Shavar Jeffries is the national president of Democrats for Education Reform and Education Reform Now. Previously, he was the president of the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board, an associate professor at Seton Hall Law School’s Center for Social Justice and served as counsel to New Jersey’s Attorney General.

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 it’s safe to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the many roles beyond academic instruction that our educators are responsible for in their day-to-day interactions with our children. While they certainly are passing along and modeling traits of character education implicitly—from teaching responsibility through classroom chores to volunteer activities to encourage civic engagement—when we bring an intentionality to the work and purposefully incorporate these lessons into the school day, we can better help students cultivate these skills that will help them in life.

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?

Education has always been rooted in local control. When I was president of the school board in Newark, we worked with our community and schools on decisions impacting curriculum and policy. Of course, those were in-line with state standards to ensure that we’re holding all kids to high expectations, but the specific curriculum, and even how instructors interpreted that curriculum came down to schools and educators. If there is going to be a statewide emphasis on character education, I would expect that what that curriculum looks like and how it’s interpreted would be different district to district.

That being said, it is important that interventions are evidence-based. Research indicates that well-intentioned programs can fall short of their desired outcomes. We need to have programs that are differentiated by grade and that are developmentally appropriate. In adolescence, for example, we need to pay increased attention to peer groups and adults outside a young person’s immediate family. Some children with specific behavioral or psychiatric problems may require clinical approaches customized to their unique needs.

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?

Too often we do things to communities, rather than with them. Particularly for communities of color, policymakers largely have a paternalistic history of deciding what’s best for their children. It’s important that families are brought into these conversations early and often and that they’re given an opportunity to be heard—whether it’s for character education, social-emotional learning or academics.

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?

Actually, I can see SEL being taught alongside character education in a way that addresses the whole child. While they have some overlap, they are also in many ways complementary. Like character education, SEL involves imparting values to children especially empathy and ethics. However, SEL also adds more depth in that it focuses on being aware of one’s emotions, setting goals, and managing one’s thoughts and behaviors toward positive personal and academic outcomes.

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 isn’t something that has to be either/or. We should invest in educators who value high-quality academics and developing the whole child and will model these practices. Educators can also work with their communities to identify the holistic competencies that parents want to see reinforced in classroom activities. But that decision really needs to be made at the local level, in collaboration with parents.

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

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