Education Next is out with a set of great new poll results. They ask a representative sample of the general public, parents, and teachers about a variety of salient education policy issues. You can see the results in detail on this fantastic interactive site.
There are many interesting results to discuss, but the one that caught my eye is a question about how much schools do and should emphasize different topics. The general public, parents, and teachers were asked to rate on a scale from 1 to 7 (with 1 being “a little” and 7 being “a lot”) how much they thought schools were emphasizing reading, math, the arts, history, science, character, creativity, global warming, athletics, and bullying. Respondents also described how much schools should be emphasizing those topics. I calculated the difference between how much parents said schools should and do cover different topics to see where parents think schools are currently most falling short of their priorities.
Parents would like to see schools increase their emphasis on every topic except athletics. But the two topics they wanted to see increased the most were character and creativity. Parents rated the emphasis that schools give to character as a 4.10 on the 7 point scale. When asked how much schools should emphasize character, parents gave an answer of 5.41 — an increase of 1.31. For creativity parents rated schools’ current efforts as 4.25 but would like to see 5.63 — an increase of 1.38.
Parent demand for increased focus on character and creativity is almost double their desired increase for reading or math. Parents say schools are emphasizing reading at 5.62 and math at 5.66 but would like to see that at 6.28 and 6.31, respectively. They want more focus on math and reading but only an increase of .65 or .66 compared to an increase of 1.31 and 1.38 for character and creativity.
Why do parents think schools are falling much further short in their emphasis on character and creativity? Part of the problem is that character and creativity involve questions of values on which there is much less consensus than on technical skills in math and reading. If we assign students to public schools, we are often forcing people with diverse sets of values into the same schools. If they try to teach character, they invite fights over what the content of that character should be. Public school districts can’t even agree amicably on what to name their schools let alone what kinds of values to teach. The Cato Institute has put together a useful web site documenting the endless conflicts produced by forcing everyone into the same school system.
If we really want schools to give a much greater emphasis to teaching character, we will need to expand school choice. Choice allows families with similar values and priorities to send their children to schools that will then be free to teach those values. Schools won’t be deterred by struggles over values since parents seeking a different type of character education can choose a different school rather than fight.
Schools also fall short of parent expectations for teaching character and creativity because those concepts are ill-defined and even more poorly measured. What do we mean by character and creativity? How would we know if schools are doing it? To address these difficulties, the Department of Education Reform has launched the Character Assessment Initiative, or Charassein (sounds like kerosene), under the direction of my colleague, Gema Zamarro. I’ve written before about some of the path-breaking research coming out of Charassein, but be sure to stay tuned as more is on the way.
With better understanding of what we mean by character, better ways of measuring those outcomes, and more choice so that schools and families are free to teach desired character traits, we may see a closing of the gap between what parents want and what schools do in teaching character.