Chapter 11—Tom Lickona, WHY CHARACTER MATTERS (Feb. ’04)


Become a School of Character


The school itself must embody good character.  It must progress toward becoming a microcosm of the civil, caring, and just society it seeks to create.

                                    —“Eleven Principles of Effective Character Education”[1]


Over time the de facto mission of our school has evolved into helping our students get into Stanford.  I’d like us to be asking, “Are we developing a better person, a fuller person, a healthier person in every sense?” 

                                                            —A California high school principal


Character education is about becoming a school of character, a place that puts character first.

How does a school become such a place?  How does it become a community of virtue, where qualities such as best effort, good judgment, a positive attitude, a sense of justice, respect, integrity, and kindness are modeled, upheld, studied, celebrated, and practiced in every part of the school’s life—the example of adults, the relationships among peers, the handling of discipline, the content of the curriculum, the school environment, the conduct of sports and other extracurricular activities, and the treatment and involvement of parents?

How does a school develop this character-centered sense of its mission?    How can it help students develop, in one principal’s words, “the sense that they are moral agents—able to create a better character for themselves and a better world for us all”?

It’s not hard to tell when a school is failing to be a school of character.  In the halls there’s often rowdy, coarse, and disrespectful behavior— bad language, peer harassment, and, especially at the middle and high school levels, sexual talk and behavior.  Many students are late for class, and many don’t demonstrate a strong work ethic in class—or, if they are working hard, are not above cheating if that’s what it takes to get good grades.  Faculty morale is low.   One of the reasons it’s low is that teachers have lost confidence in their moral authority and have given up correcting behaviors that didn’t used to be tolerated in school.  Said a mother in a middle-class community to her high school son, whose language at home had taken a turn for the worse: “Swearing is a habit—what if you slip in class?”  “It doesn’t matter,” he said, “only two of my teachers don’t allow swearing in class.” 

Many schools, however, have been able to create an environment of character, marked by high expectations for both academic performance and student conduct, and every school would like to attain that ideal.   “Give me a blueprint,” one high school principal said.  In actuality, there’s not a single blueprint for becoming a school of character.   Study 20 different schools—elementary, middle, and high schools that have achieved National Schools of Character recognition, for example—and you’ll find 20

different stories, each reflecting the creative ideas of the people who shaped the character effort.  But beneath the great diversity of character education success stories we can identify some common strategies that can guide any school.  Taken together, they provide a game plan for starting, sustaining, assessing, and continually improving a systematic effort to educate for character.

These strategies for becoming a school of character can be summed up in three words: staff, students, and parents.  Those are the three groups whose involvement is crucial to the success of a school’s character education initiative.   Strategies for involving parents were described earlier in Chapter 3, and strategies for involving students in a character education effort will be described in Chapter 12.  Strategies for involving the whole community in order to extend character development beyond the school are the focus of  Chapter 13.  This chapter focuses on where character education typically begins, with the school staff.  And that means all the staff, not just faculty and administrators, because everyone—including secretaries, coaches, custodians, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers—affects the character of the school and therefore the character development of students.  



            The first step in becoming a school of character is to develop a mission statement that articulates high ideals of moral and intellectual character.  Effective schools, like other effective organizations, have a clear sense of mission that imparts a strong sense of purpose to people’s work.       

Below, for example, is the mission statement (abridged) of  New Hampton School, a private New Hampshire high school whose shift a decade ago to a focus on character took it from the brink of closing to winning a National School of Character award in 2002.  Note its mission statement’s emphasis on developing the whole person and on taking responsibility for self and others:


            We enhance the emerging potential of our young people as successful students, caring persons, and responsible community members.  To develop the whole person within the whole community, we:

·         Provide a healthy learning environment in which all community members treat one another with dignity and respect.

·         Embrace scholarship, the arts, athletics, and community service as equally important mediums of learning.

·         Expect community members to accept responsibility for their personal growth and the positive growth of others.


            Here is the mission statement of The Classical Academy, a K-12 charter school, the largest in Colorado; note its implied emphasis on the primacy of parents in a student’s moral and intellectual growth:


            The Classical Academy exists to assist parents in their mission to develop exemplary young citizens equipped with analytical thinking skills, a passion for learning, and a virtuous character, all built on a solid foundation of knowledge.


            And here is the mission statement of The Summit Country Day School, a pre-K-12 Catholic school in Cincinnati; note its emphasis on the primacy of spiritual development and service:


            The mission of The Summit Country Day School is to challenge every student, faculty, and staff member to share fully the gifts that have been given to them by God; to grow in grace and wisdom; to develop spiritually, academically, physically, socially, and artistically; and to become people of character who value and improve the world they inherit.


The challenge, of course, is to find ways to make a school’s mission statement a living document—alive in the hearts and minds of staff and students, so that it truly motivates and guides the behavior of school members.  One K-8 school in Maryland takes its mission statement so seriously that it’s printed on a laminated card that all staff carry with them at all times.  If a parent or visitor asks about the school’s mission, any staff member can answer.



            One way to keep a character-centered mission in everyone’s consciousness is to create a school motto that concisely captures that mission—and then weave that motto into the fabric of school culture.  Here are three such mottos:


Good character is what you feel in your heart, think in your head, and do with your hands.  (elementary school)


Treat others as you wish to be treated.  (middle school)


Today your best, tomorrow better.  (high school)

Purpose, Pride, and Performance. (high school)


            The last of these is the motto of Phoenix, Arizona’s Mountain Pointe High School, winner of a 1998 National School of Character award.  Their three Ps—Purpose, Pride, and Performance— figure prominently in all the school’s communications, including its newsletter, student and faculty handbooks, and lists of expectations for teachers and students.  Each year, Principal Harold Slemmer gives his “Triple P” speech to 8th-graders (and their parents) who will be attending Mountain Pointe the following fall.   Classroom teachers use the language of purpose, pride, and performance with their students.   Students are asked to keep track of how they use their time in the course of a day (how much time do they spend watching TV, for example?) and to assess their use of time from the perspective of the school’s motto.  




