A+ A A-

Maximizing the Power of Character Through the Integration of Excellence and Ethics


All schools face challenges in two critical areas: academic performance and ethical behavior.


Performance challenges include:

  • Motivating all students to do their best and care about the quality of their work.
  • Improving performance on standardized tests
  • Reducing dropouts
  • Preparing students for college and/or the workplace.

Ethical challenges include:

  • Teaching students to respect legitimate authority, rules, and the rights of others
  • Preventing peer cruelty
  • Promoting academic honesty
  • Reducing risky behaviors
  • Helping students become responsible citizens.

These performance and ethical challenges can be reduced to two: How can we get students to do their best work? How can we teach them to treat other people with respect and care?

Where can schools find the "power" to meet these challenges? Booker T. Washington said, "Character is power." What is the power of character, and how can schools -- and other key social groups (families, businesses, religious institutions, and the wider community) -- maximize the power of character to meet the performance and ethical challenges facing schools and society?


Character and Excellence

What do the following quotations tell us about the power of character?

You must discover what you are made for, and you must work indefatigably to achieve excellence in your field of endeavor. If you are called to be a street sweeper, you should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Excellence is not an act, but a habit. - Aristotle

The secret joy in work is excellence - Pearl Buck

The best preparation for tomorrow is to do today's work superbly well. - William Osler

I challenge you to find one single solitary individual who has achieved his or her personal greatness without lots of hard work. - John Wooden

There is no such thing as failure. There is only giving up too soon. - Jonas Salk

These quotes tell us that the experience of excellence is a central part of human fulfillment, and that character -- working hard, doing our best, and persevering -- is essential for realizing excellence. Excellence matters, and character matters in our pursuit of excellence. It follows that educating for character must be about developing ethics and excellence.

If the character education movement has had a motto, it's been Theodore Roosevelt's famous observation: "To educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society." However, the reverse of Roosevelt's maxim is also true: To educate a person in morals and not in mind is to educate, if not a menace, at least a detriment to society. Who wants a mechanic, lawyer, or doctor who's caring and honest, but incompetent?

Character's Two Parts: Performance Character and Moral Character

To maximize the power of character is to define it to include the quest for excellence as well as the quest for ethics. Conceived in this way, character has two parts: (1) performance character and (2) moral character.

Performance character is a mastery orientation. It consists of those qualities -- such as diligence, determination, a strong work ethic, confidence, resourcefulness, resilience, adaptability, and self-discipline -- needed to achieve our highest potential in any performance environment (academics, cocurricular activities, the workplace, etc.).

Performance character is not the same as performance. Performance is the outcome (the grade, the honor, the achievement), whereas performance character consists of the character strengths, such as best effort, that enable us to pursue our personal best -- whether the outcome is realized or not. In the long run, performance character does maximize performance because it brings to bear the strengths and strategies by which we get the most from our natural talent.

Moral character is a relational orientation. It consists of those qualities -- such as honesty, respect, fairness, caring, cooperation, and moral courage -- needed for successful relationships and ethical behavior. Moral character enables us to treat others -- and ourselves -- with respect and care and to act with integrity in our ethical lives. Moral character also ensures that we do not violate moral values such as fairness, honesty, and caring in the pursuit of high performance. Without strong moral character, performance character can easily run amuck -- as when a student cheats to get good grades or a team plays dirty to win a game.

Rendering Character Relevant to Teaching and Learning

Conceptualizing character to include both performance character and moral character makes character education more relevant to the academic mission of schools. In this new paradigm, character is integral to academic instruction, since it is needed for, and potentially developed from, every academic activity:

  • Students need performance character (initiative, organization, goal-setting, perseverance, etc.) in order to do their best academic work.

  • Students develop their performance character, including the ability to take satisfaction in a job well done, as they rise to the challenges of their schoolwork.

  • Students need moral character (respect, fairness, kindness, honesty, etc.) in order to build the positive relationships that make for a supportive learning environment.

  • Students develop their moral character by participating in collaborative learning; eliciting other students' best work through guided critique; examining ethical issues in literature, history, science, and current events; and carrying out service learning projects.

There are encouraging signs that the character education movement is beginning to embrace a concept of character education that integrates the pursuit of excellence (the task of performance character) and the pursuit of ethical behavior (the task of moral character). The Character Education Partnership recently released a position paper, Performance Values (, recognizing the mutually supportive roles of moral and performance character. Educators are beginning to pay more attention to the seminal work of former teacher Ron Berger, whose book An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship in Schools describes how to foster moral and performance character through project-based learning. (See Berger's article in the winter 2006 issue of The Fourth and Fifth Rs,

Historically, education has had two great goals: to help students become smart and to help them become good. They need performance character to become smart, moral character to become good. Only if we educate for character in this full sense, integrating excellence and ethics, will our students be prepared to flourish -- in school and beyond.



Thomas Lickona & Matt Davidson. "Maximizing the Power of Character through the Integration of Excellence and Ethics." excellence & ethics (Fall, 2008): 1-2.

Reprinted with permission. excellence & ethics is the Education Letter of the Smart & Good Schools Initiative, a joint project of the Center for the 4th and 5th Rs and the Institute for Excellence & Ethics (IEE). excellence & ethics features essays, research, and K-12 best practices that help school leaders, teachers, students, parents, and community members do their best work (performance character) and do the right thing (moral character).

excellence & ethics is published three times a year and may be subscribed to, without cost, here.

The Author

lickona1lickonakk1Thomas Lickona, Ph.D., is a psychologist and educator who has been called "the father of modern character education." A professor of education emeritus at State University of New York, Cortland, he is the founding director of his university's Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs (Respect and Responsibility) and author of nine books on moral development and character education. He is the author of How to Raise Kind Kids: And Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain,  Character Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity, and Other Essential Virtues and the Christopher Award-winning book Educating for Character. He has also written Raising Good Children and co-authored Sex, Love and You. He is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center. Visit his web site here

Dr. Matt Davidson is president and director of education at the Institute for Excellence & Ethics. Together they are co-authors of Smart & Good High Schools (, Character Quotations and Character Education Evaluation Toolkit. Matt Davidson and Thomas Lickona co-direct the Smart & Good Schools Initiative, dedicated to maximizing the power of character for success in school, work, and beyond.

The full "Smart & Good High Schools" report can be downloaded here.

Copyright © 2008 excellence & ethics  
back to top