Ethics 101: More Wyoming schools take on morals & ethics programsBy Doug Tunison
Most everyone agrees that children need moral guidance. The need is being felt nationally — many programs claiming to provide curricula for teaching ethics in K-12 schools are in production nationally. Allen Trent, University of Wyoming Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies, noted that new character development programs are emerging faster than he can keep up with them.
However, research results from character-development programs tried around the country have so far been “disappointing,” showing little or no long-term effect on children’s behavior, says Audrey Kleinsasser, director of the Wyoming School-University Partnership at UW and an educational psychologist with a research interest in moral development.
The multitude of available programs parallels the views in the Social Issues in Education class taught in Casper by Brent Pickett, a professor at the UW Political Science Department. Pickett said the class had split opinions. Some thought education must remain morally neutral. Others could not agree on what to teach; proposals ranged from traditional civics to religion-based morality.
Though many teachers declined speak on the record, Margie Roberts, special education assistant for the Natrona County School District, likes the idea of teaching ethics. “I strongly believe that teaching ethics is a tremendous idea,” she said. “It would be a plus for everyone if we could instill some ethics while they are young so it will carry them through life.” The district’s profile of its ideal graduate in 2025 includes character traits such as personal, social, and civic responsibility.
Kleinsasser said that schools are looking to character development programs as a way to reduce bullying. Bullying, she said, is a serious and growing problem compounded by the ubiquity of email and cell phones.
Jim McBride, a parent of two children currently at Kelly Walsh High School, said bullying is something parents should be very concerned about. His son experienced bullying while at Centennial Junior High. Bullying, he continued, lowers a child’s self-esteem and is unnecessary.
In Wyoming, local school districts decide whether to adopt character development curricula. The Wyoming Department of Education is considering providing guidance on the subject but it will not issue any directives to districts, said Julie Magee, director of Standards, Learning & Accountability for the Wyoming Department Of Education.
Different schools often reflect different educational philosophies — some are more teacher-centered and some more student-centered, said Cammy Rowley, a Casper College instructor in early childhood education. School philosophies differ, especially in a district like NCSD, which has encouraged the development of schools with different philosophies to offer families significant choices between schools.
The ethics programs used in Natrona County vary accordingly. Programs include: Core Virtues in Fort Caspar Academy and Casper Classical Academy; The Leader in Me at Summit Elementary; Cowboy Ethics in Woods Learning Center, Dean Morgan Junior High, and Roosevelt High School; and Go For It at Cottonwood Elementary and nine of the 12 Title 1 schools. The guidance from the district for the selection of ethics curricula is the same as for reading or math. The curriculum selected must meet the requirements of Administrative Policy 6232, said Mark Mathern, NCSD associate superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction.
Whichever programs they choose, schools are investing heavily in character development. The initial cost may be small, but there is a significant investment in training teachers to use the specific program. Even greater is the investment in time required for training and teaching ethics. Teachers and administrators alike voiced concern about the limited time available for teachers to add one more thing to their already overfull plate. However, their expectation is that the benefits from improved behavior will outweigh the additional time required to use the programs.
Fort Caspar Academy (FCA) uses the Core Virtues program to teach virtue ethics through literature. FCA Principal Randy Larson pointed out that the school’s mission is to educate the student’s intellect and character. The “core virtues” promoted by the program are embedded in the school culture with the expectation that staff and students will model the virtues. The virtues, such as loyalty, compassion, and forgiveness, are taught in a structured manner. It uses children’s literature for role models to illustrate the core virtues.
Summit Elementary integrates Stephen Covey’s The Leader In Me program into its culture. Anne LaPlante, Summit’s principal, was part of the team that planned Summit Elementary and built The Leader In Me program into the school’s plans. The Leader In Me, designed for children, provides strategies for organizing and planning work, and interacting with others.
LaPlante likes the program because it uses “timeless, unbiased principles to develop good habits.” Parents as well as students are included in the program and receive training. LaPlante said that parents embrace the program at the school and many tell her that they use it at home.
Woods Learning Center adopted a program this year called Cowboy Ethics, based on a book written by James Owen, a former investment manager from Texas. A Cowboy Ethics curriculum for K–12 students is being developed at the Casper Boy’s and Girl’s Club. The book uses a set of aphorisms, such as Live Each Day With Courage, Take Pride in Your Work, and Do What Has to be Done, as a starting point for discussions with students about positive character traits. The staff at Woods believes that these discussions will encourage students to reflect on their attitudes and their effects on each other in the classroom.
Cottonwood Elementary has used the Go For It program for two years. Most of the Title 1 schools in Natrona County adopted it this year. At its heart are the Seven Keys to Success. Some of the key principles are Have a Positive Attitude, Believe In Myself, and Be Persistent. The Go For It program uses standalone lessons based on games and stories from children’s literature to teach The Seven Keys to Success.
The Go For It program, like The Leader In Me, integrates and trains parents in the program. Heather Duncan, assistant department head and educational leadership program coordinator at UW, sees the integration of the parents into the program as a key difference. She said that most programs do not include parents.
