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Green: Character development is equally as important as academic performance

Following are prepared talking points for Maurice “Mo” Green, the speaker at the School of Education’s graduation ceremony on May 13, 2017, delivered at the Dean E. Smith Center. Please note: These talking points were followed closely, but not verbatim.

Video of Mo Green's address is available here.

Mo Green speaking at the podium during the UNC School of Education graduation ceremony

Mo Green speaking during the graduation ceremony

Good afternoon. It is an honor to be here today.

“Strength of character, combined with the keen analytical skills of a finely tuned mind, can overcome any obstacles and create a limitless future.”

In 1947, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., while a student at Morehouse College, wrote a short article for his college newspaper, arguing that education has both a practical and a moral function.

Dr. King wrote, in part:

“Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction. The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.”

Some 70 years ago, Dr. King exhibited great foresight.

Today, more than ever, with the prevalence of 24-hours news, deep concerns about alternative facts, the exploding use of social media to disseminate information quickly, the extreme polarization of our society, there is the need for all of us to be able to discern truth from falsehoods. Moreover, in an era marked by rapid and global change, children must be prepared for an unknown and uncertain future – one where information doubles every two years.

Thus, we need to be sure that our children are taught strong analytical skills to parse through all kinds of information that will be coming their way.

Today, however, I respectfully request that we focus on the next part of Dr. King’s article, where he wrote,

“But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals. We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”

Indeed, in a world where a person’s residential status can extend beyond traditional geographic boundaries of nation and state, and where technology exponentially increases our ability to achieve great good or great harm, it is not enough for our children to be smart. As the leaders of tomorrow and as the future guardians of the democratic society currently entrusted to us, they must be ethically grounded, also.

So, as I acknowledge what an incredible honor it is to have been chosen as your commencement speaker and as I offer my sincere congratulations to all of the graduates and all those who have supported them in their journey to today, it is my hope that by the end of our time together, you, too, will agree that there is great benefit in not focusing solely on end of course and end of grade tests and school letter grades. By using my experience with Guilford County Schools as an example, it is my hope that you will understand why I think that the development of a child’s character is equally as important as their academic performance.

It is my hope, simply, that you will agree that we are not building widgets or automated test-takers, but rather that we are educating human beings.

When I became Superintendent of Guilford County Schools in 2008, the world around us was changing. For example, technology was increasingly making its way into our classrooms as an integral teaching tool.

At the same time, the federal law, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, and North Carolina's school accountability system, commanded significant influence on school districts and compelled school systems to work to close the academic achievement gaps that existed between racially and economically diverse groups of students. In addition, global competition was becoming more and more prevalent and the country was collapsing into the Great Recession.

So, what were the implications of all of this?

For one, public school educators were increasingly moving away from a values-based approach to education and were focusing primarily on academic achievement outcomes, as measured through high stakes testing.

Another implication was that we lost our sense of truly integrating character development into our schooling. Instead, we often imposed zero-based tolerance disciplinary measures to solve behavioral problems.

When I arrived in Guilford County Schools 2008, we embarked on a countywide listening and learning tour, called Mo Wants to Know. (Given some of the responses I received, I sometimes wondered if I really “wanted to know.”)

Parents, educators and community members talked ad nauseam about improving the academic performance of students and having their schools make adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act. Interestingly, many of these same folk talked about the seemingly poor behavior of many of our students, lamenting that they did not know how to comport themselves appropriately and that they did not understand their place in the world, a place of service to others.

We listened. Because of that listening, we decided to go a different route than most school districts in this country when we announced the district's first ever comprehensive strategic plan. We announced that, as one of the largest school districts in the country, we would try to make character development equally as important as academic achievement. In short, we agreed with Dr. King that intelligence plus character is the goal of true education by noting in the plan that "strength of character, combined with the keen analytical skills of a finely tuned mind, can overcome any obstacles and create a limitless future."

We tackled this critical component of our Character Development Initiative by including service learning as a key part of our strategic plan.

Service learning is intended to provide a framework for students to develop a deeper understanding of their academic knowledge through real-life experiences. It is about creating well-rounded individuals who are not only more aware of the world around them, but who become good, upstanding, productive members of our society who demonstrate responsibility, perseverance, kindness, empathy, integrity and respect.

