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Despite Controversy, Consensus Grows On the Need To Teach Values in Schools

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By Peter Schmidt

At Boston University's new Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character, teachers eager to instill values in their students are turning for guidance to some time-honored experts: Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and other giants of Western thought.

Campus workshops stressing the common philosophical roots of American culture are part of the center's strategy for giving schools the foundation they need for tackling one of their most amorphous and controversial instructional challenges.

As Dean of Education Peter Greer, a founder of the interdisciplinary center, explains, "most teachers haven't read about, thought about, written about, or discussed" in any organized fashion "the key ethical concepts that undergird our society." Without that kind of intellectual grounding, he says, they may be missing opportunities to mine a ''rich lode" of values-related material already in their curricula.

The dean and his center colleagues also are serving as consultants to schools and school systems--most notably the state of New Hampshire's--where educators are working their way through the political and pedagogical minefield that surrounds values education to fashion programs they hope will have an impact on character.

The BU approach, with its emphasis on so-called "core values" and on the importance of teachers' skills in conveying these to students, is right for the times, according to experts in the field.

The public is moving, they say, toward an acceptance of the idea that there is a body of agreed-upon values that can and should be taught in the schools. And public officials are responding:

In New Jersey, the Governor and state education officials last spring endorsed a "common core of values" to be taught across the curriculum in schools. The values are civic responsibility, respect for the natural environment, respect for others, and respect for self.

The Mississippi Board of Education voted unanimously last fall to begin developing a plan to incorporate the teaching of values into subjects from literature to mathematics. A report on moral education approved by the board lists 25 generally accepted values that can be dealt with in the classroom. They include compassion, due process of law, human worth, equality of opportunity, self-respect, and tolerance.

The Ohio, Massachusetts, and Connecticut departments of education have listed the promotion of character education as a goal for schools. In Maryland, where a 1979 commission proposed 10 "character objectives" and 8 "citizenship objectives" schools should strive for, districts have been urged to develop a sequential K-12 instructional program to transmit these traits.

Last year, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Washington enacted statewide initiatives in youth community service, an area that has shown some promise, according to researchers, in promoting the goals of character education. Similar measures had already been adopted in Minnesota and Connecticut and are under consideration in several other states, including California, Oregon, Florida, and Iowa.

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, the department of education announced in October the formation of the New Hampshire Center for Citizenship and Character, a private, nonprofit group of civic leaders that will provide technical assistance to schools implementing programs for citizenship and character education.

Much Rhetoric, Little Research

Several factors, including rising rates of juvenile crime and other youth behavioral problems, as well as a perceived decline in public morality, as witnessed by scandals from Wall Street to Washington, have spurred the new consensus on values education, the experts say.

"Schools have a very clear social mandate to teach civic and moral values," asserts Kevin Ryan, director of the BU center. "It is not something people should shrink from. It should be a bedrock part of their work."

But providing the tools for effective teaching, others add, has been hampered by a lack of adequate research and the sea of rhetoric, pro and con, that has surrounded the subject for most of this century.

"There's no research that [says] community consensus translates into effective classroom practice," warns James S. Leming, a professor of education at Southern Illinois University who has reviewed much of the literature on curricular efforts to build character.

"Practical teaching is still a major, major hurdle," he says.

In a 1987 research paper, Mr. Leming identifies the 1920's as a time similar to today, when rapidly changing social and economic conditions were forcing U.S. schools to respond to a perceived "threat to social stability and vitality posed by the decline of moral standards."

Between 1924 and 1929, he relates, the Institute of Social and Religious Research, funded by John D. Rockefeller and housed at Teachers College, Columbia University, undertook the most detailed and comprehensive effort to date to assess the impact of schools on character: the Character Education Inquiry.

That three-volume, 1,700-page report concluded that "the prevailing ways of inculcating ideals probably do little good and may do some harm."

"The mere urging of honest behavior by teachers or the discussion of standards and ideals of honesty, no matter how much such general ideals may be 'emotionalized,' has no necessary relation to conduct," it said.

'The Hypodermic-Needle Model'

Some 30 years later, a resurgence of interest in the subject led to the development of teaching techniques based on the promotion of moral reasoning through discussions led by an essentially neutral instructor.

