Cover Story

Counting character

Character-ed is growing, but is it working? And other news from the world of education

Issue: "Balancing act," Sept. 8, 2001

Schools of character
More schools than ever are buying into "character education." Why? Such curricula, according to some experts, are the answer to student discipline problems and general moral decay in the culture. But can schools teach morality without reference to the Author of morality? Creators of the two biggest character curricula say that the schools using their programs are reporting satisfactory results. Executives at Character Counts, the nation's most widely used character-ed program with 3,000 subscribing schools, boast that their users claim a 40 to 60 percent decrease in classroom disruptions and disciplinary referrals. Character First! Education claimed similar results among the teachers in 2,000 schools using that program. The underlying goals of each program may determine the staying power of what they teach. Terry Duffy, associate director for Character Counts, said his program helps "regain the structure of a classroom and a school." Kent Fahenbruck, director of Character First! Education (CFE), wants students to "become successful citizens." Character Counts takes a liberal approach to character, parades multiculturalism, and presents Ghandi and Buddha to students as role models. CFE emphasizes character traits based on biblical principles like honesty, faithfulness, kindness and loyalty. The vast majority of CFE role models are Christian: George Washington, Abigail Adams, and missionaries like Corrie ten Boom. Although CFE is based on scriptural principles and includes citations from Proverbs in program material, the curriculum does not mention God. "It does not bring religion into the picture," says Mr. Fahenbruck. "It is specifically character training-not values training." Still, Mr. Fahenbruck hopes CFE will plant a seed, and "help students realize there is a different way to life, but that they can't obtain it on their own-hopefully their hearts will be open to hearing about Christ when that opportunity comes." Opportunities may be widespread: CFE is used in 14 U.S. states, as well as in Russia, China, Romania, Australia, Honduras, Mongolia, Singapore, and Taiwan. Going it alone
The government said no, but a coalition of St. Louis ministers, educators, and financiers are going to do it anyway. After the state denied them charter-school status, the group, dissatisfied with public schools serving black students, last month announced plans to open St. Louis Academies, a system of four tuition-free schools. Most of the eight ministers in the coalition are affiliated with the Church of God in Christ, a predominantly black Pentecostal denomination. Although founded by pastors, St. Louis Academies will not be religious-the schools will follow a charter-school model in hopes of winning a government charter down the road. Meanwhile, each school will operate as a private institution and have a specific focus such as technology, college preparation, or the arts. Administrators will collect no tuition. Instead, St. Louis Academies has secured a $20 million loan from ABS School Services, leased four buildings, and hired a former public-school superintendent and 75 teachers. Initially, the schools will meet costs through a patchwork of federal programs. By the end of this school year, St. Louis Academies founders hope to have six schools serving more than 3,000 children-or nearly 7 percent of the city school district's roughly 45,000 students. "The eyes of the nation will be on St. Louis for this next year," said Tim Daniels, the project's director. "And we will be up to the task." Now or never They did without high school; can they do without a GED? The number of Americans who earned a General Education Diploma or "GED" dropped by about 3 percent last year to just over half a million, according to a July survey released by the Washington, D.C.-based American Council on Education. The drop occurred despite stepped-up promotion of GED testing. But officials predict a record number of diplomas will be awarded in 2001: Because of a pending change, any student who has taken some tests toward a GED must complete the process by Dec. 31 in order to have any of his work count. That's when the American Council on Education will introduce an update of the 59-year-old testing and diploma program. The new version, only the third since 1942, retains the current format-written essay, math problems, and multiple-choice exams in language arts, science, and social studies-but shifts emphasis from academics to application. The new GED exams will measure how well test-takers apply subject-area knowledge to workplace and real-life problems, like personal budgeting. Test-takers will also be allowed to use calculators for the first time. The GED was created in 1942 to help World War II veterans who had never finished high school to earn an equivalency diploma. But the program has become a fallback system for any student who is forced-or chooses-to leave high school early. According to the testing service, about one in seven U.S. diplomas issued each year is a GED, and about one in 20 first-year college students holds a GED. By the book
Stands to reason: States with the most money determine school textbook content for everyone else. A new report by the Center for Education Reform (CER) in Washington, D.C. fleshes out the point: "Size means money means influence in the textbook world," says CER president Jeanne Allen. "Textbook publishers are a strong, quiet interest group that works behind the scenes and through major education groups to ensure that the process favoring them stays exactly the way it is." Four publishers (McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt, and Pearson) control 70 percent of the industry. According to CER, these firms tend to gear textbooks to the desires of educrats in three states-California, Texas, and Florida. Because these densely populated states mandate statewide textbook adoption, they alone account for 30 percent of the K-12 textbook market. Thus, the "big three" states are able to dictate textbook content to the "big four" publishers and, with little power to exert their own influence, other states simply fall in line. In more than 20 states, the state chooses the textbooks for every public-school classroom, either through outright text selection, or recommendations from a short list. To control curriculum, some states attach purse strings to their textbook-adoption policy: No compliance, no cash. Tips and tests
Three states' efforts to improve teacher quality are drawing both praise and fire. After a slew of students last year logged dungeon-level scores on standardized math tests, members of the Massachusetts Board of Education decided to see whether teachers were to blame. The board voted to administer math competency tests to teachers in low- performing districts. The state's 120,000 teachers didn't like that and two teachers unions filed suit in June 2000, claiming the competency test hadn't yet been determined to be fair. But this May a Superior Court judge rejected that suit, and said he hopes the ruling will allow the Department of Education to move ahead with the policy. Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania General Assembly last May overwhelmingly approved the Professional Teacher Assessment Act, Gov. Tom Ridge's plan to test every teacher in the state for subject-area knowledge. The plan is the first of its scope in the nation, and requires public-school teachers, including those at charter schools, to be tested every five years. The legislation directs the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDOE) to develop separate assessments for elementary, middle-school, and high-school teachers. Scores will be aggregated and reported at the school level, but the confidentiality of individual teachers is protected by statute. The law has a few small teeth: Schools or teachers refusing the assessments will be ineligible for PDOE-sponsored professional development programs.

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