SALT LAKE CITY — Amid recent calls for more moral education in public schools, Noah Webster Academy in Orem, Utah, has something to say: Come see what we're doing.
The charter school's curriculum is built around principles espoused by the late Stephen R. Covey, whose character-based "The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People," became a global phenomenon. The school's goals include fostering moral virtue and conscience in students.
While the word "moral" has become a linguistic landmine in the U.S., causing some schools to opt for "character" education instead, the need for instruction that goes beyond language, science and math is getting renewed attention. The interest is driven by the polemics of an increasingly divided nation and the decline in participation in religious institutions that for centuries were the primary source of moral instruction outside of the home.
Some have argued that many parents aren't even teaching morals anymore. The late cultural critic Allan Bloom wrote that many American parents have lost control over their children’s moral education “at a time when no one else is seriously concerned with it.” And in The New York Times recently, a writer admitted that her children don't know what sin is.
Is it time for schools to step up? Some people say yes.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Drexel University dean and professor Paula Marantz Cohen called for "Kant in kindergarten," arguing that an ethical framework proposed by German philosopher Immanuel Kant, taught in public schools, could help a nation hobbled by "a profound lack of moral rigor."
And Chester E. Finn Jr. of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute wrote recently that moral education in schools is necessary "because of manifest failures in the public and semi-public squares: with honesty, integrity, and trustworthiness, both on the part of elected officials and in the small venues where we observe an excess of selfishness, cheating, laziness, and willingness to be a burden on others."
The challenges to moral education include concern about the separation of church and state, and the pressure of more demands on teachers already struggling to meet existing standards. Even parents who agree in principle may question whose morals are being taught. Efforts to allow schools to offer classes in the Bible, as introduced recently in Kentucky and Virginia and endorsed by President Donald Trump, have met criticism from not only the American Civil Liberties Union, but some Christians.
Moral instruction can include the Bible and other sacred texts, but it's not necessary, as schools like Noah Webster Academy have shown. A recent report on character education in Utah gives a glimpse into how it could be done.
'Central to our work'
In 2004, the Utah Legislature passed a law establishing requirements for civic and character education, to include instruction on honesty, integrity, morality and civility; respect for parents, home and family; and the dignity and necessity of honest labor.
In its most recent report on what Utah schools are doing, the state Board of Education identified several schools with noteworthy programs, including Maeser Preparatory Academy in Lindon, which employs "Socratic Seminars" to explore classic Roman virtues including honesty, integrity, morality, civility, duty, honor, diligence and service.
Also recognized is Noah Webster Academy, a charter school with 540 students in Orem, where every month students focus on a different "habit" espoused by Covey, and each grade focuses on a different value throughout the year.
Kindergartners, for example, are learning about the importance of conscience, while fourth-graders explore moral virtue, and fifth-graders, patriotism, said academic coordinator Staci Madsen. The students share what they learn at a weekly school meeting and also at a values assembly at the end of the school year.
Charter schools typically have more leeway to delve into character-based programs, whereas traditional public schools are more hesitant to delve into programs that could cause controversy.
But, in fact, it's difficult to teach any subject without confronting moral issues, said Robert Austin, social studies specialist for the state Board of Education in Utah and co-author of the annual report on civic and character education.
“If you’re going to figure out how to split the atom in a science class, you also have to think about whether you should, right? If you’re going to say, 'oh, we can genetically modify human embryos so they can be resistant to cancer,' well, we still have to think about whether that’s a good idea or not,” Austin said.
Teachers also help mold the character of students apart from instruction, as in nudging them to pick up litter or discouraging bullying. "The reality is, building character is central to our work, and a lot is such a given in how we operate in schools that it's hard to separate the dancer from the dance. Where does one start, and where does one end?"
How we fail
In presenting a report on school safety commissioned after the 2018 shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, federal officials said "our country's moral fabric needs more threads of love, empathy and connection." The report's first recommendation on how to achieve this: character education.
Marvin W. Berkowitz, co-director of the Center for Character and Citizenship at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, developed one of the character education frameworks that the federal report recommends. PRIMED is an acronym for six components of a strong program: prioritization, relationships, intrinsic motivation, modeling, empowerment and developmental pedagogy.
Berkowitz, who travels internationally to teach educators and policymakers how to implement character education, said the United States is failing on job one: prioritization.
