Character and Academics: What Good Schools Do Benninga, Jacques S; Berkowitz, Marvin W; Kuehn, Phyllis; Smith, Karen . Phi Delta Kappan ;
Bloomington Vol. 87, Iss. 6, (Feb 2006): 448-452.
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ABSTRACT Despite the clear national interest in character education, many schools are leery of engaging in supplementary
initiatives that might detract from their focus on increasing academic performance. If it could be demonstrated
that implementing character education programs is compatible with efforts to improve school achievement, then
perhaps more schools would accept the challenge of doing both. FULL TEXT
Though there has been increasing interest in character education among policy makers and education
professionals, many schools hesitate to do anything that might detract from their focus on increasing academic
performance. The authors present evidence indicating that this may be misguided.
THE growth of character education programs in the United States has coincided with the rise in high-stakes
testing of student achievement. The No Child Left Behind Act asks schools to contribute not only to students’
academic performance but also to their character. Both the federal government and the National Education
Association (NEA) agree that schools have this dual responsibility. In a statement introducing a new U.S.
Department of Education character education website, then Secretary of Education Rod Paige outlined the need
for such programs:
Sadly, we live in a culture without role models, where millions of students are taught the wrong values or no values
at all. This culture of callousness has led to a staggering achievement gap, poor health status, overweight
students, crime, violence, teenage pregnancy, and tobacco and alcohol abuse. . . . Good character is the product of
good judgments made every day.1
And Bob Chase, the former president of the NEA, issued his own forceful call to action:
We must make an explicit commitment to formal character education. We must integrate character education into
the fabric of the curriculum and into extracurricular activities. We must train teachers in character education – both
preservice and inservice. And we must consciously set about creating a moral climate within our schools.2
Despite the clear national interest in character education, many schools are leery of engaging in supplementary
initiatives that, although worthy, might detract from what they see as their primary focus: increasing academic
achievement. Moreover, many schools lack the resources to create new curricular initiatives. Yet the enhancement
of student character is a bipartisan mandate that derives from the very core of public education. The purpose of
public schooling requires that schools seek to improve both academic and character education. http://ezproxy.snhu.edu/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fsearch.proquest.com%2Fdocview%2F218519891%3Faccountid%3D3783http://ezproxy.snhu.edu/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fsearch.proquest.com%2Fdocview%2F218519891%3Faccountid%3D3783
If it could be demonstrated that implementing character education programs is compatible with efforts to improve
school achievement, then perhaps more schools would accept the challenge of doing both. But until now there has
been little solid evidence of such successful coexistence.
DEFINITIONS AND RESEARCH
Character education is the responsibility of adults. While the term character education has historically referred to
the duty of the older generation to form the character of the young through experiences affecting their attitudes,
knowledge, and behaviors, more recent definitions include such developmental outcomes as a positive perception
of school, emotional literacy, and social justice activism.3
There are sweeping definitions of character education (e.g., Character Counts’ six pillars, Community of Caring’s
five values, or the Character Education Partnership’s 11 principles) and more narrow ones. Character education
can be defined in terms of relationship virtues (e.g., respect, fairness, civility, tolerance), self-oriented virtues (e.g.,
fortitude, self-discipline, effort, perseverance) or a combination of the two. The state of California has incorporated
character education criteria into the application process for its statewide distinguished school recognition
program and, in the process, has created its own definition of character education. Each definition directs the
practice of character education somewhat differently, so that programs calling themselves “character education”
vary in purpose and scope.
There is some research evidence that character education programs enhance academic achievement. For
example, an evaluation of the Peaceful Schools Project and research on the Responsive Classroom found that
students in schools that implemented these programs had greater gains on standardized test scores than did
students in comparison schools.4 The Child Development Project (CDP) conducted follow-up studies of middle
school students (through eighth grade) who had attended CDP elementary schools and found that diey had higher
course grades and higher achievement test scores than comparison middle school students.5 Longitudinal
studies have reported similar effects for middle school and high school students who had participated as
elementary school students in the Seattle Social Development Project.6
A growing body of research supports the notion that high-quality character education can promote academic
achievement. For example, Marvin Berkowitz and Melinda Bier have identified character education programs for
elementary, middle, and high school students that enhance academic achievement.7 These findings, however, are
based on prepackaged curricular programs, and most schools do not rely on such programs. Instead, they create
their own customized character education initiatives. It remains to be seen whether such initiatives also lead to
TOWARD AN OPERATIONAL DEFINITION OF CHARACTER EDUCATION
We decided to see if we could determine a relationship between character education and academic achievement
across a range of elementary schools. For our sample we used the elementary schools that applied in 2000 to the
California Department of Education for recognition as distinguished elementary schools, California’s highest level
of school attainment. Eligibility to submit an application for the California School Recognition Program (CSRP) in
2000 was based on the previous year’s academic performance index (API) results.
