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N.I.E. To Study 'Values Clarification'

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Washington--The National Institute of Education (nie), the federal education-research agency, is planning to study one of the most politically explosive issues of the American school curriculum: the use of "values-clarification" techniques and their effects on students.

In its first venture into this area, the institute will award a grant this year to a group of college researchers and lawyers who plan to examine the textbooks and teaching materials used by several school districts, "to determine the extent of values-education materials contained [therein]" and to analyze the effect of those materials on students' values.

"Values clarification" is a teaching technique that encourages students to define their values through role-playing and discussions of literature. The technique, which was popular in schools during the early 1970's, is opposed by many parents and religious groups, and some education scholars, who say it teaches students "moral relativism" rather than concrete moral values.

Although the federally funded project is relatively small for the $53-million agency--it will cost approximately $116,000--it marks a shift in priorities for the research institute. During the past several years, the nie has focused part of the approximately $1 million set aside annually for funding unsolicit-ed grant proposals on studies of equity in education, such as desegregation and opportunities for women. The group of 17 studies funded under this program for 1982 includes no equity studies.

In addition to the values-clarification project, the institute will fund a project on incorporating the principles embodied in The Federalist Papers into civics classes, a study of why black students in Chicago attend private schools, and a study of public support for private schools in British Columbia.

The $1-million package of grants also includes, as it has in previous years, several studies of basic skills and testing in the schools.

The new studies represent the priorities of the institute's acting director, Robert W. Sweet Jr., a former public-school teacher in Albion, Me. "My feeling is that a great deal of work already has been done on desegregation, for example," Mr. Sweet said in an interview.

Although the values-clarification project was opposed by two of the three outside experts who read the proposal, as well as by the professional staff members of the institute, Mr. Sweet said he chose the project "as a way to identify how values education does exist in schools across the country."

"My own background is such that I know that time-on-task in schools has been eroded by time spent on teaching self-esteem and dealing with values," he said. "Parents aren't getting their money's worth."

In a recent "concept paper," which he sent to Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, Mr. Sweet included "values in education" as one of the most important issues facing American education. (The other issues were: quality of education, school finance, mathematics and science, and technology.)

"Perhaps no issue is more divisive and causes more controversy in education than the teaching of values," he wrote. "Every educational system in every country tries to instill values in its students in addition to educating them in subject matter. In America, these values have traditionally included respect for authority, good manners, a sense of decency, love of country, and the elements of good citizenship. Recently, however, values education has become a specific educational discipline, a discipline based on moral relativism."

'Humanistic Atmosphere'

Recent Supreme Court decisions on the separation of church and state, Mr. Sweet continued, have resulted in "the establishment of a humanistic atmosphere, totally devoid of any reference or acknowledgment of the existence of God."

He listed several questions researchers might deal with in exploring the issue of values education, including: "How do you protect the rights of the minority in theistic matters, without infringing on the rights of the majority? How do you assure that public schools do not advocate a particular religious belief without promoting secular humanism?"

"Perhaps values clarification is a bigger issue than any of us are aware of," Mr. Sweet said last week.

One of the primary objections to the values-clarification study, listed by one outside expert in his evaluation and voiced by several nie staff members in interviews, is that the members of the group that submitted the proposal, the Association for the Study of Values in Education, do not represent the diverse viewpoints that the evaluators consider to be necessary to conduct an objective analysis.

The group includes two lawyers with the Christian Legal Society, a Virginia firm active in church-state issues, and two college professors, one of psychology and the other of history, who have written on religion and moral education. The members of the association, which will incorporate especially for the values-clarification project, have not previously conducted research together.

"The problem is the relationship of such people to understanding various belief systems inherent in curriculum materials," said one education scholar who has reviewed grant proposals in the past for the institute. "It seems they will be looking at textbooks only for evidence of a lack of Christian values."

The evaluators criticized the group's methodology as "inadequate"; complained that the group did not include an elementary- or secondary-school teacher; and questioned whether the researchers held "underlying biases."

Thomas Ascik, a special assistant to Mr. Sweet, said he was confident that the study would be "even-handed."

"I don't think the religion of the investigators disqualifies them from being objective," he said.

He added that the institute was "taking a chance" on making the award because values education was a priority of the acting director. "If we were to design it [ourselves], one might want to add people who have a nonreligious point of view or a point of view from another religion," he said.

One researcher expressed surprise that the institute, under the Reagan Administration, would enter into a study of school curriculum materials--an area considered by many to be the province of local educators.

"It's not that the topic is not researchable or worth researching," he said, "but the difficulties of doing it without worsening the conflict [over whether the federal government should investigate the teaching of values] are to me insurmountable."

'Moral Relativism' Opposed

The director of the association that was awarded the values-clarification grant, Paul C. Vitz, an associate professor of psychology at New York University, said his group would examine textbooks for "any clear case of a particular values system--political, religious, philosophical--that is in evidence in any persistent way."

Mr. Vitz said his previous research in values clarification has led him to believe that "schools have been bringing in a lot of values."

"We want to see if values clarification is a vehicle for teaching moral relativism," he added. "You can't allow that in the school system unless that's what the parents want to be taught."

Although values clarification is occasionally taught in social-studies classes as a distinct subject, it also may have crept into other curriculum areas as well, Mr. Vitz said. "If it's not actually being taught, is it implicitly contained in materials that aren't labeled as such?"

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