Carol Allred was ahead of her time. In the late 1970s, as a high-school teacher in Idaho, she decided to try to integrate something new into her English and psychology classes.
"I kept thinking there were things we were not teaching," she said.
So she developed a program for high schools, and was then asked to develop a similar program geared toward elementary students. In 1982, she left teaching to form Positive Action, Incorporated, a company dedicated to implementing "character education" in schools.
Business was good. By 1992, "we had grown 30 times our size in five years."
A rash of school shootings in the 1990s pushed the issue of children's morality to the forefront. Over the past few years, one of the biggest buzzwords in schools has been "character education," a term meaning the development of morals and ethics in young people.
The largest component of Allred's program is a stand-alone class on character that runs from kindergarten through high school. In kindergarten, for example, children are read three stories in a lesson about empathy. After each story, students stand on a pair of footprints and tell how the main character of the story feels. "Beginning in kindergarten, they know what empathy is," Allred said.
One problem with discussing character education, though, is that this is but one approach. The subject is so broad and covers so many different philosophies and techniques.
Character education can include everything from choosing books for English classes that have moral lessons to conscious efforts to infuse character lessons into all aspects of curriculum to intensive classes dealing exclusively with morals and ethics. Sometimes, what's called character education is designed to produce well-behaved students and workers, while other times it tries to give children the tools to make moral decisions.
And although there is a multitude of programs, many have no independent research to assess whether they even work. "If you can't talk about effects, you shouldn't be talking about it in education," Allred said.
A lack of independent research isn't stopping schools and states, though.
"We're seeing a lot more activity on local levels, and on state levels," said Brendan Glavin, assistant coordinator for the Character Education Partnership, based in Washington, DC.
The activity has been spurred by a number of factors. "There are some trends unique to the past 20 years that are all negative for children," including lower test scores and higher pregnancy and suicide rates, said James Leming, a professor at Southern Illinois University who studies character-education programs.
Those factors have fed the call for more character education. "This is truly a widespread, broad-based, grassroots movement of incredible vitality," he said.
Character-education efforts in Quad Cities schools are modest at this point, and distant cousins to the rigorous programs being developed and implemented nationwide.
Rock Island Superintendent Dave Markward said his school district has been doing character education for years. "Ours is mostly imbedded in what we do," he said. But what Markward calls "character education" isn't the same thing that politicians and national educational leaders are discussing - it's not a formal program.
"It's in the work that's chosen," Markward said, adding that the district and teachers pick texts that "exemplify" good moral character. "It's more implied and permissive than mandated," he said.
The Rock Island school district does have specialized programs that include character education for students having disciplinary troubles. The Anger Replacement Training program, which the district began five years ago, includes character education, anger management, and social skills, said Susan Reading, assistant superintendent of pupil services.
The program first teaches empathy. Before a student can begin to improve his or her behavior, Reading said, "the first thing you need is empathy. Without that, you're not going to get through anything else."
The character-education component also includes honesty, flexibility, timeliness, and cooperation, traits the school district thinks people need to be good citizens and good workers, and "not things we think parents should be doing."
That stipulation limits the scope of the program, though. Many character-education methods focus on making distinctions between right and wrong, not just being productive members of society.
Like many character-education programs, Rock Island's Anger Replacement Training faces questions about effectiveness. Reading said the district has anecdotal evidence and has compiled some statistics, but "we don't have enough good data" to know whether the program is improving student behavior. "We have to figure out how to measure it and give the answer," she said.
The Davenport school district has a somewhat more-developed program, but it's very young and only in elementary schools. "We're really trying to make sure it's in every [elementary] classroom," said Jane Grady, the district's executive director for learning services.
The Davenport program focuses on seven "skills," including honesty, caring, and perseverance. "What we do is work it into the curriculum," Grady said. "They're fit in with other lessons and in the reading materials." When studying history or literature, for example, teachers can highlight and discuss characters or historical figures who display some of the seven skills.
The school district is now working to develop a similar program for middle schools.
There's been more activity at the state level. In 1995, Iowa became one of the first states to get a federal grant to create a character-education pilot program, and Illinois just began the second year of a three-year grant to implement character education in the Chicago area and in one school district in southern Illinois.
Illinois' pilot program is modeled on a curriculum developed in the Chicago public schools, said Leon Hendricks, director of character education for the City of Chicago and project director of pilot projects in character education for the Illinois State Board of Education.
The centerpiece of the four-year-old program is a kindergarten-through-high-school curriculum that covers 10 "traits" in more than 300 lessons.