However, 1999 was the first year for California’s Public School Accountability Act (PSAA), which created the API.
Thus, while the state department stated that growth on the API was the central focus of the PSAA, schools
applying for the CSRP in 1999-2000 did not receive their 1999 API scores until January 2000, after they had already
written and submitted their award applications. Approximately 12.7% of California elementary schools (681 of
5,368 schools) submitted a full application for the award in 2000. The average API of these schools was higher
than the average for the schools that did not apply, but both were below the state expectancy score of 800. The
mean API for applicant schools was 751; for non-applicant schools, 612. The API range for applicant schools was
365-957; for non-applicant schools, 302-958. Hence the sample for this study is not representative of all California
elementary schools. It is a sample of more academically successful schools, but it does represent a broad range of
achievement from quite low to very high.
Specific wording related to character education was included for the first time in the CSRP application in 2000.
Schools were asked to describe what they were doing to meet a set of nine standards. Of these, the one that most
clearly pertained to character education was Standard 1 (Vision and Standards). For this standard, schools were
required to include “specific examples and other evidence” of “expectations that promote positive character traits
in students.”8 Other standards could also be seen as related to character education. For these, schools were asked
to document activities and programs that ensured opportunities for students to contribute to the school, to others,
and to the community.
We chose for our study a stratified random sample of 120 elementary schools that submitted applications. These
120 schools were not significantly different from the other 561 applicant schools on a variety of academic and
demographic indicators. For the schools in our sample, we correlated the extent of their character education
implementation with their API and SAT-9 scores the academic scale and test used by California at that time.9
The first problem we needed to grapple with was how to define a character education program. We spent
considerable time discussing an operational definition to use for this project. After conferring with experts, we
chose our final set of character education criteria, drawn from both the standards used by the California
Department of Education and the Character Education Quality Standards developed by the Character Education
Partnership.10 Six criteria emerged from this process:
* This school promotes core ethical values as the basis of good character.
* In this school, parents and other community members are active participants in the character education
* In this school, character education entails intentional promotion of core values in all phases of school life.
* Staff members share responsibility for and attempt to model character education.
* This school fosters an overall caring community.
* This school provides opportunities for most students to practice moral action.
Each of the six criteria addresses one important component of character education. We created a rubric
encompassing these six criteria and listing indicators for each, along with a scoring scale.
CHARACTER EDUCATION AND ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT
Our study of these high-performing California schools added further evidence of a relationship between academic
achievement and the implementation of specific character education programs. In our sample, elementary schools
with solid character education programs showed positive relationships between the extent of character education
implementation and academic achievement not only in a single year but also across the next two academic years.
Over a multi-year period from 1999 to 2002, higher rankings on the API and higher scores on the SAT-9 were
significantly and positively correlated with four of our character education indicators: a school’s ability to ensure a
clean and safe physical environment; evidence that a school’s parents and teachers modeled and promoted good
character; high-quality opportunities at the school for students to contribute in meaningful ways to the school and
its community; and promoting a caring community and positive social relationships.
These are promising results, particularly because the total character education score for the year of the school’s
application was significantly correlated with every language and mathematics achievement score on the SAT-9 for
a period of three years. In two of those years, the same was true for reading achievement scores. In other words,
good-quality character education was positively associated with academic achievement, both across academic
domains and over time.
WHAT GOOD SCHOOLS DO
From our research we derived principles – the four indicators mentioned above – that are common across schools
with both thoughtful character education programs and high levels of academic achievement.
* Good schools ensure a clean and secure physical environment. Although all schools in our sample fit this
description, the higher-scoring character education schools expressed great pride in keeping their buildings and
grounds in good shape. This is consistent with what is reported about the virtues of clean and safe learning
environments. For example, the Center for Prevention of School Violence notes that “the physical appearance of a
school and its campus communicates a lot about the school and its people. Paying attention to appearance so
that the facilities are inviting can create a sense of security.”11
One school in our sample reported that its buildings “are maintained well above district standards. . . . The
custodial crew prides themselves in achieving a monthly cleaning score that has exceeded standards in 9 out of
12 months.” And another noted, “A daily grounds check is performed to ensure continual safety and cleanliness.”
Each of the higher-scoring schools in our sample explicitly noted its success in keeping its campus in top shape
and mentioned that parents were satisfied that their children were attending school in a physically and
psychologically safe environment.
