Doubts about character program


Carroll commissioners are preparing to teach county employees about good character, hoping lessons learned at work will have a trickle-down effect on friends and family and perhaps correct some of the social ills - drug addiction, juvenile crime and school violence - that they blame on bad child-rearing.

Some Carroll workers are ambivalent about - and a few insulted by - the notion of receiving monthly instruction in character. Others are concerned that promotions or job retention could depend on how passionately they embrace the commissioners' latest initiative.

The commissioners are not sure how they will structure Carroll's character initiative, the pet program of Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier, who said she got the idea last month at a three-day conference sponsored by the fundamentalist Judeo-Christian group International Association of Character Cities.

"Character First," the character-development program promoted and sold by the Oklahoma City-based IACC, has been adopted by more than 90 localities in 16 countries around the world, including the United States, Australia, Taiwan and Uganda, according to IACC Director Gerald Coury.

"I view this program as an investment in our community because it will have a positive influence on families and children," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge. "What we might spend on this program would certainly be less expensive than what we would pay to treat one child for substance abuse. If we don't react to problems and try to prevent them, we spend more money trying to correct them."

Neither Coury nor the cities that praise the program could point to any figures - lower absenteeism, a decrease in workers' compensation cases, higher productivity or a dip in juvenile crime or substance abuse rates - as proof that the character-development program works for government agencies.

Leadership experts warn that such initiatives can backfire, making some employees feel isolated or, worse, attacked.

"My concern is, 'Whose values are being transmitted, and is it a truly open conversation about which values count?'" asked Douglas A. Hicks, an assistant professor at the University of Richmond's Jepson School of Leadership Studies.

"Character talk ... can be used as a way to impose Christian values on people of Jewish faith, the Hindu religion or of no religious tradition. It can also be used to blame people in society for their problems, telling them they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they work on improving themselves, while avoiding the social and economic realities that make life difficult," Hicks said.

'Nothing to do with religion'

Coury insists that IACC's goal is "not to push character qualities on people. Our goal is to focus on an understanding of what it takes to be successful." The Character First program, he added, "has nothing to do with religion."

Formed in 1998, IACC is a spinoff of the Institute in Basic Life Principles, a family ministry with headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., that urges youths to practice disciplines such as tithing and memorizing Scripture. The institute also offers seminars "based on the Biblical principles upon which the nation of the United States and its law system are founded."

Carroll's commissioners, who have adopted a list of "Employee Golden Rules" advocating mutual respect and consideration, recently changed the county's employee evaluation forms to include an assessment of a worker's ability to "deal with anger, frustration and disappointment" and to "lead by example."

The creation of a character-development program for the county's 605 municipal workers is a natural extension of these initiatives, the commissioners said.

"The idea of being a character county is that we just want to help people to be the best they can be, whether individually or as an employee," said Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier. "Our goal is simply to focus on a character trait each month and try to get that character trait to permeate throughout the community."

Commissioners said they envision banners on county streets, and posters in classrooms and at the county office building, reminding employees and their families of the trait they should be emulating in a particular month.

It might be decisiveness one month, benevolence the next.

Can results be measured?

How such traits will be taught is undecided. The instruction might follow IACC's plan, might be a variant of that or might more closely resemble a character education program that has been taught in Carroll schools for the past two years.

Whether the success or failure of such instruction can ever be measured remains to be seen. Still, the program has attracted nearly a hundred municipalities with its promise to help people become better people.

"We're doing this because it's the right thing to do. Character is becoming a part of our culture. We see it in the attitude of our employees," said Leonard Martin, city manager of Edmond, Okla., a suburban community of 70,000 people that skirts Oklahoma City's northern border.

"I can't give you any statistical data to show this program works ... I measure the program by myself - it's certainly improved my character and made a difference in the way I approach things, both professionally and personally," he said.

Edmond has about 500 municipal employees and spends roughly $6,000 a year on the Character First program. The initial two-day training seminar for the program, usually run by Coury and a member of his staff, costs $1,950. In addition to the flat fee, localities must pay $25 for every employee that IACC trains.

After completing the training, every municipal worker in a "City of Character" receives a monthly IACC bulletin - for $1 apiece, plus shipping and handling - that focuses on a specific character trait. During staff meetings, they discuss the trait of the month and how it can be applied at work.

In April, they learned about decisiveness, "the ability to recognize key factors and finalize difficult decisions." This month, they are discussing virtue, "the moral excellence evident in my life as I consistently do what is right." And in June, Edmond employees will learn about benevolence, "giving to others basic needs without having as my motive personal reward."

Each issue of the bulletin includes a photo and description of an animal that embodies the trait of the month, to remind employees of the qualities they should be striving to embody. For example, the badger represents decisiveness, the great white egret symbolizes virtue and the emperor penguin exemplifies benevolence.

'Thinking about character'

Carroll Commissioner Donald I. Dell, said, "I think this program will get people thinking about character overall. They won't stop focusing on a character trait just because one month ends and a new one begins."

In Burleson, Texas, a suburb of the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, municipal employees who exhibit Character First traits are recognized in monthly meetings, and every year the city holds a "March for Kids and Character." To remind residents of Burleson, population 25,500, that they should demonstrate good character, Mayor Byron Black recently had a sign placed on the local water tower that reads, "A city of character. Burleson, Texas."

"It has really pulled our community together," said Black, who is serving his third term. "It's taught in all the [elementary] schools, a number of churches are providing bulletins to their congregations, and businesses are also doing it. We have not been tracking the program, but we figure this is the thing to do.

"A lot of problems we're seeing in the world today, and our nation specifically, can be attributed to a lack of character," said Black, noting the fatal rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado two years ago.

Goals of school program

Carroll schools' character education program is intended to teach children basic values and ethics.

Every school has an improvement team that determines the best way to implement the program, which focuses on 12 positive values, among them respect, responsibility, courtesy and dependability. Many schools choose to incorporate the character traits into the curriculum, for example through a discussion of whether a character in a novel exhibits one of the traits.

Similar school initiatives have been adopted in Baltimore, across much of Maryland and around the country, winning accolades from proponents who say they sidestep prickly debates about religion while teaching children traits critical to becoming responsible adults.

Since the program's inception in Carroll, South Carroll High School was recognized last year as a school of character by the Character Education Partnership, a national nonprofit group based in Washington and at Boston University.

"We've also had the best attendance rate in our reporting history, as well as the lowest dropout rate. Suspension rates are also lower, even though the number of students has increased," said Barbara Guthrie, who chairs Carroll's Character Education steering committee.

"I'm not saying character education did all of that," Guthrie said. "Other programs have also contributed, but we think character education was a real factor."

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