Election Talk Aside, Education in Values Gains Momentum

By Debra Viadero — October 21, 1992 16 min read
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Even before officials of the national Republican Party this summer began to make the term “family values’’ a part of their Presidential campaign rhetoric, thousands of schools across the country were quietly carrying out their own plans to instill values in children.

Once largely acknowledged to be one of the missions of schooling, character education has received little attention from educators over the past 20 to 30 years, experts in the area say. (See Education Week, Feb. 7, 1990.)

In the past five years, however, that has changed, and some signs now suggest that the movement to return values to the standard curriculum is gaining momentum. Among them:

  • Representatives of national education and ethics groups have been meeting since last spring to form a coalition devoted exclusively to promoting and supporting efforts, both in and out of schools, aimed at developing good character in young people.

Formal plans for the network, known as the Character Education Partnership, will be unveiled early next year.

  • Leaders from 30 national education, business, human-services, religious, and youth groups met over the summer and hammered out the first-ever agreement among those groups on character education.

The document, which is now being circulated widely, identifies six basic ethical values and calls on all elements of society to do a better job of communicating those values to young people.

  • The unsuccessful “neighborhood schools improvement act,’' the only major precollegiate-education-reform bill to come close to passing during the recently adjourned session of Congress, contained a provision authorizing a national commission on values education.

The mention of the commission, albeit modest, represents a major step forward for the idea, which received almost no support when it was first introduced as a bill in 1987.

  • Since 1991, a spate of books has been published on character education in the schools. The titles include: Educating for Character, Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong, and Reclaiming Our Schools.
  • In a major speech to business leaders this month, David T. Kearns, the deputy secretary of the U.S. Education Department, called on schools to teach values. “If you exclude values from schools,’' he said, “you are only teaching children that they are not important.’'

The speech, delivered by proxy because Mr. Kearns was ill, marked the first time an Education Department official has spoken on the topic during the Bush Administration.

“There’s been a real shift in the past three or four years,’' said Thomas Lickona, a professor of education at the State University of New York at Cortland and the author of a book on the subject. “Schools can no longer be ethically passive at a time when society is in deep moral trouble.’'

‘Main Street’ Values

Educators have avoided teaching values partly out of fear of stirring up the same kind of controversy that followed the “family values’’ oratory at the Republican national convention in August. Critics said the messages at the convention espoused a narrow view of morality and alienated homosexuals, feminists, and welfare recipients, among others.

Similarly, Vice President Dan Quayle’s criticisms of the popular “Murphy Brown’’ television series, while reverberating with some conservatives, offended many single mothers who, like the show’s title character, are raising children alone.

But the kinds of values educators and ethics experts are now talking about teaching in schools steer clear of those controversial issues. Rather than judging homosexual life styles, educators advocate teaching children respect for others. Instead of condemning welfare dependency, schools are seeking to teach students to be responsible for their own actions.

The emphasis is on what experts are calling “main street’’ values.

“Whether you’re talking to Phyllis Schlafly or the American Civil Liberties Union, everybody wants kids to develop values like respect, responsibility, trustworthiness,’' Mr. Lickona said.

Despite the more accepting climate for values education and the greater interest in the subject among educators, however, most schools do not teach it in any organized way.

And those that do find it is a task they must approach with a lot of forethought, considerable effort, and a high degree of caution.

‘What Is the World Coming to?’

Experts say society’s new interest in teaching values is born of the growing realization that large numbers of young people are growing up without a moral core--or with the wrong set of values as their guide.

Among leading industrial nations, for example, the United States has the highest murder rate for 15- to 24-year-olds. Other studies indicate that one million teenagers become pregnant each year, that 76 percent of college freshmen admit having cheated in high school, and that one in four college women have been victims of rape or attempted rape, most often by dates or acquaintances.

“We hear from corporate clients--and we do hear it repeatedly--that they don’t understand what has happened to the kids who are coming to work for them,’' said Gary Edwards, the president of the Ethics Resource Center in Washington. “They’re not dependable. They’re not cooperative working in teams; they’re not honest, and they think nothing of taking equipment or tools or using computers for personal purposes.’'

There is also the growing realization that the institutions once thought of as the primary transmitters of values in society--the family and the church--are either dysfunctional or ineffective in reaching young people.

In 1979, according to the Gallup Organization, 79 percent of the public said schools should teach children “right from wrong.’' That percentage climbed to 86 percent last year, according to Kevin Ryan, the director of the Center for the Advancement of Ethics at Boston University.

More recently, educators said, concern over an ethical crisis among young people was brought home with the riots in Los Angeles last April. Experts said many Americans were appalled to see residents looting their neighborhood stores and beating up on innocent bystanders. They were alarmed, however, to hear of children in the city expressing no remorse for those deeds.

“The Los Angeles riots brought reality into our living rooms, and Americans all across the country began to ask, ‘What is the world coming to?’'' Mr. Kearns said in his speech. In response, he noted, city school officials moved to add values education to the curriculum.

