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Character Education: Who Does the Homework?

This week, high school teachers across the NYC Department of Education computed marking period grades. For me, this meant "failing" more kids than I'd like (not uncommon in the 2nd marking period.) This will inevitably result in some of these kids being furious at me when they receive their grades, despite having been given ample opportunities to make up missed work or come ask questions during study hall. One of the problems I've noticed with some of our struggling students is a total lack of consideration about how their actions today will adversely affect the goals of tomorrow; the same kids who pleaded loudest with me at the beginning of the term that they had to pass English this time, and get this credit, are notably the ones who shirk their assignments, behave disruptively in class, or (depending on the time of day) cut completely.

Now, an increasing number of (mostly) charter schools have an answer to this question, in the form of "character education"--teaching everything from manners to citizenship to self-control in the classroom. One school in DC, profiled in the Washington Post education section a couple of weeks ago, insists that kids follow strict behavior rules, including walking silently to class and not moving around in their seats. Failure to follow these rules results in social ostracism, in the form of being forbidden to talk to anyone and being made to wear a mesh pinny over one's clothes. The theory is that, by teaching self-control during childhood, schools can help their students avoid serious problems such as jail-time later in life.

In a sense, I do think many of my high school students' problems do stem from lack of control. The types of minor but consistent disruptions that some kids cause during class due to a complete inability to sit still or wait their turn to talk, or their chronic skipping of assignments (only to clamor to re-receive them at the end of term, at which point they complete only some of them as make-up work), are all technically problems with self-discipline. Much like the little kids in the 1960s Marshmallow Study at Stanford University who could not wait the few minutes to receive the extra marshmallow, many of my students are unable to wait the extra 40 minutes it takes to receive the lesson in full, even knowing the material will be on a quiz. They are similarly unable to take the time on a beautiful day to complete their school-work, even knowing how important it is to pass the class.

But can schools teach self-control? Can economic and environmental factors outside the classroom be overcome with instruction, and moreover, is it a school's job to teach these types of social behaviors? A group of girls in my Honors class has a particular way of explaining a gamut of negative behaviors on the part of their peers, including rudeness, cursing loudly, being disruptive in class, fighting in the halls, showing a lack of concern for school-work, etc. When one of their classmates does something particularly egregious, they'll look from the offender to each other, sigh, and announce, "No home training!" To me, the kids' assertion that this is a "home" problem raises an interesting question about the limits of a school's intervention in a child's social upbringing. My students, and potentially a lot of other people (judging from some of the comments on the article about the DC charter school), definitely believe that character building belongs not at school but at home.

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