Louisville, Kentucky, public school teacher Paul Barnwell was distressed by his 11th-grade students’ response to this hypothetical moral quandary: “If your significant other commits a felony where people are gravely injured, do you report them to the police?”
To his dismay, the students resoundingly responded “No!”
His students’ reaction made Barnwell recognize the absence of moral instruction and character development in district schools.
In fact, he argued that moral instruction is often neglected, since many teachers are overwhelmed by the pressures to focus instruction on government-assessed standards, such as Common Core, which he notes “ultimately elevated standardized testing and severely narrowed curricula.”
“For many American students who have attended a public school at some point since 2002, standardized-test preparation and narrowly defined academic success [have] been the unstated, but de facto, purpose of their schooling experience,” Barnwell wrote in The Atlantic.
Yet moral instruction in schools is extremely important to families. In particular, parents rank moral and character development as one of the top three most important qualities in a school.
The omission of moral instruction in many public schools cuts against the grain of families who want their children to grow into good people, not just positive test scores. Families see schools as their partners who help prepare children for civic participation.
“[C]ommunities and educational institutions that prepare students to live out their duties beyond the civic horizon are the essential substance, the lifeblood, of the American constitutional tradition and American civic life,” explains Ethics and Public Policy fellow Ian Lindquist in National Affairs.
Unfortunately, too many educators are unwilling or unable to engage their students in discussions about ethics.
Barnwell, noting the lament of Steve Ellenwood, the director of Boston University’s Center for Character and Social Responsibility, remarked, “Many educators ‘blithely accept that schools must be value-neutral.’”
Frustrated with district school homogeneity, families turned to school choice options to fill the void created by district schools’ retreat from moral instruction.
Charter schools have provided a unique education alternative because they often have greater curricular autonomy and operate with less funding.
For instance, dissatisfied Arizona families formed a charter school that emphasized ethics and character development. During the next two decades, their school model expanded into the Great Hearts Academy charter school network, which spans Arizona and Texas and teaches 18,000 students annually.
Great Hearts charter schools, while not religious institutions, developed their own curriculum that emphasizes strong moral instruction. Lindquist noted, “[These] schools are still guided by something they view as transcendent—[human nature], which contains powers that can be cultivated and directed toward excellence or virtue.”
Accordingly, students engage in thoughtful conversations about justice, civic virtue, and personal responsibility. “Character education is not old-fashioned, and it’s not about bringing religion into the classroom. Character education teaches children how to make wise decisions and act on them,” says English teacher Jessica Lahey.
The quick expansion of Great Hearts and institutions like it illustrates how much families value their children’s character development. Parents are not willing to sacrifice “the humanity of students for potential academic and intellectual gain” alone.
It’s important to note that these changes occurred because parents were empowered with education choices and seized the initiative to implement change.
In “The Not-So-Great Society,” Robert Jackson, chief academic officer for Great Hearts, added: “Classical charter schools are being driven by families, teachers, and policymakers who value schools founded on the academic and moral qualities that are essential for sustaining communities.”
Charter school autonomy allows school leaders and teachers to create innovative curricula that meets the needs of families. Unlike behemoth district schools, which are weighed down by bureaucratic regulations and mandates, charter schools have the agility to grapple with difficult philosophical and moral questions, an exercise that can imbue students with the intellectual tools and character development required of productive members of a free society.
As University of Arkansas professor Jay Greene explains, educational endeavors that focus on local communities succeed, where attempts to reform mammoth school systems through heavy-handed top-down government approaches have repeatedly failed.
“A wiser approach is to allow families and communities to make their own choices about the purpose of education,” Greene wrote. “Doing so would be more consistent with Americans’ general inclination toward respecting the liberty of others.”
Greene’s assessment resonates with Lindquist’s suggestion that schools and families “are best understood in terms of generations and centuries, not election and funding cycles.” Parents play an essential role in school success and should be welcomed as educational partners.
All parents want their children to grow into healthy members of society, suggesting a demand for schools that emphasize character development and civics. Accordingly, policymakers should allow families to form the schools that reflect their community values.
The success of charter schools such as Great Hearts shows that there is considerable demand for classical, values-based instruction. Enabling schools of choice to flourish can meet that demand.