Do Character Development Programs Really Work? Moving from Foundations to Findings in a Wider (Non-military) Context

Edward F. DeRoche, Professor

Director, Character Development Center

School of Leadership and Education Sciences

University of San Diego

Alcala Park, San Diego, CA 92110   619-260-2250


We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.


                                                                                    Herman Melville


This paper serves two purposes: (1) to answer to a few foundational questions about character education in many of this country’s elementary, middle, and high schools, and (2) to report what is known about the effectiveness of character education programs in P-12 schools.

The intent is to provide higher education faculty and character educators with information about the efforts of elementary, middle, and secondary school personnel  toward the character development of the young.


Foundational Questions


Definitions of Character


Lickona and Davidson (2005) suggest that there are seven ways to think about character.  Character as that which “marks” one’s behavior. Character as virtues, as “positive values in action,” as a “muscle,” as performance (mastery), and as moral (relational). They also note that character can be view through the lens of personality (choices vs inborn) and brain maturity (p.2).

Thomas Lickona writes:  “Good character consists of knowing the good, desiring the good, and doing the good—habits of the mind, habits of the heart, and habits of action” (1991, p.51). The words habits of mind, heart and hand relates, in part, to teaching the young specific life-long skills. “Habits of the Mind” include such skills as critical thinking, learning how to learn, practicing self-discipline, making ethical decisions, learning to problem solve, controlling anger and emotions, and resisting peer pressure. “Habits of the Heart” address virtues such as respect, responsibility, honesty, trustworthiness, care, courage, fairness, justice, and empathy. “Habits of the Hand” suggest the application of such skills as working for the common good, being of service to others, being an active, participating citizen, engaging in teamwork, and taking a leadership role.

Psychologist Marvin Berkowitz, in his chapter, “The Science of Character Education” says “character is a complex psychological concept, (that) “entails the capacity to think about right and wrong, experience moral emotions (guilt, empathy, compassion), engage in moral behaviors (sharing, donating to charity, telling the truth), believe in moral good (honesty, altruism, responsibility) and other characteristics that support moral functioning” (2002, p.34).

However defined, it is clear that character is learned, it is developmental, and it begins with the young at home interacting with parents, family members, and friends. The young learn the habits, skills, and virtues/vices of character, good and bad, formal and informal, by observation, imitation, repetition, reading, writing, and experiences encountered in families, schools, groups, and the culture in which they live (Okin & Reich, 1999).


Character Education - The What

McClellan (1999) provides an historical overview of moral education in this country from Colonial times to the present. Colby,, (1983) suggests that the “modern” movement to implement character education in higher education institutions began in the mid-thirties. DeRoche and Williams (2001) briefly describe four decades of  events leading to the current character education efforts in elementary, middle, high schools to a major event in the early nineties.

In 1993, Josephson Institute of Ethics sponsored a meeting in Aspen, Colorado at which national leaders discussed the “state of moral decline” and what could be done about it. The twenty-eight leaders proposed a common set of values that would transcend cultural, political, economic, and religious lines. The results of this meeting led to what has been called the  Aspen Declaration on Character Education.”  The Declaration included seven guiding principles central to the character education of children and youth in schools. The principles were based on the democratic values of respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, caring, justice and fairness, and civic virtue and citizenship. The premise of the Declaration was that “People do not automatically develop good moral character, therefore, conscientious efforts must be made to help young people develop values and abilities necessary for moral decision making and conduct” (Murphy, 1998, p.22; Josephson Institute 1993).

 A year later,  a national, non-profit, nonpartisan coalition was formed. Known as the Character Education Partnership (CEP),  its main purpose is to bring people together to help develop good character and civic virtue in young people in schools and communities across the nation.

Thus, character education is “the intentional, proactive effort by schools, districts, and states to instill in their students important core, ethical values such as caring, honesty, fairness, responsibility, and respect for self and others…(and) “ to develop students socially, ethically, and academically by infusing character development into every aspect of the school culture and curriculum and to help students develop good character, which includes knowing, caring about, and acting upon core ethical values… (


Lickona and Davidson (2005) recently proposed a new paradigm for character education in secondary schools. The paradigm focuses on two elements of character, namely, performance character and moral character. Performance character relates to one’s mastery and thrust for excellence in school, the workplace, and in other experiences.  Here the authors use virtue words such as effort, diligence, perseverance, and self-discipline.  Moral character is relational and ethical; that is, how one treats others in interpersonal and social matters. The virtue words the authors used here include integrity, justice, caring, respect, and empathy.


