Character Education in the Age of Measurement

By Wade Sutton

Character is more than behavior. It is the heart, thought and feeling behind an action. It is also inaction; what we consider doing, what we imagine doing, and what we do not do. This makes evaluating character education a most complex challenge for schools because, while behavior can be assessed, as teachers we cannot assess character itself. Moral imagination, by its very nature, is subjective and surpasses the rubric. We cannot quantify it.

Compliance is not a sign of successful character education. It is frustrating to administrators and policy makers that character education is more than behavior, but that is the way it is. Character education measured by behavior has the fatal flaw of completely missing character, while the data we collect creates only the appearance of success. This does not mean schools cannot improve and have a place helping develop character in our students, but first we do need to recognize that we are not the primary place.

Schools must face their own limitations. Family life and values are the linchpin for a child’s empathy, motivations, values and judgment. Public school is secondary. School policies must carefully reflect this reliance on home and accept that school is a servant to parents. Even if there are no parents at home or apathetic parents, they are still responsible for character. This is difficult to accept, but it is the way society is built.

When we realign our educational values to become holistic, more about the human and less about the test score, then character will be nurtured. Character is developed in a person’s moral imagination and its foundational elements must be targeted to build true character: creativity, divergent thinking, imagination and metaphoric understanding.

1. Schools must target creativity, but it breaks rules and takes time. Creativity is essential to morality. Schools can only provide opportunity for creative minds to thrive. Many schools are forced to emphasize order and rules just to avoid chaos. Creativity thrives in classrooms that are small and flexible, where educators have the liberty to encourage students to experiment. (A national limit on teacher/student ratio would not be amiss.) However, when policy fixates on test scores and money is short, character is a collateral sacrifice in assembly-line education.

2. Schools must allow for divergent thinking rather than proscribed actions. Many schools follow behavior-modification models that require compliance rather than thought. As a result, the divergent are punished for being “outside the box.” When we measure character by compliance, we actually work against the moral imagination. It is not the obedience to authority but the internal process of choosing where education belongs. Our policy must be to hire administrators and educators who have the character to delve into student motivation before applying the handbook.

3. Schools must foster the imagination. The ability to consider the current world and explore the possible world is not easily measurable. We can catch glimpses in art, music and drama, but districts tend to cut these “nonessentials.” History and science projects promote imagination but take time and innovative teachers. Creative writing lets students live new lives, but public schools cling the state comprehension tests. Classroom practice must shift away from demonstrating mastery of facts toward exploring what students can create with those facts.

4.  Educators must mentor and model empathy, the ability to see through another person’s eyes. This is the universal “golden rule.” Whether it’s through a peer, literary character, or historical person, educators show everyday the value of metaphoric understanding. However, educators have neither the time nor liberty to understand who they are teaching when they have to over-document and prove the learning of proscribed facts. Character cannot be nurtured in a production line, not is it a curriculum. Schools need to show empathy if they are to encourage it. Schools must truly partner with their communities and discover the people they teach. They need to be more “public” and less institutional. True educators are not working an 8 to 4 job; mentors cannot clock out. This is why parents really are the key to character education. We must court their permission and invitation. For better or worse, schools must recognize that the control and choice of education is in the hands of parents.

Our school organization and goals must be relational, while mentoring creativity, allowing for divergent thinking, and developing problem-solving skills. We need this flexibility because character is subjective. It is influenced by subtle (and not so subtle) cultural aspects like values encouraged, faith followed, bonding, informal conversations, stories told or not told, love shown or not shown, quality time spent or abandonment, actions observed or not observed. In short, character cannot be a curriculum. So what should schools do to fan the inner spark of character? What should public school policy reflect so that it encourages this in its education?

We need policy leaders who understand the geometry of character education and moral imagination. Leadership must draw to itself only the best educational leaders and those gifted in relationships. The best leaders are intuitive and model the mentorship that character education requires. The “administrator” personality does not need to be distant from students and classrooms. Administrative programs must only accept those who have eight to 10 years experience in the classroom, not a meager three years. This will show that they have not only survived the gauntlet, but thrived in the classroom. Administration must be the most creative and imaginative teachers available, able to problem-solve and understand holistic learning.

Educator training, research and evaluation must look for character traits and values that foster the moral imagination. Entry into education programs must become more selective and require internships to reveal character. Teachers who simply hand out information, worksheets and quizzes must be retrained and led toward educating students to be creative and imaginative. Classes must have small size limits so educators can be mentors alongside others in the community.

Most of all, power in public schools needs to shift so that the vacuum of responsibility rests more fully on parents. Moms and dads are responsible. But if the family is in shambles, can public school intervene and be the surrogate? Not really. Like it or not, family is what defines a child’s character. Community has some effect, but when parents have the moral judgment to fully invest in their child’s experiences in life, then character is a byproduct whether educators can measure it or not.  Schools need to stop trying to fill the void with programs. Families, not public school, are the hope for society.

Wade Sutton teaches 7-12 grade English at Indus School in Birchdale, Minn. He was a member of the VIVA Minnesota Teachers Writing Collaborative that produced the report 360 Degree Leadership: Evaluating Minnesota Principals.

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Comments (10)

    • Wade Sutton

      Thank you, Charlene. Educators and families need a lot more liberty to encourage the imagination. We both know many who value these elements. They are the educators to model.

  1. Susan VanMeakins

    Great food for thought. I agree with you and would only change the sentence “family is what defines a child’s character” by adding the clarifier, “most of the time.” As empathetic, public school teachers, we cannot discount the thousands of children whose families truly are “in shambles” and the thousands more whose primary caregivers are stretched to their limits by the everyday struggle to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. For these children, the schools can, and should, play a positive role in character development.

    • Wade Sutton

      School can and does play a role. Unfortunately, character has positive and negative aspects, this is what I meant but did not clarify. I am continually impressed with my students who show the resilience to overcome their circumstances. I don’t know how or why they do it, but some do. In situations where family is disfunctional or less supportive or has different values, character is still formed by the home.

  2. narecchia

    Yes, the home is the first place where children learn moral values modeled by the adults in their lives.
    As an art teacher, I also like Mike’s emphasis on imagintion and creativity – two attributes that have been undermined in this climate of high stakes test taking. Again, we are going overboard with assessments (REACH Tests) because it needs to be “justified” through more data. Rather, Artmaking is a process that needs to be nurtured in the child regardless of the outcome, or its “exhibit-worthiness”.

    • Wade Sutton

      We rely on data because the policy-makers are often data people, quantitative personalities. Testing compares students to an external, subjective standard. This is done under the guise of trying to be “objective” while actually acting to the contrary. Doing well on rests takes conformity, while creativity is by nature nonconformist. The educated mind is a contrary creature.

      In today’s public schools at times I feel nervous teaching Emerson’s “Self-reliance” because if a student accepts and pursues the ability to think, they will question the tests and do poorly. But we should rather produce the poets and artists that Plato said undermine social stability.

  3. Brian Davis

    You nailed it with the foundation of family and the focus on helping people be good people rather than good test-takers.

    • Wade Sutton

      I agree with your interpretation of what I wrote. Schools are just one of many pillars that hold up a child to meet that internal standard and fan the spark.

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