Right and Wrong

The problem, however, said Mr. Ryan of Boston University, is that teachers across the nation “haven’t gotten the word yet.’'

“By and large, from the work I’ve seen, teachers are very nervous about what they ought to do,’' Mr. Ryan said. “They’re worried about the American Civil Liberties Union, administrators, and parents coming in.’'

Moreover, he noted, many teachers, educated in the 1960’s and 1970’s, were taught themselves not to impose their values on students.

That kind of thinking gave rise to the values-clarification movement, which constituted the bulk of character education in schools for much of that period. The focus of those programs was to encourage students, in a nonjudgmental way, to develop their own ideas about the kinds of values that were important to them.

“That led students to believe whatever values they had were O.K., as long as they were clarified, even if it was shoplifting or Satanism,’' Mr. Lickona of SUNY at Cortland said.

As a result, many teachers “think the way to start a lesson on values is to say there is no right or wrong answer,’' Mr. Lickona said. “They need to say there may be more than one answer and be prepared to support your answer with your best moral reasoning.’'

But, sometimes, say other proponents of values education, educators simply have to tell pupils the difference between right and wrong.

“You don’t have ethical debates with 1st graders or kindergarteners because they don’t know ethics,’' said Patrick McCarthy, the chief operating officer of the Thomas Jefferson Center, whose character-education methods are being used in 4,000 schools. “Later on, you can have the debates about the poor man who steals a loaf of bread to feed his family.’'

Teaching the Teachers

To support teachers who are looking to infuse character education into their lessons and to change the views of those who shy away from the topic, the Boston University center offers two weeks of summer training.

The educators and administrators who participate read, discuss, and write about such value-laden texts as Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, and correspondence between T.S. Eliot and Groucho Marx.

Their studies at the center inspired educators at Contoocook Valley Regional School in Peterborough, N.H., to change some basic school policies.

In an effort to build trust in the school community, the school moved toward a more open style of management for staff and did away with hall passes for students. The school’s science teacher held a mock world conference on the environment to underscore the ethical considerations in scientific decisionmaking. And English teachers now choose classroom readings with an eye toward the ethical messages they convey.

“I think we’re seeing a greater interest here in building a ‘good’ life and living in good communities,’' said Charles Breiner, the principal.

Development of the Whole Child

A strong emphasis on training is also the key to the District of Columbia public schools’ approach to values education. There, principals and teachers must take a 45-hour, three-credit course in values education. The district’s central administration, secretarial, and janitorial staffs also undergo similar training sessions.

“We want everyone to understand that everything they do has a direct bearing on service to children,’' said Thomasina M. Portis, who oversees the values-education effort.

At Auburndale Elementary School in Jefferson County, Ky., the emphasis on values education is seen as integral to the whole development of the child. Using approaches successfully pioneered by the California-based Child Development Project, educators say their goal is the simultaneous enhancement of the social, intellectual, and moral development of children.

“When we do cooperative learning, there is just as much emphasis on working together as there is on how are we going to get finished,’' explained Rebecca O’Bryan, a 5th-grade teacher at the school.

Within the school’s whole-language approach to teaching reading, Ms. O’Bryan said she chooses literature with a moral message. The school also has a “buddy’’ program in which older students watch out for younger children on the bus or the playground.

And Ms. O’Bryan said she also holds class meetings once a week to discuss ways to resolve problems in the classroom.

“Last year, one of my students brought up a problem with name-calling that I wasn’t even aware of,’' she said. “Talking about that as a class helped to solve the problem.’'

No Single Program

A basic premise in all of these approaches is the notion that values education must pervade all aspects of the life of the school.

“To say ‘program’ implies a discrete activity,’' said Edward A. Wynne, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “A family doesn’t have a values-communication program.’'

Not understanding that such a comprehensive approach is necessary, many educators wrongly assume that they are teaching values already, experts say.

The Georgia school board ran into that obstacle last year after carefully crafting a list of 37 values and directing schools to teach them. Educators came back to the board and said they were already teaching them.

Board members responded that those efforts did not go far enough, however. The board then stepped up its directive by forming an oversight committee to monitor schools’ efforts and by directing state education officials to survey every district in the state on the topic.

It is true, to some degree, that schools have always taught civic virtue as part of social-studies lessons, experts agree. It is also true that schools, by insisting that students come to class on time, turn in their homework, and avoid violence, among other behaviors, are implying values in all that they do.

“You can’t say, ‘Are you doing something about truthfulness?’ '' Mr. Wynne said. “Of course, they’re going to say ‘yes.’ ''

“You have to quantify it somehow,’' he added.

One approach to quantification, Mr. Wynne suggested, is to require students to do community service to graduate, as the Maryland school board moved to do earlier this year.

But such a move is not without controversy.

The Bethlethem, Pa., school district was promptly sued last year after it mandated 60 hours of community service for high school students.

