertly delivered that it genuinely reshapes the character of the listeners. It is, I think, uncontroversial to say that the least effective way to mold the character of young people is to subject them to pre-packaged curriculum on the topic. Likewise, however, exposure to educators who demonstrate good character themselves can’t hurt, but one virtuous teacher can’t countermand the sum of a students’ life experiences.

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 an easy one. There are so many positive character attributes that are grounded in faith traditions that are equally valid from a secular perspective. Attempting to push narrowly religious virtues like faith in defiance of the traditions and laws of the nation is not only pointless when there is so much common ground to cover, it’s also likely to be counter-productive. There’s only so much that can be done in the public school context, so exercising some humility (a virtue!) and choosing a few widely embraced traits that are most relevant to the project of education is the best chance for success.

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

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