Are You Culturally Competent to Teach Character?

It is common practice to compare and contrast students in terms of academic ability by race and ethnicity. But what about morality?

Many schools are implementing character-education frameworks into their curriculum to meet “essential life skills” standards. To analyze their program’s effectiveness and to receive funding for it, they need data. Too little info can hurt, but bad data can be worse.

Last month, the Fairfax County School Board in Virginia took the information they had compiled to another level by breaking down the information by race, gender, and other variables. Rather than assess character the right way by analyzing statistics in the appropriate context (see how in “Teacher’s Lounge” below), the Board used methods that were “ridiculously broad in scope,” according to Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher.

Not surprisingly, their conclusion caused a national furor: Black, Hispanic, and special-education students demonstrate less “sound moral character and ethical judgment” than white and Asian-American students.

Fairfax Board member Tina Hone walked off the dais when the report came out. She told the Post: “There is a fundamental difference between looking at race vis-à-vis the achievement gap in academics where you have hard data” and gaps in such criteria as integrity, respect, and responsibility.

Fisher wrote that Fairfax’s overreaching was a classic example of educators “disaggregating data”: looking at children not as individuals but as members of a group. “The move to quantify grows from a religious devotion to test scores. And the resort to race stems from the balkanization of society, the self-destructive notion that we are a collection of groups rather than a nation of individuals.

“ keeps the central office workers employed. It makes politicians look like they are doing something. And private industry loves it because they can create whole new classes of consultants out of each initiative. But mainly, it’s a lot easier than teaching a child one on one.”

Teacher Bias
What the story uncovered was the ugly reality behind it: We’re always – consciously or unconsciously – judging students’ character and behavior based on their demographic group. Whether it occurs in a research study, a classroom, or society, painting an ethnic group’s values with a broad brush is dicey. Are your conclusions based on common cultural traits or on prejudice, misinformation, and/or unawareness?

For educators to tout evidence proclaiming that certain cultures have a “morality gap” is particularly onerous because it ignores the existence of possible preconceptions and/or lack of knowledge about students’ cultures, learning styles, and family backgrounds. “This is on the teachers,” Hone said. “It’s not a problem of one group of kids.”

Numerous studies bear this out. According to Clotfelter et al (2005), black students are commonly treated differently than white students. They’re more likely to be placed in special-education classes and less likely to be placed in classes for the gifted and talented. Stigmas about one’s group identity create chronic stress that can undermine performance.

Other studies have revealed that expectations for black students are, on average, lower than for white students (Baron, Tom & Cooper, 1985; Ferguson, 1998; Figlio, 2005), and their perceptions of Asian-American students as being the “model minority” persist despite the fact that Asia contains nearly 4 billion people from more than 50 countries and widely diverse cultures.

The harm in perpetuating either positive or negative stereotypes is that if we believe in either, we believe in both. If we conclude that certain races are academically and socially successful because of their unique cultural or racial strengths, then we’ll most likely infer that groups who fall short are culturally and racially weaker. (Are you culturally competent to teach character education? Test yourself.)

How to Properly Teach Character
What’s even flimsier than trying to determine whose values are better is deciding which ones are. Ethicists have debated for centuries what the ultimate character credo is, but in the long run, each doctrine has come up short.

In 1992, Josephson Institute gathered a diverse group of educators and ethicists in Aspen, Colorado, to see if they could come up with a set of enduring, universal ethical values that everyone could agree on. A credo that would transcend differences in race, religion, politics, gender, class, and culture. A set of moral ground rules that could apply to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

The result was the Six Pillars of Character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. Across the nation, this simple framework has proven to be not only critical to the success of students but educators as well. Do you instill character lessons based on your personal values or on universal ethics that apply to everyone?

How to Properly Assess Character
Do you deal with misbehaving and low achieving kids in your classroom as individuals or as a demographic group? Do you judge youngsters based on your biases and background or on your cultural competence of their values and beliefs?

In Ethics in a Multicultural Context, authors Sherlon P. Pack-Brown and Carmen Braun Williams write that teachers and professionals need to develop multicultural and diversity “lenses” and “hearing aids” to accurately see differences and similarities reflective of race, ethnicity, culture, and gender.

Although conceding that it’s unrealistic to expect or require educators to know everything about all populations, the authors added, “practicing within a cultural context mandates at the very least that such professionals build a helping foundation that is grounded in the cultural worldviews and life experiences of those they serve…and the impact of the dominant culture on these populations.”

The Fairfax study demonstrated that during any data assessment of a character-education program, teachers, counselors, and administrators must, before the task is even contemplated, let alone begun, and then at every stage thereafter:

  • Determine and deal with their own biases, misinformation, and lack of knowledge about race, gender, and other cultural issues.
  • Determine and deal with their shortcomings in teaching ethical issues in a multicultural context.
  • Ensure that their tools and methods of data gathering and analysis are sound, appropriate, specific to the context, and free of cultural bias or misinformation.

Although methods and theories of teaching character education will continue to evolve, one approach will remain constant, Fisher asserts: “Just as solutions to a child’s struggle to learn to read must be molded to each kid’s needs, so too must each moral compass be fixed, one at a time.”

Ethics in a Multicultural Context, Pack-Brown & Williams, 2003;, 9/06;, winter 2007/2008; “Understanding Trends in the Black-White Achievement Gap,” Page, Murnane & Willett, 3/08;, 4/10/08; Potomac Confidential, 4/10/08;, 4/16/08