Horace Mann, the catalyzing force behind America’s public education system, believed so much in character development that he held its importance at the same level as academic instruction. His approach remains relevant today, with bullying still prevalent, mental health crises on the rise among students, and Golden Rule practitioners a rarity in the public eye.
In a recent Gallup Poll, 81% of Americans reported being dissatisfied with the moral and ethical climate of the country. The situation is getting worse, according to 68% of separate Gallup respondents, with consideration of others – compassion, caring, tolerance and respect – the most pressing problem.
More than 90% of adults have already voiced their support for the teaching of honesty, acceptance and moral courage in our public schools, and character education has been shown to positively affect academic performance. A recent analysis of character education in the journal Education and Urban Society pointed to a .4-point GPA boost, in addition to statistically significant improvements in students’ compassion, honesty, respect, self-control and social skills.
As we reimagine PK-12 education in the wake of the pandemic, character education is needed more than ever. Today’s students have reported heightened feelings of anxiety, depression and isolation since the unexpected school shutdowns last spring; they have witnessed an insurrection at our nation’s Capitol; and they are watching adults come to grips with – and in some cases, openly arguing about – the effects of systemic racism. Let’s give them the tools to traverse this complicated era and emerge as their best selves.
To be clear, many of our schools already sustain a commitment to character education. Locally, Buffalo Public Schools have made great strides through their Character Counts initiative, and children receive dedicated time for character education at Primary Hall Preparatory Charter School on the East Side.
Now is the time for leaders in higher education, government and industry, as well as parents and caregivers, to reflect on how they can better support our children’s schools to inspire character. In July, Western Governors University launched a new Character Education Professional Learning program to help school principals and teachers create character-driven culture in their schools. It is a yearlong online program that allows school leaders across the country to earn microcredentials and engage with colleagues and character education experts. That’s just one example.
We have a unique and powerful opportunity to re-examine our practices and effect meaningful change. Ethical thinking and responsible action have a place in the curriculum, not as a separate discipline, but as a part of every experience learners have. We can begin by giving school leaders the resources they need to implement character education into the school day and reinvigorating an educational system in service of a better humanity.
Rebecca L. Watts, Ph.D., is the Northeast regional vice president for Western Governors University.