Shaping Character: The Reason Why

The list of goals can seem endless.

Integrate technology better.
Make learning fun.
Improve classroom management.
Boost test scores.

Dozens of worthy objectives compete for educators’ attention, all jockeying to be most important. At the best of times, they’re inspiring; at other times, they can feel like the straws threatening the camel’s back.

And now we’re proposing one more: Resolve to shape your students’ character.

Hear us out.

This goal may sound like one more thing that looks good on paper but won’t really happen. Or perhaps you teach at a public school and think of “character formation” as something that’s inappropriate in your setting, where a wide range of values must be accommodated. Maybe you’re so buried under test prep that you can’t imagine adding one more thing. Or maybe you think of character formation as the jurisdiction of the guidance department, not the classroom.

But the shaping of character is happening whether you intend it to or not. Kids are catching character even when you’re not teaching it. When you’re irritated but choose to communicate kindly, your students notice and are formed. When you stay up late to grade their papers by the day you said you would, you are modeling dependability and hard work. Your example is not lost on them; on the contrary, research suggests that it changes them.

In reflecting on a massive sociological study of American high schools, scholars James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson sum it up this way: “The moral example of teachers unquestionably complemented the formal instruction students received, but arguably, it was far more poignant to, and influential upon, the students themselves.”

And here’s another truth: The shape of your students’ character directly impacts their school performance. How? Let’s look at a definition of character.

According to Hunter and Olson, character is demonstrated by three things:

  • Moral discipline—the capacity to inhibit one’s own personal appetites on behalf of a greater good
  • Moral attachment—living by the ideals of a greater good
  • Moral autonomy—the freedom to make ethical decisions

When a student has learned to inhibit their personal appetites, they can live for the ideals of a greater good. This means that a student who can say “no” to their desire to binge on Netflix all night is able to say “yes” to studying for an important exam instead, because they have chosen to value the greater good of hard work and academic excellence. A student whose character has been well formed can deny a desire to impress their friends with ill-timed humor in favor of honoring your classroom rules.

As 30-year veteran educator Angus McBeath likes to say, no one becomes a teacher to fulfill the dream that their students will learn to name all 50 capitals of the United States. Most teachers choose their profession because they want to change the lives of students—and in so doing, to change the world we share. So go ahead and put shaping character on your goal list. As you model—and even discuss—what it means to be a good person of strong character, you not only create an environment where meaningful learning can happen; you invest in the integrity of the next generation.

The Same Page

America’s schools are various and diverse, but one concern seems ubiquitous: ensuring parental backup. At one point or another, most teachers have seen their efforts in the classroom undermined by a student’s home environment. While some educators feel their hands are tied, other schools address the issue squarely.

In a revealing new book, Robert Pondiscio asserts that the achievements of the famed Success Academy schools are nearly impossible to replicate. Pondiscio writes, “What will prevent anyone else from achieving Success Academy’s results is that few other schools—not even the other famous charters—would make such relentless demands on parents.”

At Success Academy schools, parents receive written evaluations of their school policy compliance. They must agree to leave work when there is a problem at school, read with their children daily, and make sure their children adhere to a strict dress code. Many parents, presumably upon learning of the expectations, decide not to send their children once admitted.

But Success Academy is not the only school that requires parental buy-in. Waldorf schools are widely known for their low-tech approach to education, and at Sacramento Waldorf School, the lower-school parent handbook recommends “no media at home through fifth grade and limited access, accompanied by clearly defined family policies and monitoring, for older children, stating ‘none’ is the optimal condition for young children and less is better than more.” Similarly, some Montessori schools ask parents to limit technology at home and provide a nutritious diet that is low in sugar.

In The Content of Their Character: Inquiries into the Varieties of Moral Formation, sociologist David Sikkink notes that at an evangelical Protestant school he studied, parents were challenged to read scripture with their family during the week; they were even offered a discount on tuition if they attended a Christian parenting seminar.

At public schools, parents may not be required to adjust household practices to school paradigms. But they are still asked to sign syllabi, participate in back-to-school nights, stay current on parent portals, and review homework assignments.

In varying ways and to varying degrees, almost all schools encourage parental concurrence with the school’s mission and priorities. The reason behind this is an idea we call “social reinforcement”—the truth that students are shaped best when there is strong overlap among the key adults in their lives.

Just as schools rely on parents to review multiplication facts after they are taught in class, so there must be a united front when it comes to character. The most valiant efforts to teach honesty in the classroom can be undermined by a casual attitude toward lying at home. And when parents model and reinforce a school’s moral messages, the power of those messages is amplified—all the more reason for school leaders and teachers to reach out, in every possible way, to parents.

Scholars on Schools: Interview with Jack Wertheimer on Jewish Day Schools

To receive a free copy of the chapter of The Content of Their Character that corresponds with this interview, please click here and sign up for our Weekly Digest.

