Becoming Ethical People: Character Development Among Students in EL Education Schools (ExCEL)


EL Education leads a network of 150 public schools, including both district and charter schools, all around the U.S. What is most unique about EL Education schools is their definition of student achievement. Not only are students expected to develop mastery of knowledge and skills, like most schools, but there is an equivalent expectation that students will develop character and engage in high quality work that helps create a better world. EL Education’s character-infused model of education also reaches millions of educators and students through deep, comprehensive literacy partnerships, combined with books, open-source videos and an acclaimed Language Arts curriculum. 

Existing research on EL Education is very promising. One study conducted by Mathematica Policy Research was a quasi-experimental study of students from five EL Education middle schools (Nichols-Barrer & Haimson, 2013). Findings revealed positive and statistically significant impacts on student achievement after two years of student exposure and three years of student exposure. Additional research (also with Mathematica) is currently underway. Although existing research is very promising, to date there has been no research examining the ways in which EL Education cultivates ethical character in students, despite the importance of ethical character to the EL Education instructional model.

The ExCEL Project will focus on youth’s development of ethical character. The work will focus on four aspects of ethical character including empathy, compassion, respect and integrity. The research team (PI: Sara Rimm-Kaufman, University of Virginia; co-PI: Lia Sandilos, Temple University; Post-doctoral fellow: Shereen El Mallah) will be conducting research on the development of ethical character in EL Education and comparison schools as a group of students progress from the start of sixth to the end of seventh grade. The research team will work with a group of EL Education schools (ExCEL Team Schools) which will give these schools the unique opportunity to try new ways to assess the development of ethical character. Further, the researchers will engage a group of comparison schools who will also get access to new ways of measuring ethical character.

Starting in 2018, the work will involve a two-year mixed methods study addressing a few key research questions:

  • To what extent does EL Education contribute to gains in ethical character and student performance outcomes?
  • If EL Education produces gains in ethical character, what are the routines, activities and school experiences that lead to gain in ethical character and school performance outcomes?
  • During the middle school years, students experience important developments in their racial and ethnic identity that have important implications for how they develop ethical character inside and outside of school. How does this process of identity development interact with their school experiences and contribute to the development of ethical character in students of color?

Project Status: 2018-2021

Funding Source: John Templeton Foundation and Einhorn Family Charitable Trust

Principal Investigator: Sara Rimm-Kaufman