Should Values be Taught in Public Schools?

©2000 Ted Trissler

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What is worth knowing about values?


Rarely in the public school curriculum is direct attention given to the examination of values, ideals, and goals - even though the value systems which students develop are directly related to the kind of people they are and will be and to the quality of relationships they form. Therefore, values should be taught in public schools in order to develop the entire student.

In contrast, students are influenced by many different outlets. Their values are shaped by parents, peers, television, music, and other external sources. Why then should it be the responsibility of public schools to teach our youth values?

This paper was motivated by my desire as a special educator to analyze the controversy concerning the issue of teaching values to our students. Several theories and opinions are presented, along with facts relating to values education. Although a conclusion is not drawn, the author hopes that the reader will be presented with enough information to draw his or her own educated conclusion.



Every day, every one of us meets life situations which call for thought, opinion-making, decision-making, and action. Some of our experiences are familiar, some novel, some are casual, and some are of extreme importance. Everything we do, every decision we make, and every course of action we take is based on our consciously or unconsciously held set of values. This paper examines the advantages and disadvantages of teaching values in our public schools in an attempt to determine if they should be acquired through teaching, indoctrination, or other means. For definition purposes, values consist of "a set of personal principles and standards" (Encarta), This definition can be further expanded to include "the established ideals of life (i.e., objects, customs, ways of acting, etc.) that the members of a given society regard as desirable" (The World Book Dictionary). When we speak of values we are referring to things or ideas that people hold dear. We may value many different things, from ice-cream to honesty. Some things we may value may be of moral signi ficance-- some may not.

Throughout our history as a nation the issue of teaching values in schools has been a recurring matter of concern and controversy to the American people under two sets of historical conditions. The first of these conditions has been when the American people have felt that our national unity was threatened by increasing diversity. This perspective on teaching values has been most salient during times of urbanization and immigration on. This concern has been most often expressed in the language of teaching traditional cultural values, or alternatively, teaching civic virtue. The second condition under which the teaching of values has been a matter of great national concern and controversy has arisen when, due to rapidly changing nature of contemporary life, the primary socializing agencies, most notably the family and communities, have been perceived as ineffective. This concern has been most often expressed in the language of teaching personal values, or alternatively promoting character development. These two sets of conditions have usually occurred side by side.

According to Michelle Dumas, it is useful to view the development of values education in our history from the perspective of five periods. For most of the period prior to the 1830's, moral instruction had been placed in schools merely to assist the church in insuring the salvation of youth. During the second historical, 1830 to the turn of the twentieth century, an important focus on the schools became a place where immigrants were to be socialized into a common national culture. The remaining three significant periods of interest in values education are found in 20th century. These periods of interest are the character education movement of the 1920's and 1930's, the values and moral education movement of the 1970's and 1980's and finally, the character education movement of the 1990 's (Dumas). Values have even become an issue in the new millenium. Presidential candidate, George W. Bush, recently stated that "we have a budget surplus but a deficit in values" (Bush).

Before examining the controversy I feel it appropriate to provide examples of values issues. Let's take a look at a few questions that have the potential of eliciting different opinions based on our own values.

1. Do you think that children should be allowed to watch more than two hours of television a day?

2. Do you feel that condoms should be available in our high schools?

3. Is merit pay a good thing?

4. Should we have an unlimited speed limit on our highways?

Students, no less than adults, face problems and decisions every day of their lives. Students, too, ponder over what and how to think, believe, and behave. "So often what goes on in the classroom is irrelevant and remote from the real things that are going on in students' lives-their daily encounter with friends, with strangers, with peers, with authority figures, and with social and academic tasks. Young people are being asked and are asking themselves important, personal, and theoretical questions that will lead them to important decisions and actions" (Simon 13).