The first task of leadership, as character educator Kevin Ryan points out, is to infuse the spirit of the mission statement into the life of the organization.  Find a school of  character, and you’ll find a principal who has infused the mission of developing character into the life of that school.

As one example of such a leader, Ryan describes Washington Jarvis, author of Love and Prayers: A Headmaster Speaks to the Next Generation and head for the past 28 years of Roxbury Latin, widely recognized as the most outstanding secondary school in the Boston area.  In the middle of the first day of school at Roxbury Latin, the PA system calls all new students to the auditorium.  When all are seated, Jarvis walks to center stage, looks down at the assembled students, and says in a clear, serious voice:


            Welcome to Roxbury Latin.  We have all been anxiously awaiting your arrival.   I have called you here to tell you the single most important thing about your new school.  (Pause.)  We, here, care more about your character, about the kind of person you are becoming, than anything else.


            He then pauses and leaves the stage.  His message is underscored and amplified in the months that follow by every adult in the building, from teachers to coaches, from administrators to custodians.[2]

            It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the head or principal in shaping the culture of a school.  Regardless of where an educational reform initiative originates—from a state mandate, a superintendent’s directive, or an impetus within the school—the building principal is the single most important person affecting whether that initiative succeeds.  One simple reason for this: The priorities of the principal become the priorities of the staff. 

During the eight years our Center for the 4th and 5th Rs (Respect and Responsibility) has conducted Summer Institutes in Character Education, we've found that when the principal, or the principal's clearly designated representative, attends at least part of the Institute as a member of the school's team, there's a much better chance that character education will subsequently be implemented in that school.  The principal’s participation in learning about character education, presence on the school’s character education leadership committee, practice of setting aside time at faculty meetings for ongoing discussion of character development, regular communication with parents about the school’s character-building efforts, and expectation that all staff  contribute in some way to the school’s character education work—all these send a message about how important character education is to the person who leads the school.  

This doesn’t mean the principal has to be the hands-on leader of character education implementation.  We worked with an elementary school north of Boston where the principal, nearing retirement, appointed his media center director to head up the character education committee.   To get training, she took a summer course at Harvard on social and moral development.  She wrote and secured a small grant to provide a series of workshops to train the rest of the staff.  When new faculty joined the school, she was responsible for orienting them to the program and demonstrating class meetings to help them master that important character education skill.  She ordered the professional books on character development and set up a resource center for parents.  But though she was the in-the-trenches champion of the character education effort, everyone knew that this initiative was one of the principal’s top priorities—something he also signaled by attending all the staff development workshops and by asking teachers to include in their weekly lesson plans how they were teaching character.        

What if character education isn’t one of the principal’s top priorities?   Then other school personnel who do see the need for a character program have the task of persuading the principal that his or her priorities—whether improving academic performance, reducing discipline problems, or increasing parent involvement—can be achieved more easily when a school commits seriously to becoming a school of character.  Examples of schools that have achieved better learning and better behavior with the help of character education are a good way to make this case.  Another argument in the case for character education is that most states now have some sort of a mandate—either legislation or a State Education Department directive—requiring schools to do character education.  If staff can’t get active leadership or strong support from their principal, they should at least seek the principal’s permission to present the idea of character education for consideration by the full staff.



            Besides support from the principal, becoming a school of character needs a central leadership group that plans and oversees implementation.  Our experience in working with schools over the past decade leads us to make four recommendations regarding the character education leadership of a school:

* Consider whether it will be more effective to create a new committee to head up a character education effort or to make use of the school’s already established infrastructure.   An example of the latter: In Calvert County, Maryland, then assistant superintendent Dr. John O’Connell asked the existing School Improvement Committee in each of his county’s 20 schools to form a Character Education Subcommittee responsible for leading the character initiative in its building. 

* In addition to a central leadership group or steering committee, establish early on several smaller committees or subcommittees, each with a different task.  This divides the labor (there’s too much for one group to do) and gets more people involved (the broader the participation, the broader the ownership).   For example, one elementary school in Babylon, New York, found it effective to have three character education committees: Program Development, Public Relations/Parent Involvement, and Assessment.  Wasatch High School in Heber City, Utah, began with a central steering committee of administrators, teachers, parents, and community business leaders but moved quickly to maximize staff and student involvement by forming eight different committees, including Curricular Infusion, Building Enhancement (character signs and posters), Student Recognition, Community Service, and Extracurricular Activities.

* Extend an open invitation to all interested staff to join one of the character education committees but also reach out to recruit influential individuals, including persons who might be skeptical about or even opposed to the character effort.  Approach potential nay-sayers honestly and directly: “We’d really appreciate your help in thinking of practical ways to make the school a better place for everyone—and in anticipating problems we might encounter.”

* Make sure all groups that make up the school community—administrators, teachers, professional support staff (e.g., counselors, psychologists, librarians, and coaches), other support staff (e.g., secretaries, custodians, cafeteria and playground aides), students, and parents—are represented on one or another of the committees.



            Before approaching the total staff regarding character education, the steering committee should be knowledgeable about the subject.   There are now dozens of helpful character education web sites (students can help to research these; see Appendix A for a short list).  A good place to start is the Character Education Partnership’s website (, which, among many resources, includes the foundational document, Eleven Principles of Effective Character Education.   Our Center’s web site ( offers an overview of a 12-point comprehensive approach to character education.   Books that provide an introduction to the field are Character Education in America’s Blue Ribbon Schools (elementary level) by Madonna Murphy, Building Character in Schools (secondary) by Kevin Ryan and Karen Bohlin, and my own Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility (K-12).   To get a common picture of the field, some leadership groups have all members read the same book.  In other cases, committee members each take different readings and provide a summary for the rest of the group.

            I also strongly recommend visiting, if possible, other schools that have been doing character education for a while (ideally for more than two years) to see first-hand what a working program looks like.  A valuable part of such a visit is sitting down with the character education committee(s) and asking questions such as: How did you get started?  Cover costs? How did you get faculty and other staff on board?  Students and parents involved?   What’s worked, and what hasn’t?  How have you tried to assess impact?

