Public Education: A Means of Affecting Character Development
Lorraine Lyons

Source: Lyons, L. (1995, August). Public education: A means of affecting character development. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University.

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Throughout American history, the development of "character" has remained a primary goal of public education. This continues into the present decade as does the quest to discover effective methods to successfully develop character. Research indicates that values clarification and moral dilemma discussion approaches have yielded disappointing results (Leming, 1993). Although relatively little experimental data exist concerning effective ways to influence moral development, enough data does exist to form solid evidence which can serve as a basis for developing effective character development programs. This paper focuses on the importance of instilling values in America's youth, the American school's past attempts to influence character, current developments in this area, and gives research based suggestions for administrators and classroom teachers.

The age old question "What's wrong with kids today?", has certainly been raised by most if not all generations concerning values and morals, or the lack thereof. In light of recent statistics with respect to such societal problems as violent crime, illegitimate births, suicide rates, and the like, a more viable question to raise might be "What's wrong with society today?" Answers to these questions are not easily found. However, the lack of sufficient solutions to solving these problems is costly to every member of society, not only from a financial stance, but also from an emotional perspective.

The purpose of this paper is to: consider why developing character in today's student is important, gain a perspective about the future of moral development by examining the American schools' prior attempts to instill values, discuss current trends in this area, and provide strategies that classroom teachers and administrators can use to help develop character education programs.

The Importance of School Involvement in the Building of Character

"Character" can be thought of as being comprised of two components (Durand & Reister, 1990). The first part is concerned with what is right, good, and fair in a particular situation. The second part refers to possessing the ability or courage to respond in ways that agree with one's beliefs about goodness, fairness, and ideas of correct behavior. According to The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, (Bennett, 1994)  several disturbing and unsettling trends have emerged since 1960. Some of these include: 

Apparently, someone, namely parents for the most part, are failing to meet their responsibilities. Therefore, if America is to remain a world leader, schools must take it upon themselves to produce a nation with a strong sense of values and moral conscience.  Values are an individual's stabilizing factors in a world where the only certainty is change.  The publicity and glamorization of eroding morality has stimulated public interest in reinstating moral education (Lickona, 1988). Parent concern about the lack of morals is indicated by a recent Gallop poll which indicates that over 80% of parents want public schools to teach values.

Public Education's Past Attempts at Developing Character

It is often helpful to reflect upon the past in order to gain insight about the future, to see similarities between the past and future, and to avoid repetition of the same mistakes. Plato held the belief that good education creates good men and good men act nobly (Bennett, 1993). This view is consistent with America's view of education from its beginning. Education once focused on two primary goals: to improve intellect and to provide moral guidance.  Before the American Revolution, education was a means of preparing a person to lead a pure and religious life (Spring, 1990). This was considered the responsibility of the family. The primary goal was to create a literate society that was able to read the Bible, other religious materials, and proclamations of laws. The uses of moral teachings based on a biblical perspective is evidenced in the popular text The New England Primer which contained religious catechism from which a child was instructed to memorize and recite.

After the American Revolution, people began to view the school as a means to also instill patriotic qualities such as nationalism and citizenship (Spring, 1990). This view was emphasized by the framers of the Constitution who argued that moral education was vital if the country was to function and ultimately succeed as a democratic nation. This view of education is illustrated by the large quantity of spelling texts written by Noah Webster which contained moral and patriotic catechisms. One of Webster's texts sold 75 million copies by the end of 1875.

Events such as World War I, industrialization, urbanization, the steady rate of immigration, and the lax attitudes of the Roaring 20's contributed to the rising tide of interest in moral education (Leming 1993).   Character education during the first three decades of the twentieth century focused on codes of conduct and student clubs which attempted to use the influence of the peer group to promote certain values (Leming, 1993). The "Children Morality Code" was widely used. It stated the "ten laws of right living" which included: "self-control, good health, kindness, sportsmanship, self-reliance, duty, reliability, truth, good workmanship, and teamwork" (Leming, p.63).

An in-depth study entitled "Character Education Inquiry" investigated character related behaviors (Lemimg, 1993). Researchers studied deceitful behavior and helpful behavior in 10,865 children in fifth through eighth grades in 23 communities throughout America. Researchers arranged the environment so that students would have the opportunity to cheat and to take part in helpful behavior. Researchers learned that engaging in honest behavior in one situation did not ensure honest behavior in another situation. They further concluded that there was "no relationship between membership in organizations that purported to teach honesty and honest behavior" (Leming, p.64) and that teacher pleas for honesty and discussions of honesty had no bearing on conduct. In fact, researchers stated that didactic approaches such as these produce very few positive results and instead produce negative ones.

By the 1950's, character education curriculums were almost nonexistent (Leming, 1993). Dissatisfaction with academic gains and the threat of Soviet advancement in the area of technology prompted reforms of curriculums (Goodlad, 1966). Schools began to attend to more of an academic function with a focus on basic skills, attitudes, and knowledge needed for living in a democratic society (Alberty, 1977).

Interest in character education was revived in 1966 due to the publishing of Lawrence Kohlberg's suggestion that his cognitive-developmental theory of moral reasoning could be joined with the moral education goals of school (Leming 1993). In the same year, Raths, Harmin, and Simon published Values and Teaching which was the first attempt to explain the theory and techniques of values clarification (Leming). Values clarification and moral dilemma discussion monopolized character education for the next two decades.

