By Bill Samuels, Director of Assessment at CUNY, College of Staten Island
Even though teachers and students can easily see the benefits of humane education programs, it helps to test these programs scientifically. But, by design, science is unforgiving. Even though it might confirm one’s beliefs about a program, it could just as easily dispel them. It is therefore an act of courage and conviction to subject one’s programs to the rigors of science.
It’s also not cheap. Even if an experiment doesn’t require much money or supplies, it cannot be properly done with a big commitment of time made by a highly-trained team of people who work well together. For all of these reasons, it says a lot of HEART that they approached me to rigorously evaluate one of their flagship programs, the Circle of Compassion. HEART describes this program here, so I will only give a brief description of it, and then get to the juicy results of our study.
What We Did
An important goal of the Circle of Compassion is to change students’ attitudes or behaviors. And so I studied that. To do this, I followed the same general procedure that’s been used countless times by innumerable scientists to investigate a wide range of educational and clinical programs. I asked to students and teachers to complete well-established and -validated measures of humane attitudes and empathy for others both before and after the program; this let us see if these changed over the course of the program. I also compared these results to groups of student in a control group who participated in an unrelated program (a chess club).
So, to measure student’s attitudes and knowledge, we asked them—using scientifically-proven instruments. We could have also measured their behaviors by asking them, but we didn’t need to: We had a much better way sitting there just waiting to be asked: the students’ teachers. The program was conducted during the second half of the fall semester, so the teachers all had come to know their students rather well. Therefore, at the same time we asked the students about their attitudes and knowledge, we asked the teachers to catalogue how often each student had done certain things over the last three weeks. The actions included pro- or anti-social behaviors (e.g., is friendly or harms others), concentration (stays on task, is easily distracted), and disruptiveness (breaks rules, harms property).
We administered these instruments to students in four different schools, two in New York City and two in Chicago, both cities where HEART actively conducts programs in many disadvantaged schools like the ones we chose to ask to participate in our study. All four schools are public schools; all have at least 40% of their student body eligible for free or reduced school lunches (a typical measure of poverty that entitles schools for funding and services under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act). All schools readily agreed to participate, as did the teachers, students, and nearly all of the students’ parents and guardians.
What We Found
The most fundamental outcome is whether the Circle of Compassion effectively teaches children about humane education issues and changes their attitudes about them. Before the programs, there was no statistical difference between the attitudes and knowledge of the students in the HEART program and those in the control group; all students started at roughly the same point. We found, though, that the attitudes and knowledge of students who participated in the Circle of Compassion program increased over the course of the program while those of the students in the control group did not.
We also analyzed if their teachers said they were acting any better after the program. And we found that, yes, students who participated in the Circle of Compassion program were rated as being statistically significantly more pro-social than those in the control groups who did not. This wasn’t just a “halo” effect in which the teachers of the Circle of Compassion students were feeling better about them; after all, it could have been that the teachers were indirectly affected by the humane education program and felt softer towards their students and not that the students themselves were in fact acting any better. But, teacher’s ratings of the students’ levels of concentration and disruptiveness were not any different between the experimental and control groups. We were happy to see this since this supports our belief that the teachers’ ratings of the students’ pro-social behaviors were real.
What It Means
The Circle of Compassion program does what it sets out to do—and a bit more. It not only teaches upper elementary students about humane education issues and positively affects their attitudes about them, but also positively affects how they treat other people.