            Many schools have also found it important to have its leadership group get some formal character education training through a summer institute, conference, or other professional development opportunity.   Our Center, for example, offers an annual Summer Institute and related conferences in character education (see our web site).  Other regional and national conferences are posted on the Character Education Partnership’s web site.





I strongly recommend inviting all school personnel to an introductory meeting on character education.  Inviting everyone makes a statement: “We are all important members of the school community.  We all have a part to play in making our school the best that it can be.”

This introductory session should address four basic questions about character education that staff will want answers to: (1) “What are the goals of character education?”; (2)“What will it require of me, in my work?”; (3) “What will this look like if we do it schoolwide?”; and (4) “What will be the benefits if we do this? 

Let’s look at how to approach each of these questions.




            The goals of character education are three: persons of good character, schools of character, and, ultimately, a society of character. 

            That raises the important question, what is “good character”? 

One way to engage a school staff in addressing that question is to ask, “What qualities do we want our graduates to possess?   What moral and intellectual strengths will best equip our students to lead fulfilling, purposeful, and productive lives and to build a better world?”  In small groups, staff can brainstorm and list these qualities on sheets of butcher paper and then post their lists around the room for all to view.  (Nearly always, different groups list many of the same qualities.)

            A next useful step is to compare the character qualities generated by the school staff with a pre-existing conceptual scheme defining good character, such as the “10 Essential Virtues” and their supporting virtues (see Chapter 1).  These are summarized below:




1.      Wisdom    


·         Moral and intellectual discernment: Telling right from wrong, truth from falsehood, fact from opinion, the eternal from the transitory

·         Understanding human nature (e.g., the need to feel valued and significant)

·         Understanding how life works (e.g., the wisdom of proverbs)

·         Good judgment: knowing how to put the other virtues into practice


2.      Justice


·         Fairness

·         Respect

·         Responsibility

·         Honesty

·         Courtesy/civility

·         Tolerance


3.      Fortitude


·         Patience

·         Perseverance

·         Physical bravery

·         Moral courage

·         Capacity to endure suffering


4.      Self-Mastery


·         Self-discipline

·         Ability to manage one’s emotions

·         Ability to delay gratification

·         Ability to resist temptation

·         Moderation

·         Chastity (sexual self-control)


5.      Love


·         Empathy

·         Compassion

·         Kindness

·         Selfless generosity

·         Service

·         Loyalty

·         Patriotism (love of what is noble in one’s country)

·         Forgiveness



6.      Positive Attitude


·         Hope

·         Enthusiasm

·         Flexibility

·         Resilience

·         A Sense of Humor


7.      Hard Work


·         Initiative

·         Diligence

·         Goal-Setting

·         Resourcefulness


8.      Integrity


·         Faithfulness to a correctly formed conscience

·         Standing up for moral principle

·         Ethical consistency

·         Telling the truth to oneself


9.      Gratitude


·         The habit of being thankful

·         Acknowledging one’s debt to others

·         Not complaining


10.  Humility


·         Striving for virtue—to become the best person you can be

·         Awareness of your strengths and areas for growth

·         Willingness to admit mistakes and take responsibility for correcting them.




In comparing the 10 Essential Virtues with the lists they came up with, staff can be asked, what commonalities do we see?   Do the 10 essential virtues and their sub-virtues provide a framework that best serves our school’s needs—or should this scheme be modified to fit our school’s culture and the developmental level of our students?  What qualities not listed under the 10 Essential Virtues would we like to include in our working definition of good character?

Whatever the list of target virtues a staff settles on, what’s important is that it be comprehensive (touching on the important virtues in one way or another) and that the staff own it.  (Separately, a survey should be distributed to parents and older students—middle school and up—so that their input on the target virtues can also be incorporated.)

Once character is defined, a definition of character education follows naturally: Character education is the deliberate effort to develop the virtues that enable us to lead fulfilling lives and build a better world.




To address this question, I recommend  a concrete, non-threatening activity: “100 Ways to Promote Character Education” (available on the web site of Boston University’s Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character:  This activity is one of the first things I do when introducing character education to a school staff.


  • Have staff form pairs.


  • Ask them, individually, to spend 7 minutes silently reading the list of “100 Ways,” with these instructions: “Circle those things you already do.  Star those things you haven’t done but would be willing to try.   At the signal, stop and share with your partner one thing you circled and one thing you starred, and explain why.”


Here are a dozen sample items (adapted slightly) from the list of “100 Ways to Promote Character Education”:


  1. Lead by example.  Pick up the piece of trash in the hall or on the schoolyard.  Use courteous language with students.
  2. Whenever you witness peer cruelty, intervene to stop it, helping the perpetrator understand why it is wrong.
  3. Admit mistakes and seek to make amends.  Help students do the same.
  4.  Teach students to write thank-you notes.  As a class, write thank-you notes to people who have done thoughtful things for the students.
  5. Regularly use the “language of virtue”—terms such as respect, responsibility, integrity, wisdom, diligence, perseverance, and humility—and teach students to do the same.
  6. Share with students one of your personal heroes and why he or she is a hero for you.
  7. Display character quotes in your classroom or work space.  (See the book Character Quotes [3] for one source of these.)
  8. Choose the finest children’s and adult literature—rich in moral meaning and memorable characters—to read with students.  Don’t waste time with mediocre texts.
  9. Read biographies of men and women of achievement in your academic discipline and discuss the qualities of character they demonstrated.
  10. Help students develop media literacy—the ability to evaluate the truth and worth of what is presented on TV, the Internet, and in other media.
  11. Discuss the habits needed to be a successful student—in your subject or in school generally.
  12. Remind students that developing one’s character is not an easy task but the work of a lifetime.


  • After the 7-minute time for silent reading, give partners 5 minutes to share one thing they circled and one thing they starred.


