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Jewish World Review April 3, 2001 / 10 Nissan, 5761

Jessica Wehrman

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Consumer Reports

Character education catches on -- ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- A bright mural at Cameron Elementary School here emphasizes the joys of caring, respect and responsibility - each word printed in big bold letters atop a painting of a pillar.

Students walking the halls sport red T-shirts reading "Character Counts at Cameron." Teachers reward students who show honesty, perseverance or fairness with praise or little plastic dog tags with the character traits printed on them.

The school joined the national character education program Character Counts! three years ago. It has seen the results in visitors who compliment the students' good behavior.

"Because we talk about it every day, it does make a difference," said principal George Towery."

Cameron is one of thousands of schools teaching ethical behavior and the issue is very trendy.

This year's Miss America, Angela Perez Baraquio, has named it her theme issue and travels the country talking about the importance of teaching ethical behavior.

President Bush says he will triple funding for it to $25 million annually.

"I think there is no value-free education," said Education Secretary Rod Paige in an interview with Scripps Howard News Service earlier this month. "You are learning values when you're learning."

Paige said universally accepted values - cooperation, tolerance, kindness - should be a part of all education, even something as straightforward as a math lesson. Values, Paige said, should be integrated throughout the curriculum.

Nancy Van Gulick, director of Character Counts! in Northern Virginia, said teaching students about values has made class easier for students.

"I think when you talk to children and ask them what's on their mind, what bothers them about school or other kids, almost the same answers come up all the time," Van Gulick said. "Cheating, disrespecting one another, bullying that goes on, and lying and stealing."

Teachers also have reaped the benefits of character education, she said.

"We're losing a lot of good teachers because discipline is overcoming teaching of the curriculum," she said. "Behavior has gotten out of hand."

Character education varies widely - some schools have public announcements daily reminding students of what constitutes good character, others hang posters.

Van Gulick said for it to work, it has to be constant.

When Rudy Bernardo took a job as principal of Allen Elementary School in Dayton, Ohio, in 1989, the school was the district's worst in academic achievement and the highest in suspensions.

Bernardo crafted a plan to teach character education, helping teachers identify strategies that would create an environment more conducive to learning. By 1992, the school was fifth in academics in the district. By 1995, Allen Elementary School was number one.

From routine niceties - kids are encouraged to say "thank you," and "yes, ma'am" or "no, sir," - to encouraging teachers not to consider chaos and mediocrity as routine, character education revolutionized the school, he said.

Thirty-six states have received grants from the federal government for character education. Bernardo wants the other 14, as well as the territories, to get money as well.

"Character education is not book learning," said Bernardo, who retired last July after 38 years in education. "It is more of the modeling, more of the creating a culture and climate in the building."

Character education is not without its skeptics.

Alfie Kohn, author of "The Schools our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and Tougher Standards" and other books on education, said too often character education is manifested in simple moralistic stories, and "posters that conk kids over the head with nice little mottoes."

"The idea of using schools to help kids become decent human beings is terrific," he said. "Unfortunately, most of what passes for character education in this country relies on manipulative techniques in order to coerce kids into doing what they're told."

In truth, he said, kids have to play an active role in figuring out for themselves why honesty makes sense.

"Most character education programs seem to view children as empty vessels into which virtues can be dumped," he said. "That's not only disrespectful to children, but out of step with the best theory and research about learning."

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