A Report on Moral Character Best Left Behind

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, April 10, 2008

What would drive one of the nation's most successful and respected school systems to report which racial and ethnic groups demonstrate the soundest moral character and ethical judgment? How did the Fairfax County schools come to put out statistics claiming that black and Hispanic students are less likely than their white and Asian peers to "possess the skills to manage and resolve conflict"?

Why will the school board convene today to talk about what one of its members calls a "morality gap" that divides the county's racial and ethnic groups?

For decades, schools have been asked to step in where too many parents have failed, taking on the job of teaching values, limits and the ability to tell right from wrong. But while there is a consensus that too many children lack the moral principles that should be planted before they ever set foot in a school, there is far less agreement about how to deal with those kids.

Two years ago, Fairfax, like a growing number of school systems across the country, decided to make "essential life skills" as much a goal as academics. The school board decreed that by the end of high school, "All students will demonstrate the aptitude, attitude and skills to lead responsible, fulfilling and respectful lives."

Who could oppose such a goal, right? So the school board tells the administration to get to work. Anyone who has set foot in a school since the dawn of the No Child Left Behind era knows what happened next.

Administrators, principals and teachers calculated how to determine which students "demonstrate sound moral character" and "courageously identify and pursue their personal goals," and which don't.

Then, as if that weren't difficult and subjective enough, the educators decided to collect data, chop it up by racial and ethnic groups, and digest it into a nifty little scorecard with explosive nuggets like this: Third-grade students who scored "good" or better on work habits "ranged from a low near 80 percent for Black and Special Education students to about 95 percent for Asian and white students."

Even if the basis for such conclusions weren't as flimsy as one of those online polls that ask who is going to win the next "American Idol" contest, what possible purpose could this information serve?

Fairfax School Board member Tina Hone walked off the dais after the data were reported two weeks ago. She hopes to persuade her colleagues to at least delay a vote on the report, if not reject it, and tell the system to go back to the drawing board.

"I agree that our role, especially for kids caught on the wrong side of the tracks, is to fill in gaps left in the home," Hone says. "What I don't think is wise is reporting data by race on having good character. If there's ever a place where teaching to everybody will raise all ships, it's in teaching character. We should be teaching fair play and a moral compass to every child."

Fairfax's measurements of moral character look crisply quantitative on paper, but read behind the numbers and you see scores built on a foundation of nonsense: Number of F's based on attendance; number of discipline referrals issued; teacher observations; surveys students fill out about their life skills -- a load of data, signifying . . . what?

Let's assume green people turn out to be collectively less moral than purple people: What do you do about that? Hone still recalls the powerful impact Aesop's fables had when she read them in school. Great teachers find universal parables in classic literature, in tales of history, in the great moral stands taken by the heroes they present to children.

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