To wrap up this activity, I ask the whole group, “What conclusions can you draw from this exercise?”  Three points I want to draw out are: (1) “We already do a lot of these things, even if we haven’t called them character education” (this realization is an important source of validation); (2) “There are a lot of other things we could be doing”; and (3) “There are many different ways to implement character education—we don’t all have to do the same thing.”




            Once staff  begin to feel comfortable with what character education will mean for them in their individual work, they’re ready to consider what it might mean for the whole school. 

 I find that the quickest way to convey that is by schoolwide examples: reading and discussing character education success stories from around the country.  Just as the “100 Ways” list provides concrete images of the many ways individual staff can build good character,  schoolwide stories provide snapshots of the many ways whole schools have carried out a coordinated character education effort.  And when a school staff can see how schools like them, facing similar problems, have improved student learning and  behavior and staff morale through character education, it’s natural to think, “Why couldn’t that work for us?”  (If, in addition, you can arrange for a live presentation by an enthusiastic principal or character education coordinator whose school has a reputation for having a strong character program, so much the better.)

            Here’s how I suggest using the case-study approach:

1. Put staff in mixed triads (different grade levels, different subject areas, or different work roles).  Give each person a packet of Character Education Success Stories, containing at least one story at the elementary level, one at the middle school level, and one at the high school level.  Including all three levels is important because it shows that character education can and should be done at all levels.  (Three sources of success stories are: the Character Education Partnership’s annual National Schools of Character publications; Philip Vincent’s Promising Practices in Character Education, Volumes 1 and 2; and back issues of our Center’s Fourth and Fifth Rs newsletter, available on our web site.)

2. Explain: “Take 6 minutes to read the first story silently.  Then go back and star two or three things this school did that you think your school might benefit from doing.  At the signal, share what you starred—and why—with the other members of your group.” 

3. After giving triads 5 minutes to discuss what they selected as promising strategies, call on a sample of groups to briefly report which strategies they chose and why.   Have someone keep a running posted list of all the strategies selected and the number of times each was mentioned.

4. Repeat this process with a second success story and again with a third, asking small groups to discuss, “What additional strategies do you see being used in this story—ideas you’d like to consider for possible use or adaptation in your school?”

5. After considering several such case studies ask, “Based on the stories you’ve read, what do you see as the benefits of a good character education program?” (Benefits identified typically include: improved student learning, fewer discipline problems, higher staff morale, students taking leadership roles, and greater parent or community involvement.)

6. Close by considering the composite list of strategies generated by the small group reports:  “Which strategies were most often named?”  If the school subsequently decides to commit to becoming a school of character, the top five strategies can be taken as the beginning of its character education plan.   If a character education program is already in place, these strategies can be used to enhance the existing effort.

            To illustrate how I format these case studies for ease of identifying effective strategies, here is one I often use: the story of Kennedy Middle School (Eugene, Oregon). Kennedy was the only middle school in the nation to win a National School of Character award in the 1999 competition sponsored by the Character Education Partnership.


The Kennedy Middle School Story

A substitute teacher says of Kennedy: "I've been in every school in the district, and I can tell you, when you walk into Kennedy, there's a definite difference.  It's a warm and caring place."  Just a few years ago, "warm" and "caring" were not words used to describe Kennedy Middle School.  Finding parents to help monitor lunch was difficult because they felt uncomfortable and threatened around several groups of students.  Here is how Kennedy became a school of character:

            1.  It tied character education to school improvement.  In fall of 1995, Kennedy teachers who were unhappy with disrespectful student behavior met with the school's Site Council, which included parents, community members, support staff, and students.  Together they came up with three school improvement goals, one of which dealt with school climate and character. 

2. It adopted a character education curriculum: Second Step.  Says Kay Mehas, then principal of Kennedy: “Second Step is a schoolwide curriculum that teaches skills such as how to communicate, problem-solve, and work together in a community.  It actually changes students’ behavior.  They learn the importance of responsibility and honesty, and it provides them tools for success in life.  A large section at the beginning of each unit teaches empathy.  The curriculum calls for a lot of role-playing, students choosing how they might react in certain situations.”

3. It  trained the staff. Mehas and a Kennedy counselor attended a "train the trainer" institute to learn how to train the other staff to teach the Second Step curriculum.  Before the new school year began, Kennedy held a training day for all staff as well as for many parents and district administrators. The faculty decided that every Tuesday from 9:45 to 10:25 am would be dedicated to teaching Second Step lessons.

4.  It involved support staff in teaching the curriculum.  Kennedy invited every member of the staff—including secretaries, custodians, cafeteria workers, and playground aides—to take part in teaching the Second Step lessons.  A secretary would be paired with an 8th-grade math teacher, a custodian with an 8th-grade science teacher, and so on.  The rationale was to show students that the entire school was committed to character development.

5. It made a more effective use of the curriculum in Year 2.  Kennedy saw some improvement in student behavior during the first year of using Second Step but Mehas said: “Students still weren't coming to school with common expectations about classroom behavior.  We wanted to say to them right at the start, ‘This is how we treat each other at Kennedy Middle School.’"  So instead of spreading out the Second Step lessons—one a week over the whole year—Kennedy decided to concentrate them: a lesson a day for the first three weeks of school.  This initial sacrifice of teaching time, Mehas says,  paid long-term dividends: "We're now able to spend more time teaching the academic curriculum because we have fewer behavior problems."

6. It provided multiple opportunities for student leadership.   These included: 

Respect Committee.  This group meets every day and has the mission of trying to try to ensure that all students feel comfortable and respected at the school.  For example, it organizes assemblies at which students from different backgrounds share their cultural heritages. 

Leadership Club.  This club meets weekly to discuss ways to improve the school.  One year club members worked with a landscape architect to create a design and then plant trees to enhance school grounds.  The Leadership Club is open to all three grades (6, 7, and 8). 

Teens and Tots.  A service learning class, this program involves Kennedy students in working at Relief Nursery, a child care and support facility for abused children and their families.

