Thursday, April 10, 2008

Character in Fairfax County Schools

The Washington Post published an interesting article summarizing a study about character education in the Fairfax County public schools. The study seems to show that African American and Hispanic students receive lower marks for "sound moral character and ethical judgment." Needless to say, school board members and administration are scratching their heads about a staff study that tries to quantify character and moral behavior.

They should scratch our heads. Here's some examples of what the study considered to be moral behavior for third graders: '"respects school and personal property," "complies with established rules" and "follows through on assignments."' Other skills that were assessed included "contribute effectively within a group dynamic." The Board's goals for students included, '"Model honesty and integrity" and "Respect people, property and authority."' In earlier grades, character evaluation was done by teachers subjectively assessing students. In higher grades part of the moral assessment were based on student incidents that had to be reported to the state.

This quantification of character and moral behavior raises contentious issues. On the one hand, in spite of the "asterisks and footnotes" in the report, some people will maintain that African American and Hispanic students simply lack the character that other students display. That would probably be a false conclusion. Still, persistent educational issues lurk beneath the numbers and the subjective observations that need to be considered thoughtfully by the School Board.

I'm wondering if "complies with established rules" and "Respect... authority" are values that represent moral character. Do these goals and behaviors reflect the needs of the teachers and the education system, or do they promote respect for cultural differences, especially for children who are not part of the mainstream White American culture or who may not be part of the predominate socioeconomic status? Do the behaviors that are subjectively observed reflect the values of the observers or the values of the students? Motive-driven behavior arises from values, but unfortunately, when one observes behavior, one cannot necessarily deduce motive or the underlying values.

I believe that public schools should encourage some core values: participation in the classroom, respect for other's opinions, hard work, cooperation. I think the Fairfax School Board is right in trying to emphasize and assess character education. The puzzle about this study is whether it is really measuring character, or instead, is measuring observer and cultural bias.