Teaching Right From Wrong

By Debra Viadero — January 01, 1993 9 min read

Even before the Republicans began to make the term “family values” a part of their rhetoric during last year’s presidential campaign, 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. In the past five years, however, that has changed, and some signs now suggest that the movement to return values to the 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 character in young people.
  • Leaders from 30 national education, business, youth, religious, and human-services organizations met last summer and hammered out the first-ever agreement among those groups on character education.
  • 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.

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

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 last August. Critics say the messages at the convention espoused a narrow view of morality and alienated homosexuals, feminists, and welfare recipients, among others.

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 lifestyles, 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,” Lickona says, “everybody wants kids to develop values like respect, responsibility, trustworthiness.”

Despite the more accepting climate for values education and the greater interest in it 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 forethought, considerable effort, and a high degree of caution.

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. Among leading industrial nations, for example, the United States has the highest murder rate for 15- to 24-year-olds. Other studies indicate that 1 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 acquaintances.

There is also the growing sense that the institutions once thought of as the primary transmitters of values—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 in 1991, according to Kevin Ryan, director of the Center for the Advancement of Ethics at Boston University.

Last year’s riots in Los Angeles called further attention to the ethical crisis. Many Americans were appalled to see residents looting their neighborhood stores and beating up on innocent bystanders but were particularly alarmed to hear children express no remorse for those deeds.

Many school districts, Ryan notes, are moving to provide values education, but the problem 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,” says Ryan. “They’re worried about the American Civil Liberties Union, administrators, and parents coming in.” Moreover, he notes, many teachers educated in the 1960s and 1970s 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 OK,” says Lickona.

But sometimes, proponents of values education argue, educators simply have to tell pupils the difference between right and wrong. “You don’t have ethical debates with 1st graders or kindergartners because they don’t know ethics,” says Patrick McCarthy, 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.”

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 Nicomachean Ethics, and correspondence between T.S. Eliot and Groucho Marx.

This training 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,” says Charles Breiner, the school’s principal.

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,” explains Rebecca O’Bryan, a 5th grade teacher at the school. Within the school’s whole language approach to teaching reading, O’Bryan 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.

A basic premise of these approaches is the notion that values education must pervade all aspects of school life. Not understanding that this kind of comprehensive approach is necessary, many educators wrongly assume that they are teaching values already. 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?’” says Edward Wynne, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Of course, they’re going to say, ‘Yes.’ You have to quantify it somehow.” One way to do that, Wynne suggests, is to require students to do community service to graduate, as the Maryland school board moved to do last year.

What is surprising to some educators and policymakers who are venturing into values education is the lack of controversy they now encounter. They say this is due in part to the kinds of values they are proposing to teach, values that are typified in the agreement reached last summer by the 30 youth, education, business, and ethics-education groups.

In 24 hours of meetings sponsored by the Joseph & Edna Josephson Institute on Ethics, the groups 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 been widely circulated. And the signers, which include the Girl Scouts, the 4-H Club, and the National Education Association, have agreed to take steps to help promote the development of those values in young people.

Nearly identical values are also showing up on lists in Georgia, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and other states that have, in recent years, formed commissions to reach a consensus on the kinds of values that should be taught in schools. About 40 percent of states now have some sort of policy statement on values education.

None of this is to say that some words and phrases do not continue to raise objections. In Georgia, for example, the school board’s list generated criticism from a few callers. Some critics objected to the word “patriotism” because they feared it implied blind obedience to authority. Other callers expressed concern that “tolerance” meant condoning such “nontraditional” lifestyles as homosexuality for their children. “It’s mostly been either the far right or far left,” says Jerry Roseberry, who oversees the state’s values education initiative. “But everyone seems to support what we’re doing.”

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 affiliated with the Childhood Development Project, the institute that is working closely with 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.

But perhaps more convincing, 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 January 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as Teaching Right From Wrong