Jump Start Tutors are Kennedy students who work with their at-risk peers, teaching them study skills and helping with assignments in the different subject areas.

Student Conveners  are elected representatives from each class who function as Kennedy’s student government.

7. Students developed a system for recognizing positive behavior.   Kennedy’s Student Conveners created a schoolwide system—PRIDE (Personal Responsibility in Daily Efforts)—for recognizing students on a daily basis for "doing the right thing."  Every six weeks, Kennedy students who have all their assignments in on time, no more than one absence, no more than one unexcused tardy, and no behavioral referrals, become a member of PRIDE.  For each PRIDE celebration, qualifying students participate in special activities such as ice skating, snow skiing, movies, and swimming.  Every six weeks students have a fresh start, so they have many chances to make PRIDE.

8. It took steps to create closer teacher-student relationships.  In 7th- and 8th-grades, Kennedy implemented the practice of "looping," whereby students remain with the same teachers for more than one year.  This allows faculty to develop closer relationships with both students and their parents.

9. It  increased parent involvement.  Since initiating its character education program, Kennedy has had so many parent volunteers that one parent now serves almost full-time as the volunteer coordinator.   Parent volunteers cover the office and other essential staff functions while the regular staff are teaching the Second Step lessons during the first three weeks of school.  Parent volunteers also run the school library and help with the many clubs. 

            10. It evaluated impact.  Kennedy looked at academic and behavioral indicators to assess its character education efforts.  In 1997, only 59% of Kennedy's students met Oregon’s state academic standards, and discipline referrals averaged 100 a month.  In 1998, 74% of Kennedy's students met state academic standards, and discipline referrals were down to a 35 a month.


            Schools that already have a character effort underway feel affirmed by finding from these case studies that they are already using a number of the practices employed by national winners.  And they will typically find new ideas that can be used to keep their program fresh and growing.




            With their imaginations stocked with examples of individual and schoolwide character education practices, staff are ready for the next step: taking an honest look at the strengths and areas for improvement in the school’s current moral and intellectual culture.  This is an indispensable step in becoming a school of character.  If this isn’t done, a school may end up ignoring the “elephant at the table”—the big character education problems right under its nose that, unaddressed, will undermine a character education effort.  The most important character education “curriculum” consists of the moral and intellectual experiences that make up the day-to-day life of the school.  These lived experiences—the ways adults relate to students, the ways students relate to adults, the ways students treat each other—more than anything else, shape character. 

A systematic way to reflect on these experiences is to use the following four-part Analysis of the School’s Moral and Intellectual Culture:


Analysis of the School’s Moral and Intellectual Culture


May be completed individually by staff prior to a staff meeting, with results compiled and presented by the character education leadership group, or discussed and completed together by staff in groups of 3-4 in a staff meeting. Note that the focus of these questions is on practices that characterize the school as a whole.


  1. Positives: In your judgment, what positive, character-building experiences (e.g., requiring students’ best work and supporting them in meeting that standard; trying to make every student feel valued, efforts to prevent bullying, teaching the virtues through formal instruction and teachable moments,  cooperative learning, requiring every student to do community service, affirming good character, and holding persons accountable to high character standards in all parts of the school environment) do we, as a school, already provide for our students?  


  1. Omissions: What important character-building experiences (e.g., independent research, learning to work effectively with others, goal-setting, experiencing cultural diversity, working with the less fortunate, taking constructive risks that require and develop courage, and creating a personal portfolio documenting one’s academic achievement and character development) are we as a school not adequately providing?


  1. Trouble spots: What undesirable student or adult behaviors (e.g., peer cruelty, academic dishonesty, bad language, inappropriate sexual attitudes and behavior, de facto racial or other segregation, disrespect for school property, poor sportsmanship, low-quality academic instruction, adult disrespect toward students, unfair treatment of students, and disrespectful or unfair treatment of staff or parents) are we as a school neglecting to deal with adequately? (Give examples, but no names.)


  1. Inconsistencies: What institutional practices (e.g., professing one thing by our rhetoric and another by our practice, accepting shoddy work, failing to enforce the school’s discipline code firmly and even-handedly, excessive competition, creating inequities through tracking or other policies, over-reliance on extrinsic incentives to motivate good behavior, scheduling that excessively fragments the school day, time pressures that keep staff from paying sufficient attention to character development, the absence of regular opportunities to share character education strategies and other teaching ideas, the lack of assessment of our character education program, and failure to adequately involve parents) are at odds with the  character qualities we seek to develop as a school? 


Sometimes a school will go for years without addressing a problem that has corrosive effects on character.   I was working with an independent K-9 school in the Midwest where several female faculty confided to me that they had long been unhappy about a “tradition” among the 8th- and 9th-grade boys of hanging pornographic pin-ups in their hallway lockers.   These  faculty considered this practice degrading to them as women and saw it as fostering among their male students a terrible attitude, namely, viewing women as sex objects.   When I asked them if they had ever raised this for discussion at a faculty meeting, they all said no, moral issues were never a matter for discussion in faculty meetings.  

Another example: Growing numbers of school districts are now permitting soda and junk food companies to install their vending machines in exchange for lucrative advances and a share of the vending profits.  A dentist in our community recently wrote our local newspaper to comment: “Now that many of our teenagers get to bathe their teeth in sugar at school as well as at home, we have seen a large increase in the incidence of tooth decay in our teen population over the past few years.”    In an Education Week essay titled “The Carbonated Curriculum,” teacher Joseph Bauer wrote: “Can anyone not comprehend the hypocrisy of teaching good nutrition and environmental awareness in the school curriculum while selling students nutritionally damaging products in throwaway plastic containers?   Not to mention that it might be a bad idea to offer the most overweight and hyperactive generation in American history more empty calories and jolts of caffeine.”[4]

What does it profit a school to gain a new gym floor from Pepsi or Coke if it compromises its character and the health of students in the bargain?  If a school wants to maximize its credibility as a character educator, it needs to examine all its decisions from a character perspective: What’s the example we’re setting and the message we’re sending?   What decision in this matter is most consistent with our mission statement?

