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Values Education: A Moral Obligation or Dilemma?

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Over the past quarter-century or so, many of those in charge of the public schools have believed their campuses should be neutral territory when it comes to teaching what is "right" and "good."

To consider otherwise was to cross a line that would risk irate phone calls from parents and bills from school district lawyers. The emphasis had shifted from molding good citizens to fostering the skills needed for students to make their own decisions.

But now, a growing number of educators are abandoning that position. Driven in large part by distress over the disintegration of family life and the tragedy of youth violence, they seek a return to a more traditional view of the responsibilities of schools in forming students' character.

Districts in Baltimore, Houston, and the St. Louis area are among those that have been teaching character as part of the curriculum for some years. And schools in St. Paul are to start such a program in the fall, while many other districts are considering doing so.

White House Conference

Teachers and schools have always, unconsciously at least, promoted basic virtues such as honesty, obedience, respect, and self-discipline. But supporters of the movement known as character education argue that failing to purposefully nurture strong character in children amounts to a death sentence for a civilized society.

"If 95 percent of children in this country were raised in loving, caring homes, we would not have a character-education movement today," said James S. Leming, an education professor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

This week, more than 200 people from all 50 states will converge on Washington with a common concern: the moral education of American children. Superintendents, leaders of national education groups, corporation and foundation executives, and members of community groups such as the Y.M.C.A. and the Girl Scouts are to gather for the Second Annual White House Conference on Character Building for a Democratic, Civil Society.

Both Hillary Rodham Clinton, the First Lady, and former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, the author of the best-selling Book of Virtues story collection, are scheduled to address the gathering.

The common interest shared by such a diverse group, however, belies the controversy that character education can generate. Despite a broad consensus on the importance of teaching character or values, the issue of whose--or which--values are taught in schools is a sensitive one.

Does teaching tolerance, for example, imply approval of homosexuality? Or, how should teachers handle situations that require a choice between one moral value, kindness, and another, honesty?

And some who back the concept of character education warn that there needs to be more research to determine whether such teaching does any good.

"There's this wonderful optimism and conviction that there are fairly easy solutions to these problems," Mr. Leming said. But, he added, "it's not going to be easy."

'Character Counts'

Despite such reservations among many educators, the White House conference illustrates the size and prominence of the character-education drive. About 5 percent of the nation's schools have a comprehensive character education program, and about 20 percent have some kind of effort or are getting started, estimated Diane G. Berreth, the deputy executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development in Alexandria, Va.

Recent books have fueled the movement.

Thomas Lickona, a professor of education at the State University of New York at Cortland, has been a fixture on the lecture circuit since the 1991 publication of his book Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility.

The following year, another education professor, William Kilpatrick of Boston College, came out with Why Johnny Can't Tell Right From Wrong.

Groups devoted to the topic are popping up, too.

The Character Education Partnership, launched in 1993, seeks to thrust character development to the top of the education agenda. Its members include the American Association of School Administrators, the American Federation of Teachers, the A.S.C.D., the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Education Association, and the National School Boards Association.

President Clinton and Congress have also lent their support. Lawmakers included funding for character-education pilot projects in the reauthorization last fall of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

On April 30 The New York Times Magazine featured character education on its cover. The next day, coincidentally, Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., convened a daylong conference on values and the schools.

Shoring Up Society

So, after decades of purported neutrality, why are educators wading into this potential morass?

Proponents of character education say they are driven by the fact that many parents, whether absent from the home or busy with work, cannot and do not impart the values that once formed a vital component of family life.

Other social trends beg attention, too. Youth violence and adolescent suicide have risen dramatically in recent years. Drug use and teenage pregnancy remain serious problems.

Schools are the only forum in which to counter those phenomena, argued Amitai Etzioni, an author and sociologist at George Washington University in Washington. "If you think society is falling apart around your ears, then you ask, 'How can I shore it up?'" he said.

Mr. Etzioni is the founder of the Communitarian Network, which is sponsoring the White House conference along with G.W.U. Communitarianism, a philosophy conceived by Mr. Etzioni, holds that strong responsibilities go hand in hand with strong rights and that "moral standards should be based on consensus."

The same social problems that worry educators like Mr. Etzioni lay behind the St. Paul school board's unanimous vote last month to require schools in the 40,000-student Minnesota district to begin teaching character education in the fall.

