Is Character Education the Answer?

Over the last few years, there has been a growing awareness of the need to incorporate character development into school curricula, and various efforts to do so have received wide attention. Perhaps the best-known effort is the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, which has been implemented in close to 150 charter schools across the country.

KIPP is aimed at children and teenagers from low-income families. Its explicit goal is increasing college enrollment by combining an emphasis on factors proven to bolster academic success (high expectations, parental involvement, time spent on instruction) with a novel focus on developing seven character strengths—zest, grit, self-control, optimism, curiosity, gratitude, and social intelligence. These strengths are tracked on a “character growth card” and encouraged through classroom discussions and assignments that incorporate lessons about character into more conventional academic activities. Teachers also go out of their way to both model and praise displays of good character.

KIPP has a long record of impressive accomplishments that have garnered much media attention, including Paul Tough’s bestseller, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Students attending KIPP schools have higher rates of high-school graduation, college enrollment, and college completion than students from similarly disadvantaged backgrounds who attend other types of schools. Numerous evaluations of KIPP schools have found that students show larger-than-expected gains on various measures of achievement.

However, because KIPP schools are charter schools, the students who attend them have parents who have chosen this option. Parents who go out of their way to enroll their children in academically rigorous programs are likely atypical. Most studies of KIPP schools therefore can’t rule out the possibility that their students’ success is due to selection bias rather than the program itself.

With this parental predisposition in mind, a recent evaluation of KIPP middle schools by an independent evaluator is particularly intriguing. This evaluation drew its comparison group from a sample of children whose families had entered, but didn’t win, a lottery to gain admission to the local KIPP school. Comparing children from this group with those who’d won the lottery controls for whatever unique factors may characterize families who choose to enroll their kids in KIPP—since both groups had tried to get their kids into KIPP.

The study assessed performance on standardized achievement tests as well as measures of various character strengths. Consistent with the prior studies, in this objective evaluation, KIPP students outperformed the comparison children on numerous measures of achievement, across a range of subject areas. KIPP students also spent more time on homework. The differences were not only statistically significant, but substantial. This is the stuff of headlines, and rightly so.

However, some of this study’s findings were not so widely broadcast. The KIPP children showed no advantage on any of the measures of character strengths. They weren’t more effortful or persistent. They didn’t have more favorable academic self-conceptions or stronger school engagement. They didn’t score higher than the comparison group in self-control. In fact, they were more likely to engage in “undesirable behavior,” including losing their temper, lying to and arguing with their parents, and giving teachers a hard time. They were more likely to get into trouble at school. Despite the program’s emphasis on character development, the KIPP students were no less likely to smoke, drink, get high, or break the law. Nor were their hopes for their educational futures any higher or their plans any more ambitious. A different study found that rates of college graduation among KIPP graduates, while three times as high as those of students from comparable disadvantaged backgrounds, were still disappointing: Nearly 90 percent of the KIPP students enrolled in college, but only a third graduated—less than half the proportion the program’s developers have hoped for. College-graduation rates have since improved a bit in several KIPP schools, according to KIPP’s founders, but they are still far behind KIPP’s expectations.

These findings don’t necessarily show that schools cannot play a role in strengthening self-regulation and other noncognitive skills. They may simply indicate that the approach taken by KIPP, while effective at boosting academic performance, doesn’t really have an impact on kids’ character. Informing kids about character traits in school will increase their knowledge of these subjects, but it won’t change their behavior.

I don’t mean to minimize the impressive impact that KIPP appears to have on academic success—and in all fairness, this is the developers’ primary objective. The KIPP schools have dramatically improved scholastic achievement in a demographic where any improvement in this area has historically been difficult to accomplish.

But developing teenagers’ self-regulation may require something other than parables, slogans, inspirational banners, and encouragement from compassionate teachers.

There are other approaches to the development of self-regulation that are likely to prove more effecting than those pursued by KIPP and other schools emphasizing character development, but these are unconventional, at least by current education standards. They include: mindfulness training, through exercises like meditation or disciplined physical exercise, such as yoga; aerobic exercise, which has been shown to strengthen brain function; and cognitive behavioral programs, such as those used to help children learn impulse control, a type of intervention that falls into the broader category of “social emotional learning” (SEL). There are some schools across the country that have incorporated one or more of these activities into their daily routines. Whether schools on a broader scale can be persuaded to introduce things like meditation, exercise, and SEL is not yet known.

-Laurence Steinberg

Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., is the Distinguished University Professor and Laura H. Carnell Professor of Psychology at Temple University. A version of this essay appears in his most recent book, Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence. This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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