Policy Studies

Schools, Character and the Charassein: A Study in Student Development


The other studies in this R Street series on character education deal with a variety of institutions that explicitly put the development of student virtue at the center of their missions. And, of course, as author Ashley Berner points out in the study that follows: “All schools impart certain values by the practices they allow and those they discourage.” Whether implicit or explicit, however, the nature and success of character education is very difficult to determine because character is a matter of long-term performance. As American writer and philosopher Will Durant summarized of Aristotle’s thinking on the topic: “We are what we repeatedly do.”

But difficult does not mean impossible, and this study looks at an innovative project, the University of Arkansas’ Charassein Character Assessment Initiative, that attempts to measure the efficacy of character education using the most innovative and rigorous methods. Looking at topics as diffuse as holocaust education and college visits, Charassein researchers have conducted randomized controlled trials on various interventions intended to impact character. Going further, they developed a novel research method involving the analysis of test meta data on “rapid guessing” and “careless answers” to identify elements of character. While the institute’s specific findings are only starting to find their way into press, Charassein research tools have already created enormously promising ways to develop more effective character education programs throughout America.

— Eli Lehrer, President, R Street Institute


Is formal education about more than the attainment of knowledge? Philosophers and educators have debated this question since (at least) ancient Athens. In the modern world, policymakers have largely agreed that schools must not only build intellectual capacity, but also develop the character of the young people in their care. For example, democratic nations expect schools to prepare the next generation for civic engagement—to develop the knowledge, skills and attachments necessary to promulgate democratic life. In the twentieth century, American policymakers also emphasized the role of schools in promoting non-academic outcomes, including: social efficiency, social adjustment and individualism. The 1990s called the non-academic elements of schooling “character education.” Today, many school systems, philanthropic organizations and think tanks use “non-cognitives” or “social and emotional learning” instead. Scholars may disagree on the terminology, but the field generally agrees that formal education engages—indeed, must engage—in shaping students’ academic and non-academic development.

Despite American education’s long-standing expectation for schools to be more than merely academic institutions, it can be difficult to place “character formation” and “schools” in the same conversation. However, discussing character and schools forces us to address the complications of definition, method and measurement. The Charassein Character Assessment Initiative (Charassein) was developed to tackle these areas within education research through the use of more traditional research techniques.

Image credit: Monkey Business Images

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