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Volume 28, Number 1
January/February 2012

Promoting Moral Development in Schools


Point of ViewHow can schools inspire and teach students to be moral people—to care about and take responsibility for others, to think clearly about and pursue justice, to sacrifice for important principles? This is not a trivial question. Polls indicate that about 70 percent of public school parents want schools to teach “strict standards of right and wrong,” and 85 percent want schools to teach values. And research suggests that many overworked, frayed parents, doubting their capacities as moral mentors, are looking to schools to take on a larger role in their children’s moral growth.

In response to this demand, a billion-dollar character education industry has cropped up in the last few decades, including myriad organizations marketing packaged character education programs to schools. Many of these programs are devoted to inculcating values such as self-discipline, responsibility for others, and honesty. Some of these initiatives are carefully considered, rigorous, and tuned in both to children’s developmental experiences and to teachers’ needs and capacities. But most of these undertakings appear to have little or no impact on children’s moral lives.

What is moral development, and what types of school programs and efforts are likely to promote it? Why do some school efforts succeed while others fail, and what are the essential principles and ingredients of successful efforts? How can these principles and ingredients realistically be implemented and scaled in a school reform era intensely focused on academic achievement?

Cultivating a Moral Identity
Several years ago, I asked my six-year-old daughter and a few of her friends a question posed in a popular character education program: “Should you be honest with your teacher if you forget your homework?” One of my daughter’s friends hesitated slightly but then piped up: “Do you want me to tell you what you want to hear, or do you want me to tell you the truth?” Emboldened, another friend stated flatly, “I know that you want me to say I should be honest, but nobody is honest about that.”

Many schools post values on walls and reiterate the importance of values in classrooms, during assemblies, and at other school events. But the challenge is not simply moral literacy—in fact, research indicates that most students, like my daughter’s friends, know values such as honesty and respect by the time they are five or six years old. Because they know these values, many children—especially adolescents—feel patronized by lectures about values. And some children, as the question asked by my daughter’s friend suggests, become nimble at simply parroting back what adults want to hear.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


For Further Information

For Further Information

J. D. Hunter. The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

T. Lickona. “A More Complex Analysis is Needed.” Phi Delta Kappan 79, no. 6 (1998): 449–454.

E. Schaps, E. F. Schaeffer, and S. N. McDonnell. “What’s Right and Wrong in Character Education Today: Why Three Advocates Are Worried about the Movement.” Education Week 21, no. 2 (2001): 40, 44.

N. Walser. “R is for Resilience.” Harvard Education Letter 22, no. 5 (2006): 1–3. Available online at