This interview came about because several years ago, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at UVA conducted a major research project to better understand the moral formation of high school students. Researchers went into ten different sectors of schools, from public schools (both urban and rural) to private schools (both religious and nonreligious). Jack Wertheimer covered Jewish day schools.

It Still Counts

Despite the inspirational slogans on teacher swag, it can often seem that quantified outcomes—scores, rankings, performance-based assessments—are what really matter in education. School funding and student futures depend on raising those numbers. But sometimes, the unexpected happens, pointing to the possibility that even now, the highest good may be unmeasurable.

Last week in Texas, the Waco School Board named Dr. Susan Kincannon the lone finalist in its search for a new superintendent, effectively awarding her the job. The slot was vacant due to the resignation of A. Marcus Nelson, a highly successful district leader who resigned in March after his arrest for the possession of marijuana.

When Nelson was appointed superintendent in Waco in 2017, six of the district’s schools were underperforming such that they were threatened with closure. After a year of Nelson’s tenure, five out of six of those schools had “met standard” in state accountability ratings. Waco schools earned 21 distinctions in contrast with the 12 earned the year before. An in-district charter partnership, led by Nelson, resulted in higher rates of kindergarten readiness, more students reading on grade level by third grade, and a steadily increasing number of economically disadvantaged students enrolling in higher education.

The community was ecstatic.

And then came the arrest. On March 6, 2019, Nelson was pulled over for driving in the passing lane when not passing. The officer detected the odor of marijuana, searched the car, and found less than two ounces of the drug in the passenger seat; Nelson said he had just received it from a friend for treating back pain. He was booked into a local jail and released the next morning on a personal recognizance bond.

Reaction ranged from immediate demands for his firing to pleas for forgiveness. A petition circulated containing over 5,800 signatures of people who believed Nelson should be supported and allowed to keep his job. The school board deliberated for hours and dozens of community members signed up to speak, mostly in support of the superintendent. But several dissented, including Brigitte Eichenberg, a junior at Waco High School.

“A few weeks ago in my physics class, a student I know was kicked out for using marijuana. He was taken out of Waco High,” Eichenberg told the Waco Tribune-Herald. “So, the question that I wrestled with is, What message are we sending to the students if we’re not holding our own superintendent to the same standard that we hold our own students to?”

In the end, this perspective won out. Two weeks after his arrest, Nelson resigned.

Nelson’s arrest and resignation—especially in light of his achievements as a school leader—have sparked an array of conversations about racial profiling, second chances, drug laws, and expectations of conduct. They’re important discussions, as is the practical question of whether Nelson should have kept his job. But the debate itself—as well as its outcome—proves that even within a society fixated on performance and results, personal character does matter. Adherence to society’s rules—especially by those in leadership over others—is a reasonable and widely held expectation. The rules themselves may be in dispute, but it’s broadly understood that a person of character will abide by them. James Davison Hunter, in The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil, says that

character is shaped not by a cowering acquiescence to rules imposed externally but as conscious, directed obedience to truths authoritatively received and affirmed. In this way the imperatives of social life—both positive in obligation or negative in prohibition and repression—possess a moral power that we recognize as transcending ourselves. By virtue of the authority invested in it, morality is inwardly compelling; it exerts a leverage upon our will. When it speaks to us, we conform to it—not because the required conduct is necessarily attractive to us, nor because we are so inclined by some innate predisposition, but because there is some compelling influence in the authority dictating it.

Like the rest of us, those with authority must be under authority. And when they are not—in spite of achieving exceptional good for others—the fallout can be great.

Scholars on Schools: Interview with David Sikkink on Evangelical Protestant High Schools

To receive a free copy of the chapter of  The Content of Their Character that corresponds with this interview, please click here and sign up for our Weekly Digest.


Several years ago, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at UVA launched a major research project in order to better understand the moral formation of high school students. Researchers went into ten different sectors of schools, from public schools (both urban and rural) to private schools (both religious and nonreligious). David Sikkink covered evangelical Protestant schools.

The Character Formation Project’s Origins and Outcomes

From its inception several decades ago, Open Sky Education—a not-for-profit organization that runs a network of both faith-based voucher and nonreligious charter schools—has prioritized character formation. They have employed a variety of approaches, but six years ago, they determined that their tactics were not having a lasting effect.

“We realized they were great for behavior management but didn’t do a good job in terms of sticking with kids once they left the school building or left for the summer,” says Ellen Bartling, National Director of Content and Operations at the Character Formation Project, an initiative of Open Sky. “We wanted to avoid focusing on behaviors in a carrot-and-stick kind of way, because research tells us that once a student leaves the building, those kinds of character perspectives don’t go with them.”