All schools in California are required to have on file a written Safe School Plan, but the emphases in these plans
vary. While some schools limited their safety plans to regulations controlling access to the building and defined
procedures for violations and intrusions, the schools with better character education programs defined “safety”
more broadly and deeply. For example, one school scoring high on our character education rubric explained that
the mission of its Safe School Plan was “to provide all students with educational and personal opportunities in a
positive and nurturing environment which will enable them to achieve current and future goals, and for all students
to be accepted at their own social, emotional, and academic level of development.” Another high-scoring school
addressed three concerns in its Safe School Plan: identification of visitors on campus, cultural/ethnic harmony,
and safe ingress and egress from school. To support these areas of focus, this school’s teachers were all trained
to conduct classroom meetings, to implement the Community of Caring core values, and to handle issues related
to cultural diversity and communication.
* Good schools promote and model fairness, equity, caring, and respect. In schools with good character education
programs and high academic achievement, adults model and promote the values and attitudes they wish the
students to embrace, and they infuse character education throughout the school and across the curriculum. Rick
Weissbourd drove home this point in a recent essay: “The moral development of students does not depend
primarily on explicit character education efforts but on the maturity and ethical capacities of the adults with whom
they interact. . . . Educators influence students’ moral development not simply by being good role models –
important as that is – but also by what they bring to their relationships with students day to day.”12 The staff of
excellent character education schools in our sample tended to see themselves as involved, concerned professional
educators, and others see them that way as well.
Thus one school described its teachers as “pivotal in the [curriculum] development process; there is a high level of
ownership in the curriculum. . . . Fifty percent of our staff currently serves on district curriculum
committees.” Another school stated that it “fosters the belief that it takes an entire community pulling together to
provide the best education for every child; that is best accomplished through communication, trust, and
collaboration on ideas that reflect the needs of our school and the community. . . . Teachers are continually
empowered and given opportunities to voice their convictions and shape the outcome of what the school
represents.” A third school described its teachers as “continually encouraged” to grow professionally and to use
best practices based on research. In the best character education schools, teachers are recognized by their peers,
by district personnel, and by professional organizations for their instructional prowess and their professionalism.
They model the academic and prosocial characteristics that show their deep concern for the well-being of children.
* In good schools students contribute in meaningful ways. We found that academically excellent character
education schools provided opportunities for students to contribute to their school and their community. These
schools encouraged students to participate in volunteer activities, such as cross-age tutoring, recycling,
fundraising for charities, community cleanup programs, food drives, visitations to local senior centers, and so on.
One elementary school required 20 hours of community service, a program coordinated entirely by parent
volunteers. Students in that school volunteered in community gardens and at convalescent hospitals, and they
took part in community cleanup days. Such activities, while not directly connected to students’ academic
programs, were viewed as mechanisms to promote the development of healthy moral character. According to
William Damon, a crucial component of moral education is engaging children in positive activities community
service, sports, music, theater, or anything else that inspires them and gives them a sense of purpose.13
* Good schools promote a canng community and positive social relationships. One school in our sample that
exemplified this principle was a school of choice in its community. The district had opened enrollment to students
outside district boundaries, and this school not only provided an excellent academic program for its multilingual
student population but also worked hard to include parents and community members in significant ways. Its
Family Math Night attracted 250 family members, and its Family Literacy Night educated parents about read-aloud
methods. Parents, grandparents, and friends were recruited to become classroom volunteers and donated
thousands of hours.
This particular school also rented its classrooms to an after-school Chinese educational program. The two sets of
teachers have become professional colleagues, and insights from such cultural interaction have led both groups to
a better understanding of the Chinese and American systems of education. One result has been that more English-
speaking students are enrolling in the Chinese after-school program. And teachers in both programs now engage
in dialogue about the specific needs of children. One parent wrote a letter to the principal that said in part, “It
seems you are anxious to build up our young generation more healthy and successful. . . . I am so proud you are
not only our children’s principal, but also parents’ principal.”
Other schools with strong social relationship programs provide meaningful opportunities for parent involvement
and establish significant partnerships with local businesses. They encourage parents and teachers to work
alongside students in service projects, to incorporate diverse communities into the school curriculum, and to
partner with high school students who serve as physical education and academic mentors. As one such school put
it, all stakeholders “must play an important and active role in the education of the child to ensure the future
success of that child.”
It is clear that well-conceived programs of character education can and should exist side by side with strong
academic programs. It is no surprise that students need physically secure and psychologically safe schools,
staffed by teachers who model professionalism and caring behaviors and who ask students to demonstrate caring
for others. That students who attend such schools achieve academically makes intuitive sense as well. It is in
schools with this dual emphasis that adults understand their role in preparing students for future citizenship in a
democratic and diverse society. The behaviors and attitudes they model communicate important messages to the
young people in their charge.