If the moral and intellectual culture of the school is not a matter of rigorous and continuing reflection, then the character of a school—and all its efforts in character education—will be the poorer.   

Reflection, of course, must be followed by action.  The first step in devising an action plan to strengthen the school culture is to focus on just one or two concerns that the above analysis brings to light.  A way to choose a focus is to distribute a survey listing expressed concerns, asking staff (and separately, students and parents) to indicate which ones they think the school should concentrate on in the coming year. 


Improving the School Culture

Of the following school issues, which two do you think we should focus on, as a school, in the coming year?  (Give a 1 to your top choice, a 2 to your second choice, or add other items if your top priorities aren’t listed here.)

___  Increasing students’ responsibility toward their academic work

___  Increasing respect for teachers and other school staff

___  Increasing the respect that adults show students

___  Increasing peer kindness and reducing bullying and other peer cruelty

___  Increasing academic honesty

___  Increasing respect and responsibility regarding sexual attitudes and behavior

___  Increasing parental involvement

___  Improving language in the building

___  Improving the sportsmanship of students and adults at athletic events

___  Improving staff morale

___  Building school pride

___  Addressing issues of unfairness (example: ___________________________)

___  Other: ________________________________________________________

___  Other:_________________________________________________________


For each of your top two issues: What is one thing you think the school could do to bring about improvement in this area?


(1) ________________________________________________________________


(2) ________________________________________________________________




            Once a school staff has discussed what character education looks like, how it can benefit their school, and which aspects of the current school enhance character and which most need improvement, it’s ready to make a decision: Should we commit to becoming a school of character?   If so, what action steps should we take toward that goal?

If all of the preceding steps have been done well, there’s a strong likelihood that a solid majority of the staff will say yes, it makes a lot of sense to commit to becoming a school of character.  By this point, staff should be thinking, “Character education is basically helping kids become good students and good people by being the best school we can be.” 

However, if there’s still resistance to making a formal commitment to becoming a school of character, find out why.  It may be that staff  feel overwhelmed by current pressures and priorities.   They may wonder, “When are we going to get the time to do this, and do it well?”  They may be reluctant because past reform initiatives have faded when there wasn’t time for follow through.   To encourage frankness about reasons for reluctance, I recommend asking staff to state their reasons in writing, anonymously.  Then, at a subsequent meeting, distribute a list of reasons expressed and brainstorm possible ways to address these concerns.

However long it takes to get it, a staff commitment is essential.  Our Center learned the hard way about the importance of this kind of shared decision-making on the part of the whole school staff.   In our early days, school teams that attended our Summer Institute in Character Education would often leave ready to change the world—but then would frequently become discouraged when their colleagues back home didn’t enthusiastically embrace their proposed character education plan or even the concept of character education. 

In any organization, when people feel as if change is being pushed at them, they resist it.  But when they feel as if they have a voice in and measure of control over the change, that they are being asked to define their own priorities and participate in decision-making, they are much more likely to support a new initiative. 



            The next step is to plan the substance of the character education program.   The challenge here is to design a program that has most, if not all, of the components that constitute quality character education.   These are the components that can be seen again and again in character education success stories at different levels.  The more of these components a program has, and the more effectively each is implemented, the greater the chance of positive impact on the character of the school and the character of kids.


20 Common Components of Quality Character Education

  1. Administrative leadership and support
  2. Strong staff involvement
  3. Strong student involvement
  4. Strong parent involvement
  5. A mission and motto that highlight character
  6. Use of the language of character in everyday interactions and in the school’s behavior code, routines and rituals, assemblies, extracurricular activities, student handbook, report card, public relations, and communications with parents
  7. An agreed-upon set of target virtues, encompassing work-related and interpersonal virtues
  8. A schoolwide plan for intentionally promoting and teaching the school’s target virtues
  9. Behavioral examples (generated by staff and students) of what these virtues “look like” and “sound like” at different ages and in different parts of the school environment
  10. An emphasis on the responsibility of all staff and students to model these virtues
  11. Ongoing integration of these virtues into instruction across the curriculum
  12. The use, where appropriate, of published character education curricula
  13. An approach to discipline that teaches the virtues, including recognizing good character in a way that keeps the focus on the character reason for doing what’s right
  14. A schoolwide effort to build a caring community and prevent peer cruelty
  15. A character-rich visual environment (e.g., signs, posters, quotes)
  16. Hiring staff  who are persons of good character committed to modeling and teaching character
  17. Staff development in the skills and strategies of character education and accountability for using them (Are they part of lesson plans?  Do the principal’s observations take note of them?   Do staff regularly report what they are doing to promote character development?)
  18. Scheduled time for staff planning, sharing, and reflection on the character program and character-related issues in the school’s moral and intellectual culture
  19.  At least modest financial support (Character education doesn’t usually require a big budget, but some funds are needed for inservice workshops, conferences, release time for planning and program development, and a resource library of books and materials; a purchased curriculum will be a larger expense.)
  20. A plan for ongoing assessment of program impact.