So Open Sky set out to develop a different way of guiding kids toward being good people—one they hoped would yield lasting change.

“The first people who worked on it wanted to find a way to grow character in kids from the inside out,” Bartling said. “Not just to change their behavior but the way they perceived their presence in their communities and what kind of effect their actions had on their schools and families. They wanted students to build a virtuous outlook on life as they went through their school years and to hold onto that. Essentially what these individuals looked at is, How does character get formed?”

Those individuals were Andrew Neumann, CEO of Open Sky; Ryan S. Olson, now President of the Advanced Studies in Culture Foundation, publisher of CultureFeed; Duncan McCrann, now Founder and CEO of The Catholic School Renaissance Institute; and Matt Hoehner, now Executive Director of Christ Community Lutheran School. Neumann, McCrann, and Hoehner were all working for Open Sky at the time, while Olson was working for the nonprofit Kern Family Foundation. Based on research and their experience in education, these four came up with the basis for what would eventually become the Character Formation Project.

Several elements set the Character Formation Project apart. The program emphasizes the importance of a “Greater Purpose”—an ideal higher than one’s own happiness to be consulted in the face of moral choices. That Greater Purpose isn’t dictated to the students; rather, they are guided to it by considering what they care about and how they can improve their communities. However, the civic program does specify that it seeks to grow character “in the larger context of preserving human freedom. As members of a civil society, we share a common purpose to advance human freedoms for ourselves and others.” And the Christian version grows character in the context of Scripture with an goal of “glorifying God and making Him known.”

The project uses the stories of historical figures in the civic version and Bible characters in the Christian version to illustrate complex decisions that require character. Students, who may not have experienced many ethical dilemmas, are invited to identify with these stories and to envision their choices at such crossroads. They discuss each story, practice making decisions through role-playing, and commit to working on the particular virtue involved.

During the early stages, the planning team brainstormed as many important virtues as they could, writing them on a whiteboard—150 in all. They then whittled the list down from there, and ended up with seven: justice, respect, responsibility, integrity, self-sacrifice, diligence, and courage.

Originally, the program was presented to Open Sky teachers as a methodology alone. But as time went on, the teachers began asking for a formal curriculum to help them more effectively impart the principles. And so, thanks to a grant from The Kern Family Foundation, the Character Formation Project curriculum was born.

More than 50 teachers were hired to write the lessons—now 504 lessons total, spanning grades pre-K through 12. The curriculum can be taught in 15-minute sessions on multiple days or in a 45-minute session one day a week.

The Character Formation Project was first used by Open Sky’s own teachers; their feedback led to revisions. It was then used by “out-of-network partners” whose input also yielded adaptations and polishing. The Character Formation Project is now housed online and all materials—from lessons to parent information letters—are accessible digitally and as downloadable PDFs. Open Sky offers onsite and online training, and there is even an app for mobile use. The program is being used by about 20,000 students in the US and around the world.

Recently, Open Sky ran a pilot with five rural Illinois school districts. They administered surveys before and after use of the program in an attempt to see if it had a measurable impact on students’ perspectives.

“Because this program takes time to show efficacy, and we were very limited in terms of time frame, we didn’t see a whole lot of variation, for the most part,” says Bartling. But she explains that while they did not achieve a “statistically significant” result, they did see positive variation in several areas, including student confidence, a sense of teachers being good role models for them, and a self-perception of being caring, brave, outgoing, and thoughtful.

Open Sky also ran focus groups—both of teachers and of students—and these were helpful in illuminating both the culture of the schools and the effectiveness of the program.

“A lot of the kids said their teachers were really important to them, in that they listened to their problems and gave them good suggestions about how to solve them,” Bartling says. “There is a lot of poverty in rural southern Illinois. School is a caring, safe place for them. At school, they have one adult that is modeling behavior and character, a close relationship with at least one adult.”

Sometimes, parents’ demanding work schedules make it difficult for them to spend as much time with their children as they would like. For this reason, a strong and structured approach to character formation is important, and the Character Formation Project hit the mark in many ways.

“The kids were really engaged with the lessons,” Bartling said. “They really liked the [follow-up] questions, because they led to led to robust discussions, even among younger kids. It was a great way for kids who didn’t usually have a voice in class to have a platform from which they could talk about themselves and their experiences. All the teachers said that the robustness of the conversations [was] astounding, as well as the engagement of the kids. Sometimes teachers would start with a question and then the kids took over. Even with older kids, they would often come up with activities to do beyond the lesson.”

Bartling also attributed the program’s popularity to the variety of the people featured in its lessons.

“The kids enjoyed learning about American people they had never learned about before, especially those belonging to different racial and ethnic groups,” she said. “We didn’t just use dead white guys. We were very particular about including people of color, both male and female—people in the arts, sciences, law, civil rights, and reform movements—so kids have a chance to see that American history is quite varied. Sometimes you don’t hear about all these people.”

