School & District Management

Proof of Positive Effect Found for Only a Few Character Programs

By Debra Viadero — June 13, 2007 4 min read
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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.”

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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

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