The Evidence Base

Informing Policy in Health, Economics & Well-Being
A collaboration with
USC Dornsife Center for economic and social research

Broadening Education Policy Research: The Character Assessment Initiative

Education policy research has been narrowly focused for many years on how schools affect the math and reading achievement of their students.  But schools do much more than try to teach math and reading.  And the long-term success and happiness of students likely hinges as much or more on these other learning objectives as on math and reading achievement.

With a number of colleagues and doctoral students in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, I have been working to broaden education policy research by examining a variety of school activities and outcomes beyond math and reading achievement.  We conducted a large-scale experiment in which we randomly assigned nearly 11,000 students to go on field trips to an art museum or have those trips deferred.  We found that students assigned by lottery to tour an art museum learned a great amount of detail about the paintings they saw.  More importantly, touring art museums changed students’ values, making them more tolerant and capable of historical empathy.

We also asked students to write short essays in response to new paintings they had never seen before.  Students who had been randomly assigned to tour an art museum wrote essays that displayed significantly stronger critical thinking about art.  In particular, students who had toured the art museum were more observant of details in the new paintings they saw.  Lastly, students who took a field trip to an art museum demonstrated stronger interest in visiting art museums in the future.  We know this both from survey question responses as well as from their behavior by tracking who used coded coupons for their family to see a special exhibit for free.

We don’t know precisely how these effects of touring an art museum influence long-term outcomes for students, but we suspect that it is important for students to be knowledgeable about art, tolerant and empathetic, observant of detail, and develop the habits of a cultural consumer.  Our art museum research has been published here, here, and here.

We followed-up on randomly assigning students to tour an art museum by randomly assigning school groups to see professional live theater.  Free tickets to see Hamlet, A Christmas Carol, and Around the World in 80 Days were offered to schools by lottery.  The effects of school field trips to see live theater were similar to those of going to an art museum.  Students randomly assigned to see plays had strong command of the plots and vocabularies in those stories – much better than if they had watched a movie-version or been assigned to read it for class.  Similar to what we observed with the art museum study, students randomly assigned to see live theater demonstrated higher levels of tolerance.  Apparently, culturally-enriching activities are broadening experiences that help students better appreciate and accept the diverse world in which they live.  There were some indications that seeing live theater also improved empathy, but those results have not been robust.  We are continuing the theater experiment with some new outcome measures to see if we can get a clearer picture of what students get out of seeing live theater.  So far, our theater research has been published here.

In addition to studying culturally enriching activities, like touring art museums or seeing live theater, faculty and doctoral students in our department have launched a series of studies to examine the role of character (or non-cognitive attributes) on student success.  Under the direction of my colleague, Gema Zamarro, we have launched the Character Assessment Initiative, Charassein.  This effort includes research by Collin Hitt, Albert Cheng, and Julie Trivitt on how student non-response on surveys may be useful as a proxy for student conscientiousness or effort.  Their path-breaking research has found that student non-response (skipping items or answering “don’t know”) is predictive of later life outcomes, including educational attainment, employment, and earnings, even after controlling for other relevant factors including cognitive ability.

Our team is also examining how teachers influence student conscientiousness (as measured by non-response), inter-generational transmission of non-cognitive attributes, validating self-reported measures of “grit” and anchoring vignette methods to improve these self-reports, and the influence of public and private schooling on tolerance and anti-Semitism.  Keep your eye on Charasssein for results as the projects are completed.

The point of our work on culturally-enriching activities and character is to expand the scope of education policy research.  We believe that effective education involves more than just math and reading achievement and we are determined to study what role schools may play in producing other important outcomes for students.