The largest federal study to date of character-building or social-development programs has found that, for the most part, they don’t produce any improvements in student behavior or academic performance.
The Institute of Education Sciences gauged the effects of seven typical schoolwide programs from across the country: the Academic and Behavioral Competencies Program, the Competence Support Program, Love in a Big World, Positive Action, Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS), the 4Rs (Reading, Writing, Respect, and Resolution) program, and Second Step.
For the study, researchers from Mathematica Policy Research Inc., of Princeton, N.J., employed various analyses to compare social and academic outcomes for students, schools, and teachers taking part in the programs with that of nonparticipants—including a series of randomized controlled trials at 84 schools using the programs with 3rd to 5th grade students.
In the intervention schools, the study found, the programs did significantly increase educators’ use of character-development instruction over three years. For example, 68 percent to 72 percent of teachers in the schools doing one of the programs reported doing a related activity to address a school character education goal, compared with only 20 percent to 36 percent of teachers in control-group schools.
But the programs did not improve the use of schoolwide strategies related to character building, teachers’ attitudes, or teachers’ use of routine classroom practices, such as engaging students in decision-making, that are thought to contribute to students’ character development.
Across 20 student and school indicators, covering school climate and student behavior, academics, and social and emotional growth, the programs showed no overall evidence of improving students’ academic performance, behavior, perceptions of the school climate, or their social growth. While teachers did report getting more support from students in the first two years, that effect faded by year three.
Some program advocates argued the study did not follow the students long enough to see more slow-developing results.
A version of this article appeared in the October 27, 2010 edition of Education Week as Study Finds Few Benefits in Character Education