What role, if any, should the public school system have in teaching values to children? Human values form the basis of character and personality. "Many children do not know the difference between right and wrong. It is this imbalance that has led to many of the world's problems today" (Alderman). Additionally, the children and youth of today are confronted by many more choices than in previous generations. They are surrounded by a bewildering array of choices than in previous generations through the advancement of technology and the complexity of society. Traditionally, adults have motivated children with a sincere desire to have the younger generation lead happy and productive lives. Adults have learned a certain set of values that they attempt to transfer to their children. According to Sidney Simon, Leland Howe, and Howard Kirschenbaum, experts in values' education, one of the problems with this approach is that it is becoming increasingly less effective. The direct transfer of values works only when there is complete consistency about what constitutes "desirable" values. But consider the youth of today. Parents offer one set of "shoulds" and "should nots." The church often suggests another. The peer group offers another. Hollywood and magazines, a fourth. The President of the United States, a fifth. Being bombarded from so many different directions makes it nearly impossible for one person to bestow his or her own set of values on another (Simon 16).

There has been quite a bit written about the effects of television on values. It is presented that television molds and shapes the thought and conduct of those who watch it. Since watching television is a fairly passive activity, some believe that we tend to become what we perceive on the television screen. If we watch violent shows, we become violent. If the shows are sexist or racist, the viewer becomes sexist and racist. Henry Perkinson takes issue with this notion. He presents an example of a rock. A rock becomes what it is simply as a result of external forces that impinge upon it. But human beings are not rocks; they do have the ability to make choices, judgements, decisions, and criticisms about what life-or television-presents to them (Perkinson 154). If this logic holds true, one might argue that trying to teach a child values is a waste of time since the child will make his or her own choices, judgements, decisions, and criticisms anyway. In terms of modem day society we have an explosion of technological factors with the advent of computers and the internet. The influence that the intemet has on developing children's values is quite powerful. The number of web sites created by various causes ranging from animal rights to gang propaganda is quite prevalent on the intemet and has fairly significant influence on developing sets of values. What about modem day music?

When I was in school there was little concern over censoring music lyrics and placing parental warnings on CD's. This is not to say that we didn't have any controversies; however, not to the degree that we do today.

Some adults maintain a rationale that no one values' system is right for everyone. People have to forge their own set of values. So they just let their children do and think what they want without intervening in any way, and eventually everything will turn out all right. This hands-off approach to values can lead to conflict between parent expectations and children's beliefs. If the values significantly contrast one another, turmoil may prevail.

Modeling is another approach in transmitting values. This is accomplished when people present themselves as attractive models that live by a certain set of values. As discussed earlier, the problem with this is that children are exposed to so many different models to emulate.

A recent article on local education in the Marietta (Georgia) Daily Journal by Claudine Williams suggests that values should once again be taught in public education. Williams says it well, so I won't bother trying to say it any differently.

"Cobb and Marietta school officials see a direct link", she says, "between the day when values ceased to be taught in the classroom and a gradual decline in civility in our nation's schools."

"That day, they say, arrived in 1962 when the Supreme Court banned organized prayer in schools. Local school officials now say that ruling created a network of teachers and administrators paranoid of the law, willing to abandon any attempt to teach 'values' to avoid crossing the line."

The grossly mistaken assumption was that churches would pick up the slack left by the schools when the latter discontinued their teaching of values. But, only half the population attends church. Similarly, the other institutions of the socialization process, the community and the family, have suffered. There are now large and growing sectors of our society that do not attend church, live in bad neighborhoods, and grow up in dysfunctional families. Without values education in our schools, those children will receive no values training at all. Theodore Roosevelt once said, "To educate a person in mind and not in values or morals is to educate a menace to society." Claudine's article has identified the problem. It continues to describe a solution.

"There is little argument that today's public schools scarcely resemble their counterparts 35 or 40 years ago. Today's teachers deal with fighting, drugs, guns and disrespect almost daily."