The parents who filed the lawsuit charged that, in addition to violating constitutional prohibitions against slavery, the mandate effectively forced the school district’s values on their children.

The lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge in April and is currently being appealed, said Phyllis Walsh, who directs the district’s program.

Coming to Consensus

More surprising to some educators and policymakers who are now venturing into values education, however, is the lack of controversy they encounter.

One example: In 1987, when Rep. Tony P. Hall, D-Ohio, introduced a bill in Congress calling for a national commission on values education, he could not find a single co-sponsor for the measure. This year, Mr. Hall’s concept passed the House as an amendment to the “neighborhood schools improvement act.’'

The compromise version of the measure that emerged from a House-Senate conference committee last month included the commission idea, but left it up to the Secretary of Education’s discretion whether to establish one. The change was intended to appease conservative lawmakers who said the government should not be involved in setting values.

Although the measure in its entirety ultimately failed for unrelated reasons, Gail Amidzich, Mr. Hall’s legislative director, said the mention of the commission marked progress for the concept.

“People are not afraid of the word ‘values’ anymore,’' Ms. Amidzich said. “When we first introduced this, people told us we were opening a can of worms.’'

‘Deeply Held Values’

Educators said the lack of controversy they seem to be facing now is due in part to the kinds of values they are proposing to teach.

Even officials in the Bush Administration acknowledge that the kind of “family values’’ issues being debated at the national level in the current Presidential campaign do not serve schools well.

“This is not about the kind of family we live in or which life style is better,’' Mr. Kearns said in his speech, which was delivered in his stead by Diane Ravitch, the department’s assistant secretary for educational research and improvement. “It’s about what each of us needs to do as individuals to give all of our children every opportunity to succeed in a rapidly changing world.’'

What is needed instead, Mr. Kearns and others have said, is an emphasis on the fundamental values upon which all Americans can agree.

Such values are typified in an agreement on values reached over the summer by 30 leaders of youth, education, ethics-education, and business groups.

In 24 hours of meetings sponsored by the Joseph & Edna Josephson Institue on Ethics, the group agreed on six core values: respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, caring, justice and fairness, and civic virtue and citizenship.

The document, known as the Aspen Declaration on Character Education, has since been widely circulated among education groups and state education departments. And the signers, which include such organizations as the Girl Scouts USA, the national 4H Clubs, and the National Education Association, also agreed to take steps to help promote the development of those values in young people.

Nearly identical values are also showing up on core-values lists in Maryland, Georgia, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and other states that have, in recent years, formed commissions to come to a consensus on the kinds of values that should be taught in schools.

About 40 percent of states now have a policy statement of some sort on values education, according to a 1991 University of Arizona study.

“There have always been, underpinning our differences, functioning like substrata in the soil, deeply held and commonly shared values in our society,’' said Mr. Edwards of the Ethics Resource Center.

Objections Still Raised

None of this is to say that some words and phrases do not continue to raise some objections.

In Georgia, for example, Jerry Roseberry, who oversees the state’s values-education initiative, said the school board’s list generated criticism from a few callers.

Some critics, for example, said they objected to the word, “patriotism,’' because they feared it implied blind obedience to authority. Other callers expressed concern that “tolerance’’ meant condoning such “nontraditional’’ life styles as homosexuality for their children.

“It’s mostly been either the far right or far left,’' Mr. Roseberry said. “But everyone seems to support what we’re doing.’'

Enlisting the help of all ideological and political extremes has been a goal of the “Character Education Partnership,’' the national coalition being formed to promote character development in young people.

The group is being launched by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and Princeton Project 55, a nonprofit service group formed by Princeton University alumni.

Its members now include mostly politically neutral or middle-of-the-road groups, including the American Association of School Administrators and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, but organizers say they hope to gain support from both the political right and left so that, by 1997, the group represents a broad spectrum of society.

“We’re meeting with some of the key constituencies now, and we’re generally finding that people are supportive,’' said Diane Berreth, the deputy executive director of the A.S.C.D. “There is a very broad consensus out there.’'

Changing Behavior

For schools and districts that are now turning to values education, a small number of studies are beginning to suggest their efforts are providing dividends.

One of the most extensive such studies to date was conducted at California elementary schools working with the Childhood Development Project, the institute that is working closely with Ms. O’Bryan’s school in Kentucky.

Researchers examined three schools in the program and compared them with three nonparticipating schools that matched their socioeconomic profiles.

At the program schools, they found, children and teachers rated their classrooms more favorably than those in other schools did. On measures of social problem-solving, students at the program schools were also more likely to consider the viewpoints of others and to select strategies to resolve problems that took those opinions into account.

Perhaps more convincing, however, the children at the program schools behaved better than their counterparts elsewhere. Independent observers who were sent to those classrooms--not knowing which schools were which--said students in the program schools were more considerate, helpful, and cooperative than the students in the other schools.

A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 1992 edition of Education Week as Election Talk Aside, Education in Values Gains Momentum


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