November 18, 2008
Center teaches virtue of character education
SUNY Cortland professor gives educators insight into teaching morals
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Tom Lickona and Marthe Seales pose in VanHoesen Hall on the SUNY Cortland campus. Lickona is the director of SUNY Cortland’s Center for the Fourth and Fifth R’s, where educators can find resources for teaching values. Seales is the center’s administrative assistant.
Tom Lickona heard Waterloo Middle School Principal Mike Ferrara say “Good morning” during a recent assembly at the Seneca County school.
The auditorium quickly fell silent. Several years earlier Ferrara had needed to call repeatedly for order amid chaos.
Lickona knew the reasons behind the change: a team of teachers from the school had taken teachings from his summer institute on character education at SUNY Cortland and found a partnership between class and person.
“It was so bad eight years ago,” said foreign language teacher Karen Moretti, “and you would not believe the difference. We owe it to Tom.”
Lickona is the director of SUNY Cortland’s Center for the Fourth and Fifth R’s, where educators can find resources for teaching values.
The newsletters and books he creates with administrative assistant Marthe Seales, plus their summer institute for educators, show schools how to teach responsibility and respect.
The center has reached out to thousands of schools nationwide since it opened in 1994, but its work gained momentum in the spring of 1999, after the massacre of students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado.
Lickona, a developmental psychologist and early childhood education professor, founded the center as schools were being pushed by the public to teach values and ethics, after 40 years of backing away from it.
Ferrara encouraged Moretti to develop advising about values after she attended the institute in 2000, listening to Lickona and Matthew Davidson, his partner in many ventures, talk about changing students’ behavior.
“It started with students in small groups, for a half hour a day, and now it is all day,” Moretti said. “We want our students to be very good academically and as people. We want a partnership between both sides of school. Now, 450 kids stop talking when they hear ‘good morning’ or ‘good afternoon’ from the principal.”
Waterloo Middle School was named a 2008 National School of Character by the U.S. Department of Education.
Lickona said the movement to teach character began during the Clinton Administration, under Education Secretary William Bennett, who wrote a best-selling book of stories about virtues. “The federal government began to give grants,” Lickona said. “President Bush increased funding. Sometimes people ask if character education is a conservative movement, but it has support across the political spectrum.”
Schools taught students to be “good” and smart, Lickona said, until after World War II, when Americans began to believe that values were personal and private, not something for schools to concern themselves with. Lickona said that belief began to change in the 1980s, as the family structure weakened and popular culture grew more toxic.
Character education falls into two categories: performance challenges (dropout rates, achievement gaps among races, declining readiness for college) and ethics challenges (academic honesty, civic engagement, hazing, drug and alcohol abuse).
The topic has fascinated Lickona since he was a University at Albany doctoral student in 1968 and read about the work of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, who studied how children think. Two years later, Lickona discovered the work of Lawrence Kolberg, who developed theories of moral reasoning based on Piaget’s work. He became friends with Kolberg.
Lickona has authored two popular books on the topic, “Raising Good Children” (1983) and “Educating for Character” (1991).
Lickona started the center with $35,000 grants from two foundations, Humanitas and Surdna.
The Columbine massacre in 1999 prompted Lt. Gov. Mary Donohue to hold hearings around New York state.
“I spoke at her hearing in Syracuse,” he said. “I made a case for character education as a way to prevent violence around schools.”
Donohue’s findings led the state Legislature to pass a law requiring character education in public schools. A year later, the state Department of Education issued guidelines for how to follow that law.
That provided a boost for the center at SUNY Cortland, one of 10 centers for teaching character education in the nation.
Lickona created the Summer Institute in 1995 as a way for teachers, principals, guidance counselors, consultants, community workers, even police officers, to learn how children could learn values. He said the institute, which was five days long but is now three days, has had about 5,000 attendees from 35 states and more than 20 other nations.
“We had a call from Australia recently, asking about it,” Seales said.
Lickona and Davidson, who directs the Institute for Excellence and Ethics in LaFayette, will share a $2.7 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation over the next four years. The two authored a report in 2005 that was mailed to 26,000 schools, titled “A Report to the Nation: Smart and Good High Schools.”
The federal government now sponsors the National Schools of Character competition, a designation for schools that have improved drastically in how students show respect and strong character. Besides Waterloo Middle School, recent winners have come from the center’s Summer Institute, including Lansing Middle School and elementary schools in Liverpool, Binghamton and Central Square.
“But this is not just about schools,” Lickona said, “but about the wider community. Teaching character has to be a cooperative effort. Everybody is a crucial part of it.”
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