Illinois Chief Advances Plan for Teaching Values

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Copyright 1982 Springfield, Ill.--Illinois School Superintendent Donald G. Gill is moving ahead with plans to teach "values" in public schools despite fears voiced by critics--including some members of the State Board of Education--that his proposed program may create more problems than it solves.

The Illinois school chief's move comes at a time when school officials nationwide are searching for ways to respond to charges by parents and public officials that schools inculcate either no values at all, or dangerously "relativistic" and "humanistic" ones that the critics oppose. Some states and school systems have already reacted by adopting "values" curricula.

Mr. Gill last month presented his proposal--which would develop a procedure to help local school districts incorporate values education in their curricula--to the state board's policy and planning committee.

In his remarks to the committee, Mr. Gill noted that the states of California, Maryland, New York, and Ohio, among others, have undertaken similar efforts. But while he and his staff intend to draw on the experience of other states, the school chief said, his proposal is also "unique" in that it recommends that all decision-making--whether to teach values at all, what values to teach--be carried out at the local, rather than state, level.

"Never in this [plan] are we suggesting there should be a mandated program at the state level, to be forced on local districts," he emphasized.

George Pintar of the State Education Office explained that most states appear to have developed materials through special task forces, or outside professionals, before making them available to local school districts. "It's sort of a trickle-down approach, mandated from the legislature or the state education office," he said.

"But there is no state like Illinois," Mr. Pintar noted. "We are going first to the local districts to design the program the way they want it, to find out if there is a consensus. And then we'll see what can be done to implement it not only in the schools but in the community as well."

Mr. Gill said the impetus for his proposal came from "a perception ... that there is right now within this society, what is approaching a crisis in democratic, moral values that is reflected in the concern on the part of many people [about] the commitment of our young people to the ideals that are inherent in the democratic ideal."

His plan is to be carried out by the Illinois Curriculum Council, an advisory group that reports to him. With the aid of the state board's staff, the council will develop a "technical-assistance package" to be field-tested in selected, volunteer school districts. This package, Mr. Gill explained, would aid district officials in identifying a "common core of democratic values" within their communities, values that could become part of the classroom curriculum.

After the pilot testing has been completed, he told board members, he will return to the full board for permission to implement the program in interested districts by next fall.

Strong Misgivings

Some board members, however, have expressed strong misgivings about the superintendent's proposal.

"Each of us in government is very sensitive to our responsibility to students and to the people we represent," said G. Howard Thompson, chairman of the policy and planning committee.

"And when we come out with words like 'morals, values, and spiritual,' all of a sudden red flags start popping up."

To illustrate his concern, Mr. Thompson pointed to a resolution that had been considered by the White House Conference on Children.

The resolution, he noted, called for "Judeo-Christian values and ethics to replace the humanistic values presently permeating our schools'' and suggested that "values-clarification materials and techniques should be eliminated from the schools."

"This is the door we open when we start talking about these things,'' Mr. Thompson said.

Hugh Brown, another board member, was more blunt in his assessment of the proposal.

"I have several grave concerns about this," Mr. Brown told the committee, "and feel your group [the curriculum council] should be informed this does not have the universal acceptance of the board."

Mr. Brown said he believed many of the principles identified by the superintendent as a basis for values education--belief in liberty, equality, and the separation of church and state--"are already being taught in the schools."

He also criticized the lack of specific information contained in a paper presented to the committee and questioned the cost of the program in terms of staff time and dollars to be allocated to the project.

Another board member, Arlene Zielke, also voiced reservations. "I wonder why this has to be a state effort," she said. "Whatever values are identified within a given community, that is where it has to happen.

"Why can't we continue, as a state board, to raise concerns and to let the local districts carry out programs as they see the need? I see a lack of need for a state effort," she concluded.

A couple of board members, however, expressed qualified support for the project.

One of them, Louis Mervis, suggested the plan could serve to strengthen the position of the local officials who wish to teach values but who are fearful "because the first thing they see is someone's lawyer.''

"If we are very careful, given the dangers that may come forward, we may reinforce the backbone of people who really want to do something," Mr. Mervis said.

"I think we've got to take a stand. Maybe we've got to take a chance, as long as we know where we're going and we've removed the danger areas I saw in the initial rhetoric."

The "initial rhetoric" of the proposal was what prompted criticism, not only from some state board members but from parts of the Illinois education community as well.

In speeches first advancing his plan, Mr. Gill urged a reaffirmation of "moral-spiritual values" and hinted that he wanted to stage a series of statewide forums to discuss, identify, and decide what values should be taught in schools.

In reaction to the school chief's remarks, educators and officials from around the state almost immediately began to raise questions: What values did the superintendent have in mind? Who would participate in the forums? Should schools be in the business of instilling certain values in students?

"You can find democratic values--respect for the individual, respect for property--that people can agree on," said Harold P. Seamon, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards. "But I assume that is a fundamental part of the school curriculum now. When you mention 'religious' or 'spiritual' in any way, that throws up the red flags right away."

His chief concern, Mr. Seamon said, is that "you give a lot of far-out people a platform. Most districts are not too enthusiastic about [the open forums] because of the potential for turmoil in the community."

In response to this initial criticism, Mr. Gill restructured his proposal, dropping the statewide forums to ensure the effort would not be dominated by what he termed "the idiot fringe."

His plan, he stressed to state-board members, is aimed at setting up "a process that will allow local school districts, through an appropriate consensual approach, to be able to determine what of these democratic values, which are most certainly built upon moral assumptions, can we fully agree upon within the community and the school, and to use that as the basis for the development of programs of instruction at the local level."

Vol. 01, Issue 17

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