These traits can be discussed even in classes that wouldn't seem to lend themselves to moral education. Hendricks said a math class might include analyzing the negative economic impacts of slavery, and how that pushed Abraham Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation rather than a sense of justice or moral outrage.
"There are some major changes" in the schools because of the character-education program, claimed Hendricks, who has compiled a booklet of success stories.
But almost all advocates for character education stress the need for statistical support - that their programs are reducing the number of disciplinary referrals in their schools or producing other positive behavior changes. "We make a lot of people feel real good about themselves ... but we must also have hard data," Hendricks said.
When applying for the federal character-education grant, Hendricks included a provision for an independent evaluation. "After two and a half years, Chicago really had not been evaluated," he said. (Advocates such as the Character Education Partnership have asked Congress to force federally funded pilot programs to use some of their grant money for evaluation.)
Illinois' pilot program is being evaluated by Southern Illinois University's Leming.
Leming said that while many programs show promise and do effect modest change, character education is not a magic bullet. Some programs, especially those developed by for-profit companies, offer claims of fantastic results, but not independent or unbiased research. He estimated that 75 percent of commercially developed programs have no solid research proving their effectiveness.
"I'm skeptical of the perception that some people are trying to create that this is the best thing since sliced bread," he said. On the other hand, Leming said that he has studied programs that have made "significant and meaningful changes in kids."
Character-education programs have shown themselves to be "pretty successful at developing in kids an understanding of the vocabulary of character," Leming said. In addition, some programs have changed the attitudes and values of children.
In other words, research has shown that children better understand words such as "empathy," and that some kids respond differently to questions about their values after they've been in character-education programs.
Where results have largely been mixed is on the behavior end, he said.
The key thing for parents, politicians, and educators to understand is that character education is not easy. "Expect it to be hard to do," he said. "Expect it to be hard work. Don't expect it to turn kids around 180 degrees in six weeks."
MORALS VERSUS RULES
Getting evidence that character-education programs work is one of the movement's biggest challenges in its quest for acceptance. Tied to that issue is how to differentiate among the wide array of approaches to character education, and dozens of available programs.
Unlike other trends in education, few dispute the premise or importance of character education. The debate has been what exactly character education should encompass, and how to implement it.
Larry Nucci, a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and director and principal investigator of the school's Office of Studies in Moral Development and Character Formation, said the issue of character education has "exploded" in recent years. And he welcomes the attention the issue is getting. "I think it's absolutely essential," he said.
Being essential doesn't make it easy. When any issue enters the political arena - and in this case, it's a matter for government bodies from school boards to the United States Congress - it gets twisted and manipulated.
The current presidential campaign is the high-visibility forum in which character education has become important. Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore has said he supports expanding character education, but he has put forth no concrete proposals.
And Republican candidate George W. Bush is emphasizing character education in his educational platform, promising to triple federal funding for pilot programs from a paltry $8 million to a slightly less paltry $25 million.
Bush's education agenda casts the issue in conventionally Republican terms, allowing faith-based organizations to bid for federal after-school-program grants and increasing abstinence-education funding in addition to tripling character-education money.
"I hate to see it become politicized," said Allred, who added that politicians often promote their own values. "It makes me concerned for the whole character-education movement. This'll become another buzzword or bandwagon that will fade away."
"What he [Bush] is talking about ... is making nice kids," Nucci said. "I think schools are doing it pretty well." What politicians mean by "character education" is reinforcing community rules and mores, not teaching children how to be moral people, Nucci said. Because Republicans and Democrats are not really addressing morality and ethics, character education has become "a pox on both political parties," he added.
Allred and Nucci stress the importance of teaching a "universal" morality.
Allred's program focuses on how one's actions affect others. At the beginning of each year, students are asked how they like to be treated. "The list [of responses] is always the same," Allred said, no matter the demographics or backgrounds of the groups. The list then becomes the basis of the "code of conduct" for the year. "It's really easy," she said.
As Nucci noted, different religions and communities have different rules and mores. Any program that uses those as its basis will exclude some people. In that context, premarital sex and drug use fall under the category of social rules and not morals.
But there are always rules across religious backgrounds. Nucci studied children of different religious backgrounds, and the results didn't vary. "All of these children treat unprovoked harm as something that would be wrong whether there was a rule in the Bible or not," Nucci said. "Morality is a human problem, and it transcends a specific religion."
The challenge for the character-education movement now is to get beyond being the trend du jour. Over the next few years, independent review will establish which programs and philosophies work and which don't, and then schools across the country will need to become more consistent in their approach to character education.
"There is such a demand for character education," Allred said. "It's such a wonderful opportunity."