By Matt Davidson
I have been an advocate for and practitioner of assessment in the field of character education for nearly 20 years. Much has changed in education over that time period. In particular, the importance of using data to guide practice has grown significantly. In the field of character education much of the early practice in the field was primarily driven by intuition and conviction—that is, by a general belief in the importance of positive character values, strong school culture, and a safe and engaging climate. Intuition and conviction aren’t in and of themselves wrong or misguided. However, the science of character and culture has evolved considerably and best practice in the field is now guided by both the art and science education.
In our work at the Institute for Excellence & Ethics (IEE) we believe that sustainability and enduring impact are two of the most essential criteria by which character education effectiveness is measured. There are approaches that can achieve sustainability (it’s easy to sustain an approach that only takes 5 minutes a day) but will not result in enduring impact that it is demonstrable in rigorous outcome measures. There are also approaches that can achieve enduring impact but that are not sustainable because they require too much time and money to begin and sustain thereby detracting from other core initiatives in the life of the school. Character education has the potential to provide the catalyst needed to enhance the core mission and goals of schools—but it won’t happen by chance; it must happen by intent.
What follows are some ways that we can effectively utilize assessment as a tool for achieving sustainability and enduring impact in our character education efforts:
1. Use formative assessment to guide the development and monitoring of your program.
A simple way to understand the technical term “formative assessment” is to think of it as assessment used for the ongoing FORMation of your program—form…formative. That certainly means using assessment methods at the outset of your program; but it also means using data to guide the continuous improvement of your efforts. In the old days, schools often simply picked the values or virtues almost entirely from intuition. Increasingly schools are using formative assessment to identity the essential culture and character assets NEEDED for advancing core mission.
This needs assessment might include the use of a valid and reliable survey to identify strengths and areas for improvement. For example, IEE’s Culture of Excellence & Ethics Assessment (CEEA) has been used by many schools across developmental levels. It’s available free for use and is recommended by the USDOE as a Safe and Supportive Schools measure. There are other similar available for use. These survey measures provide a comprehensive profile for identifying strengths and weaknesses, for clarifying current state, and defining the ideal state (i.e., what does would success look like, sound like, feel like?).
Other formative assessment methods might also include a review of essential mission, vision, and policy documents so as to align your character education initiative with the other key priorities for your school (e.g., 21st Century skills, SEL, Common Core, etc.). Additionally, you might choose to utilize focus groups and/or interviews to gather insights from diverse stakeholders. Interviews and focus groups have the double advantage of gathering essential insights for planning and improvement, while also directly engaging stakeholders in a dialogue. This can improve collegiality and congeniality, since stakeholders are infrequently provided opportunities for input. In other words, the process becomes the intervention.
These assessment tools can be used independently or in conjunction with one another (e.g., just a survey by itself; or, a policy audit, followed by a survey, followed by interviews/focus groups). These should be used at the outset to ensure you’re focusing on core needs; they should also be conducted periodically over time to ensure that you’re making progress towards your intended goals. Formative assessment done well will contribute to both sustainability and enduring impact: it enhances sustainability because your stakeholders will be engaged in a dialogue about the character and culture needed for advancing your core goals. Thus, your work in character education will bring many essential school initiatives into alignment, and not becoming “yet another initiative we need to do.” Formative assessment helps you to answer the question, “why should we spend time on these things?” With these data sources and methods you can answer: “because our data sources and methods indicate that this work is essential for advancing core mission; this is the character and culture NEEDED FOR teaching and learning.”
2. Use summative assessment to determine the “sum” total or impact of your character education efforts.
Whereas formative assessment is used to “form” (and reform) your initiative, summative assessment is designed to measure the “sum total” or over impact of your efforts. As DuFour and Eaker have argued, “Continuous school improvement must be assessed on the basis of results rather than intentions.” Too often educators feel that “soft skills” and things like culture and climate can’t be measured. They rely instead on intuition—“I think it’s making a difference”; or “I don’t think this is worth the time.” The science of character measurement has grown significantly; it’s simply not enough to guess as to whether your efforts are having their intended effects. Sure, if you’re not careful data can be used as a weapon not as a tool for continuous improvement. Character and culture take time to develop and large gains are not usually found in the short term. However, character education in the 21st Century, must be data-driven. As the saying goes, “in God we trust; all others bring data.”
Summative data can indeed include surveys of character and culture. However, it may also include the use of shorter survey scales. For example, if you’re working hard on the development of effort and attitude as performance character skills essential for learning. These go after the development of strong self-motivation and are aligned with the research-base on deliberate practice, achievement motivation, and growth mindset. Therefore, utilizing a valid and reliable achievement motivation scale (6-12 items) can be a powerful outcome measure of this one aspect of your work. This can be used in conjunction with an annual or semi-annual assessment of culture and climate. Multiple scales can be combined to create a customized outcome matrix that truly measures your intended goals.
Summative outcomes should also include other indicators like discipline referrals, attendance, grades, test scores, and other related. It’s “fishing” (and lacks integrity) if you post a few words on the wall and then try to argue that having these on the wall changed test scores. But it’s completely different when you can show that your program is designed to develop the culture and character needed for safe and engaging climate, and you’re annual survey is showing gains, and your outcome measures on attitude, effort, and mindset are showing growth, and as the mediating variables begin to change they are correlated with gains on other indicators that should be impacted like test scores and disciplinary referrals.
Sustainability and enduring impact: character education will be around if you align your efforts to the core mission and policy initiatives within your school; it will be around if you are able to show demonstrable improvement on the outcomes that matter most—not just to character educators, but to your school stakeholders. There is time for assessment when it provides valuable input on core priorities, when it provides insights into how to reduce what detracts from core mission, when it helps educators to reach and teach students. When used as a tool for designing and continuously improving your school, assessment becomes essential and necessary. What follows is the assessment process we utilize to ensure data-driven planning and implementation that ensures sustainability and enduring impact.