Measuring and Teaching Character Skills

I’ve written before about the Character Assessment Initiative (Charassein) at the University of Arkansas, headed by my colleague Gema Zamarro.  This post provides an update about the strong progress they are making with their research.

First, the paper by Collin Hitt, Julie Trivitt, and Albert Cheng that I’ve been telling you about for more than two years is now being published in the Economics of Education Review.  Getting into a top journal takes time, but this paper certainly deserves high placement.  In this paper, Hitt, Trivvit, and Cheng demonstrate across several longitudinal data sets that students who are more non-responsive to survey questions (skipping items or saying “don’t know”) have significantly lower educational attainment and fare less well in the labor market, even after controlling for a broad set of background characteristics and cognitive measures.  Essentially, this paper validates that item non-response is a useful proxy for character skills (probably conscientiousness) and is predictive of later life outcomes.

Second, Albert Cheng and Gema Zamarro have a new paper that demonstrates that teachers actually alter student character skills.  In particular, they look at data from the MET Project in which students were randomly assigned to teachers in the second year of the study.  They find that teachers who themselves have weaker character skills during the first year of the study, as measured by non-responsiveness or careless responses on surveys, weaken the character skills of the students experimentally assigned to them during the second year of the study.  Conversely, teachers who model higher levels of conscientiousness improve the character skills of their students.

This teacher ability to affect student character skills in not related to their ability to improve math and reading test performance.  So teachers who are great at building character skills may not be the same ones who are great at conveying math and reading.  Students are more successful when they learn both cognitive and non-cognitive skills.  If we focus only on retaining and rewarding teachers or schools that do one, students may miss out on having teachers or schools that are good at the other.

I hope it’s not another two years until you see this new Cheng and Zamarro paper in a top journal.  Now that their measure has been validated by the EER piece, future publications should come more quickly.  And Albert is himself headed to great things as he completes his Ph.D. and begins a post-doc at Harvard next year.  Keep you eye on him and this line of research on using survey responsiveness and carelessness as measures of character skills with strong predictive power for student success.

– Jay Greene

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