There were those who criticized this direction. Some contended that a significant focus of character development and service learning diverted limited resources away from fundamental academic pursuits and from addressing poor behavior issues through strict disciplinary measures like out of school suspensions. They also contended that outcomes from character development and service learning activities were not measurable and therefore, did not have a place in our world of data and accountability.

As to the first criticism about the diversion of limited resources, those critics were right. We did use some of our limited resources to establish a Character Development Department and to incorporate character development and service learning into the curriculum.

As to the second point that there were no accountability measures, I told our educators simply, I don't care. (Admittedly, that response is probably not the best way to ensure a long employment tenure.) It is the right thing to do, just as it is the right thing to do to teach art and music without trying to always measure their effect on test scores. And so, with the backing the Guilford County board of education, we went forth with trying to make character development equally as important as academic achievement.

Well, as it turns out, character development and service learning can be measured. Recent research, conducted about Guilford County Schools by Dr. Charlos Banks, Dr. Judy Penny, Dr. Akisha Jones and Dr. Shuying Sha revealed that the district's service learning program was positively associated with improved behavioral, academic and even economic outcomes for our students.

Because educators in Guilford County Schools, whom I revere, and the broader Guilford County community were and are willing to weave character development and service learning into the fabric of the Guilford County School district:

  • In the past six academic years, high school students contributed over 1.4 million hours of service, worth more than $31 million.
  • While achieving the district’s highest four-year cohort graduation rate ever at 89.4% and having more than 37% of the class take and “pass” an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam or college course, the Class of 2016 completed and recorded more than 338,000 hours of service while in high school and had over 1,460 students or 26% of the class, a record number and percentage, complete and record at least 100 hours of service while in high school.
  • During the 2015-16 school year, more than 94% of the students were not suspended out of school, and there were over 2000 fewer school suspensions compared to the year before.
  • Many schools within the Guilford County School district have been recognized as state and national schools of character and the school district itself has been named North Carolina's District of Character and a national District of Character.
  • Most importantly, students better understood issues impacting their community, learned how they could address those issues themselves and acted in service of others. For example, for the 2015-16 school year, GCS students district-wide, at all grade levels, decided to tackle food insecurity in Guilford County after they learned that a study ranked Greensboro and High Point first in the nation for food insecurity and nearly 30 percent of people in Guilford County found it difficult to afford and access healthy food. As Kent Duncan, a then senior at a GCS school said, "I can't stand even hearing that people go hungry every night. I've never had to go through that. If I miss a meal, it's bad enough. So, to imagine people miss days? It just blows me away, and I want to do everything in my power to stop it.”

So, how can you, as an educator, ensure that service learning and character development are essential components of your work or in your classroom. There are numerous ways, including:

  • Connecting classroom studies with service learning opportunities.
  • Encouraging your students, and perhaps their families, to participate in volunteer opportunities within the community and have them talk about and write reflections of their participation.
  • Picking one character trait a month – such as kindness or respect – and finding ways to engage your students in practicing this trait through real-life scenarios, or through books and classroom discussion circles.
  • Counseling students on how to turn their intellectual curiosity about issues negatively impacting their communities into service learning activities that address those issues.

Now, don’t get me wrong. We should continue to set the academic achievement bar high for all students and request, demand, expect and require that students reach or exceed that bar. At the same time, we need to ensure that we are investing in the core of who these individuals are, who they have the potential to become and who we need them to become.

So, graduates, let’s not lose sight of knowledge acquisition, but let’s also remember that developing the character of an individual is critically important as well.

As President Theodore Roosevelt said, “to educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.”

Graduates: We are all so proud of you. You are embarking on what might be one of the most challenging, yet without a doubt, one of the most rewarding experiences of your lives.

More than ever, educators, we need you. We are counting on you:

To inspire our children and help them to love learning, knowledge and truth;

To remind them of how special, wonderful, intelligent and creative they are;

To help them think more critically;

To prepare them for a successful life ahead; and

To help them be good people, with sound ethics and good character.

So, to each of the educators who are the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education Graduating Class of 2017, I offer the following four concluding comments:

  1. I applaud you for what you have already accomplished;
  2. I wish you all the best;
  3. Take care of yourself; and
  4. Despite my allegiance to a university that is a short distance away, that uses a different hue of blue and that did happen to beat your amazing, wonderful 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Championship team two out of three times this year, please know that . . . I revere you.

Thank you and be blessed.