Teaching students about respect and honesty doesn't make them any more respectful or honest, a recent national study says.
The Institute of Education Sciences, part of the U.S. Department of Education, implemented character-education curriculums at half of 84 elementary schools across the country and left the other half with no such programs.
Over three years, researchers studied the effects on more than 6,000 students and found that seven of the most common character education programs -- classes meant to teach students to be better citizens -- had basically no impact on behavior or academic success.
But Hamilton County Schools officials are conducting their own research, convinced that their results will show the opposite of the national study.
"Character education is about the climate and the culture of a school," said Nancy Reed, director of special programs for the district, as well as the head of the character-education initiative.
"When a classroom is chaotic, it's very difficult for a teacher to teach as well as for students to learn adequately," she said.
"A child who really understands those core ethical values such as respect and discipline [is] going to be [one of] your higher achievers," she said.
Reed's 12-year-old character-education initiative received a $2 million federal grant two years ago. As part of the requirements to secure the money, Hamilton County had to agree to conduct research in 23 schools, measuring the effects of character education. The research comes in the form of parent, student and teacher surveys on school climate.
Reed said preliminary results from the survey show that teachers need to be better trained on what exactly character education should look like in their classrooms.
The national report, "Efficacy of Schoolwide Programs to Promote Social and Character Development and Reduce Problem Behavior in Elementary School Children," says character education needs to be studied further because promoting positive character traits has an impact on other areas of student success.
"Such information is important because the development of social competencies during middle childhood has been linked to adjustment to schooling and academic success, while the failure to develop such competencies can lead to problem behavior that interferes with success in school," the report says.
In theory, character education in Hamilton County is implemented in all grades. District officials, who have written two character education books, provide posters of nine positive character traits, and teachers are meant to talk about one each month.
Hamilton county's nine character traits
Source: Hamilton County Schools
Positive, character-filled quotes are read over the intercom in the morning at certain schools, and teachers talk about how historical figures demonstrated positive traits they want their students to emulate.
"Is there a guarantee? No," Reed said. "But you're really hoping that children will remember this, that they'll really think about these traits and the importance they play in our lives."
Norma Faerber, principal at Harrison Elementary School, said she thinks Hamilton County's character-education program is effective because it is taught throughout other classes and modeled by teachers.
"For me, a lot of character education comes from what is modeled by the adults in the building. We do as much indirect teaching as we do direct," she said. "We try to make it about the high expectation that we already have, and we expect students to exemplify."
Although she didn't have exact numbers, she said she believes character education is at least partly responsible for a "huge change in discipline issues."
When Faerber first became a principal in Hamilton County years ago, she remembers the district focusing on direct lessons about each character trait. She believes the integrated method now used is more effective.
"Sometimes we used to do a lesson on a character trait, but it didn't have the depth of meaning until it became part of our everyday life."
Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...