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How valuable is “character” education?

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Greg Peck
May 8, 2014

No, numbers just released in the National Assessment of Educational Progress were not good. In fact, the headline on the story about nationwide math and reading progress in today's Gazette suggested new figures were abysmal and “unacceptable.”

I wonder how much “character” plays a role. Today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel features a front-page story about Capitol West Academy, a K-8 charter school on Milwaukee's northwest side. The school is earning an honor from the Wisconsin Character Education Partnership, a coalition focused on improving the culture of schools.

The story by Astead Herndon says a pledge unites teachers, parents and students. One line suggests, “I am an important person with high goals.” Another says, “I will not let myself or my community down.”

Educators at the school insist this focus is paying off. Twice as many students in the high-poverty school are proficient at reading compared to four years ago. Discipline problems prompting trips to the principal's office have been cut in half.

This school isn't alone in focusing on “character” education. In Sunday's Journal Sentinel, education columnist Alan J. Borsuk wrote how more than 200 students from 14 southeastern Wisconsin high schools took part in a morning “responsibility retreat” at Brookfield East High School.

Borsuk was impressed that instead of silence, three-dozen kids stepped to a microphone to name one positive change each would make in the next year. They talked about halting the bad jokes for cheap laughs; about demonstrating a relentless work ethic; and about spreading kindness at school. Time ran out while others waited to make pledges.

These days, many employers complain that job applicants lack the “soft skills” that companies desire. We're talking about showing up each day, being punctual, communicating appropriately, working well with others, etc. Much of this comes through a sense of character. As Borsuk suggests, you don't develop character through a morning retreat. You develop it over the long term. It starts at home and can gain strength through educational focus.

“There is a good body of evidence that students who succeed, especially if they are coming from more challenging personal circumstances, are doing it as much because of their personal traits—grit, optimism, resilience, responsibility, respect—as their intellectual strengths,” Borsuk wrote.

Good point. Results make Milwaukee's Capitol West Academy a shining example.

Maybe, too, as heroin continues to spread, character education can help lead more people to careers that pay well and to the personal strength to resist abusing drugs and alcohol.

How much time and energy get spent on developing character in your household and in your school district?

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.



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