Character Education - The Why

Ryan and Bohlin (1999) developed “five arguments” favoring the implementation of character education programs. Their first argument centers on the “intellectual authorities" in human history such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Dewey, Confucius, Buddha, and Lao-tzu.  All called for teaching the young the positive virtues of life and attending to the formation of their character.

The writings of Jefferson, Madison, Adams and Franklin and others frames the authors’ second argument—the benefit to a civil and civic society. Add to this list, Horace Mann, the “father of pubic schools” who promoted the academics (reading, writing, and computing), and emphasized the need for and importance of character. “Like Jefferson, Mann believed that training in character would produce responsible and virtuous citizens…” (Gibbon, 2002, p.33).

A third argument posed by the authors is labeled the “law-based argument.” That is, in most states, there are laws or education codes supporting character education efforts.  To put it another way, the authors note: “no state codes of education…discourage character education” (p.21).

Public support of character education is the basis for their fourth argument. For decades, the public has expressed a particular interest in having schools address matters related to character development (Elam, Rose, and Gallup, 1993; Elam and Rose, 1995).

Ryan and Bohlin label their fifth argument as the “inevitability argument,” noting that “…children cannot enter the educational system at the age of four and stay until age of sixteen or seventeen without having their character and their moral values profoundly affected by the experience… “ (p.22).

A sixth reason, the state of the American culture, may be added to Ryan and Bohlin’s five arguments. Lickona (2004) discusses these concerns under the term “cultural indicators” in which he includes increases in violence, divorce, fatherless homes, unwed mothers, teen’s cheating, stealing, lying, television watching, and the impact of the media.

A final reason supporting the case for character education programs in P-12 schools  is funding from the federal government.  Since 1995, the federal government has funneled millions of dollars into state agencies to support character education efforts in schools and school districts. For example, the No Child Left Behind Act expanded funding for the “Partnerships in Character Education Program” from $8 million to $24 million


Organization-The How


            The final foundational question addresses ways character education is organized and implemented in elementary and secondary schools.

Two frameworks provided a template for a comprehensive character education program at a school or in a school district.

Ryan and Bohlin’s (1999) character education framework recommends that character education activists and school stakeholders address such factors as mission,

core virtues, partnerships, teamwork, implementation, meetings and assessment, staff development, student involvement, extra-curricular activities, and evaluation.

DeRoche and Williams (2001) proposed nine keys to successfully implementing a comprehensive character education program: leadership, expectations, school climate, implementation criteria, standards, training, partnerships, resources, and assessment. 

            An umbrella is a useful metaphor to describe what character education looks in most schools. The umbrella’s handle may be said to represent the agreed-upon core character virtues. It is this “handle of virtues” along with the mission, expectations, and leadership that supports the umbrellas eight panels. Each of the eight panels, in this scenario, show where the core virtues and other life-skills are taught, nurtured, modeled, and practiced. With slight variations the pattern represented by the umbrella panels include:

1)      Academic Achievement  

2)      Curriculum

3)      Classroom climate

4)      Co-curricula programs

5)      Instruction

6)      Partnerships

7)      School Culture

8)      Special Programs

 Special programs usually include:

a) anger management              b) conflict resolution

c) ethical decision-making      d) drug & alcohol use/abuse

e) violence prevention f) peace education

g) anti-bullying programs        h) social-emotional learning

i)  service learning                   j) assemblies, celebrations, award events, etc.

Many “schools of character” use most of the factors in the framework and all of the elements in the umbrella metaphor. Examples can be found in a listing of award winning schools on the Character Education Partnership web site


Assessment Views


Up to this point, this paper has offered a brief overview of what character is, what it means, why character education should be part of the education of the young, and how it is played out in most elementary, middle, and secondary schools. After two decades of teaching, writing, and consulting in the character education field there are four factors  that shape my views  regarding character education assessment.

