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Academic Achievement and Moral Education / Character Education
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By David Streight

Research Highlights

There should be no requirement that moral education or character education programs enhance academic achievement; both are of tremendous importance, though the former affects the well-being of society more than the latter. The happy news is that research on character education indicates that such programs do not "get in the way" of academics. On the contrary, well-designed and implemented programs tend to increase academic achievement at modest levels. The quality of the program correlates with academic gains.

The most significant recent studies:

1. Benninga, J. et al. (2003) The Relationship of Character Education Implementation and Academic Achievement in Elementary Schools. Journal of Research in Character Education, vol. 1, num. 1.

Beninga's was a large study including data from 651 schools.

"The results of this research indicate that a composite summary score of character education criteria is positively correlated with academic indicators across years. The elementary schools in our sample with solid character education programs defined by our six criteria and their eleven indicators not only show positive relationships with academic indicators that same year, but also evidence positive correlations across the next two academic years."

"...schools with higher evidence of character education implementation in these areas and with more total character education overall tended to have higher academic scores on all the measures used."

2) Berkowitz, M., & M. Bier (2005) What Works in Character Education: A Research Driven Guide for Educators. Character Education Partnership.

This report is available on the web, and comes in two forms: one for educators and a shorter version adapted for "policy makers and opinion leaders." The latter is good for basics and rationale, the former is much more detailed.

The author looked at 109 studies carried out on the effectiveness of 39 different character education programs or methods. They ended up focusing on results of 78 of the studies, covering 33 programs. Those rejected had not shown appropriate scientific rigor.

Fifty-two of the 78 studies looked at the program's effect on academic achievement. Fifty-nine percent of these studies showed a significant positive effect on academics. (Some "character programs" are not designed to address academics, particularly those addressing drug refusal skills, sexual behavior, protection skills, etc.). Six "packaged programs" showed "strong support" for academic achievement. "What Works" includes a number of guidelines for effective practice, highlighting that character education "does work," that its effects are many, and that evidence of its effectiveness show up even years after a program has finished. But it must not be done haphazardly if we want the maximum results.

3) Catalano, R, et al. (2002), Positive Youth Development in the United States: Research Findings on Evaluations of Positive Youth Development Programs. Prevention & Treatment, Vol. 5, Article 15, June 24, 2002.

This study reviewed 25 programs for Positive Youth Development that had been previously evaluated using solid evaluation methods. The researchers were looking at a variety of outcome results and thus did not elaborate on specifics in each area, Nevertheless:

The study concluded that a wide range of positive youth development approaches can result in positive youth behavior outcomes and the prevention of youth problem behaviors. Nineteen effective programs showed positive changes in youth behavior, including significant improvements in interpersonal skills, quality of peer and adult relationships, self-control, problem solving, cognitive competencies, self-efficacy, commitment to schooling, and academic achievement.

4) Roseth, C, Johnson, D. and Johnson, R. (2008). Promoting Early Adolescents' Achievement and Peer Relationships: The Effects of Cooperative, Competitive, and Individualistic Goal Structures. Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 134, No. 2, pp 223-245.

This study is also "findable" on the internet. Roseth, Johnson & Johnson reviewed 148 independent studies involving 17000 students in 11 different countries, finding that "higher achievement and more positive peer relationships were associated with cooperative rather than competitive or individualistic goal structures."

The study is compelling in the number of independent studies whose results it distills and the number of students involved. Rather than character education per se, however, its results focus on those schools where there is a specific attempt to diminish competition in the classroom, in favor of students learning together and supporting one another in their learning endeavors.

For schools that achieve appropriately positive student-student relationships: results are seen in higher school competence, in classroom grades, in standardized test scores, in involvement in the classroom, in prosocial behavior, and in self esteem.

"As predicted, in this study we found that for early adolescents, cooperative goal structures were associated with higher levels of achievement than were competitive or individualistic goal structures."

The authors also note most studies as indicating that classrooms with "performance oriented" structures (comparing one's competence to that of others) lead to more negative outcomes and have a negative relation to grades, while "mastery oriented" classrooms (focusing on self improvement) do not.

"As the results of this study suggest, the more successful students are in building positive peer relationships, the more likely these students are to achieve [academically]."

For more researching supporting the tie between character education and academics, check out David Streight's evidence-based book, Breaking Into the Heart of Character.

David Streight is previous Executive Director of the Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education. He spent thirty years as a teacher and school psychologist working in Catholic, public, and private independent schools. He is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist, a past president of a state association for school psychologists, and a frequent workshop presenter. He served ten years as U.S. Secretary for the European-based Association pour la Défense des Langues et Cultures Ménacées, and as an officer in the Association pour la Promotion de la Culture Provençale.

[Type: Article]

[User Group: Administration, Teachers]

[Grade: Lower, Middle, Upper]

[Subject: Moral Development and Character Education]

[Subject: School Culture]


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