Kaya Henderson is the former Chancellor of Washington, D.C. Public Schools. She leads the Global Learning Lab for Community Impact at Teach For All.

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?

I think character has everything to do with how we relate to ourselves and others. Schools are one of the most important places where individual identity is cultivated and where young people are socialized to interact with others. From early lessons about respect and sharing that are prevalent in early childhood classrooms to discussions of justice and sportsmanship that happen inside and outside of high school classrooms, we are already teaching character education in schools. But, we don’t just trust that teachers are going to teach fractions. We are explicit in our expectations, and support them in doing what we ask them to do. The same should be true of character education.

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?

In the same way that we teach about a variety of religions in our classrooms without imposing any particular one, I think there are ways to explore issues of character and virtue with young people. Oftentimes, when institutions bring their stakeholders together and offer them the opportunity to develop solutions together, they can come to an agreement about what they want for their 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?

I’m not sure we need to hold educators and institutions accountable for developing students of character. For example, we believe that exposing students to the arts is a critical part of a well-rounded educational experience, even though we don’t hold ourselves accountable to ensuring that they can sing, dance or paint. I think we can teach character education without trying to measure the impact. This is a case where I think exposure alone is enough.

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 believe that character education could be as broad or as specific as one decides. I would prioritize the things that are most important to living peaceably with ourselves and others. Different people will draw the line at different points. I think it’s important to allow the space to not participate in things with which you don’t agree. We have a tradition, for example, of allowing people to opt out of the Pledge of Allegiance if that is not their practice. I think we can explore a similar option here.

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?

I think we should think about character as something that is both taught and modeled. We should definitely focus on how we integrate character education into the curriculum, and we should ensure that we emphasize aspects of character education in the way we prepare and develop our educators

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

Image credit: connel

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