Does learning need integrity in order to produce young men and women ready to be positive, productive citizens? Over the last few years, there has been a growing focus on the need to incorporate character development into school curricula.
Two Virginians, centuries apart, believed schools should promote virtuous character along with quality academic outcomes. Thomas Jefferson was concerned with public and private virtue, viewing citizenship, the development of character, and a strong work ethic as integral to schooling.
University of Virginia professor E.D. Hirsch, Jr., founder of the esteemed Core Knowledge curriculum, wrote in The Making of Americans that democracy requires virtuous, civic-minded citizens. For Hirsch, knowledge needs to be coupled with character in order for students to succeed in school and life.
Many of the nation’s leading charter schools and charter school networks actively promote and instill character education, which benefits the school and the student. Almost 70 studies conducted on different character education programs had strong evidence supporting their effectiveness in improving the academic outcomes of schools.
As schools of choice, charter schools must provide parents a distinctive opportunity for students to be educated in ways not available elsewhere. School models often emphasize a specific focus, such as character education, classics, or arts-infused learning, while also incorporating state content standards (Virginia charter school students must take the Standards of Learning along with all other public school students).
Virginia families would likely see real value in adding these choices to their educational options. However, because of the state’s current charter law, which is inflexible and stifles innovation, the Commonwealth currently only has seven charter schools, none of which have an explicit focus on developing character.
Unfortunately, that leaves organizations like National Heritage Academies (NHA), a well-respected network of charter schools founded in 1995, on the outside looking in. Founded by businessman J.C. Huizenga, NHA is built on strong academic results and a comprehensive, dedicated focus on character education, with charter schools in nine states, including North Carolina.
Every month has a moral focus that teachers incorporate into their lessons. Instruction is studded with traditional values like love of country and family, and students consistently write about virtue and civic character from kindergarten through eighth grade.
NHA’s approach is not just about helping students get ahead; it also supports the development of qualities like gratitude and integrity, which help students to be principled, ethical people in relationships and as citizens.
Like NHA, other charter schools like the Great Hearts Academies in Arizona and Texas, which offers a rigorous, classical, liberal arts education, or the Peak to Peak Charter School in Colorado, whose liberal arts education teaches students to “use integrity with their intelligence,” embrace Cicero’s belief that “within the character of the citizen lies the welfare of the nation.”
A young person who has studied our nation’s history and system of government, has learned about our shared heritage, and has practiced being a responsible member of the school and community has a strong start on good citizenship.
Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, wrote that students’ character affects their willingness to spend the time necessary to acquire knowledge and skills, while becoming well-rounded, civic-minded young people.
“What I’m more concerned about is [my son’s] character,” says Tough. “I want him to be able to get over disappointments, to calm himself down, to keep working at a puzzle even when it’s frustrating, to be good at sharing, to feel loved and confident and full of a sense of belonging. Most important, I want him to be able to deal with failure.”
Jefferson proposed common – public – schools so that citizens would have the tools to defend their inalienable rights as individuals, as well as acquire literacy and numeracy. Certainly, a constitutional republic requires well-informed citizens, with the habits and mind-set required to maintain a free and self-governing society.
Good character leads to good citizenship. Shouldn’t we welcome public charter schools that do a good job developing both? We can, by pushing the General Assembly to adopt the Obenshain-Bell constitutional amendment allowing for an alternative, statewide chartering authority.
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