"An assessment of the situation has prompted the state and local school systems to look at ways to promote old-fashioned citizenship and values in school, as well as at home. "

"Beginning this school year, Cobb and Marietta City Schools will join forces to promote student citizenship and good character - one value at a time. Each week, students in both Cobb and Marietta school districts will promote a word describing a certain character trait or good behavior. The word for the first week, beginning Sept. 2. is 'self respect.' Students might hear a morning announcement about the meaning of self respect, read a novel or story that touches on the trait, or be rewarded for demonstrating it."

"All schools will come up with a curriculum that emphasizes the character traits. Each week, the Marietta Daily Journal will print the word, its definition and tips parents can use to teach the character trait at home. The PTA is preparing the tips for parents. The Marietta Daily Journal will also include a message from the superintendent or a community member that discusses the message."

Many of us have concerned ourselves with the crime rate (especially juvenile crime), the deterioration of the family, rising welfare dependency, declining test scores, and other symptoms of a society in decline. "The erosion of character that has occurred since 1962 is a root cause of all these social ills. We applaud the Cobb and Marietta school systems, the PTA's, and the Marietta Daily Journal for doing something about it and doing it in a way that is a credit to them all" (Williams).

Does this mean that we should in fact be teaching values in our public schools? The author poses some pretty good arguments for doing so. Alfie Kohn states that the question of teaching values in school is about as sensible as asking whether our bodies should be allowed to contain bacteria. Just as humans are teeming with microorganisms, so schools are teeming with values. We can't see the former because they're too small; we don't notice the latter because they're too similar to the values of the culture at large. Whether or not we deliberately adopt a values or moral education program, we are always teaching values. Even people who insist that they are opposed to values in school usually mean that the are opposed to values other than their own, and that raises the inevitable question: Which values, or whose, should we teach? It has already become a cliche to reply that this question should not trouble us because while there may be disagreement on certain issues, such as abortion, all of us can agree on a list of basic values that children ought to have. Therefore, schools can vigorously and unapologetically set about teaching all of those values (Kohn).

But not so fast. Look at the way values education programs have been designed and you will discover, alongside such unobjectionable items as "fairness" or "honesty," an emphasis on values that are, again, distinctly conservative - and, to that extent, potentially controversial. To begin with, the famous Protestant work ethic is prominent: children should learn to "work hard and complete their tasks well and promptly, even when they do not want to," says Kevin Ryan (16). Who benefits when people are trained not to question the value of what they have been told to do but simply to accept it?

What about conflicting values and messages that are being sent to students from their parents and teachers? We have DARE programs in our schools that teach "right" from "wrong" in terms of drugs and alcohol. "We educate students not to smoke cigarettes; however, many students live in homes where cigarette smoking is acceptable. Which value is correct - the one taught in school or the value demonstrated at home" (D'Alfonso)?

Maybe we have no business teaching values in school. We as educators differ on our own sets of values. How can we be assured that we will not let them interfere or bias the teaching of values in school? Edward Rozycki and Gary Clabaugh suggest that even though there may be an agreement on the meanings of important terms and also an agreement on what the facts are, there may be disagreement on values and their relative priority. In an example concerning "being too soft on criminals", the authors point out that two sides may value retribution when a criminal act occurs; however, one side may regard the facts about American crime and punishment as evidence of spineless permissiveness. The other side may interpret the same facts as evidence of misguided cruelty that will only produce more vicious criminals (Clabaugh 8-9).


What about the issue of responsibility? "Responsibility figures into disputes as issues of guilt, fault, or blame" (Clabaugh 115). Therefore, should public schools undertake this type of challenge. A very high degree of success or failure would rest on the shoulders of school administration. According to Chester Finn, teachers have a significant impact on students; however, we need to keep in mind that children only spend 9% of their life from birth through the age of eighteen in school. That is a fairly small percentage of time to teach values. Yet schools keep getting such additional duties thrust onto them (rarely with any more time in children's lives) and they always agree to try. The sad fact is that they cannot solve these problems alone, and their willingness to try may let others off the hook. Spreading their efforts across too many fronts may also leave them effective on none. Maybe we need to include parents far more directly and intimately into the work of values education. This is commonly assumed to be the toughest nut of all to crack, and it may well be. Parents are the single most important influence in the 91 percent of children's lives spent outside school. They aren't the only influence on what happens during that time, of course, but they are the strongest (Finn 53).