The most well-known of these 1960's approaches, values clarification, has been the focus of hundreds of research studies, according to Mr. Leming, all showing the method to have virtually no impact.

Yet, say BU's Mr. Ryan and Dean Greer, who for more than a decade have surveyed teachers on their training in this sphere, "few can recall the topic of being moral educators or developers of good character ... being raised in their teacher-education programs, except for learning some values-clarification techniques."

In an article last spring in Action in Teacher Education, they write: "Very few [teachers] are aware that the claims of values clarification have been empirically discredited and all but universally disparaged by philosophers and education commentators."

The only other teaching technique that has been the focus of a large body of research, according to Mr. Leming, is an approach advocated by the late Lawrence Kohlberg and popularized during the 1970's. It uses a group setting to engage students in the discussion and resolution of various moral dilemmas. But its successes, Mr. Leming notes, have been "with regard to reasoning, not character."

Advocates point out that, unlike academic achievement, which schools can measure with written tests, improvements in character do not readily lend themselves to assessment.

But the Southern Illinois scholar laments the general lack of any "sustained, systematic research on [teaching methods] or the effect of the school climate and atmosphere on values."

One result, he says, has been that most values-education programs still operate according to "the hypodermic-needle model--you inject [children] with a dose of values, and it becomes part of their bloodstream."

'New Wave' Stresses Directness

Until recently, this lack of proven teaching methodology had been a8flaw that doomed most values-education efforts. There was a temptation, experts say, for instructors to let their own beliefs fill the vacuum, thus risking the fragile community consensus that had allowed values education to take place at all.

Now, says Diane G. Berreth, director of field services for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, the emerging public consensus on the need for instruction in this area is producing a "new wave" of public-school efforts.

"In the 60's, the emphasis was on values clarification. In the 70's, it was on applying thinking skills to develop moral reasoning. In the late 80's, there has been a new emphasis on direct teaching of values," she explains.

These newer efforts reject the relativism and emphasis on the individual found in the earlier movements and have gained a wide cast of supporters.

Those urging an increased emphasis on the development of character in schools now include, in addition to state and national political leaders, such groups as the National School Boards Association, the ASCD, and the American Jewish Committee.

Long-standing private efforts in the field report a high level of demand for their materials. The American Institute for Character Education in San Antonio says its instructional aids now reach 42,000 classrooms in 42 states; Quest International, located in Granville, Ohio, reports that its programs are being used in 12,000 classrooms.

To Chris C. Pipho, director of the Education Commission of the States' information clearinghouse, this new eagerness to teach values differs sharply from the adversarial climate that has surrounded the topic.

When his organization held a conference on citizenship and moral education five years ago, Mr. Pipho recalls, participants were sharply divided into liberal and conservative camps. "As soon as someone ran a flag up the pole, someone else would shoot it down," he says.

More recently, he and others say, centrists have been able to build a broad consensus around the idea of "common core values."

"Everybody in this country, from the right wing to the left wing, knows we have a crisis of community," says Barbara Finkelstein, professor of education-policy planning at the University of Maryland's International Center for the Study of Education and Human Values.

"There is a basic core that we can all agree to," asserts the ascd's Ms. Berreth. "You can provide students with a moral education based on a core of civic values, without having to rely on religious precepts."

She adds, however, that "the wise school, before it institutes a program, is going to gather the community together and find out what they all can agree on."

'Watering Down' Material

But it is at the community level, many warn, that the broad general consensus on values education may break down, having serious implications for teaching.

Edward A. Wynne, professor of education at the University of Chicago and editor of the journal Debates in Education, says that skilled leaders may be able to gain the agreement needed in communities with "reasonable homogeneity," but that he "would not assume this can happen in every place."

The developments in New Hampshire show the difficulties that can ensue, even in a reasonably homogeneous state, when the general moves toward the specific. In November 1988, the state board of education adopted a policy requiring schools to incorporate in some systematic way lessons in character education throughout the curriculum.

The policy was to have gone into effect this fall. But public opposition--focused mainly, observers say, on uncertainties over what would be taught and how--surfaced last year and the plan was delayed.

Now, in addition to the nonprofit center formed by community leaders, an advisory committee to the board is working to gain public support for the idea and plan its implementation. The Boston University ethics center is providing teacher workshops and other forms of consultation.

