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More US Schools Are Teaching Ethics in the Classroom - 2004-05-10

An educational movement is gaining momentum in schools around the United States. Character education -- or teaching ethics -- is reaching millions of young students -- many as young as five-years-old. One popular program, called 'Character Counts,' emphasizes so-called ethical pillars including trustworthiness, respect, and citizenship. V-O-A's Brent Hurd visited one of the first schools in Maryland to introduce character education and spoke with teachers, students and the founder of 'Character Counts' to learn more about new ways of promoting character in today's youth.

In many schools across America one subject is gaining more attention: character building. Diane Young, a teacher at Gaithersburg Middle School in the state of Maryland, addresses her 7th graders on the important of character.

“We are looking at the pillar of 'respect' this week. If you look at our board, our essential question is: What is respect and how might we live more respectfully?” Twelve-year-old Keith offers his thoughts on respect. “If you give respect, you will receive respect.” Mrs. Young says “All right, if you give respect, you will receive respect. We certainly hope so.”

Her presentation is filled with advice from ancient philosophers and modern American scholars. She reads to the class the following quote: "It isn't necessary to blow out another person's light to let your own shine."

“We want to applaud and support the achievements of others,” says Ms. Young. “We don't want to detract from them. There is room for all of us to be successful. And as individuals of character, we want to support and applaud each other's achievements.”

Diane Young is teaching about values with the 'Character Counts' program -- a framework of character education that is designed to inspire young people to become responsible citizens. This program teaches six pillars of character including respect, trustworthiness, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. She says character is often slighted in favor of achievement in popular culture -- for example, admiration of the million-dollar athlete or high-powered executive. “We have increasing numbers of youngsters who are coming from families where character, values, virtue are not being taught to these youngsters,” she says. “I believe that it is important for us as educators to not only teach them to be smart, but to teach them to be good.”

Diane Young believes the power of fashion, movies and television through the mass media present a real challenge to character education. “Young people have very impressionable minds,” she says. “When they hear profanity and they see vulgarity as it is portrayed in the media, many of our youngsters believe this kind of behavior is condoned. They believe it is all right. The violence they see, they believe this is the way life is.”

Tom Selleck, an internationally known actor and spokesman for 'Character Counts,' adds that many US films exported to the rest of the world are weak on character. “In my business, the movie business, not all of what we export, but a lot of what we export is the worst in us.”

Many American educators have become increasingly concerned about what they consider a lack of values in young people. The concept of teaching ethics is not new, but has received greater emphasis in the last decade. Michael Josephson founded the 'Character Counts' program in the early 1990s. “There is a new impetus now, clearly with the kind of corporate scandals we are seeing in the United States. We are also seeing these kinds of situations in church, and we are seeing scandals in sports. There are plenty of people that realize there is a hole in our moral ozone. We are as concerned with moral literacy as much as reading literacy. The need is greater than ever.”

Mr. Josephson says there is more to character education than just teaching children right from wrong. He believes adults have an important responsibility to serve as role models. “Our real problem isn't that we have bad kids. We have an adult population that has been inattentive to kids and this sends a very negative message. They have been bad role models. The moment we become attentive to the best of us, the moment we realize we need to act the way we want our kids to act, everything begins to change.”

David Markoe is a former assistant superintendent of more than 35,000 students in 50 schools in Frederick County, Maryland. “Kids really learn by example, and if they see their teachers and the people in their community really value the six pillars of character, I think that reinforces the fact that this is a good thing.” In the early 1990s, Mr. Markoe and other school leaders researched a number of character education programs to make schools more humane and children better citizens. Character Counts appeals to Mr. Markoe because it provides a framework that infuses ethics throughout the entire curriculum. “For example, in English Literature, when you study Shakespeare, teachers ask about what kind of ethical behavior did this character have? Character education can easily be included in Social Studies and History when you look at and analyze the kind of individuals who were making history. And even now what is going on in the world -- Is this really the kind of ethics that people ought to have?”

Back at Gaithersburg Middle School, 12-year-old Julie says the 'Character Counts' pillar of caring is important to her life…beyond the classroom. “It teaches me to be a nice person and care about everybody and treat others the way they want to be treated. In some movies I don't see caring, I see violence -- very inappropriate violence. And whenever I see that, it shows me that if your are a person like that, then you are not caring and you will go down the wrong path.”

These words are music to the ears of Diane Young. But she says the forces of popular culture are hard to combat. “It is a constant battle. But I am a doer. I am going to lament for five minutes, and then I am going to get up and do something about the problem. We can have a good shot at impressing upon these youngsters what life is really about. It is about service. It is about being good. It is about helping others. Its about giving back.”

More than five million students in the United States have learned about 'Character Counts,' one of many character education programs. Survey results are favorable. In a Maryland school district, the number of discipline cases is down, while attendance is up. In a South Dakota school district, theft, vandalism and drug use were cut by at least a third over a three-year period. Although character education may not be responsible for all of these changes, many observers say it is a good start to building better citizens in US schools.