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Mona Charen
Mona Charen
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Character Counts, But Not by Race


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.

To find out more about Mona Charen and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



5 Comments | Post Comment
Hi Mona
I agree very much with what you are saying, but try to remember back when you were growing up. Were you more interested in reading "little Women" or were you more interested in the girls who were at the top of the charts in the pop world. When I was young, I wanted to be "In" with my peers. I wanted to be "In" with the music and TV programs, and movies of the day. "Little Women" is a great story and there are many lessons about life to be learned. However, it doesn't even come close to MySpace, text messaging and having my own Ipod. All moral principles have to be constantly updated to be relevant to the current mores. This does mean that old standards no longer apply, it means that educators must find ways to instill classic values in contemporary contexts.
Comment: #1
Posted by: robert j therriault
Fri Apr 11, 2008 5:42 AM
It's time for "FAIR TAX" and eliminating public schools. Taxpayers could be able to send their children to a nice Christian School. If the "Tax & Spend" Democrats get in "May God Help us!" Once again, Obama has
more than demonstrated that his ‘Mission' is same as Rev. Wright!
words to the folks of Pennsylvania should be heard by every Taxpayer that thinks “his change” is
for them! No the change Obama has is for Africa and himself. When Obama didn't place his hand over
his heart to acknowledge American's values told Taxpayers what he had in mind.
The college kids, that Obama has stirred up, that's registering to vote “Just to get back at America”
for not handing them more of Taxpayers money shouldn't be allowed to vote anyway.
Taxpayers feel they're being “Discriminated Against” when people are allowed to vote that don't
work, never have worked, live off welfare and social programs, and only vote so they can continue
receiving a check for themselves and their illegitimates, which, by the way, are creating more terror
on American soil.
Character, morals, integrity, and respect cannot be given. It's starts at conception!It's like “No
child left behind” act - this is what it is “AN ACT!” Guess's who pocketing Taxpayers money?
Taxpayers feel it's time to change VOTING LAWS to protect them for a change and stop the
social and welfare programs that has bankrupted America!
Comment: #2
Posted by: Shirley deLong
Sat Apr 12, 2008 12:27 PM
Ma'am; I don't know why the public schools even bother to teach people they can succeed when all about them are failing, or why they try to teach morality when all who do succeed ether succeed out of immorality or celebrate their success with immorality. It they wish to teach a good lesson, teach that education only has one benefit, and that is understanding, so that those injured by society do not take it out on their parents, their neighbors, or their children; but seek out those who injure them and confront them. It is foolish to try to teach that labor is worthy if it is not worth a living wage. If children see that crime makes one wealthy without labor then that is the correct carreer path. If they see that no one asks the rich how they came by their wealth, and that money alone is honorable and poverty only is dishonorable, then they should be counted as edjufied, and be gradgiated. All other moral nonsense is exactly that. It is not churches, or parents, or peers that teach morality; but whole socieites; and our whole society has only one ethical law: Money talks.
Comment: #3
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Sun Apr 13, 2008 9:42 PM
Barack Obama, as well as all politicians, speeches should be listened to carefully. His words are
chosen so well! I quote “I don't take money from “Oil Companies” or “Washington Lobbyists” and
“I won't stand by and let oil companies get by with making $40 billion in revenues without being
penalized!” Think gas prices and groceries are high now ‘wait and see!' According to Mr. Obama,
it's alright to take money from Chicago Lobbyists, and Lobbyists from other States, Health
Organizations, and many contributions from “unknown companies”?
Democrats and, yes, even some Republicans, use the made up speeches “we'll Stop Nafta, Cafta,
Create Jobs, Cut Taxes, Balance the Budget, Reduce Drug Costs, cut Insurance costs, make sure
every person has access to medical care and insurance, and fix Social Security." What politicians
fail to tell you is that monies taken from ‘their supporters' most definitely, will take more money
from Taxpayers as they won't, as history has been proven, be ‘permitted' to do anything. Folks,
we're talking about big money being ripped from your pockets!
“Discrimination against Taxpayers” is letting people vote that don't work and pay taxes!
Comment: #4
Posted by: Shirley deLong
Mon Apr 21, 2008 4:07 PM
“AMERICA - WE HAVE A PROBLEM!” What's wrong with the “old-fashioned” school
ways when there were 28 to 30 kids in one (1) class with one (1) teacher and yet kids
actually learned how to add, subtract, read, draw, and, yes, respect themselves and the
authority figures over them. I'm talking about the “old-fashioned” Mothers, Fathers,
Teachers and Principals and not this “Modern” ever so changing - can't make up their
argumentative minds Politicians and School Board Members “that make the statements
like “Merger of Schools and Redistricting won't go away!” Would someone, with some
common sense, let me know why we have to change what was working with our schools,
back in the “Old-fashioned” days? Does anyone understand that the kids, including
myself, back in the “Good ole days” were brought up to have prayer in school (and, yes,
there were several backgrounds of religion in our schools then), to have morals, principles,
common sense, and values. All of us are now Professionals and Business Owners who are
trying to figure out why the Politicians and Board Members think that “THEIR WAY” is
the only way our children and grandchildren learn! Guess What, Folks, you need to go
bury your head back into the sand because it is a proven fact that what you are doing to the
kids of today is absolutely not working. PERIOD!
As I have said before and I will keep repeating it “Our Children and Grandchildren are
not getting a common sense education and they are going to be left with a debt that can
never be paid” just because all of the Politicians and Board Members have lost their
common sense and they have to grease their egos.
In the past several years, can you see where the School Bond(s)and Millions of Dollars have
been spent? I can't! We are getting absolutely nothing for these dollars except deeper in
debt, bigger salaries being paid out, and raising a society of children that cannot carry an
intelligent conversation. Is this our “future” American Leaders?
We are all paying enormous taxes and enormous school taxes, maybe we should demand,
immediately, our tax monies back and put our kids in Private Schools or Home School
them so they can learn the basic skills, morals, values, and principles, that will get them
through life. Is it too late to take our children back and hold and love them, before they get
so confused they don't know who or what to believe? Does everyone think that this
“computerized” age, with all the “if we don't do this today it'll be outdated tomorrow is
working?” If you believe this, think again! Our Children and Grandchildren need role
models not “idols”, “cell” phones, “internet and computers”, “tv's, dvd's, etc”. Could this
be why drugs and suicide are on the rise?

Comment: #5
Posted by: Shirley deLong
Mon Apr 21, 2008 4:15 PM
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