Are schools responsible for students’ character development as well
as their cognitive achievement? Is this best done via discrete
“character development” programs or by creating an overall school
culture that seamlessly fosters good behavior and sound values along
with academics? In this new study, analysts examined the impact of seven
popular character-education programs (with catchy titles like “Love in a
Big World” and “Positive Action”). They randomly assigned eighty-four
schools in six states to receive one of the school-based programs or to
continue business as usual. More than 6,000 students in third grade were
followed to the end of fifth grade, during which various outcomes were
measured. But the bottom line of this 700-page evaluation is that “on
average, the seven programs did not improve students’ social and
emotional competence, behavior, academic achievement, and student and
teacher perceptions of school climate.” Analysis of individual programs
proved no more encouraging, nor did analysis of subgroups. In fact, some
of the few statistically significant outcomes that did appear
indicated detrimental impacts on students, such as lowering their
engagement with learning and their feelings of safety. The analysts
engage in much hypothesizing about these lackluster findings. Still and
all, this evaluation, by no means exhaustive, yet still rigorous, should
prompt questions about the purpose of “character education” and whether
specialized programs of this sort are the best way to instill
responsibility and ethical decision-making in children.

Social and Character Development Research Consortium, “Efficacy
of Schoolwide Programs to Promote Social and Character Development and
Reduce Problem Behavior in Elementary School Children
,” (National Center for Education Research, Institute of Education Sciences, October 2010).

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