UVA Researches Student Character Development in EL Education Schools


Researchers at the University of Virginia recently received a grant to conduct a two-year study on character development among students in EL Education schools.

Founded on the idea that students excel when they engage in exciting, challenging and meaningful work, EL Education schools focus on mastery of knowledge and skills, high-quality student work and character to help students prepare for personal success and community contribution.

With $975k in new funding, researchers from University of Virginia Curry School of Education and Human Development will examine if and how EL Education Schools cultivate ethical character in their students.

“Based on listening to EL Education educators, it is clear that EL Education schools pride themselves on the ways they cultivate ethical character in their students. They put a lot of effort into supporting students to show respect and empathy, for instance,” said Sara Rimm-Kaufman, professor and researcher at the Curry School’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning. “But effort and anecdotal evidence is not enough. Our goal is to use new measurement approaches to examine the extent to which EL Education schools are successful in promoting ethical character.”

With lead funding from the John Templeton Foundation,  the study will follow 240 students from the beginning of sixth to the end of seventh grade in EL Education versus comparison schools. Rimm-Kaufman and co-principal investigator Lia Sandilos, a former VEST fellow at the University of Virginia and current assistant professor at Temple University, will attempt to uncover the extent to which EL Education, including routines, activities and school experiences, contributes to gains in ethical character and student performance outcomes.

The study will allow us to go beyond a simple comparison of EL Education versus control schools,” Rimm-Kaufman said. “We will have the opportunity to understand how teachers convey a sense of purpose and agency in learning, teach respect and empathy and work to create strong social connections among their students.”

EL Education promotes three core areas — mastery of knowledge and skills, character, and high-quality student work — based on the idea that students, upon entering adulthood and the workforce, will one day be evaluated based on the quality of their work and character, not on performance of basic skills. (To learn more about EL Education’s insight into character, check out their interactive framework here.)

As the EL Education program grows through new schools and curricular innovations, rising interest in the program calls for high-quality research on one of the program’s hallmark contributions — support for ethical character.

According to Rimm-Kaufman, existing research tells us much about what causes behavior problems in students, but we need “more focus on how schools develop positive social behaviors in students and ways schools can help students become productive citizens who care about others and show integrity in their decisions.”

Schools participating in the study will have the opportunity to try new ways of assessing the development of ethical character.

“We look forward to sharing data with these schools so they can note patterns in ethical character development to guide future actions,” Rimm-Kaufman said.