By Thomas F. Kelly, Ph. D.

After fifteen years of national efforts at school reform, there is general consensus among educators, politicians, and the public at large that we have little if any progress to show (with the exception of a few examples). The reason for this, despite great efforts on the part of many educators and large expenditures of resources, can be seen in the fact that these efforts have consistently been based on false first premises. This article will explain why efforts to improve student achievement, discipline, self esteem, etc. have failed and what must be done to make them successful.

We know from logic that if we begin with a false first premise we can only find ourselves with false conclusions, no mater how hard we work to build on the false beginning.

About a year ago I had an extraordinary experience. While training a large group of educators and parents in shared decision making and collaborative planning, the topic of higher academic standards came up. A lively and fairly long discussion ensued. At its conclusion I made a comment that I thought was a post script, an after thought, a "by the way" type statement. I said, "no one thinks we need higher academic standards more than me. At the same time I must say that the higher standards we need most are not academic. The higher standards we need most are moral, and until we get that straight the schools and the general culture are going nowhere but down."

To my surprise there was spontaneous applause. To my amazement, the applause turned into a standing ovation. I can honestly say that my training is usually very well received. But standing ovations are rare.

It occurred to me that I might be onto something significant. I tried the statement with several other large groups in very different parts of the country. The response was essentially the same.

I knew I was onto something. I have since had the same experience with dozens of groups of educators and parents. Such consistent, enthusiastic and intense response from so many is highly unusual. It indicates a growing recognition of the moral decline not only of our schools, but our entire culture.

At the conclusion of that first experience I was approached by a teacher. "Dr. Kelly, you've hit on the heart of the problem. Now what do we do about it? You know there so much contention over values. Its such a politicized topic we are all afraid to deal with it. And yet the need gets greater every day."

To my dismay I could only answer, "I don't know." I did, however, promise to think about the problem and took her name and address. I also promised that if I discovered anything useful, I would let her know.

I began to dabble with the issue, incorporating character education in my broader school improvement training and writing. As has happened so frequently in the past, interaction with other educators has been incredibly stimulating and enabled me to generate, gather and field test new ideas and in the process, clarify my own thinking. I started developing materials for training, then moved to writing a new book on character education.

I sent a preliminary outline of the book to the teacher who asked what we can do about the need to teach morality. Her response, as well as that of the many educators I've trained since has caused me to make this effort my top priority. I now recognize the primary reason for the failure of school reform, despite so many honest and real efforts. Until there is moral reform there will be no other improvement. In fact there will be continued decline.

Obviously there are other critical areas that need reform for our schools to reach the higher academic standards we all want for students. The point is that until we recognize and act to create the necessary character in our students (and not incidentally, in ourselves) that is the absolutely essential foundation for all improvement, our otherwise legitimate efforts will be in vain.

But what of the educator's problem? As soon as we mention the need to teach things like morality or character we hear things like, "Whose values are we going to teach? Are you going to teach religion?" And so we find ourselves in a terrible dilemma. We virtually all recognize the growing critical need to teach morality, but are paralyzed over the issue of "whose morality."

In pondering this issue, discussing it with my fellow educators and experimenting with it in my training, I have come to recognize that there is a resolution to this dilemma that is universally acceptable. To unravel this dilemma, we must first get a clear understanding of it. At the heart of the problem is a logical fallacy known as "categorical confusion."

Categorical confusion involves treating things in different categories as if they are in the same category. For example, if we were to view dogs and flowers as if they were both in the animal category, we would be unable to deal with both dogs and flowers rationally.

The two categories that we are presently confusing in our culture are the categories of virtues and values. They are not the same, but we tend to think of and see them as interchangeable, the same. This is a formula for personal and social disaster. We need definitions.



This distinction is critical. Virtue pertains to morality. Value pertains to preference, which is or is not moral according to the preference's relationship to virtue. Further, values are relative. $10 dollars is a value. $50 is a greater value. Values can be good or bad. Some people value peace, others war.

Virtues, on the other hand, are absolute. Kindness is always good. Patience is always good. Justice is always good.

Therefore, virtue is primary in importance, value is secondary. By confusing these categories, we frequently put values ahead of virtues. For example, present American culture places freedom ahead of responsibility. This is a disastrous view. Freedom is a value, something I very much want. It is not a virtue. Freedom does not make me good any more than it makes me bad. Responsibility is a virtue, a behavior that makes me good.

When a culture puts freedom before responsibility, it has sown the seeds of its own destruction, which seems inevitably to follow. History is replete with examples of cultures that rose to world dominance. None of them stayed there. They all declined from within as they turned away from the virtue that brought them to the heights to indolence and corruption. When the Berlin wall came down we were clearly the dominant culture in the world. It seems we no sooner reached clear dominance than our moral decline (already begun) rapidly accelerated. The United States is in historical virgin territory. No previous culture has remained dominant throughout the history of the world. Whether we can or not is an open question. The outcome is in doubt, to say the least.











The above list is universally recognized as "morally good."

It is critical that we distinguish clearly between virtues and values. Until these categories are clarified, people will continue to fall into the trap of putting values ahead of virtues. This will inevitably lead to grief for themselves and others around them. This clarification should be the first goal of Character Education programs in our schools.








While it is true that many values are extremely important, they do not make me good any more than they make bad. Religion, for example, in and of itself does not make me good or bad. I am a lifelong Catholic, but Catholicism does not make me good any more than it makes me bad. If I behave virtuously, I am a good Catholic. If I do not behave virtuously, I am not a good Catholic. Religion is a value, not a virtue. Because all of the great religions have taught these virtues throughout history, they tend to be closely associated with them. While this is appropriate, the two are distinct. Virtues are not the exclusive property of any religion. Indeed, there are atheists who subscribe to traditional virtues.

The same is true for values such as family. Important as it is, family does not make me good or bad. If I behave virtuously I am a good family man. If I do not behave virtuously, I am not a good family man. This is true for all values, freedom, knowledge, etc. While my values may be more important to me than my life, I must recognize that they do not make me bad or good. Only my behavior makes me bad or good. The morality of my behavior cannot be determined by my values (i.e. things I want).

It is virtue that makes me morally good, and only virtue.



Dr. Thomas Kelly's 32 years of public school experience include:

Teaching from Pre-K through graduate levels
High school assistant principal
District reading coordinator
Sixteen years Regional manager of the NYSED's Effective Schools Consortia
Interim Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction in Trenton Public schools, Trenton, New Jersey

Academic training includes:

Ph. D. in Educational Psychology
Graduate degrees in
 American History
 Teaching Social Studies
 Reading and Language Arts

Speaking and training experience includes:

Keynotes to groups as large as 800
Extensive work with school based shared decision making teams
Principals Academies
School Boards
Programs designed to meet the needs of individual schools/districts


Numerous books and articles on all aspects of school improvement
Needs assessment surveys for shared decision making and collaborative planning used by more than 5,000 schools nationally

Co-author of All Together Now decision making software

Presently Dr. Kelly is:

Working to implement the ideas of William Glasser, W. Edwards Deming and Steven Covey in schools
Assisting schools in systemic assessment to guide systemic change
Writing and training on character education

Electronic copies of his books can be obtained free from his web site Systemic Assessment, Inc.. The address is: