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Character Education: An Embarrassment of Riches?

Joan Duffell, executive director of the Seattle-based Committee for Children didn't get the best news this week from the Institute of Education Sciences' new character education report. Her group's Second Step program, like all of the seven programs studied, produced little to no effects on students' behavior or academic performance.

Yet Duffell told me she's pretty pleased with one part of the study's findings which could have contributed to the lackluster results: The control schools taught character education, too. Mathematica Policy Research compared the schools using the tested character education programs to other local schools with similar demographics. Researchers found all of those schools had some level of social development and character education. For example, during the three-year study, 86-90 percent of teachers in schools that weren't using the programs still used some type of classroom activity to address at least one of six goals Mathematica studied&mdashcharacter education, violence prevention, social-emotional development, tolerance, risk prevention and health promotion, and civic responsibility&mdash even through only 20 to 36 percent used activities as part of a schoolwide program.

"I could have given a big 'yippee' that from the study it seems that we have reached the point as a country that standard practice is every teacher is using character education," she told me. "It makes it hard to do good research as this points out, ... but on the upside, as someone who's advocating for these programs in schools, it's very encouraging to see schools as accepting this as common practice."

The IES report is already causing some soul-searching for Duffell and other program leaders, but at a time when severe bullying is making national headlines, it's unlikely schools will turn away from attempting to instill character and responsibility in their students.

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