Teachers seemed to favor values clarification over the moral dilemma discussion approach.  A common thread for each was the idea that the teachers were not to transfer their own values to students. With the moral dilemma approach, teachers were to act as facilitators and provide a classroom atmosphere conducive to moral stage growth (Leming, 1993). The purpose of values clarification was to have a student clarify his or her own values. The teacher would abstain from promoting personal beliefs and would respect whatever set of values the student developed.

Most research concerning the moral discussion approach showed little stage growth occurring during the length of one semester (Leming, 1993). Research concerning values clarification showed no significant change in dependent variables such as value thinking, self-concept, value-related behavior, attitudes toward school and various courses, and willingness to see another's point of view. Neither seemed to offer much insight for future character education programs.

During the 1970's, questions began to be raised concerning whose values should be taught (Lickona, 1988). Television's popularity increased as did the incident of divorce.  Ironically, moral education was slipping into the background. During the past thirty years, education has been burdened with yet another challenge related to character education: sex and drug education (Lemimg, 1993). Much of the research shows that most sex education programs increase student knowledge but fail to change values or engagement in sexual activities. The newest programs in this field are value based programs which emphasize abstinence, self control, dignity, and respecting others. It is reasonable to suspect that these programs, linked with parent involvement, as well as the community, would be effective. However, no conclusions can be drawn due to the lack of studies conducted.

Drug education programs also became popular during the past thirty years. Most of the programs of the 1960's centered around informing and/or frightening students about the harmful effects of drugs (Leming, 1993). Schools initiated programs in the 1970's with a humanistic focus which stressed the teaching of problem solving and decision making. Researchers concluded similar findings as stated earlier with sex education. Both types of programs increased knowledge but did not affect drug abuse. A social influence approach was implemented in the 1980's. The aim of this approach was to increase student awareness of factors that can lead to drug abuse and produce group norms against drug abuse through the uses of group activities and the sharing of personal experiences. This program attempted to teach students resistance techniques through role playing. Research indicates that this approach has merit and does produce desired behavioral outcomes (Leming, 1993).

One of the most popular teaching methods of the current decade, cooperative learning, not only improves academic achievement but seems to promote character development as well (Streshly & Schaps, 1989). Research indicates that students learn to: improve race relations, express concern for one another, and become more accepting of handicapped students.  According to McKay (1994) the current trend in developing character revolves around the idea of directly teaching a set of specified values. A major, national force behind thismovement is the Character Education Partnership who promotes the "six pillars of character". These include: "respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, caring, justice and fairness, and civic virtue and citizenship" (McKay, p.46).

One can see certain similarities and differences between the 1920's and the late 1980's through the early 1990's (Leming, 1993). Both are times in which Americans once again became interested in developing the character of the younger generation. Unlike the 1920's, the previous years have supplied educators with some research concerning the development of character. Although there is not a wealth of experimental data, it does provide a starting place for developing more successful character education programs.

Strategies for Classroom Teachers and Administrators

Before one can consider how to go about teaching values, the question of which values should be taught must first be considered. Due to diversity within our society, it would be impossible to formulate a large set of values which meets everyone's approval. However, there are probably a few basic, universal values that most, if not all, would agree on. According to Bennett, these include: "fairness, kindness, honesty, persistence, responsibility, love of country, respect for others, and courage" (Williams, 1993, p.23). Striking similarities are apparent between this list and the "six pillars of character". Considering past failures and successes with regard to character development is another important element in developing successful character education programs.

Despite the lack of systematically evaluated studies of character education programs, research supports the following: the single use of didactic methods do not work, behavior is unrelated to one's ability to reason various questions of morality, character is developed through social interaction and environmental factors, and character development is not a simple task (Leming, 1993). One should also note that no studies have been conducted to determine whether the literature a person reads affects moral outcomes. Cooperative learning, if implemented correctly, can also enhance character development (Streshly & Schaps 1989).

Historically, teaching positions were filled by individuals who were considered extremely moral and upright (Spring, 1990). Williams (1993) stated the inconsistencies in character education exist when teachers do not practice the standards they promote. A study which focused on how a previously stated value, respect for others, was taught revealed that respect is best conveyed by appropriate modeling and quality teaching. According to a student survey, middle school students reported that poor teacher models of respect commonly made statements encouraging students to respect others while they violated these statements through their dealings with students. Those considered good teacher models were said to: "present clear, consistent, and sincere messages; do not pull rank, are never authoritarian; communicate high expectations; really listen; are hard working and really care about student learning; deserve respect" (Williams, p.22).

Abraham Lincoln once said, "What you do speaks so loud I cannot hear what you say" (Billings, 1990, p.68). Teachers would do well to remember this. Likewise, in addition to being aware of what strategies influence moral behavior, administrators need to use care when filling teaching positions to ensure that students will be exposed to someone who holds the same values that the school promotes if instilling a sense of morality is a priority (Gorman, 1990). A survey of 21 school administrators revealed that the values rated most highly by these administrators were: personal integrity, honesty, and concern as well as compassion for others (Gorman 1990).


While there are relatively few experimental studies in the area of character education, it is clear that "character" is primarily developed through appropriate social interaction where certain behaviors are either endorsed or rejected. Therefore, teachers can positively affect moral development by being proper models of morality and making uses of methods which are supported by research. Administrators can affect character development by employing teachers who uphold moral standards of the school. Teachers and administrators need a thorough understanding of the history of character development and the research conducted in this area in order to make informed decisions concerning the implementation of character development programs. A knowledge of research findings concerning what actions enhance and impair character development would be of great value in dealing with students on a daily basis. One can assume that the failures of older methods which produced little or no success can be attributed to the lack of internalization of the values that character education programs sought to impart.