Character education shows no results

After three years of character education, elementary students showed no gains in behavior or academic performance compared to a control group, concludes a large federal study (pdf) of seven schoolwide programs for third- through fifth-graders. From Education Week:

In the end, researchers found no evidence that the programs, taken individually or together, improved students’ behavior, academic performance or gains, or their perceptions of the school climate. And the results were no better for schools with better implementation.

Some say it takes more than three years to show results. Brian Flay, an Oregon State health and human sciences professor married to the founder of Positive Action says research due for release soon has found lower rates of bullying and substance abuse among students who have remained in the program through eighth grade. “In these inner-city, high-risk, high-poverty neighborhoods, it takes a while for the effects to become significant,” Flay told Ed Week.

Others say interventions targeted at troubled students have shown success. But these programs are designed for all students. If they’re not working, why not devote the time to something else?

Character education is hard to define, said Linda McKay, a state and federal character education advocate. It includes “pieces of ethics, civics, diversity, problem-solving, and social-emotional development, among other topics.”

“I think it’s absolutely one of the most critical pieces for education, particularly in high-risk schools,” Ms. McKay said. “If we don’t focus on creating a climate for learning and a classroom culture where students and faculty feel cared for and respected, we won’t get to the academics.”

I agree that creating a safe, orderly, learning culture is critical. But how?

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  1. Hallelujah! Finally some evidence to use against these lame programs. I’ve suffered through seven years of having to use these curricula. Just because it’s called “character education” does not mean it educates character. Just because a product’s called “cure for baldness” doesn’t mean it cures baldness. America blundered into this mammoth waste of time and money because of our unfortunate tendency to think that for every problem there’s a product that solves that problem. We identified a problem –bad character — entrepreneurs (e.g. Positive Action Inc.) seized the opportunity to quickly invent “cures”, and credulous districts around the country bought up their fake cures.

    It’s really ludicrous if you think about it: the whole of the Bible, Greek philosophy, Eastern philosophy, Western literature and history, etc. –all this heavy-weight stuff –wrestles with the problems of good and evil, with no simple resolution or prescription for education. Yet a pair of shallow business-types from the Dallas suburbs can whip up an effective treatment program for human perversity in three weeks, given a robust financial incentive. Wow, the free market really can perform miracles!

  2. The free market is not the problem here; if the product doesn’t sell, the company loses money and may go out of business. The problem is that schools have a long history of credulous buys of the latest magic cures (various tech stuff is a current hot one and “professional development” is a perennial favorite), which makes schools an attractive target for the would-be purveyors of the snake oil du jour. Unfortunately, schools have been unwilling to state – and live with – the obvious; half the population is below average, real education requires real effort and a safe and orderly environment is necessary. Stick to the basics; explicit, efficient instruction and a content-rich curriculum, and let the chips fall where they may.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    This is surprising because…?

  4. It is not only teaching children character ed, but it also requires times and situations for students to display what they have learned. Leadership, is where I have found the most success.

    I have taught character education, life skills and social skills for years, but it was not until this year when I added a component of Leadership to the equation did I get the most satisfying results.

    “Leader in Me” – by Stephen Covey, take a look some great ideas and outcomes.

  5. Michael E. Lopez says:


    Late in somewhat young life I realized that it’s probably false that “half the people are below average.” It really depends on how fine your measuring mechanism is, and how precise your definition of “average” is. For instance, if you define an “average” IQ as 99.987451332856747987, and measure IQ with whole-number units, then half the people will be “below average”. If you measure IQ with half-number units, and define “average” as 96-104, then you might end up with a *majority* of the population being average, which makes it impossible that half are below average.

    Nor is this just silly number-games: what we consider “average” intelligence isn’t really defined by some number, but by interactions with a range of people.

    Now, I agree with your post, but I thought it useful to address what I saw as a problem with the connotation of what you said. Half of people probably are “below average” from a very strict scientific view, but it’s highly unlikely that we would, after interacting with them even in an evaluative fashion, rank half the people as “below average” because we’d probably label most of them “average”.