            One aspect of a character education initiative that should definitely be discussed and decided by staff is how—or whether—the school will focus on teaching certain virtues at certain times.   How best to do this is a matter of thoughtful debate in the field.   Here are the choices (many of which can be combined):


11 Organizing Strategies

  1. A virtue a month
  2. A virtue a week, related to the monthly theme
  3. A 3- or 4-year cycle of virtues (six one year, six others the next, etc.), thereby avoiding the repetition of the same virtues year after year (the Core Essentials Curriculum,, is an example of a 3-year program)
  4. A yearly theme (e.g., “The Year of  Peace,” “The Year of Self-Discipline,” “The Year of Courage”), often in combination with a quarterly focus (e.g., “Promoting Peace in Our Classrooms,” “Promoting Peace in Our School,”  “Promoting Peace in Our Families,”  “Promoting Peace in Our Community and World”)
  5. Assigning a developmentally appropriate virtue to each grade level for study over the entire school year, e.g., orderliness in kindergarten, effort in first grade, kindness in second grade, responsibility in third, perseverance in fourth—thereby affording many opportunities for practice and habit formation
  6. A common set of character expectations that all grade levels work on year round, with individual teachers choosing which virtue or virtues to emphasize at any given time through a book, activity, or curriculum unit (Montclair Kimberley Academy,, a pre-K to 12 independent school in Montclair, New Jersey, and winner of a U. S. Department of Education award for its character program, uses this approach[5];  the Six Pillars of Character—trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, caring, fairness, and citizenship—promoted by the Character Counts! Coalition,, can also be used in this way.).
  7. A character education curriculum framework, such as the K-6 Core Virtues (; see also Chapter 6), that recommends developmentally appropriate virtues and corresponding curricular resources from literature, history, etc.
  8. A published character education curriculum with sequenced lesson plans (Kennedy Middle School’s Second Step curriculum,,  is an example of this; other K-12 curricula are Wise Skills,, Positive Action,,, Life Skills,, and CONNECT!
  9. A character education “process model,” such as the Child Development Project, (elementary), Responsive Classroom, (elementary and middle school), and our Center’s 12-point comprehensive approach, (K-12), that offers classroom and schoolwide strategies (e.g., community-building, character-based discipline, class meetings, cooperative learning,  integration of character and academics, and fostering character development throughout  the school environment)
  10. A school culture approach that emphasizes creating an ethos of moral and intellectual excellence, uses the language of character, and stresses character in all curricular and co-curricular programs but doesn’t necessarily name a target set of virtues to which the whole school formally commits—preferring instead to challenge students to choose those qualities around which they wish to craft their personal character (this approach is used by some high schools with a long-standing tradition of emphasizing character).
  11. A compatible combination of the above strategies (e.g., combining the approach that matches a particular virtue with a particular grade level; a year-long theme for the whole school to work on; the across-school use of process strategies such as class meetings and cooperative learning; and use of a high-quality published curriculum).


The steering committee can present a list of these different possibilities to the staff, briefly describe what it sees as their pros and cons, invite staff to discuss in small groups the options and possible combinations, and then facilitate a staff decision on an organizing strategy to begin the program with.  My own view is that any of these approaches, especially a thoughtful combination of compatible strategies, can succeed in the hands of a staff that is committed to it.   I also strongly recommend that a school staff regularly revisit this decision—at least every two years—to consider whether a modification or different approach might increase the effectiveness of the school’s character-building efforts. 



            There are at least three very important reasons to assess a character education initiative: (1) What gets measured, matters; staff motivation and accountability for implementing a character education effort will be much greater if there is a plan to assess results; (2) assessment will tell you to what extent your character education program is actually making a difference; and (3) assessment data can then be used to guide decision making about how to increase program effectiveness.

The vital work of assessment is more likely to get done if the school sets up a committee that has this responsibility.   The assessment effort can start modestly and expand over time.  It should try to answer most of the following six questions—questions that a school will want to answer if it wishes to know what impact its character development efforts are having.


  1. To what extent are staff implementing the character education program as intended?  You can reasonably expect program effects only to the extent that staff  are competently putting the program into practice.  (Teacher self-reports and principal observations can serve as data sources on staff implementation.)


  1. To what extent do students understand the target virtues being taught at their grade level? (Can they define them?   Give several behavioral examples?   Write about a time when they did or didn’t display a particular virtue?   Describe how a particular role model exemplifies a virtue?  Discern which virtue or virtues are called for by a particular hypothetical situation?  Describe how different virtues can—and often should—be practiced in combination?)


Answering the next four questions will require baseline data, gathered as early as possible in the life of a program (though better late than never) to provide a point of comparison for assessing change following program implementation.


  1. To what extent are students progressing in the practice of the work-related virtues (e.g., self-discipline, goal-setting, and perseverance) as measured by their academic performance? (For example, are attendance, completion of homework, demonstration of learning standards, grades, and performance on valid standardized tests improving?)


  1. To what extent are students progressing in the practice of the interpersonal virtues (e.g., respect, honesty, and kindness) as measured by their citizenship behavior? (Is the frequency of these behaviors increasing, and the occurrence of their opposites decreasing, in the classroom and school?  On an anonymous survey, for example, is self-reported student cheating on the rise or decline?)


  1. To what extent is behavior in a particular part of the school environment (e.g., the corridors, the cafeteria, the playground, the busses) or in a particular phase of school life (e.g., athletic events, assemblies) improving?


  1. To what extent are positive program effects generalizing beyond the school (for example, to what extent can parents see behavior changes at home following the school’s effort, say, to promote good deeds and reduce put-downs?) and enduring after graduation to the next level of schooling and beyond? (For example, following a high school experience of service learning, to what extent do graduates subsequently report doing volunteer work during college and later as adult citizens?  Following a character-based sex education program in middle school, to what extent do students continue to practice abstinence during their high school years?  Even if positive program outcomes decline somewhat in subsequent years, how do those post-program rates compare with the rates before the school began implementing this character education component?  Schools typically can’t get this kind of data on all their graduates, but it’s worth their while to try to collect it periodically on at least a sample of students.)


Assessment often seems intimidating at first, but it’s not as complicated as it sounds.  For starters, you’d certainly want to look at student conduct and academic achievement indicators such as discipline referrals and test scores.   These are affected by variables (e.g., rising standards, changing school demographics, staff turnover) other than the character program, but if you found that two years after implementing character education neither discipline referrals nor test scores had improved at all, you’d want to take a look at what you might do differently in your program. 

