Character Counts, But Not by Race

Mona Charen

4/12/2008 12:01:00 AM - Mona Charen

The public schools, perhaps more than any other institution in American life, are afflicted with "sounds good" syndrome. Let's teach kids about the dangers of smoking. Sounds good. Let's improve math scores with a new curriculum called "whole math." Sounds good. Let's reduce teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases by teaching sex ed. Sounds good. Let's have cooperative learning where kids help one another. And so on.

The Fairfax County, Va., schools (where my children attend) recently joined a nationwide "sounds good" trend by introducing a character education curriculum. Students were exhorted to demonstrate a number of ethical traits like (I quote from my son's elementary school's website) "compassion, respect, responsibility, honesty." It would be easy to mock the program -- each trait, for example, is linked to a shape (respect is a triangle, honesty is a star). The intention to help mold character is a laudable one. But this program, like so much else about the public schools in the "sounds good" era, has foundered.

The curriculum made news recently when a report ordered by the school board evaluated student conduct for "sound moral character and ethical judgment" and then grouped the results by race. Oh, dear. It seems that among third graders, 95 percent of white students received a grade of "good" or better, whereas only 86 percent of Hispanic kids did that well and only 80 percent of black and special education students were so rated.

Martina A. "Tina" Hone, an African-American member of the school board, told the Washington Post that the decision to aggregate the evaluations by race was "potentially damaging and hurtful."

Where to begin? In the first place, why in the world do they count special education students? Isn't it obvious that this is a population that has difficulty regulating behavior? I hasten to add that I know from personal experience that the county has an outstanding special education program. Why would they seek to employ standards that are utterly inapplicable?

Further, do we really want the public schools to evaluate our children's moral characters? What is the measure? She "respects others' property" and he "complies with established rules"? Does this tell us anything useful on an aggregate basis? Worse yet to group the results by race. The county was apparently responding to the No Child Left Behind spirit of channeling resources to the most needy students. "Educators typically examine racial and ethnic patterns in academic data to spot problems and direct resources" explains the Post. And so, with the best of intentions, the school board winds up insulting an entire group.

The superintendent of schools, Jack D. Dale, apparently seeking a politically correct silver lining, said the study's results could lead to "new understanding about social and cultural differences in students." Here's a radical idea: How about one standard for everyone without regard to race, sex, ethnicity, or any other group membership? Ironically, this study, intended to help solve problems in the minority populations of Fairfax County (which includes substantial numbers of east Asians, south Asians, Hispanics, and African-Americans) will be perceived as evidence of racism by professional offense takers. Counting by race, no matter how benevolent the motive, is toxic.

The schools unavoidably teach ethics and morality whether the curriculum explicitly calls for it or not. The attention lavished on Martin Luther King sends an unambiguous message about human equality and dignity. Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance instills patriotism. Excessive focus on racism, sexism, and other fashionable isms undermines patriotism. Excusing late papers teaches irresponsibility. Punishing a kindergartner who plants a kiss on a classmate as a "sexual harasser" teaches an appreciation for the absurd. There is no point in urging that ethics and morals are not the proper province of the schools because they will inevitably intrude in a thousands ways.

Like so many other big public systems (and Fairfax is among the country's finest), the system clogs kids brains with so many politically correct messages that more traditional moral lessons are crowded out. My sons have been force-fed Manichean tales about noble Native Americans oppressed by whites and religious fanatics scheming against righteous descendants of slaves.

Far better to drop the newer books and teach only the classics. Let them read "Oliver Twist," "The Red Badge of Courage," and "Little Women." They are great stories and the ethics are implicit -- which is always better if you wish to avoid cynicism.