  6. Shawn,

    I have deep doubts about teaching “leadership” as well. As if this is a generic, transferable skill. Leaders in the medical field should be excellent doctors who have a vision and good rhetorical skills. Leaders in education should be master teachers who have a vision and good rhetorical skills. Leaders in a given domain need deep knowledge about that domain –this gives them authority and the ability to formulate a cogent vision. Leadership class does not provide domain knowledge. I worry that it promotes a dangerous notion that leaders don’t need to know much about the entity they’re leading. Low-information leaders plague public schools.

  7. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    I’ve always thought that “leadership training” was bogus as well. Leaders, IMO, are not born or made, but IDENTIFIED. You may be a great leader in one time and place and then never again.

    Leadership “training” makes that identification that much harder.

    Great leadership existed in antiquity. Has all this modern leadership training given us better leadership? I don’t see any evidence of that. Rather the opposite.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    Ex-physics teacher:
    The military tries to teach leadership. I don’t think they can turn Casper Milquetoast into Napoleon, nor Lt. Sonny Fuzz into Alexander The Great.
    However, in my experience, they at least tell you some mistakes not to make, so that those identified as having potential don’t involuntarily self-sabotage. I should say, we’re speaking strictly of “leadership”, here, rather than the exhaustive schooling required in the domain. Just had a relative qualify for master gunner in an armored battalion. Sheesh. In addition to a hell of a load of information on top of his training to date, he had to do practical demonstrations under pressure, not to mention have done really well in three tours in Iraq. He’s not becoming a general, but a Sergeant First Class. E7. Leadership classes were in addition to this.
    Point is, you can teach leadership techniques, but, as you describe, it won’t work well if the folks don’t know what they’re doing. Still, if you know them and find yourself in a situation where everybody else knows less….

  9. I’m not sure of the value of a separate program to teach character anymore than I am of programs that teach technology or citizenship or many other things that need to be embedded deeply in all facets of learning.

    However, I do think that schools should be working hard to emphasize character and give credence to it by reporting on it and making it part of every student’s report card. I don’t believe in grades that include both achievement and behavior but by separating these two, we can give much clearer, meaningful picture of what a student has achieved and how they achieved it.

  10. Sharon R. says:

    I always thought the character education stuff was just stupid, but it turned out to help my oldest son. He discovered the hard way in Kindergarten that if you love the color green so much that you cry if you don’t get to sit on a green square on the rug, a group of boys you thought were your friends will make sure they occupy all the green squares before you sit down. Since my poor kid would never think of doing something purely to make someone else unhappy (how did I manage to have this child???) he had no defenses. The first character education lesson was all about “not baiting the hook” for bullies. It actually worked, in giving us a common jargon to use with our son, and giving him an idea to hang onto to avoid being an easy target. Now that he’s in second grade, I see no evidence that character education has made the slightest dent in the alpha-ness of the boys that were after him in Kindergarten, but at least my kid has learned some coping skills that have been surprisingly helpful. (It also helps that the school did a great job of dividing up the bullies from their targets in putting together the 1st and 2nd grade classes.) I suspect the character education lessons will have no effect at all on my younger son, now in kindergarten. It’s one of those things where earnest kids who want to be good will learn to be better, and everyone else will ignore it. Hence, no measureable results, but a handful of happier former targets.

  11. I am really happy that I bumped into this post today. Why? Because out of the 13 people in our family that teach at several different levels here in NYC & NYS have never been approached about this “Character Education” concept.

    After speaking with them at length about their views on this topic the outcome is very mixed however the majority agree more with what MomOf4 stated (Instead of introducing and implementing this concept they would rather stick to the basics of teaching the way they were taught, add creativity to lesson plans to make it easier for every student to understand/participate in and then let the chips fall where they may.)