"In Singapore, it is an authentic priority. In the United Arab Emirates, they’re trying to make it as an authentic priority. In the U.S., it’s some distant back-burner thing. We talk about it politically, and maybe if there’s a little bit of money left over, we might put it there, but probably not. And no policymaker is going to be out there arguing for it to be a lead priority for funding," he said.
Berkowitz said the United States has become a marketplace culture where everything is commodified. Because they're not fiscal assets, children and their education are easy to overlook, but the lack of moral education early in life is the root of serious problems later. Violence and racism aren't addressed by laws or changes in policy, he said. "It's human goodness that we have to be concerned about."
The 'moral' landmine
Matt Osber is a software developer in Framingham, Massachusetts, who, about a decade ago, started thinking about the moral lessons of historical events. As a hobby, he developed a website called My Moral Compass where people could read accounts of historical events — as diverse as the Cuban missile crisis and former president Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky — and even watch videos and vote on the most important moral lessons of the events.
When Osber offered the program, free of charge, to local high schools, and started recruiting interns, the response was less than enthusiastic. He believes that part of the problem was that the website and its offerings weren't sophisticated enough (unlike iCivics, the company he works for now), but he also noticed resistance to the word “moral.”
Osber himself is not religious and sees the word "moral" as representative of simply distinctions between right and wrong, values that all people share.
“Not everybody sees it that way. It’s a landmine,” he says. “Now 'moral' and 'ethical' is all in the eye of the beholder, and teachers have to step so carefully in these areas because it can be perceived as bias one way or the other.”
Berkowitz agrees that educators have to be careful in the words they choose. “There’s no non-controversial language for this.”
Schools have tried a variety of terms that are more neutral — such as social emotional learning — “but as soon as you get into it and people see you’re talking about human goodness, they tend to panic.”
“The panic is about the fear of the unknown and fear that you are going to be imposing an ethical system that is incompatible with mine, that you’re going to be indoctrinating my kids different from the moral vision I want them to have.”
To get around that, he recommends that educators downplay the language, while being very clear about what it is intended.
“Another way is to partner with people, simply say to people who have trepidations about it, ‘We don’t want to violate your faith-based ethic or your family ethic, or your cultural ethic. Would you join us in the planning and development of this initiative to ensure that we don’t do anything that’s anathema to the way you think and the way you want your kids to think.’”
Once involved, it’s rare that anyone objects, and most character-based programs come to five core values that everyone shares: respect, accountability, caring, compassion and fairness.
Do more, do better
Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Kennedy School of Government in Boston, is co-director of a program called Making Caring Common, which helps educators and parents raise compassionate children and conducts research “to reduce the harms and biases that can act as barriers to their empathy and moral growth.”
Weissbourd observes that many schools have character education programs, but some are superficial and lack accountability. As a result, they have no measurable effect on children’s lives.
A few schools do it really well, he said, but in many, “The programs aren’t central. They’re not at the core of schools. They’re not deep. And there’s no real monitoring or tracking or continuous improvement.”
In addition to making character education part of the culture of a culture, other changes could expand the value and reach of such instruction.
For example, Making Caring Common has worked with about 200 colleges and universities to ensure that they consider character when evaluating a student for admission. When a student's character counts as much as grades or extracurricular activities, and when colleges look at whether students are "ethically engaged," secondary schools might place more emphasis on moral education.
Weissbourd and his colleagues are also working to develop a rubric that teachers could use to assess a student's progress in caring about others. Weissbourd, who is 61, notes that when he was in elementary school, his report card noted his progress in categories such as "plays well with others" and "is courteous." Some schools still assess qualities like that, but for those that don't, such measurements could help, by letting parents know how their children are doing in these areas, and encouraging children to try harder in these areas.
Ultimately, the moral education of children calls for all hands on deck, working together, he said.
"What's going on in the big picture here is that schools are spending less time on ethical character, fewer people are involved in religious institutions, and parents are spending less time on ethical character."
"Too often, parents blame the school, the school blames the parents, and the schools and parents blame the lack of community institutions. We even have data that shows some parents think other parents are the problem," Weissbourd said.
"So the case we're trying to make is, everybody has to do more and do better and be more thoughtful about this," he said. "You can't wait for other people to do this."74 comments on this story
And while acknowledging that teachers are under tremendous pressure meeting academic goals set by their states, Austin, at the Board of Education in Utah, said schools must remember their ultimate goal.
“Public education’s central mission is not really to educate great workers, not primarily to create, for example, scientists or engineers or mathematicians or historians. It’s to help nurture people who are going to be civically engaged, the guardians of democracies for generations to come."