According to Strike, Haller, and Soltis, it is generally wrong for one person to impose his or her values on another. If I like to ski, travel, and eat pizza, no one has a right to tell me that I must prefer running, and eating steak. It is a freedom of choice; therefore, one's values should not be forced upon another person. The authors go on to say that values express our choices as to our own good. We have a right to choose our own values and to pursue them; however, people should not be free to do whatever they want simply because they have chosen to do so based on their values. This is evident if we consider that one's values may be damaging or hurtful to an individual or society. They point out that we should not confuse values' judgements with moral judgements. They feel that it is to be desired that people will come to accept their moral obligations freely because they understand that the reasons for them are persuasive. On the other hand, they feel that it is often perfectly reasonable to coerce individuals who do not freely accept their moral obligations. The authors summarize their feelings by stating that "the injunction not to impose one's values on others is misplaced if it means that we can never enforce moral obligations" (Strike 38).

If we teach values, when are we supposed to do it? Do we take time away from math or social studies? Teachers complain about the amount of curriculum that has to be taught as it is. What kind of training program would be put in place to train teachers on how to teach values? There is also the cost factor. Any program on values would require funding. Will the benefits outweigh the cost of implementing such a program. Somebody will ultimately be responsible for the expenditures. He or she will become a hero if the values curriculum is successful, but he or she also runs the risk of taking the heat if the program fails.

Are values that important that they should be taught in the classroom. Maybe we should make time to teach values. Wouldn't society be better if our youth did not have conflicting values? We could incorporate values lessons into any curriculum. After all, why couldn't we teach values as part of a social studies unit on the holocaust?

In a paper posted on the internet, Edward Rozycki states that certain conditions enable the expression of a value. They are knowledge, ability, opportunity, and priority. If one of these conditions is lacking, a value may not be expressed in behavior. He goes on to say that schools do teach values in the form of day-in-day-out routines and practices that often conflict with the official rationalizations they are given (Rozycki).

Walter Feinberg and Jonas Soltis discuss the concept of a "hidden curriculum" within our schools. This curriculum helps to explain the indirect ways in which schooling serves to socialize students into the values and norms of modern society. This "hidden curriculum" was studied among children in five different schools from different social-class backgrounds. What was found is that the "hidden curriculum" presented certain conceptions of work, ownership, rules, and authority? The contrast between the working-class and affluent upper-middle-school provided a startlingly different set of values of rules, authority, and property. The working-class students were taught how to participate in the world of work at the lower end of the production process. They were taught how to follow rules that they did not necessarily understand, to engage in work that had little meaning for them, and to follow without question the orders issued by an external authority. By contrast, students in the upper-middle-class school were taught how to engage in the world of work at a relatively high level. They were taught how to work independently, to judge for themselves whether a rule meets the larger purpose of the task at hand, to manipulate symbols to their own perceived needs, to exercise internal discipline, and to negotiate with authority on an equal basis (Feinberg 60-61).

How many of our schools have hidden curriculums that teach values and other morals based on the populations and our own pre-conceived notions? We may not even be cognizant of the fact that we are bestowing values upon our youth. Should we be doing this or should we be more perceptive and disciplined in our teaching responsibility? We have examined pros and cons of teaching values in our schools. This is a difficult decision that should not be taken lightly.

