Character Crusader

Upon leaving Stanford University's School of Education in 1996, Patty Farnsworth, energetic wife and mother of two grown children, founded Link Institute, a national nonprofit education group based in Redwood City, California. The organization works with parents, teachers, administrators and policy-makers to distribute ideas, materials and tools designed to foster character development in the classroom. She spoke recently with Register correspondent Martha Lepore.

Lepore: What makes Link different from other education reform organizations?

Farnsworth: We're not about reform. Link Institute is about a vision of using the knowledge we've learned in the last 5,000 years as the basis for primary education. Since the mid-50s, educators have diluted the content of learning and focused on the process of learning, calling it progressive education.

There has been an overemphasis on pedagogy or process and not enough on content. But it hasn’t worked. Our focus is more on the “what” of education, less on the “how.” We seek to promote and support schools that have rigorous academic content and virtue-based character education.

How did you come to position yourself as an in-service resource?

Our view of the dilemmas in education is not original. Many have already decried the loss of educational basics and core values, such as Charles Sykes in Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can’t Read, Write or Add and William Bennett in The Educated Child. Some schools are independently emphasizing basics and fundamental virtues. But we are the first to assure schools with practical support so that they are not out there by themselves.

Our approach is unique — developing ideas, materials and tools for teachers to use in fostering content in such areas as history, science and literature. We founded our program on two main components, the Core Knowledge Sequence, developed by E.D. Hirsch Jr. and the Core Knowledge Foundation; and Core Virtues, a K-6 literature-based program of character education.

The core knowledge concept is based on the research conducted by and written about by Hirsch in his books Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and The Schools We Need, and Why We Don’t Have Them. Hirsch founded the Core Knowledge Foundation in 1986 and it serves as the hub of a growing network of hundreds of schools in the United States using its curriculum content sequence.

Where does character education come in?

In our view, the standard for character content in education is encapsulated in the core-virtues work of Dr. Mary Beth Klee, a member of our board of directors. She helped pioneer the Core Knowledge Sequence at the Crossroads Academy she founded in Lyme, New Hampshire.

Subsequently she developed Core Virtues for Core Knowledge, which is based on the assumption that, while virtue cannot be “taught,” it can perhaps be “caught,” and uses moving stories to awaken and interest children in a love of the good.

Through her program, we educate children to the fact that they can make a mistake, make a correction for it and go on. They learn it's a struggle to become better and also that the struggle itself is worthwhile. We see this emphasis on virtues as compatible with religion, but not religious.

Link Institute has operated as a nonprofit for less than three years. How are you winning educators to your vision?

In December 1999, we formed an extended partnership with the National Heritage Academies [NHA] in Michigan because our mission to aid teachers aligns with its mission to provide a curriculum that is academically challenging and morally anchored. NHA is a for-profit management group of 22 charter schools primarily located in Michigan, and we will conduct professional development seminars for their teachers this summer.

In 1998, we sponsored workshops for teachers on the core-knowledge concept and on how to establish a charter school. In 1999, we conducted more workshops for teachers on core knowledge and hosted with the Center for Education Reform a symposium, “Education Straight Talk,” on content and character in the classroom. Our featured speakers were Charles Sykes, Kevin Ryan, Connie Jones and William Kilpatrick.

This year our Summer Intensive Institutes for Teachers [SUMMIT] will focus on college minicourses in one-week blocks to enrich the knowledge of elementary teachers in history and science. The SUMMIT will be held in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We are also responding to requests from other school-management groups to furnish in-service education.

How far do you want to take the Link approach?

Since we are not into policy-making, but helping schools stabilize and improve their curricula and ethos, I think we will go on for a long time and actually reach out to schools in Europe and beyond.

How will you measure success?

That's a long-term factor which we are beginning to address. Ultimately the outcome we desire is to have better-educated, morally responsible students who become adults with a desire for lifelong learning and good citizenship. Those kinds of achievements are hard to measure, but, in the short-term, we plan to follow teachers and students involved in the SUMMIT program. We are working with Dr. Erick Hanushek and his company, the Center for Research of Educational Outcomes at the University of Rochester on measurement designs.

Who is supporting the Link Institute?

Several foundations, such as the Bradley Foundation, and private donors fund us. We have a very active board of directors, including Joseph Lane of IBM Global Financing and Credit Corporation and journalist Joan Frawley Desmond. Among our board of advisers are academic leaders Gary Beckner of the Association of American Educators, Dr. William Kilpatrick of Boston College and Dr. Thomas Lickona of the State University of New York.

Link Institute has required a major commitment on your part. What's in it for you?

The satisfaction of knowing I'm helping children. I think children are so important, yet many are not getting what I think is a decent education. My husband and I raised two children and I know it requires a lot of different pieces. I see so many parents struggling to do their duty as primary educators and most are not getting help from the schools. They seem to be without a voice and facing a culture that undermines solid family relations. I like to think we're making an important contribution to helping these parents and their children.

Martha Lepore writes from Coronado, California.