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What About Character Education?

As if public school teachers don't already have their hands full trying to teach academic content, they are now being asked to teach moral values ("Students' Broken Moral Compasses," The Atlantic, Jul. 25).  I'm not talking about religion.  Instead, I mean ethics, or what some refer to as character. 

Although religion and ethics often overlap, they are not interchangeable.  What makes a public school teacher's job so daunting is distinguishing between the two.  Private and parochial school teachers are exempt. In fact, they often are expected to include religion in their lessons.  Public school teachers, on the other hand, have to walk on eggs when they attempt to develop character, out of fear that they will be accused of proselytizing.

I used to think that teachers would never find themselves in hot water if they confined their instruction to such things as individual responsibility, systemic injustice etc.  Who could possibly object to these seemingly universal ideas?  I was wrong.  So much depends on the school districts that employ teachers.  Large urban districts tend to provide more leeway to teachers than small rural districts. 

Consider the case of Deborah Mayer, whose contract with a small Indiana school district was not renewed after she told her class on the eve of the Iraq War that "I honk for peace."  The U.S. Supreme Court, without comment, denied her a hearing, allowing a lower court's decision to remain.  It held that a teacher's speech is "the commodity she sells to an employer in exchange for her salary."  So merely expressing support for peace, which I thought was commendable, was enough for her to lose her job.

I've always believed that the No. 1 reason public schools exist is to teach subject matter.  Religion should be taught in the home or in houses of worship.  But I think it's impossible to completely avoid ethics and still produce graduates who are able to take their place in society.  Unfortunately, teachers have less and less autonomy in making decisions affecting their students.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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