“Schools and teachers don’t get to choose whether they teach values. Schools and teachers are always affecting values by, for example, what they decide to praise and punish, how fairly they balance different students’ needs, how they define students’ obligations to each other. The question isn’t whether schools teach values, it’s whether they choose to be deliberate about it.”
—Richard Weissbourd, Harvard Graduate School of Education and Kennedy School of Government
Children grow up in families, and also in schools. Their experiences in schools help shape the adults they will become and the world they will build. As a nation, what can be more important to us than schools that support the healthy development of our young people? Why then, do so many of our schools still look and feel impersonal, industrial, and disconnected?
In the name of their secular and economic tradition, our schools have a hands-off orientation to values. Morals, beliefs, and rites of passage happen at home. Proofs, pronouns, and bubble sheets happen at school. Therein lies the problem: We seem to believe that it is possible to teach young people without imparting values. We pretend that we can ask young people to check their identities at the school door to be “students” in their classrooms. But we cannot. And while many teachers yearn to nurture their students’ emerging values, our education system discourages it.
As a society, do we really believe that our schools exist solely to develop students’ intellect and increase their future earnings? Surely we must know that this isn’t all that schools can do. Schools can help develop young people’s emerging humanity: their values, their purpose, and their place in the world. Do we teach only the students, or do we also teach the developing people? How we answer this question informs what we do inside schools, what we deem worth learning, and what we measure.
Many of our schools today end up ignoring values, attempting to teach values but ending up teaching only “good behavior,” or nurturing values only by working against a system that makes it hard to do so. We would like to advocate for a new way: that we be as deliberate about how young people develop values-based identities as we are about the academic standards they meet.
If you read this and worry, “What will happen if we trust schools to shape values?,” then consider what happens when we don’t. In trying to stay hands-off, schools narrow what they teach, focus on the test, and seldom ask students to engage in their communities or connect their learning to their worlds. By purposefully detaching values from learning, schools send implicit but clear messages to students: Value individual success and achievement gain. Earn status. Do not take responsibility for improving our world, as least as a byproduct of your schooling.
Ethics for All Students
It is unfair to say that this is true of all schools. Certainly, there are schools across the country that embrace their role in developing the ethical and civic identities of the young people they serve. But educators in these schools are often doing this in spite of, not because of, the educational system we have established in this country. And, what’s more, many of them are in private or elite public schools. As a society, it’s as if we’ve decided that the only children who are worthy or capable of learning to be ethical citizens and conscientious stewards are those who can pay for it, or who are lucky enough to have teachers and administrators who work around the system.
As educators, citizens, and parents, we are troubled by this. So, what can we do?
• Leverage the Common Core State Standards. Across the nation, teachers, administrators, and families are deciding how to teach to new national standards. While the common core should not prescribe values, communities can come together to imagine how their young people can meet standards by engaging in their communities and studying global issues.
• Evaluate school climate. When students feel safe and supported in school, they are more successful on many fronts, including academics. It is not enough to measure achievement; we should also evaluate safety, support, and positive values in our schools.
• Make “Community Capstones” part of every state’s graduation requirements. Community Capstones are culminating projects based in both academic and community service-based learning. Several states (Connecticut and Rhode Island, for example) already require students to complete academic capstone projects. States might adopt and adapt this model, requiring young people to complete community-based capstones to graduate.
There is no learning without values. There is no teaching without values. Our attempt to avoid school-based values is misguided because, as educators, every decision that we make sends young people a message about who they can be and what role they can play in the world. Thus, what we do not teach becomes as important as what we do, and we leave young people confused and unsupported as they try to figure out what they care about, and who they are. As educators and as a society, we must embrace the potential in all of our students—not just as learners, but also as young people with voices, visions, and values.