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Character Education – What Works?

Is there proof that character education works in K-12 public and private schools? If so, to what extent? And what kind of character education gets the best results? Recent studies show that performance character (grit and perseverance) are more important for academic success than I.Q.

You don’t have to be a social scientist, educator or character expert to determine the answers to these questions. It is easy to look at our schools and, by the academic and behavioral statistics, measure outcomes and see what works. We know that many of our schools are broken, yet some, with similar locations and demographics, achieve excellent results.

We examine two classifications of schools that achieve significantly superior academic and behavioral outcomes. Since both embody hundreds of schools, their statistics are available, evidence-based, broadly recognized, credible and significant. The two sets discussed here are:

  • K-12 schools that have received Character.org’s designation as a National School Of Character (“NSOC”).
  • K-12 Catholic schools and school systems.

The following are summaries of findings for these two classifications of schools:


Founded in 1993, Character.org is the largest non-profit organization in the world committed to fostering effective character education in schools and communities. Character.org is a national coalition of educators, parents, organizations, community groups, and companies and is the nation’s leading advocate for improving the culture and social climate in schools. www.character.org

Operating since 1998, Character.org’s NSOC program is a free, non-competitive school improvement process that is open to any K-12 public, private or charter school in the U.S.

Schools and districts achieve the designation as an NSOC, only after a rigorous evaluation process in which they must demonstrate implementation of Character.org’s framework for successful character education known as the Eleven Principles of Effective Character Education.

264 schools and districts have earned the NSOC designation. In 2013, Character.org named 29 schools and districts to its roster of NSOC. NSOC schools infuse character education into their curricula and cultures and find improved academic achievement, behavior, school culture, peer interaction, and parental involvement. Pro-social behaviors such as cooperation, respect, and compassion replace negative behaviors such as violence, disrespect, apathy, and underachievement. When these positive attitudes and behaviors are present, students are better able to commit themselves to their work, which paves the way for perseverance, diligence, and ultimately, increased academic achievement.

The following are selected statistics for NSOC:¹


  • Most of the 2011 NSOC made AYP (“Adequate Yearly Progress” as defined by the Federal No Child Left Behind Act and the US Dept. of Education based on standardized test scores).
    • 78% of the public schools recognized as 2011 NSOC made AYP in 2009-10, compared to 62% of public schools nationwide.
  • 100% of the 2011 NSOC reporting experienced an increase in state reading and math scores – or have passing rates above 90%.
    • A study by Oregon State University reported a 21% improvement on state reading tests and 51% improvement on state math tests.
  • Achievement gaps are narrowed.
    • In the large, diverse 2011 National Districts of Character, the percentage of students passing state math tests increased from 66% in 2003 to 87% in 2010. During this period, the percentage of African-American, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged students passing state math tests increased by 33%. District officials report that the achievement gap is “shrinking on all assessments.”

Behavior and School Climate

  • 87% of students attending 2011 NSOC reported in climate surveys that they felt safe in school or that bullying was rare (with 27 of the 44 NSOC reporting data in this category).
  • The average attendance rate at the 2011 NSOC was 95%, compared to 92.1% nationwide.
    • When character education programs included social emotional skills and character development, 15% less absenteeism was reported.
  • 89% of the 2011 NSOC reported that disciplinary referrals either experienced declines or had rates that were extremely low.
  • 90% of the 2011 NSOC reported that suspensions either experienced declines or had rates that were extremely low.
    • Elementary schools reported 70% fewer suspensions.
  • Nearly 100% of the students attending 2011 NSOC participated in service learning projects.


Catholic schools fulfill a strong mission by setting high standards of student achievement and character, and providing educational opportunities equally across class and race.

Catholic Schools have served K-12 students in elementary and high schools throughout the nation for decades. Catholic Schools are private, religious schools that have long-standing, robust, comprehensive character education programs focusing on both moral and performance character.

Catholic schools by design foster the academic, religious, and moral development of their students. These schools are characterized as exhibiting a strong sense of community and as having an environment characterized by high academic standards, discipline and order.

Importantly, many of the students attending Catholic schools are not Catholic. Since Catholic schools are located in the same U.S. urban and suburban locations as public schools and have similar demographics and diversity, data is available and easily compared to nearby public schools.

Research shows that, when compared to public schools, Catholic schools are superior in a range of outcomes including not only grades, test scores and graduation rates, but also students’ future economic prospects, and at a substantially lower cost. When compared to public schools, Catholic schools lead the nation in graduation and college attendance rates.

The following are selected statistics for Catholic schools:²


  • Catholic high schools have an average 16-point advantage over public high schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
  • When compared to public school students, Catholic school students achieve higher scores on standardized tests.
    • average SAT Writing: 530 (compared to 487 for public school students)
    • average SAT Math: 533 (compared to 510 for public school students)
    • average SAT Critical Reading: 533 (compared to 496 for public school students)
  • Catholic high schools have a 99.1% graduation rate compared to 73.2% for public high schools.
  • 95% of African American and Hispanic students in New York City Catholic schools outperform their public school peers from similar demographics, while Los Angeles reports that Catholic high schools graduate students at a rate of 35% higher than surrounding public schools.
  • According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), Catholic school eighth graders score 18% higher than public school students on “knowledge of civics education.”

Behavior and School Culture

  • According to the NCES, 97% of Catholic school students report “feeling safe at school” compared to 88% of public school students.
  • Students across race, ethnicity and income levels from Catholic schools have a “greater expectation” of graduating from a four-year college (66%) compared with their public school peers (38%).
  • 33% of public high school students report that there are gangs at their schools and 26% report that there are “frequent fights” between different racial and ethnic groups, whereas fewer than 10% of Catholic schools students report similar issues in both categories.
  • 86% of students in Catholic schools report their teachers are interested in the students and get along with them while 83% say teachers foster “real school spirit.”


Why do NSOC and Catholic Schools attain such superior academic and behavioral outcomes compared to public schools?

The distinguishing feature is that NSOC and Catholic schools both have something that public schools generally lack – deeply rooted, explicitly taught character education and development programs that cover both moral and performance character development, and are holistic, educationally challenging, systematic and continuous. Programs that are evidenced throughout the entire school by an enduring and robust top-to­ bottom culture of character. The kind of character education the experts agree gets the best results and benefits our students the most.³

Financial Implications

As teachers and administration spend more time managing behavior than teaching, academic results plummet and the financial cost of disruptive behavior in many schools increases.

One study calculated the average financial impact of disruptive behavior to be $2,628 per year per student!

To estimate the cost to your school, visit www.socialsmarts.com. Can your school afford to waste such sums on behavior management? Comprehensive character education and development as practiced in National Schools of Character (NSOC) and Catholic schools makes not only good academic sense but also good financial sense.

¹ http://www.character.org/schools-of-character/national-schools-of-character-overview/national-schools-of-character/

² National Catholic Educational Association, 2011. (See Good News for the Nation: US Catholic High Schools in the 21st Century.)

³ Berkowitz, Marvin, What Works in Character Education, CEP, 2005. (What works in character education? Making the agenda explicit, professional development, direct teaching, integration into the whole school, family/community involvement, skill training, use of multiple strategies, use of models and mentors.)