Suppose you’d like to get a measure of the overall character of the school.   There are a number of school climate measures available, including The School as a Caring Community Profile (SCCP) that our Center developed for elementary school use (available on our website) and the Character Education Survey) designed by Meg Korpi for grades 7 to 12.  (See Appendix B for more information on these and other character education assessment instruments.)  Both of these instruments measure staff and student perceptions of the school environment.  For example, the SCCP instructs the respondent: “On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 means ‘almost never’ and 5 means ‘almost always,’ circle the number that describes how often you observe the following behaviors in your school.”  Sample items: “Students treat classmates with respect”; “Students behave respectfully toward all school staff”; and “In their interactions with students, teachers act in ways that demonstrate the character qualities the school is trying to teach.”  

On the last of those three items, the teachers in one elementary school we worked with gave themselves an average rating of 4.5, whereas on the same item, students (grades 4 through 6) who completed the survey gave the teachers a significantly lower rating of 3.1.  The faculty were brought up short by the discrepancy between their self-perception and students’ perception and, to their credit, made narrowing that gap a goal for the coming year.

Suppose you were concerned about bus behavior. You could assess the existing moral environment on the school busses by looking at several kinds of data: (1) the frequency of bus drivers’ referrals for problem behavior; (2) student responses on a brief questionnaire (e.g., “How safe do you feel on the bus—from ‘1—not at all safe’ to ‘5—very safe’; “Did anything bad happen to you on the bus in the past year?   If so, what happened, and how many times did it happen?”); (3) parents’ responses on a similar questionnaire (e.g., “How safe does your child feel on the bus?”); and (4) what a small, randomly selected sample of students and parents at various grade levels say to the same kinds of questions asked in 10-minute interviews conducted face-to-face or by phone (which older students can help to do and which are worth the trouble because interviews yield examples and insights that written surveys don’t).   Looking at these data before and after a school bus character education intervention (see Chapter 7 for one example) will tell you what progress you’ve made and where there’s still room for improvement.

Suppose you were concerned about bad language, which a few years ago rose to the number 1 behavior problem that New York State teachers say they have to deal with.  One nearby middle school, following several parental complaints that their children were uncomfortable with the amount of bad language in the building, asked its student council to take the lead on this problem.  With a little guidance from its faculty advisor, the council developed a Language Survey that defined three kinds of bad language—put downs, obscene/vulgar language, and swearing/profanity—and asked students grades 5 to 8 to indicate, for each category, whether they considered such language “always wrong in school and deserving a consequence,” “wrong in school but deserving just a reminder,” or “no big deal.”  The results of the survey were shared and discussed schoolwide.  Six months after efforts to get students to improve their language, the council did another survey and found that: (a) two-thirds of students agreed that “teachers have spoken to students about bad language more often this year”; (b) a third of students said they had heard less bad language that year and that students “apologized more quickly when they used it”; but (c) two-thirds said they didn’t notice any change in student language.   Some progress, but obviously more work remained to be done.



            In the long run, the quality of school’s character education effort, like the quality of any other school initiative, will be a function of the quality of the human community that exists among the staff.  To what extent do they know, respect, and support each other?   I’ve gone into schools where the first thing some staff have told me is, “There are cliques on this faculty.”   That doesn’t bode well for a character education program.

            To build community, one elementary school features a different staff person at the beginning of each staff meeting.  If the featured person is a teacher, his or her grade-level colleagues prepare stories and little-known facts about the person.  Other staff members can then add what they know and appreciate about that individual.  This sets a positive tone for the rest of the meeting.[6] 

            A new principal took over a St. Louis middle school that was suffering from low staff morale.  One of the first things she did was to tape an 8 ½ x 11” manila envelope, marked “Appreciation Notes,” on the door of every staff member—teachers, counselors, custodians, and administrators.  She sent an invitation to all staff, students, and parents: “Whenever the spirit moves you, please write a note expressing appreciation for something a particular staff person has done and put it in the envelope on that person’s door.  You don’t need to sign it.”  Gradually, envelopes began to fill up.   Parents wrote to thank teachers for ways they had helped their child.  Colleagues affirmed each other for things they had always admired or been grateful for but never put into words.  Many students also wrote notes.  Morale in the building soared.  Said one teacher at a faculty meeting: “This is the most important thing we’ve done in ten years.”  

            Other schools have made every faculty meeting a time for meaningful sharing and professional growth.  Says Pat Floyd-Echols, principal of Martin Luther King, Jr. School in inner-city Syracuse, New York: “We now devote all of our faculty meetings to staff development and sharing.  The memos that we used to read at meetings we now send out by e-mail or put in teachers’ mailboxes.  Using our faculty meeting more productively has made us a closer staff.  It has also enabled us in the past two years to raise our students’ math scores by being more consistent in our instructional approach.” 

Another good staff development activity is a Common Book Project.  Staff commit to reading—and discussing as part of a faculty meeting—a book that pertains to character development.  I recommend starting with ones that are fun to read and that people can apply in their personal and family life as well as in their professional work.  Hal Urban’s Life’s Greatest Lessons, William Bennett’s Book of Virtues, and Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence are all good candidates.      


            Much educational change has a short shelf life: here today, gone tomorrow.   That’s why veteran teachers are often cynical, thinking, “This, too, shall pass.”   The business of becoming a school of character, however, must not become a passing fad because developing character is at the heart of effective schooling and what it means to be human.   Educational reforms that endure—those with the power to transform school culture—are those that stay in the forefront of staff and student consciousness.  To have that kind of staying power, developing character must be thought about and talked about day in and day out by all who make up the community of the school.  In large measure, to become a school of character is to keep the conversation going. 


[1] For the full document, Eleven Principles of Effective Character Education, see the Character Education Partnership’s web site:


[2] This account taken from Kevin Ryan, “The transformative high school,” paper for the “Educating for Character in the High School” project, Center for the 4th and 5th Rs, 2003.


[3] Thomas Lickona and Matthew Davidson, Character quotes (San Clemente, CA: 2003).


[4] Joseph Bauer, “The Carbonated Curriculum,” Education Week (April 17, 2002).


[5] For further information, contact Karen Newman, Dean of Studies, Montclair Kimberly Academy: 201/746-9800;


[6] Kathy Beland, Creating Caring School Communities (Washington, D. C.: Character Education Partnership, 2004).