Future research on the relationship between character education and academic achievement should include a
greater representation of schools in the average and below-average achievement categories. In particular, a study
of the extent of the implementation of character education in schools that may have test scores at the low end of
the spectrum – but are nevertheless performing higher than their socioeconomic characteristics would predict –
would be an important contribution to our understanding of the relationship between character education and
While this was our initial attempt to explore the relationship between these two important school purposes, we
learned a good deal about what makes up a good character education curriculum in academically strong schools.
We know that such a curriculum in such schools is positively related to academic outcomes over time and across
content areas. We also know that, to be effective, character education requires adults to act like adults in an
environment where children are respected and feel physically and psychologically safe to engage in the academic
and social activities that prepare them best for later adult decision making.
At a time when resources are scarce, we see schools cutting programs and narrowing curricula to concentrate on
skills measured by standardized tests. Our research suggests that school goals and activities that are associated
with good character education programs are also associated with academic achievement. Thus our results argue
for maintaining a rich curriculum with support for all aspects of student development and growth.
1. U.S. Department of Education, “ED Launches Character Education Web Site,” www.thechallenge. org/15-
2. Bob Chase, quoted in “Is Character Education the Answer?,” Education World, 1999, www. education-
3. Marvin W. Berkowitz, “The Science of Character Education,” in William Damon, ed., Bringing in a New Era in
Character Education (Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 2002), pp. 43-63.
4. Stuart W. Twemlow et al., “Creating a Peaceful School Learning Environment: A Controlled Study of an
Elementary School Intervention to Reduce Violence,” American Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 158, 2001, pp. 808-10;
and Stephen N. Elliott, “Does a Classroom Promoting Social Skills Development Enable Higher Academic
Functioning Among Its Students Over Time?,” Northeast Foundation for Children, Greenfield, Mass., 1998.
5. Victor Battistich and Sehee Hong, “Enduring Effects of the Child Development Project: Second-Order Latent
Linear Growth Modeling of Students’ ‘Connectedness’ to School, Academic Performance, and Social Adjustment
During Middle School,” unpublished manuscript, Developmental Studies Center, Oakland, Calif, 2003.
6. J. David Hawkins et al., “Long-Term Effects of the Seattle Social Development Intervention on School Bonding
Trajectories,” Applied Developmental Science, vol. 5, 2001, pp. 225-36.
7. Marvin W. Berkowitz and Melinda C. Bier, What Works in Character Education? (Washington, D.C.: Character
Education Partnership, 2005).
8. “California School Recognition Program, 2000 Elementary Schools Program, Elementary School Rubric,”
California Department of Education, 2001. (Data are available from Jacques Benninga.)
9. For more detail on the design of the study, see Jacques S. Benninga, Marvin W. Berkowitz, Phyllis Kuehn, and
Karen Smith, “The Relationship of Character Education Implementation and Academic Achievement in Elementary
Schools,” Journal of Research in Character Education, vol. 1, 2003, pp. 17-30.
10. Character Education Quality Standards: A Self-Assessment Tool for Schools and Districts (Washington, D.C.:
Character Education Partnership, 2001).
11. “What Is Character Education?,” Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs, 2003, www.cortland. edu/c4n5rs/ce_iv.asp.
12. Rick Weissbourd, “Moral Teachers, Moral Students,” Educational Leadership, March 2003, pp. 6-7.
13. Damon is quoted in Susan Gilbert, “Scientists Explore the Molding of Children’s Morals,” New York Times, 18
JACQUES S. BENNINGA is a professor of education and director of the Sonner Center for Character Education,
California State University, Fresno. MARVIN W. BERKOWITZ is Sanford N. McDonnell Professor of Character
Education, University of Missouri, St. Louis. PHYLLIS KUEHN is a professor of educational research, California
State University, Fresno. KAREN SMITH is principal of Mark Twain Elementary School, Brentwood, Mo. The
research described in this article was funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, but the opinions
expressed are those of the authors.
Subject: Moral education; Core curriculum; Academic achievement; Education
Location: California United States–US Washington DC
Company / organization: Name: Department of Education-California; NAICS: 923110; Name: Department of
Education; NAICS: 923110
Publication title: Phi Delta Kappan; Bloomington
Number of pages: 5
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Publication year: 2006
Publication date: Feb 2006
Publisher: Phi Delta Kappa
Place of publication: Bloomington
Country of publication: United States, Bloomington
Publication subject: Children And Youth – For, Education, College And Alumni
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Language of publication: English
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Last updated: 2019-11-23