Thursday, October 28, 2010

It doesn’t build character

From Education Week:

Character education has grown in popularity among educators and parents alike, but the largest federal study of schoolwide programs to date has found that, for the most part, they don’t produce any improvements in student behavior or academic performance.
I described our school’s program here.  Maybe they could cut the character education and give the kids back the time they used to have for lunch and recess.


StepfordTO said...

Chris, I can see why the type of program used in your school doesn't produce results. It does seem to be overly negative, and rule-oriented. Our school used to use a program called Future Aces (, which emphasizes things like empathy and service. But I still didn't like the program, mainly because certain teachers started using it as a rewards system, and most of the kids themselves thought it was unfair. (Kids were being singled out for recognition as a "future ace" because they deliberately performed some "act of kindness" in front of the teacher in order to secure a reward.) I also think programs like this are too abstract for elementary kids. In our school, there were monthly assemblies, and even little plays about aspects of the program, and during these assemblies all the kids would be yawning their heads off.

I think the only character education kids need at school are empathy-promoting programs and/or anti-bullying programs. Our school seems to have stopped using Future Aces (or maybe I've just tuned it out), but I know that all grade 2's at the school participate in something called Roots of Empathy, where a baby from the community is brought into the classroom on a monthly basis, along with its mother and some kind of facilitator/leader. The kids are allowed to play and interact with the baby, and they have discussions about the baby's development, and what s/he might be feeling/thinking at different times during the visit or at different points in his/her development. I am not opposed to this program, because the kids seem to love it, and they become very attached to "their" babies. (You can read about the program here (

Our school also has mandatory anti-bullying classes, but they're only held once or twice, I think in the early grades. I believe these classes are a start, but they should be continued throughout the elementary years. I also think they could be improved upon--e.g., they could be much more specific re: anti-gay bullying.

Chris said...

Yes, I don't object to efforts to teach values in school. My objection, in our school, is mainly to the values that they choose to teach, which are focused primarily on obedience and unquestioning compliance with rules. That "Roots of Empathy" program sounds terrific, and anti-bullying programs are all to the good.

I don't even mean to suggest that any one study is dispositive of the issue of whether these programs are effective. (I got carried away in the post title.) But I do think that schools should be realistic about what "character instruction" will accomplish, especially if they are simultaneously sending messages that undermine those very values. For example, if a school immerses in kids in authoritarian values all year, a few hours spent teaching about democracy is likely to have little effect. If anyone ever did a study to measure how effectively schools teach authoritarian values, I fear they would find that type of "character education" very effective indeed.

StepfordTO said...

Yes, the "hidden curriculum" trumps the overt curriculum every time. The pessimist in me thinks it's because the "hidden curriculum" (promoting compliance, respect for authority, and cog-in-the-global-machine work habits) is in fact the true curriculum of public (and most private) schooling.