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Creating Community Consensus On Core Values

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Finding ways to teach values and respect without getting caught in the "character education" debate.

A growing number of educators and parents are beginning to see the importance of some kind of values or "character" education. But efforts to impose forms of character education with a predetermined set of values onto students and communities often provoke bitter and divisive debate between many liberals and conservatives. After leading discussions on this subject in many widely varying communities over the last five years, I have learned that there are ways to consider these issues that can create new common ground and a significantly improved climate for learning. What follows below is a brief summary of some lessons learned:

  • Hold communitywide conversations before taking any action. The debate about values in schools is like the debate about educational reform. Everyone may seem to agree that we need more of both, but definitions and priorities differ, and so it is essential to seek community consensus on goals. We have used a combination of both focus groups and what we call "town meetings for learning" to engage all community members in discussions about values in schools. In addition to parents and educators, we are careful to include students, community members, and service providers in such discussions.
  • Distinguish between values and beliefs. When starting out to hold community conversations about values, it is important that the facilitator set some basic ground rules. The first is to make clear that the purpose of the discussion is to seek agreement on the values (not the beliefs) that we can all agree should be promoted in our schools.

Of course, different religions hold divergent beliefs, but there is a core of values (and thousands of years of human culture and tradition) that are much more common than they are different. The facilitator must remind participants that the point of community discussions is not to convert anyone to a particular belief system. The purpose is to create the common language that all can agree will be used to describe the values most important in the community.

  • Focus on citizenship rather than "character education." It has been my experience that efforts to promote so-called character education can be divisive in many communities. First, individuals promoting character education are often perceived as having a conservative and explicitly Christian set of beliefs that they are seeking to introduce into schools. Second, the approach, which often emphasizes lessons from literature and history, strikes some as "preachy" and moralistic and sometimes focuses on certain predetermined values which are not necessarily the highest priority for many in the community.

Discussions of virtues like loyalty, patriotism, and obedience can divide a community. For some of us, cultivation of these and other traits of individual character are less important than nurturing the values and behaviors which are at the very core of the practice of democracy. It is increasingly clear that without greater civic engagement and civility (for example) our democracy may not survive. For all of these reasons, I have found that discussions of citizenship values have the greatest potential for creating common ground.

  • Don't assume the problem is just the students. People promoting "character education" also frequently make the mistake of focusing lessons and other improvement efforts only at students. However, in many of our schools (suburban, urban, and rural; private as well as public) adults are part of the problem. It is too often the case that both educators and community members are not positive role models for our students.

My experience in some of the most elite public and private schools is that sarcastic banter and clever quips at someone else's expense are the way many adults relate to one another and to students (especially the men). It is a way of showing how quick and bright you are. Such "joking" is widely imitated by students, who use their adult-sanctioned "cleverness" to bully other students.

Even (or sometimes especially) in elite communities, disrespectful behavior and rudeness among adults is too frequently overlooked. The most disrespectful behavior I have seen in recent years has been in high school faculty meetings and school board meetings in middle-class communities. In one wealthy New England town two years ago (whose test scores were among the highest in the state), the student government actually wrote a public letter to the school board complaining that the high school teachers were backstabbing and ridiculing one another in front of students and trying to get students to choose sides!

In dozens of focus groups I have conducted with middle and high school students around the country in every kind of community, I have found that lack of respect is students' most frequent complaint about their schools. They are equally concerned about adults' lack of respect for one another and for students, and students' lack of respect for each other and for adults.

Lack of respect is often the No. 1 concern of many parents as well. While many policymakers and educators are preoccupied with debates about high standards, a frequently overlooked finding in a recent Public Agenda survey revealed that 71 percent of all Americans believe it is more important to teach values than academics. The landmark study went on to report an extremely high level of consensus on core values adults want taught in schools, and respect for others topped the list.

  • Ground the community conversation in discussions of behaviors. Values discussions can quickly become abstract and have the potential for being more adversarial if they are not rooted in everyday reality. When organizing community discussions, I have found that encouraging small groups to talk about the following three questions in sequence can generate thoughtful discussion and even agreement on next steps in the space of a several-hour conversation: What behaviors (adult as well as student) are of concern to you in our community? What behaviors do you want to see more of? What are some things we might do to encourage more of the positive behaviors?
  • Consider extracurricular, as well as curricular, solutions. Since the late Lawrence Kohlberg popularized in the 1970s an approach to moral education that emphasized the discussion of ethical dilemmas, educators have tended to focus excessively on curricular (and often overly intellectualized) approaches to improving students' behavior. Discussions of moral issues in history, literature, science, and so on are undeniably important for students of all ages, and opportunities to read inspiring biographies and morally grounded literature like the works of Tolstoy and others are important antidotes to the pervasive cynicism and amorality in much of the popular culture and media. However, values are caught much more than they are taught. And so communities must find many ways beyond the books and classroom walls to create community and bring out the best in everyone.

One of the least discussed problems in young people's development today is their virtual isolation from adults. A study conducted by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Reed Larson revealed that adolescents spend more time alone than with either peers or adults. Single-parent and dual-career families, combined with the dramatic loss of formal and informal extracurricular and apprenticeship opportunities for adolescents, have all taken a toll. Perhaps for the first time in history, we are raising a generation of young people without significant contact with adults. And so the majority have few opportunities for socialization into productive adult activities and society. It is perhaps for this reason that famed educator and Central Park Schools founder Deborah Meier has observed that establishing meaningful relationships between adults and students in her school was at least as important as all the changes made in teaching, curriculum, and assessment.

Communities which have considered this problem have come up with many ways to build more positive relationships with young people. Service learning and internships in the community, advisory and mentoring programs, and increased extracurricular offerings all help to bring adults and young people together in ways that help students grow socially and morally--often more than anything done in classrooms.

After leading a number of discussions about core values in communities across the country, I have found that the results of this process are often inspiring. For students, a serious schoolwide effort to encourage mutual respect and other core values they have discussed together with adults comes as a relief. Classroom put-downs are no longer tolerated, and students are less afraid to raise their hands with a comment or question. Disagreements are much more likely to be settled peacefully, and school feels safer.

Adults benefit as well. Discussions of values are far more engaging than any debates about curriculum, and they frequently generate an unprecedented level of parental and community involvement (interest that can be translated quickly into action). When the discussions are rooted in a consideration of behaviors, rather than beliefs, agreement on a statement of core values and new initiatives comes quickly, and all meetings begin to take on a more cordial, respectful tone. More significantly, such discussions remind us that we all have a responsibility as citizens for helping to shape a better future for the next generation. It is the bedrock common ground of every community.

Tony Wagner is the president of the Institute for Responsive Education at Northeastern University in Boston. His book, How Schools Change: Lessons From Three Communities, with a foreword by Theodore R. Sizer, has just been released in paperback by Beacon Press.

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