At Star Lane Center, there is no formal character development program to teach ethics. Instead, the staff creates a climate described by the term “mutual respect.” It’s something they refer to as collective ethics, where everyone is accountable to everyone else to maintain the climate of mutual respect. The Star Lane staff also encourages their students to explore their own ethics and the ethical dilemmas that exist in the real world of policy making by incorporating an ethical aspect into the problems researched by their students. Former Star Lane students say that the ability to express their thoughts in a risk-free environment was the best part of their Star Lane experience.
McBride, whose son attended Star Lane for three years, said that the environment there, where group cooperation is required, fostered the atmosphere of mutual respect described by the staff. There was no bullying at Star Lane because of this, he said.
In spite of the investment in character development curricula, few schools formally define or measure outcomes of their programs. In Wyoming, only the Go For It schools are currently identifying and measuring the outcomes of their programs.
Christy Walker, who has two sons at Woods Learning Center, said she believes it’s good that schools have flexibility in the style of delivery, but there should be a district standard for the outcomes expected from these character development programs.
The Go For It program is part of a research project with UW. The principal investigator for the university, Heather Duncan, is collaborating with the NCSD Go For It schools to develop measurable outcomes and track the results over a five-year period. Mari Stoll, principal at Cottonwood Elementary, hopes that the research will show that their program, unlike others, will have measurable and encouraging results.
LaPlante, at Summit Elementary, informally measures the results of her program. She hopes to make the measurements more formal next year. She uses the number of discipline referrals and bullying incidents to gauge the success of Summit’s program and attributes the low rate of referrals and bullying at Summit to The Leader In Me program.
At Woods Learning Center, Sarah Larsen, instructional facilitator, said “Because of the nature of character building programs, there is no way to have data that is anything more than subjective.” The purpose of the program at Woods, she continued, “Is to have a school-wide set of common language, and to give students a platform for self-discovery.”
Robert Colter, assistant professor at UW’s Department of Philosophy, noted the difficulties of attempting to teach ethics. He stressed that teaching ethics from a list of moral rules is probably backwards. If the desired outcome is a person with moral character, students must develop the ability to reason morally.
Giving students a set of rules to live by is not a good way to teach ethics, he explained. Instead, modeling moral reasoning is crucial to developing moral character. Moral behavior comes from “practical wisdom” developed by practicing the behavior seen in good role models. In schools, teachers do the modeling, said Rowley. Students watch and learn from the daily interactions between staff and students. Most character development programs fall into the trap of teaching rules rather than reasoning.
Most programs used in the district follow a standard model. Teachers introduce a word or phrase believed to be a desired character trait and then define it. For example, the Core Virtues program defines loyalty as “being faithful and true to our duties, relations, and ideals.” Teachers then lead students through a discussion of this trait using literature, games, or scenarios.
This type of training doesn’t equip students with the ability to reason morally, said Jeff Lockwood, a professor at the UW Department of Philosophy. Lockwood said that if ethics instruction is to be more than indoctrination, students must learn to be critical thinkers. They must develop their own ethics, learn to question their ethics, deal with ethical conflicts, and prioritize their ethics.
The ineffectiveness of the training described by Colter and Lockwood may be why a student at Woods Learning Center wrote as she did in a reflection paper on Cowboy Ethics. Though many of the responses were positive, one student wrote that the training was a waste of time because student behavior reverted to old patterns as soon as the teachers were not around.
Academic observers note that teachers don’t get proper training in teaching the complicated subject of ethics, though programs do exist for teaching what is known as “pre-college philosophy.” Some education professionals believe the increasing national emphasis on core curriculum — reading and math, for example — may ensure teachers never get the time or training they need to teach ethics well.
As George Vlastos, a teacher at Star Lane puts it, “Ethics must be part of education, part of what is learned. Not my ethics or your ethics, but the notion that ethics are as real — and relevant — as science or grammar or algebra. To let ethics go by the wayside would leave a classroom void of the opportunity to create and maintain its own culture.”
Because the research results for character development programs so far are disappointing, Kleinsasser believes that the best approach might be to simplify ethics to a few key concepts that create a “climate” for a school building. Given the lack of agreement on what to teach, how to teach it, what to measure, or how to measure it, educators face real questions about whether these programs use scarce resources wisely.
— For more on this topic, read “Nostalgia for the Old West; Be wary of a sanitized past,” by Samuel Western, published by WyoFile in May 2010.
- Now retired from the director of Planning and Agreements for the Rocky Mountain Oilfield Testing Center (RMOTC), Doug Tunison managed energy-related project development, planning, execution, and technology transfer activities. As a Civil Engineer Corps officer for the U.S. Navy from 1988 to 2000, Doug served as Assistant Resident Officer in Charge of Construction, Officer in Charge of Construction, Public Works Officer, and Division Officer. Doug has a degree in Engineering Physics from the University of Kansas and a Master’s Degree in Petroleum Engineering from Texas A&M University.
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