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Ethics for Eighth Graders

Boston charter schools teach it, but is it working?


It’s 9:30 a.m. on a typical Tuesday, and a group of eighth graders is discussing the philosophical ideas of Thrasymachus and the fall of Yertle the Turtle. The former is a Greek sophist and a character in Plato’s Republic who unsuccessfully argued that “justice is the advantage of the stronger”—or, in plainer terms, that might makes right. The latter is a Dr. Seuss character, an oppressive turtle king who commands his fellow turtles to provide him a throne by stacking themselves beneath him. (The turtle tower eventually topples, of course, and the Seuss story ends with Yertle floundering in the mud.)

This is ethical philosophy class, a fundamental component of the curriculum at the Boston Preparatory Charter Public School. Established in 2004 in Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood, the school emphasizes scholarship, personal growth, and five moral virtues: courage, compassion, integrity, perseverance, and respect. Thrasymachus and Yertle figured into a lesson on the virtue of respect. Similar lessons use the memoirs of Gandhi to teach integrity and episodes of the reality show Fear Factor to distinguish between true courage and mere bravado.

Boston Prep, with its weekly ethics class and its community meetings where students receive value commendations for good behavior, is among a growing number of charter schools that aim to instill in their students positive character traits, from perseverance and self-discipline to generosity and kindness. Scott Seider, a School of Education assistant professor and an expert in character education, recently studied Boston Prep and two similar Boston charter schools to help answer two vital questions about this educational model: does it actually work, and what effect does it have on student achievement?

Three approaches to character education

Each of the three schools in Seider’s study approaches character education from a slightly different angle. Boston Prep focuses on moral character, he says, while Roxbury Prep focuses primarily on performance character and the Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter School primarily on civic character. The three high-performing urban schools are similar in that they all require uniforms and an extended school day and attempt to cultivate a strong culture through school-wide community meetings.

Boston Prep enrolls about 350 students in grades 6 through 12. The centerpiece of a Boston Prep education is a weekly ethical philosophy class, taught at the middle school level by homeroom teachers and at the high school level by a dedicated philosophy teacher. The ethics classes revolve around the school’s five virtues, and teachers use increasingly sophisticated definitions of those virtues as their students mature. “In the seventh grade, they define integrity as doing the right thing even when no one is watching,” says Seider. “In high school, they would talk about integrity as being true to yourself, acting in ways that are authentic.”

The ethics class provides a common vocabulary that becomes a powerful tool for students, teachers, and administrators, says Seider. “They actively use the language of those five virtues all of the time,” he says. “So if a kid is sent to the dean’s office for misbehaving, they’ll talk about that kid’s misbehavior in the context of which of the five virtues he or she was not fulfilling. In community meetings, they’ll talk about the performance of the basketball team within the context of perseverance or courage.”

While Boston Prep emphasizes character from a moral perspective, Roxbury Prep—which serves students in grades six through eight—follows the lead of the successful Knowledge Is Power Program, focusing on character from a performance perspective. The highlight of Roxbury Prep’s weekly community meeting is the awarding of the “Spirit Stick” to a student who embodies the school’s 10 virtues: scholarship, integrity, dignity, responsibility, perseverance, community, leadership, peace, social justice, and investment. While all 10 virtues are important at Roxbury Prep, says Seider, “in truth, their character education initiatives are deeply focused on perseverance and academic performance.”

Lessons during the students’ twice-weekly advisory periods, he says, often feature examples of people who persevered to succeed: students watch a television commercial showing athletes discussing the training required to win, or they listen to a speech by President Barack Obama pointing out the thousands of failed tests Thomas Edison ran before finding the right materials for his lightbulb. Friday’s community meetings often include opportunities for students to showcase their academic excellence, from contests to see who can memorize the most digits of pi to “public speaking extravaganzas” that allow students to earn prizes for their memorization and presentation skills.

Academy of the Pacific Rim, also in Hyde Park, enrolls 500 students in grades 5 through 12 and employs philosophies from Eastern and Western culture to inspire students to excel and to help them appreciate their civic responsibilities to their school, their city, their country, and their world. Students perform community service in Boston and beyond, study Mandarin Chinese, take a 12th-grade civics class, and have opportunities to travel to China as exchange students. The school’s culture revolves around two Japanese words: gambatte and kaizen. Gambatte implies persistence and doing one’s best. Kaizen is the Japanese principle of continuous improvement—for yourself and for your community. Students are often assessed as a class, rather than as individuals, to reinforce the importance of working together.