Time will tell if the Character Formation Project’s results are as lasting and expansive as its creators hoped they would be. But for now, it seems that the program’s feedback is favorable and future holds promise.

Scholars on Schools: Interview with Richard Fournier on Rural Public High Schools

To receive a free copy of the chapter of  The Content of Their Character that corresponds with this interview, please click here and sign up for our Weekly Digest.


Several years ago, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at UVA launched a major research project in order to better understand the moral formation of high school students. Researchers went into ten different sectors of schools, from public schools (both urban and rural) to private schools (both religious and nonreligious). Richard Fournier covered rural public high schools.

Lunch Is on Me

In recent months, the issue of school lunch debt has drawn the nation’s attention, including a controversial story about parents’ being threatened with loss of guardianship for failure to pay. The problem is widespread. Student meal debt reportedly exists in 75 percent of US public school districts. Although the median district lunch debt is about $2,500, in some districts, the number ranges into six figures. The shortfall becomes an urgent issue at the end of the school year, when monies must be found in other parts of tight school budgets to cover the debts.

Schools handle the problem in different ways, some of which can be contentious. A district in Rhode Island faced criticism for “lunch shaming” when it provided only sunflower butter and jelly sandwiches to students whose accounts were overdrawn. There have been reports of districts’ hiring collection agencies, cafeteria workers’ throwing away hot lunches, and students’ forgoing field trips and even graduation in light of unpaid debt. Some object to punishing students for tight family finances or parental irresponsibility, while others say that the provision of free food puts an unfair burden on schools.

But amid different opinions about how to address the lunch debt issue, stories of generous students who care about their classmates’ difficulties have emerged to offer inspiration and hope.

Ire Cherry, a Kansas City third-grader who opened a bakery at age eight, learned that some of her classmates’ families were struggling to pay their lunch bills and donated $150 of her earnings to help. In Davidson County, North Carolina, a pair of sisters, Hailey and Hannah Hager, aged 14 and 11, set up a lemonade stand and hosted a hot dog lunch when they heard that their school’s student lunch debt was $3,100. Nine-year-old Ryan Kyote of Napa, California, saved up his allowance to cover his class’s $74.50 in lunch debt, and in Texas, eighth-grader Ben Hofer crowd-funded more than $10,000 to pay off the Austin Independent School District’s debt.

“I [guess] I always thought of lunches just like you go to lunch and eat,” Hofer told Here & Now’s Peter O’Dowd. “But some kids might get lunch some days and not some other days, and it’s very stressful, and they might not get a good meal, because they don’t want to go over their parents’ budget, and then they won’t do well in academics or sports.”

Stories of children giving up their own time and money to help their classmates are striking; especially when you’re young, it can be challenging to put the needs of others first. But it probably comes more easily to some, according to Richard Fournier, education researcher and author of the chapter on rural schools in the book The Content of Their Character.

“I think some people are naturally very willing to help, and I think also some kids just recognize from an early age that when we do something nice—whether in private or not—we feel good, and that’s partly why we do it,” Fournier says.

At the same time, he says, adult examples have an impact.

“I do think parental and, perhaps, school influence on modeling that kind of altruistic behavior is really, really important,” Fournier says. “I have two little kids right now.… They definitely don’t want for much, so it’s going to be really important that I model for them … giving away money to charity and exposing them to situations where they can literally see people who might not have what they have and how they can help. Increasingly, I think all of these issues are actually done best through modeling more so than through any kind of explicit instruction. [Children must] see it and feel it.”

In the case of school lunch debt, adult models of generosity abound, including local business owners, large corporations like Chobani, and foundations like the one established by the mother of late cafeteria worker Philando Castile’s mother. They contribute to a social ecology of benevolence that inevitably influences children’s attitudes and behaviors.

All of this can get lost amid the heat of the school lunch debate. We live in an age when cultural disagreements mushroom into culture wars. Often, we don’t just judge each other; we judge each other harshly. One side of the conflict is cruel, selfish, heartless; the other is lazy, spendthrift, irresponsible. Listening to the accusations fly, one could conclude that America is hopelessly divided and immoral.

But then along come kids like Ben Hofer, Ryan Kyote, Ire Cherry, and Hailey and Hannah Hager. Here we see children investing their own time, their own ingenuity, and their own resources to reach out and show compassion for classmates who, through no fault of their own, are feeling shame or missing meals at lunchtime.

Perhaps, then, we are not so divided and immoral after all. If our kids are displaying moral character and unity, they inevitably learned some of that behavior from us. And if our kids aren’t so bad and we aren’t so bad, perhaps, too, we have all the more reason to invest in the moral education of our children, and to provide the role models they need to become even better, kinder, and stronger people than they already are.