Paul Herdman is president and CEO of Rodel of Delaware. Previously, he had roles with New American Schools, the Brookings Institution, RAND, the World Bank, the U.S. Department of Education and assisting the Secretary of Education in Massachusetts.

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?

“Character” to me is about doing the right thing even when no one’s looking. The virtues that shape character—honesty, fairness, responsibility and respect—transcend religious beliefs and are foundational to healthy relationships and strong societies.

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? 

While I have been known to be an accountability hawk—supporting the typical three-legged stool of high quality standards, aligned assessments and appropriate consequences—I also don’t think everything can or should be measured. In fact, I’d argue that some of the most important things in our lives can’t be measured—at least not in valid and reliable ways. Things like love, respect, compassion are no less important because we can’t measure them.

Of course, most schools articulate an honor code that serves to capture the small minority that fail to live up to the basic code of honesty and respect. And most states do reward exceptional sportsmanship, but I do not know of any that attempt to capture how students are doing in the vast, gray middle.

One exception to this general rule is Expeditionary Learning, a national school model. They have a character framework that, in their words, captures the “academic mindsets, learning strategies, and perseverance” of students. This is worth learning more about, but on its face, these sound like the tenets of “social-emotional learning” more than the values articulated in my character education definition above.

While unsatisfying, I don’t see a path to measuring our most important core values, yet I see them as critical to shaping our young people to be responsible adults and to be contributors to a healthy society.

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? 

Like a Venn diagram, I believe there are several domains that intersect with character education. Social-emotional learning is one of them. As defined by CASEL, a leading authority in the field, SEL “is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” Certainly, my definition of character education above (that includes, honesty, respect, responsibility and fairness) crosses over with SEL in that all of these are essential to building positive relationships, but SEL speaks not only to these attributes, but to the process in which these values are developed and to additional attributes like resilience.

Other domains that cross over with character education include civic education and “21st Century Skills.” The former is being hotly debated in education circles right now in that the right sees it as instilling an understanding of our founding documents while those on the left see it more as a vehicle to give students voice. 21st Century Skills are consistent with SEL in that they include attributes like resilience, but they tend to focus more on job-readiness skills like problem-solving and the ability to work in teams.

Bottom line, this lack of a common language is a fundamental challenge. Rodel surveyed over 200 teachers, and over 90 percent said that SEL was critically important, but they also identified over 40 definitions of what they meant by the term. My guess is that “character education” could have been replaced for SEL and yielded similar results.

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?

This feels like a false dichotomy. A common statewide framework makes sense because this body of knowledge is important to both individuals and society, so it would be inefficient for each of the more than 13,000 local education agencies to craft their own approach. And since one’s judgement is formed over time by what one sees, hears and does, a curriculum devoid of any belief or modeling by those teaching it would be empty. These values should be part of the training and management of those in our schools.

Some scholars differentiate “intellectual,” “moral,” “civic” and “performance” virtues. Do you find that framework helpful, especially as it relates to what schools ought to prioritize in their instruction? 

This is a helpful start to untangling the definitional knot—the Venn diagram described above. This starts to parse out where the various attributes might live. For example, “civic” education could be about how students study an issue and exercises their voice in speaking up about it, while “performance” could capture attributes like perseverance and resilience. However, calling out “moral” education as a discrete domain will likely raise some flags.

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? 

I don’t think knowledge and skills can be taught devoid of any moral judgment. In the course of school and life, we learn moral values more through habit and practice than through reason and intellect. How schools are designed—their codes of conduct, the power balance between students and teachers—all speak to values. Schools couldn’t only focus on knowledge and skills even if that was their mandate. Given the importance of sound morals in any decision, from the smallest interaction with a co-worker, to the priorities one builds into a massive policy change, like global warming or criminal justice, our schools should lean into this discussion of values.

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

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