For years schools have struggled with finding the right balance between teaching students the information they need to graduate and become productive members of society, and teaching them how to be good people once they are out there in the world. Every day, schools have to struggle with one important question:
Which is more important: character or education?
The current focus of most public schools and large school districts is to cram as much knowledge into their students as possible. Academic achievement is the name of the game, and you can’t really blame public school teachers and administrators for this. They are judged against state-mandated and state-standardized tests so that their students’ performance reflects back on the teachers. While few teachers are fired for underperforming students, too many low scores or low scores over an extended period of time can lead to disciplinary action and extra, mandatory professional development sessions. Because of this, many educators teach to the test and try to fit in other lessons where they can.
Unfortunately, being successful on an exam does not make a student an educated human being. It’s not enough for students to make it through 12 years of schooling to emerge with a diploma, a pat on the back, and a hearty “job well done” from their parents. Those 12 years and the subjects they learned are only a part of a student’s educational journey, and more and more schools (especially private schools) are waking up to this.
A greater emphasis needs to be placed on character education, or education that nurtures and promotes a student’s ethical, social, and emotional development as well as their intellectual growth. Character education is the part of the learning process that helps students become moral, caring, responsible individuals. It combines academic knowledge with the values and skills young people need to be successful later in life, so that the attitudes and behaviors they exhibit later on make them they type of people employers want to hire and neighbors want to befriend.
Character education is especially important in today’s America, where people are more divided than ever. Young people need to build the good character that in turn leads to the building of good societies and, so character education is essential in a world where our youth are hurting themselves and others more than ever before.
Smaller, private schools (like The Branch School (TBS)) are able to place an emphasis on character education because they are not beholden to rigorous standardized tests. The teachers at institutions like TBS get to know their students on a much more personal level, in part because they are simply around them more. They can model good behaviors and show students how to peacefully resolve conflicts, for example, in a consistent way over the course of years. TBS’s middle school teachers have been together for years, for example, and truly get to know their charges.
It’s one thing to teach students how to be good people. It’s another to show these students how they fit into a larger community, and that’s where citizenship education comes in. Learning what it means to be a citizen is as important as any core curriculum, because it helps students gain perspective as they reflect on their own beliefs and how those beliefs fit into the world around them. Citizenship education is what happens when you take character education one step further, and help young people look beyond their immediate environment so they engage with the communities in which they live.
The world opens up to students as they move forward in their academic careers, revealing just how complicated society can be. Racism, xenophobia, sexism, religion, and crime are a few issues that students will deal with, both at school and in their larger communities. Students will become more aware of the poverty, drug abuse, and apathy towards education that exists in the world as they age, even while they’re being raised in nurturing environments. Students who understand what it means to be a good citizen will be more tolerant, understanding, and sympathetic to the individual needs of other people, and hopefully realize that they have rights and responsibilities as citizens in their communities.
Bringing It Together
Simply put, schools should prioritize building their students’ character over building their ability to take an exam. This doesn’t mean schools should take over parenting duties, but it does mean that teachers and administrators need to ensure that character-building is baked into the curriculum. It means that emphasizing courage, integrity, kindness, and respect should be just as important as emphasizing language arts, social studies, science, and mathematics. Luckily, emphasizing the former can have a direct impact on the latter, as evidenced by academic results at Wellington College, a school for 13-18 year olds in England. Five years after integrating character education into everyday lessons, 93% of students were achieving As and Bs, up from 65% before this integration.
Luckily for students at The Branch School, this synergy between character and academics has always been in place. The school’s mission is to “inspire students to love, learn, and lead,” and the order of those words is no accident. At The Branch School, parents and children can find the right mix of strong academics and strong character instruction so that the students grow into the young people of whom we can all be proud.
This blog was written by a Branch School parent.