 First, evaluating character education efforts is a school-site responsibility. All schools are different. Even within the same school district, schools differ in leadership, students served, location, personnel, size, resources, climate, programs, curricula, facilities, and parent and community support and involvement. Any evaluation of character education needs to reflect the people, programs, and personality of a school (DeRoche 2004, Vessels 1998).

Second, there is a difference between scientific, basic research and applied, action research. Both are needed but have different purposes and different methodologies. Researchers call for designs and techniques that are not applicable to the confines of a single school, the talents of a school’s clientele, nor the desires of a school’s constituents. Practitioners do not have the interest, the time, the skills, nor the resources to conduct empirical research, However, they should be encouraged to engage in action research as one of the primary ways for evaluating character education at a school-site (Sagor 1992). In reality, what teachers, principals, and parents want to know is the answer to a basic question: “Are our character education initiatives meeting our goals and expectations?” Or to put it another way, “Is there a pay-off to our character education efforts?” (Berkowitz, M. and Bier, M. 2004).

My third view is that good things happen to school-site personnel who come together to assess their character education initiatives. It is captured in the banner, “collaborate to evaluate.” Not only does teamwork bring to the assessment process a range of talents and capabilities, but it also is an effective form of staff development providing both “social and phychic satisfactions of collective effort” (Schmoker 1996, p.13).

My experiences suggest that involving school personnel and stakeholders in assessing their own character education initiatives (with help from district specialists and sometimes outside consultants) enhances relationships, creates ownership, develops a community of learners, and empowers stakeholders (DeRoche 2004).

My fourth view about assessment is my respect and appreciation for testimonials because of what it tells both critics and advocates about character education efforts in schools and communities. There are two testimonials that I favor. One, are the “award” testimonials—schools, programs, and individuals that receive awards and recognitions for their work, contributions, practices and programs (see for example, CEP’s National Schools of Character and State Schools of Character). The second is are the“personal” testimonials; that is, statements and comments from school stakeholders (school leaders, students, parents, community leaders, others) about a school’s character education program and the work of its clientele to help the young acquire the virtues and skills of good character.

Given these four views, the findings that follow represents a selected summary of character education research. This is not comprehensive review of the research. It is what might be best described as highlights or headlines.

With regard to the question: Does character education work?”

 Charles C. Haynes and Marvin W. Berkowitz’s bottom-line statement makes the case.

Victor Battistich of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, examined all the scientific research of the past 15 years and concluded that "comprehensive, high-quality character education" can prevent a wide range of problems, including "aggressive and antisocial behaviors, drug use, precocious sexual activity, criminal activities, academic underachievement and school failure (2007, p.13A).


The Character Education Partnership (CEP) answers the question as follows:

Schools that are infusing character education into their curricula and cultures, such as CEP’s National Schools of Character, are finding improved academic achievement, behavior, school culture, peer interaction, and parental involvement. They are seeing dramatic transformations; pro-social behaviors such as cooperation, respect, and compassion are replacing negative behaviors such as violence, disrespect, apathy, and underachievement. When you walk into a character education school – you know it. You find an atmosphere of mutual caring and respect, where students value learning and care about their teachers, classmates, communities, and themselves (


According to Performance Learning Plus (PLS) much of what is done in character education programs deals with relationships among stakeholders in a school. The findings PLS posted are instructive.

• Research shows a positive relationship between a strong sense of community

in the classroom and students’ emotional and social development.

              Research shows a clear relationship between positive school climate and

student achievement.

            • Research shows that teachers who are taught to provide support and warmth,

developmentally appropriate autonomy, and clear expectations for behavior

allow students to develop a greater sense of community, improve academic

achievement, and display more socially competent behavior  (


An example is the findings of the Developmental Studies Center’s 20-year programmatic and evaluative efforts which documented numerous positive outcomes for students who attended elementary schools that implemented a program called the Child Development Project (CDP).  Researchers found that students in CDP schools engaged in more pro-social behaviors and were more skilled at resolving interpersonal conflicts, more concerned about others, more committed to democratic values, showed significant reductions in alcohol and marijuana use, and in delinquent behaviors. They also report that preliminary findings of former CDP students now in middle school showed that, relative to comparison students, CDP students were more "connected" to school, worked harder, were more engaged in their classes, exhibited less misconduct at school, were more involved in positive youth activities, and had higher course grades and achievement test scores (Battistich and Hong 2003; Battistich 2003).