Amid "signs of gang activity and signs of violence and signs of where values are broken down," character education represents an opportunity "to turn that around now so that we don't become one of the lost urban districts," said Maureen Flanagan, the assistant superintendent for administration and government relations.

When it comes to implementing character education in a public school, the question inevitably arises: Whose values?

Many in the character-education movement prefer to recast that question and ask instead: Which values?

There are core values of a democracy that are virtually universal, proponents argue, and a series of community meetings or a schoolwide retreat is the way to draw them out. Mr. Lickona recommends that schools start with respect and responsibility, which he calls the "fourth and fifth R's" of public education.

'Know the Good'

Whichever values the community selects, Mr. Lickona and others recommend efforts that infuse them into both classrooms and the school as a whole.

Students must "know the good, love the good, and do the good," Kevin Ryan, a professor of education at Boston University told participants at the Lehigh conference this month. But Mr. Ryan has warned that the "cluttered bandwagon" of character education often emphasizes slogans over substance. (See related story.)

(See education involves far more than classroom lessons, Mr. Etzioni and other leaders of the movement argue. Implicit messages that schools send are equally important--messages found in every aspect of a school's operation.

"If sports teaches you that winning is the only thing that matters--you can cheat, push, and shove--you learn unethical, uncivil conduct," he said. "No lecture in a classroom can erode that experience."

Literature and Statistics

In 1988, after hearing a presentation by Mr. Lickona, Henry A. Huffman, then the assistant superintendent for instruction in the Mount Lebanon school district in suburban Pittsburgh, decided to try character education in his district.

Mr. Huffman, now an associate professor and the director of the Character Education Institute at California University of Pennsylvania, said an informal discussion group studied the issue for a year. In 1991, the 5,000-student district added character education to its strategic plan.

Organizers then formed a representative group from the community to identify a set of values the schools should teach. Those included respecting human dignity, responsibility for the welfare of others, integrity, and seeking peaceful resolution of conflict.

"We can make our school an oasis for respect while the child is with us," Mr. Huffman said.

For its elementary schools, the Mount Lebanon district adopted the curriculum of the private, nonprofit Heartwood Institute in Wexford, Pa. For the middle and high schools, middle and high schools, teachers and the institute created a similar approach.

Heartwood's literature-based curriculum is teacher-friendly, Mr. Huffman said, and uses children's stories from around the world to foster seven attributes: courage, loyalty, justice, respect, hope, honesty, and love.

Discussions of values can arise even in math or computer-science class, Mr. Huffman said, where students can discuss the unethical use of statistics or the illegal duplication of software.

Teach Tolerance?

But promoting values in school can meet real-life pitfalls.

As part of its values summit, Lehigh University sponsored a town meeting that featured a panel of 13 educators, activists, and others. Though most agreed that some basic democratic values should be part of the school climate, their views differed widely when it came to specifics.

For example, the panelists were given a scenario at a fictional high school in which gay and lesbian students complained of harassment and said they wanted their sexual preference discussed in the curriculum.

Panelists Lynne V. Cheney, a former chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Linda Page, the manager of education policy for the conservative group Focus on the Family, said homosexuality should not be taught in school. To do so, Ms. Page said, is to "legitimize" it.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders strongly disagreed. "If the school does not teach tolerance," she said, "you are in many ways teaching intolerance."

Achievement Anecdotes

With such a relatively new field, some school districts may end up adopting character-education curricula regardless of whether they know the programs will work.

The limited research available on the subject is largely anecdotal, relying heavily on teachers' and administrators' observations about student behavior.

A. John Martin, the executive director of the Character Education Partnership, based in Alexandria, Va., conceded that there is only one comprehensive study of a character-education program--the Child Development Project in Oakland, Calif. It has shown positive effects, he said.

Alan L. Lockwood, the chairman of the department of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, warned that inadequately researched approaches could backfire.

"When you have an issue as important as youth violence," he said, "and [claims] promising that we can do something about it with programs that are not well established by research, then the public is going to feel betrayed by under-realized promises."

Mr. Huffman, however, believes schools cannot neglect such a critical responsibility because of a lack of research.

"The most important data around character education occur when nobody's looking," he said.

He told conferees at the Lehigh summit: "A lot of what our work is about is based on faith and hope."

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