Survey says

To gauge the effectiveness of the schools’ approaches to character education, Seider spent much of the 2010–2011 academic year observing the schools’ classes and community meetings and interviewing students, parents, and staff. He also surveyed students at the beginning and end of the academic year, using questions from established survey tools designed to measure such things as compassion, integrity, perseverance, social responsibility, and community connectedness. Students rated how much they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “I sometimes give up on my homework if it seems too hard”; “I think teenagers should just enjoy themselves and not worry about things like poverty and the environment”; “I tell my friends when I think they’re doing something wrong”; and “In my school there are people I can ask for help when I need it.”

After gathering binders full of survey and observational data, Seider spent last summer sifting through that information and comparing it to records the three schools provided on students’ grades and behavior. He plans to continue analyzing the data and expects it to yield several magazine articles and academic papers and a full-length book.

In the meantime, he says, he can share the top conclusions he’s already made from his research. The most basic of these conclusions: intense focus on character education actually works. Seider’s survey results show that students do make gains in the character traits their schools emphasize—and they make the largest gains in the areas their schools focus on most intently. “You can see the effects of different types of interventions,” Seider says. “And I think that really puts the onus on schools to be reflective about what they want to achieve.”

Seider’s second group of findings comes from comparing character-survey results with records of students’ grades, demerits for misbehavior, and commendations/merits for good behavior. The combined data from all three schools reveal that specific character traits are strong predictors of student outcomes. The character trait strongly associated with grades is perseverance (students with the highest perseverance scores also have the highest grades). The trait associated with demerits is integrity (students with higher integrity get fewer demerits). The trait that predicts commendations/merits is a sense of community connection.

The relationship between perseverance and academic achievement, says Seider, is no surprise: plenty of past research has shown that performance character traits such as perseverance and self-discipline are more important than IQ as predictors of academic success, and many schools have therefore begun incorporating performance character education into their curricula. The findings about integrity and community connection, however, have Seider excited.

“If you think of school culture as incredibly important to creating an environment where powerful teaching and learning can happen, then clearly you want a school environment where misbehavior is low and positive behaviors are high,” he says. “The strongest predictor of misbehavior is low integrity, a moral character trait. The best predictor of commendable behavior is a sense of connectedness, which you could describe as a civic character trait. That’s where I’m really interested—in this idea that moral and civic character traits have a real role to play in creating a school culture where learning can take place.”

To back up his gut feeling that better learning happens in better classroom environments, Seider crunched his numbers and found a direct correlation between students’ academic grades and being in classes where teachers issue few demerits. As an advocate of civic and moral character education in a country where test scores and academic performance often reign supreme, Seider is pleased to have solid evidence that teaching compassion and character has a place in the classroom alongside pronouns, Pythagoras, and perseverance.

Corinne Steinbrenner can be reached at cks@bu.edu.

This article originally ran in the fall 2011 edition of @SED.


One Comment on Ethics for Eighth Graders

  • Hifi on 12.12.2011 at 12:35 pm

    If only it were so. Sieder’s analysis isn’t scientific. The data suffers from being self-reported by students and teachers. The results strain to find positive correlations. Sure, behavior traits are indicators of academic success, but that has nothing to say about being able to inculcate character in students with a school program.

    So, is there a way for district, school or parent to know if character education has any value? What if there was a conclusive study about it which proved that it does absolutely nothing except waste time and money (just what we need more of in public schools!)

    That’s right. October 2010, a federal study*, the largest and most thorough ever conducted, found that school-wide Character Education programs produce exactly ZERO improvements in student behavior or academic performance. Odd that Sieder’s research didn’t turn this up.

    It’s no surprise to find that CE programs are needed and have no effect. Just take a look at the lists of values and goals of the dozens of their competing offerings. The lack of agreement between the lists is one of the most damning aspects of character education! It also becomes obvious that the majority of the values are concerned with conformity, submitting to authority, not making a fuss… a blatantly conservative program.

    One thing all these programs do agree on is what values are NOT included on their lists of core values. Not found, even though they are fundamental to the history and success of our nation are such noted virtues as individualism, innovation, curiosity, critical thinking, skepticism, and even moderation. “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” the famous saying by Ms. Frizzle on the much celebrated TV show, The Magic School Bus, embodies values are antithetical to those found in today’s character education.

    *”Efficacy of Schoolwide Programs to Promote Social and Character Development and Reduce Problem Behavior in Elementary School Children” The Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. October 2010.


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