19 May 2010

Doing Character Education Right

One of the things that Steele Elementary School does very well is character education, i.e. teaching kids to be positive moral actors. The program is relatively simple, doesn't cost much, and it works. Steele Elementary is a neighborhood school in the Denver Public School District, that students choice into from all over the City at a higher rate than all but a few other schools in the District. It is the school that my children attend.

The Program

The heart of the program is The Steele Code (whose author appears at the annual Steel Stallion awards ceremony at the school yesterday):

At Steele we do the right thing.
We respect ourselves, each other, our school and our community.
We treat everyone with kindness, compassion and a forgiving spirit.
We have the courage to take risks and learn from our mistakes.
We are responsible for our actions, our words and our learning.
We tell the truth even when it is difficult.
We do the right thing even when no one is watching.

Children recite the Code daily. Teachers talk about it with their students during class time. It is part of the conversation in discipline incidents with children.

Each year, a "Steele Stallion" in each grade, who exemplifies the kind of conduct that the Code calls for is recognized in an all school assembly, and this year "Lifetime Achievement" awards for a child's entire time in elementary school were added.

Winners of the Steele Stallion award are genuinely cheered by their peers who overwhelmingly see this recognition as positive (ah, the lack of cynicism found in elementary school!) and as a big deal. The winner gets a certificate, a name on a display in the school that is shown prominently in the entry area, and a plastic horse, a toy that exemplifies the "Stallion" part of the award.

While the program takes a few minutes of scarce school time each day, and more time for occasional in depth discussions between students and teachers, and amongst the staff (for whom the award process provides an annual opportunity to consider the school's moral compact and to recommit to it), and time for all in an annual assembly. But, the money for those people's time is already spent and it is just a matter of how that time will be allocated, which schools constantly make.

One of the responsibilities of adult employees in schools is to maintain discipline in the school, and there is very little higher level guidance on how resources should be allocated in detail to achieve this end. Using resources provided for this purposes to conduct character education designed to proactively reduce misbehavior by building a healthy sense of community in the school, rather than dealing with misconduct after the fact, is certainly a legitimate use of these scarce employee time resources and is probably, in fact, a very thrifty way to use those resources. Prevention is cheaper and involves less harm overall than cure does.

In terms of dollars sent it is very inexpensive. The awards, certificates, the cookies and drinks for the reception after the assembly, and the school supply resources that each class puts into the program cost something on the order of 60 cents per child per year, about 0.01% of the per child state funding that the school receives. Since the program is home grown, there are no national manuals or the like that much be consulted, or conferences that must be attended. It is possible, that PTA helps fund the program or helped fund the process of getting it set up; I don't know the details. It is certainly the kind of program that any school with enough leadership and interest from the adults involves would establish and maintain with the kind of funds and time resources available to a typical PTA if necessary.

Ecumenical Values

The program does this in a way that is not divisive. The Code is inclusive of people who are members of any of the many Christian denominations represented at the school, and also of non-Christians including secular families, like mine. Our school has children with "two mommies" who aren't excluded either by this child centered statement that articulates values in a way that reflects their reality. The values of the Code are mainstream consensus values expressed in language that elementary school children can understand and apply to their own lives.

It rightly makes a point of insisting on civility and looking at the moral issues that kids face in the social context within which they arise. It is not a creed. It is a social compact of the community that everyone in the community shares, not an order from on high to behave lest you be smited by a higher authority.

The Steele Code Works.

Character education at Steele, and specifically, the Steel Code character education program, works. The level of civility at the school is high. Kids are more often framing their choices in terms of doing the right thing and treating others well. There is a remarkable level to which the kids at the school do see each other as members of a community and look out for each other in innumerable little acts of kindness and compassion and honesty. Yes, all young children get wild, hurt each other's feelings and behave inappropriately at times. But, the program really has been effective at getting elementary school children to commit to and internalize a commitment to doing to the right thing. Kids at Steele are overwhelmingly making conscious decisions to act somewhat differently in order to join "the light side of the Force."

The Steele Code has an impact on the teachers and administrators as well. It provides them with a vehicle to talk about good character and appropriate behavior with children, and gives them the moral authority to take a strong stand in favor of a particular set of consensus values. It puts conscious thinking about good conduct into the curriculum in a manageable way.

Moral Messages As Policy Tools In A First Amendment World

Propaganda (i.e. simply telling people what the right thing to do is without any sanction regime for not doing so) can be tremendously effective, a fact widely understood in education systems like those of Japan where large scale PR/persuasion campaigns are a much more heavily used policy tool. This approach is little used in the United States because developing a public consensus on our shared values is often difficult, and because most policy makers and managers in the United States underestimate the extent to which people want to do the right thing and will do the right thing if their attention is called to the issue.

Colorado, in general, and Denver in particular, is at the cutting edge of understanding the power is simply clearly articulating a statement about what people "should do" without a full fledged legal and enforcement network. Denver Water has tremendously reduced water consumption on a sustained basis usually most PR and an appeal to personal morality, rather than big incentives or tough punitive regimes. The City of Denver has developed high participation in recycling and composting programs without mandates in the same way. Xcel Energy has also been quite effective at promoting and funding conservation and alternative energy sources on a voluntary basis and with PR and carrots rather than sticks. State drug policymakers have successfully focused on tools like powerful anti-meth ads, while actually reducing the role played by criminal justice tools for meth users to reduce meth use by kids. A recent campaign to reduce shaken baby syndrome is similar, and has also been effective.