Charles H. Marston, New Hampshire's commissioner of education, says the misapprehension and confusion over required character education has been no greater there than elsewhere. The difficulty, he says, is in knowing "how to go from a statement of intent to a rule without causing a negative reaction."

But some critics argue that reducing the "negative reaction" often means "watering down" the material being taught, making it, in many cases, no longer worth teaching.

Richard A. Baer Jr., professor of environmental ethics at Cornell University, complains that the values defined as "common" often "remain so general that it's not clear to me pedagogically what to do with them."

"Schools that set out to offend nobody wind up not being effective for anybody," Charles L. Glenn, a Massachusetts official who authored The Myth of the Common School, maintains. "They become, in effect, hollow at the center. And because of that, they lack the kind of moral coherence that leads to effective education."

Neutrality No Longer An Option

But the old teaching formula of "values neutrality," experts say, is no longer a politically safe option.

"To avoid criticism, schools have avoided the responsibility of consciously teaching values," charges Christine Johnson, principal of Denver's Abraham Lincoln High School, in a recent op-ed piece in the Rocky Mountain News. "Therefore, they share the responsibility for the erosion of values and ethics."

Says Merrill Harmin, professor of curriculum and instruction at Southern Illinois University and a leader, 25 years ago, in the values-clarification movement: "There is a need for more direction, more guidance, more clarity about what is good and right and proper. Twenty or 30 years ago, people thought they knew what was good and right and proper."

But there is at present scarce agreement among educators on programs that adequately teach right and wrong without preaching, on the one hand, or leaving too much of the delineation to the discretion of the young person being taught.

The diversity of viewpoints within the field is illustrated, in fact, by the proliferation of names in use to characterize the enterprise, all of which carry different connotations. While some experts call for "values education," others emphasize "moral education," "character education," or the promotion of "ethics," "civics," or "citizenship."

Moreover, explains Ms. Finkelstein of the University of Maryland, her examination of only the area of "civic education" has shown that its proponents can be divided into four distinct groups, each with its own agenda. The largest calls for a return to so-called Western values, she says, but the others are characterized by their rejection of such Western traits as materialism and competitiveness.

Adding to tensions within the field are efforts aimed at breaking what is seen as the school curriculum's "Eurocentric bias," and others that equate "traditional" values with certain religious persuasions.

Mr. Ryan says that the BU program has had to cope with the dichotomy of "a lot of people who are leaving the public schools because they are religious" and others who are "areligious and very suspicious of the idea of imposing values, of indoctrination."

These philosophical differences tend naturally to translate into wide differences in emphasis, experts say.

Some schools try to teach values directly, as part of a distinct curriculum. Others seek to influence the development of good character through pertinent lessons from literature or other subjects, or through community service, cooperative-learning projects, or greater student involvement in the school's governance.

Boston University's Mr. Greer, however, says his center operates on the assumption that teachers will not be able to use any method effectively unless they have a deep understanding of the material they teach. An emphasis on the teacher's base of fundamental knowledge and his or her ability to synthesize and present ethics-related material in new and effective ways grows out of this.

'Choice' and Values

In an era of school restructuring, some educators see changes on the horizon that may allow them to avoid much of the controversy inherent in actively educating for character.

Mr. Glenn and Mr. Wynne, for example, favor open-enrollment and parental-choice plans, because, they say, such options give parents the opportunity to select schools that promote the values they want their children to acquire.

Such values-based choice plans already exist in some districts, Mr. Wynne argues, citing New York City's Community School District No. 4 in East Harlem as an example.

Parents there can send their children to the School for Science and Humanities, which requires uniforms and stresses discipline and order; the Bridge School, which emphasizes civics; or the College for Human Services Junior High School, where students are encouraged to do community service.

Mr. Leming notes that another reform currently gaining favor--cooperative learning--has shown promise, in recent research studies, of aiding the development of positive character traits.

However the new wave of values education plays itself out, leaders in many spheres say the stakes riding on its success are high. When Ms. Johnson, the Denver principal, attended a Washington conference where corporate leaders talked about education, she was surprised, she says, that they did not stress science and math.

"They said they wanted young people whose word meant something," she notes, "who, when they say they will do something, do it; who are reliable and punctual; who can get along with others."

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