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The Role of Character Education in Public Schools

Character education can be incorporated into a standards-based educational system in a variety of ways.

"Is our only objective to get students ready for success in the workforce? Do we not also have a responsibility to prepare students to be active and engaged citizens? Don't we want our next generation to be caring neighbors, effective parents, and strong role models for the generation after theirs? Aren't we obligated to provide them with the skills they need to successfully pursue and achieve happiness and joy in their lives? I think we are, and I believe technological change and the global economy make it more important than ever that we focus on these things."

Former State Superintendent of Public Instruction (SSPI) Jack O'Connell

One of the greatest challenges parents face is how to help their children grow up to become moral people with values we cherish as members of a civilized society. While instilling values is first and foremost an obligation of families, our schools, faith groups, and youth, civic and human services organizations can also play a significant role in supporting families to foster and promote good character in children. Schools can help by offering educational programs that reinforce these values that help children develop good dispositions that will enable them to flourish intellectually, personally, and socially.

Former SSPI Jack O'Connell believed that America's heritage and laws reflect a common core of personal and social values that hold the citizens of this democracy responsible for acting ethically, being actively involved in school and community, resolving differences peacefully, and respecting the rights, dignity, and property of others. The California Department of Education advocates incorporating character education into a standards-based educational system in a variety of ways.

California Education Code Section 233.5(a) lays the groundwork and calls upon educators to impress upon students the principles of character:

"Each teacher shall endeavor to impress upon the minds of the pupils the principles of morality, truth, justice, patriotism, and a true comprehension of the rights, duties, and dignity of American citizenship, and the meaning of equality and human dignity, including the promotion of harmonious relations, kindness toward domestic pets and the humane treatment of living creatures, to teach them to avoid idleness, profanity, and falsehood, and to instruct them in manners and morals and the principles of a free government. Each teacher is also encouraged to create and foster an environment that encourages pupils to realize their full potential and that is free from discriminatory attitudes, practices, events, or activities, in order to prevent acts of hate violence…"

An effective character education program should be embedded in the core curriculum and the school culture on an ongoing basis. It requires an intentional, proactive, consistent, and comprehensive approach that promotes a common core of personal and social values in all phases of school life. There are opportunities to infuse the elements of character into all of the California curriculum frameworks, particularly the history-social science framework and the reading/language arts framework. This would not be another add-on program, but rather a way to strengthen existing program efforts by integrating core elements throughout the curriculum.

The International Center for Leadership in Education External link opens in new window or tab. has identified 12 guiding principles of exceptional character that lay an important foundation for how one behaves individually or in relationships with others. Guiding principles are qualities that are naturally viewed as leading to higher-level functioning, creating positive relationships with others, and promoting a civil society. The 12 guiding principles are:

  • Adaptability – The ability and willingness to change. To put oneself in harmony with changed circumstances. To be ready and willing to adjust as necessary to the changes in people and circumstances that arise in daily life.
  • Compassion – Kindness. The desire to help others in distress. To show kindness and concern for others in distress by offering help whenever possible.
  • Contemplation – Giving serious consideration to something. To think things through with proper care before taking action.
  • Courage – Bravery. The willingness to put one's beliefs into practice, the capacity to meet danger without giving way to fear. To face difficulty or danger and express your beliefs even if you are afraid.
  • Honesty – Truthfulness, sincerity. The act or condition of never deceiving, stealing, or taking advantage of the trust of others. To be truthful in all that you do and never deceive, steal, or take advantage of the trust of others.
  • Initiative – Eagerness to do something. To take responsible action on your own, without prompting from others.
  • Loyalty – Faithfulness, dependability. The quality of being faithful to another person in the performance of duty; adhering to a contract with another person. To show others that you are dependable when you have a commitment to them.
  • Optimism – Positive beliefs. The inclination to take a hopeful view or think that all will work out for the best. To strive to be positive in your beliefs about yourself, others, and the future.
  • Perseverance – Hard work. The quality of trying hard and continuously in spite of obstacles and difficulties.
  • Respect – Regard, value, admire, appreciate. Special esteem or consideration in which one holds another person or thing. To show regard for yourself, others, and the world around you.
  • Responsibility – Accountability. To consider oneself answerable for something. To demonstrate that you consider yourself to be accountable for your actions and that you follow through on your commitments.
  • Trustworthiness – Reliability. Dependable, deserving of trust and confidence.

Research shows compelling reasons why character education must be part of children's instructional program:

  • The Partnerships in Character Education State Pilot Projects External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF; 4MB) conducted a research and development project from 1995-2001 that indicated that school attendance went up while school suspensions decreased when character education was integrated with existing school and district programs and curriculum. Character became a visible part of the school's organizational values and climate. Parents, staff, and students felt their schools were safer places, and their attitudes about school improved.

  • The California Partnership in Character Education also shares feedback from schools that experienced positive results after incorporating character education into their curricula:
    • Character education has sparked many activities at Al Tahoe Elementary in South Lake Tahoe, including peer tutoring, teacher and student appreciation days, family nights, and a kudos box for positive staff comments. Principal Jim Watson says, "Our focus on character education has been a major component in the positive transition in our school. As you enter our school, office, staff lounge, classrooms and playground areas, you can feel it – our school has been touched and enriched with character education!"
    • In Colusa County, Lloyd G. Johnson Junior High School's character education program has created a friendlier, more tolerant atmosphere. Students, staff, and parents have noticed the change and are excited about the future.
    • Fern Bacon Middle School in Sacramento has implemented a character-based citizenship program where students actually receive a grade that goes on their transcript. This citizenship program, coupled with a school uniform policy, has brought attendance up and decreased disciplinary referrals to the principal's office.

Questions:   Coordinated School Health & Safety Office | 916-319-0914
Last Reviewed: Thursday, July 19, 2018
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