An approach posed by Simon, Howe, and Kirschenbaurn is one of values clarification. It is not a new approach by any means-rather it tries to help young people answer some of the values related questions by building their own values system. Through activities developed for teachers, the approach encourages students to expand and clarify their own unique set of values. Unlike other theoretical approaches to values, the authors are not concerned with the content of people's values, but the process of i,aluing. The focus is on how people come to hold certain beliefs and establish certain behavior patterns (Simon 23). Although a relatively old model, valuing according to Louis Raths is composed of seven subprocesses:

Prizing one's beliefs and behaviors:

1. Prizing and cherishing 2. Publicly affirming, when appropriate

Choosing one's beliefs and behaviors:

3. Choosing from alternatives

4. Choosing after consideration of consequences

5. Choosing freely

Acting on one's beliefs:

6. Acting

7. Acting with a pattern, consistency, and repetition

Thus, the values' clarification approach does not aim to instill any particular set of values. Rather, the goal is to help students utilize the above seven processes of valuing in their own lives; to apply these valuing processes to already formed beliefs and behavior patterns and to those still emerging according to Louis Raths, Merrill Harmin, and Sidney Simon (Raths 4-16). This values clarification approach; however, has been scrutinized and criticized by many; however, it was developed to minimize the controversy of whether or not to teach values in the public schools. In reality, opponents to values clarification have yet to provide any significant alternatives.

We have examined the facts of teaching values in our schools. We have also looked at both sides of the argument. There are definite advantages to teaching values in school. If parents are unable or unwilling to instill a set of values in their children, the school is the next best place to do so. If we decide to teach values in public schools what areas should we address? There are some areas that would be better addressed than other's because of their potential for confusion, conflicts, or controversy. A few examples are as follows:

Values Topics/issues that Should be
Taught in Public School
Values Topics/Issues that Should NOT be Taught in Public School
Friendship Politics
Responsibility Culture (art, music, literature, etc.)
Peace Personal tastes (clothes, hair style, etc.)
Truth Religion

Incorporating values' lessons into the curriculum in order to develop well-rounded children is just one more aspect of teaching the child. On the other hand, is the school the right place for teaching values? Aren't teachers suppose to teach academics? Who is going to train the teachers how to teach values, and who is to say that the values being taught are the right ones? Maybe an approach of helping students clarify and develop their own values is the best method that could be used in our public schools. I suppose that the real solution to the question is in itself a values' judgement.

Works Cited

Alderman, Carole. Why is it important to teach values as well as normal school subjects Internet,, 2000.

Bush, George W. Television Speech, ABC Television Network, 21 July 2000.

Clabaugh, Gary and Edward Rozycki. Analyzing Controversy. Guilford, CT: Dushkin/McGraw Hill, 1997.

D'Alfonso, Charles. Critique of Should Values be Taught in Public Schools? by Ted Trissler, July 9, 2000.

Dumas, Michelle. Values and Character Education in Public Schools. Internet,, 1997.

Encarta World English Dictionary On-line "Value System," 1999-2000.

Feinberg, Walter and Jonas Soltis. School and Society. New York: Teachers College Press, 1998.

Finn, Chester E. We Must Take Charge: Our Schools and Our Future. New York: The Free Press, 1993.

Kohn, Alfie. "How Not to Teach Values." Phi Delta Kappan Feb. 1997: 429439.

Perkinson, Henry. The Imperfect Panacea-American Faith in Education. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1995.

Raths, Louis, Merrill Harmin, and Sidney Simon. Values and Teaghip& Columbus,OH: Charles E. Merrill. 1966.

Rozycki,Edward. Values Education or Values Confusion? 1999.

Ryan,Kevin. "Mining the Values of Curriculum," Educational Leadershi Nov. 1993.

Simon, Sidney, Leland Howe, and Howard Kirschenbaum. Values Clarification. Sunderland, MA: Values Press, 1978.

Strike, Kenneth, Emil Haller, and Jonas Soltis. The Ethics of School Administration. New York: Teachers College Press, 1998.

Williams, Claudine Renina. "Restoring the Teaching of Values and Morals." Marietta Daily Journal 26 April 1999: 2.

World Book Dictionary, Chicago: Doubleday and Company, 1989.