A lot of the adults in the education system, teachers, administrators and parents alike, grew up in an era where the focus was on "acting in a Christian way" and they simply were at a loss for how character could be encouraged in any organized or consistent way in the absence of a religious creed. Even ecumenical groups with a strong commitment to building good character in diverse people, like the Boy Scouts and Free Masons, designed their organizations to exclude atheists on the assumption that morality wasn't possible without some shared religious faith. There is a widespread myth that the 1st Amendment establishment clause condemns public schools to nihilism and inaction in the area of helping children develop good character in an organized way. But, this isn't the case.

The fact that it is possible to do good character education in a public school environment without raising First Amendment concerns or relying heavily on a power to discipline students through the means of kicking them out of the school, itself has important policy implications. One of the significant arguments that has been advanced for private, and in particular, religiously affiliated private education, is that it is not possible (or is prohibitively difficult) to effectively promote good character in public schools. Steele's successful character education program undermines that argument for the superiority of voucher programs allowing students to attend private schools over other options (although it doesn't address many other issues involved in the virtues and problems involved in providing parents with school choice options of some kind, be they between ordinary public schools, special programs within schools, charter schools, secular voucher schools and religious voucher schools).

The Steele Code isn't neutral. But, I have yet to see anyone with a sincere objection to the values it is promoting. Respect, civility and honesty are appropriate values about how people should participate in the social process even when dealing with people whom you disagree with a matters of great importance. While it mandates particular conduct, it is not a "creed" and it does not purport the moral or religious issues that are most often subjects of disagreement. It espouses a style of interacting with others that grants a person acting in that way dignity, even what that person takes controversial positions on other issues.


Our politicians could learn a few lessons from the Steele Code and win a lot of bipartisan and public support by doing so. Much of what is wrong with our process its the absence of the kind of soft process values that the Steel Code calls each of us to practice.

Programs like Steele's "Steele Code" and Steele Stallion" program show that character education can be done on an inclusive basis, that it doesn't have to be costly, and that it works.

The Late Colorado Chief Justice Steele, after whom Steele Elementary School was named (a Class of 1877 graduate of East High School's predecessor school, by the away), was known for his commitment to moral conduct and fair play. He would have been proud that the school named in his honor used it to such great effect in such an inclusive way.


Michael Malak said...

There are some very traditional (conservative some would say) concepts contained in this Code.

The repeated references to "the right thing" implies the existence of an absolute morality.

The call for "respect" implies a default mode of protecting and preserving what has come before, as opposed to the philosophy of Modernism that calls for deconstructing and questioning everything that has come before. E.g. "respect the school" means not questioning the school. I'm not saying that's good or bad, but just pointing out that it is conservative.

The part that could be considered most liberal, "treat everyone with kindness, compassion, and a forgiving spirit" is almost lifted from the New Testament, and thus also conservative.

While this might Code might gain consensus (near 100% consensus being a requirement for public school curriculum approval) among Gen X parents, I don't see it surviving Gen Y parents, who themselves are the children of boomers.

Incidentally, the lessons contained within this Code are taught as a matter of course in a Montessori school: "Care of environment", "care of self", and "care of others". All of Montessori is geared toward teaching children "intrinsic motivation" so that their actions come from within rather than being driven extrinsically such as from punishments or rewards.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Doing the "right thing" really has the effect of moving "outside the Code" the determination of what is right and wrong. It would certainly be possible for two children to have conflicting views of what the "right thing" is, but the focus of the Code is on a commitment to trying to be moral, rather than to the content of that morality.

"Respect" as used in this Code is a matter of interpersonal style and attitude rather than in an authority based avoidance of change sense. It is synonomous with "consider the feelings of" in the sense in which it is used.

There is nothing inherently conservative about this part of the New Testament (indeed it is often described as radically liberal), and the focus on kindness, compassion and forgiveness is not restricted to the Christian tradition (or universal within it). Liberals Christians have long embraced these values. The fact that someone said something a couple thousand years ago does not itself make the idea conservative. If that were true, almost everything anyone said would be conservative.

The combination of "respect" and "kindness, compassion and a forgiving spirit" does come at odds with a notion of righteous hate and intolerance in support of what is right, that does have a following. But, this is more a matter of attitude and style, than it is a mandate of true acceptance of others beliefs.

A near 100% consensus is absolutely not a requirement for public school curriculum approval. The requirement for public school curriculum approval is that it not espouse religious beliefs (and it is fair to say that these are purely secular standards of conduct) and that it not require a child to abridge a sincerely held religious belief, which I have seen no indication that it does in practice, despite considerable religious diversity in the school. Considerable disagreement not rooted in sincerely held religious beliefs that are violated by the program can exist without preventing a public school from adopting it. Public schools are not required to be morally neutral, they are merely required to be neutral as to religion and formal political parties.