Additional  evidence that character education works is found in research on “intervention programs” that are common in many character education programs (see  the umbrella metaphor). These are programs designed to address specific problems in a school such as violence, anger management, bullying, and other at-risk behaviors. A school or school district usually purchases a program that will meet the specific needs of the school and then (sometimes with teacher training) implements the program. The reported findings of several of these intervention programs confirm that they contribute to positive youth behaviors and reduce at-risk behaviors.

Intervention programs support Professor Daniel Goleman’s (1995) research that a small investment in emotional-social development programs in schools will have a powerful influence at reducing anti-social behaviors of students. Goleman says: “Emotional intelligence = abilities such as being able to motivate oneself and persist in the face of frustration; to control impulse and delay gratification; to regulate one’s moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think, to empathize, and to hope  thus learning and practicing ways to solve personal problems, to gain self-confidence in relationships with others, and seeking support from caring adults when necessary” (p.34).

Another important part of a school’s character education program is service-learning (community service). A compilation of ten years of studies on the impact of service learning by RMC Research Corporation indicated that service learning experiences helped students realize the goals of character education including developing students’ sense of civic and social responsibility, citizenship skills, and being active, positive contributors to society. In addition, service learning has been found to contribute towards the improvement of a school’s climate, teachers and students’ respect for one another, student reduction to engage in risky behaviors, interpersonal development, and the ability to relate to culturally diverse groups. Students who participate in service learning are more motivated to acquire academic skills and knowledge and have better school attendance. (Billig 1999).

            Lickona and Davidson (2005) summarize findings by the U.S, Department of Education’s report of studies comparing high school students who participate in service learning programs with those who do not. The findings show that participating students had higher self esteem, showed more kindness toward others, showed greater acceptance of cultural diversity, were less likely to be absent or drop out of school, scored better on state achievement tests,  were more likely to be motivated to do school work, and engage in positive relationships with teachers and other adults (p.183).


Kathy Winings (2002) notes that evaluative studies on the effects of service learning programs shows that such programs do nurture participants “sense of responsibility and personal integrity” (p.40). She points out that service learning participation benefits all students regardless of academic achievement, low self esteem, or anti-social behaviors.

Like service learning, co-curricular activities are an integral part of a school’s character education efforts. Research shows that there is a strong, positive association between student involvement in co-curricular programs and improvement in attendance, behaviors, and academic performance. Reeves writes that one can make “a strong case that the positive peer and adults relationships, organization, discipline, expectations, and other positive influences associated with extracurricular activities are likely to improve performance “ (Reeves 2008, p. 87).


Connections and Conclusions



Only through our connectedness to others can we really know and enhance the self. And only through working on the self can we begin to enhance our connectedness to others.

                                                                                                Harriet Goldhor Lerner



The proposition that there is a “connection” between efforts to develop the character of the young, particularly in P-12 schools, seems eminently clear but it requires continued attention and additional research. This paper outlined many of the “connections” between character education efforts in schools and their impact on student behaviors, student achievement, and school culture. It would be of interest to explore the “connections” between character education efforts in elementary and secondary schools and similar efforts at military academies and in college and universities. There are sources that might be used to begin examining the question: Are there lessons (connections) to be learned and research to be shared by both K-12 and higher education educators regarding the character development of children and young adults? A few of these sources includes The Templeton Foundation’s Best College Character Programs, Anne Colby’s work, and articles in the Journal of College and Character.

In summary, it appears that effective, comprehensive character education programs in schools improves student academic achievement and promotes positive social behaviors. Character development efforts reduce student at-risk behaviors and the rate of student suspensions, expulsions, and dropouts while increasing student knowledge and demonstration of virtues such as respect, responsibility, self-discipline, tolerance, caring and empathy. Character education initiatives contribute to a healthy and safe school environment; enhance student civic participation; contribute to a decrease in discipline problems in the classroom and school; help students reflect on their behaviors and thus make wiser life choices; and encourage more parent involvement in school events and in their child’s education.



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