School & District Management

Proof of Positive Effect Found for Only a Few Character Programs

By Debra Viadero — June 13, 2007 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

After reviewing the research on 41 programs aimed at instilling character in students, the U.S. Department of Education gave “positive” ratings to just two of them and rated seven more as “potentially positive.”

All the others were rated “mixed,” had “no discernible effects,” or “potentially negative effects.”

The new report, which was posted earlier this month on the department’s What Works Clearinghouse Web site, signals the end of a complete cycle of research reviews on school-based character education models.

It’s only the second topic report completed by the clearinghouse, which was established in 2002 to provide Consumer Reports-style ratings on program effectiveness for policymakers and practitioners. A topic report on middle school mathematics, which was posted in 2004, is currently being revised to reflect results from new studies in that area, according to Rebecca Herman, who directs the clearinghouse for the American Institutes for Research in Washington.

The U.S. Department of Education’s character education report is posted on the What Works Clearinghouse Web site.

Compared with mathematics learning, though, character education is a relatively new and evolving field with a more manageable number of studies. For their review of that topic, clearinghouse analysts looked at a total of 93 studies on 41 programs that cut across a wide swath of the field. Some focused, for instance, at preventing violence or drug use, while others aimed more broadly at teaching children to be good citizens.

Few of the programs were even evaluated, however, because only 18 studies of 13 programs met the clearinghouse’s tough evidence standards. The reviewers judged programs by their effectiveness in three areas: improving behaviors, enhancing students’ moral and ethical reasoning or their attitudes and values, and gaining in academic achievement.

The last category reflects the growing body of research in the field, suggesting that character education programs, some of which are embedded in social studies or English classes, can boost students’ academic skills as well as their social development.

“What Works in Character Education” is available from the Character Education Partnership.

The highest ratings went to Positive Action, a commercial K-12 program based in Twin Falls, Idaho. Its positive ratings in both the behavior and academic-skills categories mean that reviewers found at least two studies showing the program produced statistically significant effects and no evidence to the contrary.

The other positively rated program, a K-6 one called Too Good for Drugs and Violence, got its high marks for study results showing that it produced improvements in children’s knowledge, attitudes, and values.

Evidence Standards Questioned

The programs that got potentially positive ratings, a slightly lower evidence standard, included: Building Decision Skills, a secondary school curriculum for teaching ethical decisionmaking developed by the Institute for Global Ethics in Camden, Maine; Caring School Community, an Oakland, Calif.-based K-6 program aimed at fostering students’ connectedness with schools; Connect With Kids, multimedia curricula for the elementary grades devised by CWK Inc., in Atlanta; Lessons in Character, a middle school program distributed by Young People’s Press of San Diego; Skills for Adolescence, a middle school program sponsored by Lions Club International Foundation in Oak Brook, Ill.; and Too Good for Violence and Too Good for Drugs, both sister models to the Too Good for Drugs and Violence program. All the Too Good programs are distributed by the Mendez Foundation of Tampa, Fla.

The review also found, however, that the studies grounding several well-regarded character education programs—among them Heartwood Ethics Curriculum and Facing History and Ourselves—showed “no discernible effects” on students.

Eleanor Childs, who founded the Pittsburgh-based Heartwood Institute more than 20 years ago, said the analysts’ conclusions run counter to her own experiences with the pre-K-6 program, which uses literature to teach values.

“We had good findings when nobody did research,” she said. “I don’t know what standards they’re using.”

“I do know that if you put posters and talk about a different value every week, you’re going to reach children’s heads, but I don’t know how you reach their hearts and how you measure that,” Ms. Childs added.

Developers of the 30-year-old Facing History program, which is based in Brookline, Mass., have also raised complaints about the clearinghouse’s review methods. In their case, they wrote in a letter to Education Week last year, positive results were blurred when analysts merged findings from different areas.

Marvin W, Berkowitz, a professor of character education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis agreed that more programs would have made the cut if the clearinghouse had loosened its scientific criteria or broadened its review. His own review of “what works” in character education, completed in 2005, turned up 33 promising programs.

“From a scientific standpoint, that’s a fair move,” Mr. Berkowitz said of the clearinghouse’s evidence standards. “But in the field of education, it’s generally difficult to do rigorous research. We have those realities,” he said, “and we have to understand that we have to also look for evidence in other ways.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2007 edition of Education Week as Proof of Positive Effect Found for Only a Few Character Programs


Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
Roundtable Webinar: Why We Created a Portrait of a Graduate
Hear from three K-12 leaders for insights into their school’s Portrait of a Graduate and learn how to create your own.
Content provided by Otus

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Leading on the ‘Science of Reading’: Principals Share What They’ve Learned
Three school leaders share insights on how they changed the way reading was taught in their schools.
8 min read
A member of the Instruction Partners team works with instructional leaders during a learning walkthrough at a school in Brownsville, Tenn.
A member of an Instruction Partners team works with leaders during a learning walkthrough at a school in Brownsville, Tenn. Learning walkthroughs help principals learn how to support their teachers in new methods for teaching reading and provide feedback to them.
Courtesy of Instruction Partners
School & District Management Letter to the Editor Student Protestors Are Not Fueled by Hatred or Prejudice
A reader pushes back on the coverage of student protestors in this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Education Week opinion letters submissions
Gwen Keraval for Education Week
School & District Management Principals Have a Lead Role in the ‘Science of Reading.’ Are They Ready?
The push to shifting schools to the science of reading has often neglected the vital role of the principal.
9 min read
School & District Management Quiz What Do You Know About the Most Influential People in School Districts? Take Our Quiz
Answer 7 questions about the superintendent profession.
1 min read
Image of icons for gender, pay, demographics.