Should Schools Teach Values or is that the Parents’ Responsibility?

by Rick on September 17, 2013

 I never let my schooling interfere with my education.

–Mark Twain

 Parents just took another unfair hit from people who don’t understand education and the role schools play in education.

Recently in the Huffington post Tim Elmore reported that “According to Joan McVitte, president of the Association of School and College Leaders, ‘to instill values and responsibility’ now has to be a top priority. The Harvard Graduate School of Education shared a recent poll indicating that 70 percent of public school parents want schools to teach ‘strict standards of right and wrong,’ and 85 percent want schools to teach values.” He used this as a launching pad for an article entitled “Teachers: Your Job Just Got More Important.”

DSC00166Seriously? Teacher’s jobs have suddenly changed? Teachers have to work harder because parents have fallen down on their job? There was a time when teachers didn’t have to teach morality, values and “behavior?” That’s like saying that there was a time when car manufacturers didn’t have to worry about wheels but now research shows people want their cars to come direct from the factory with wheels.

How have teachers done without values and morality all this time? Teachers who expect they won’t have to teach “behavior” don’t understand their job. You can’t teach another person anything without teaching the whole person. Teaching morality and values is done in the process of building relationships with students, and a culture of learning in the school, not as a separate “add on,” and certainly not as a special course or program in the school.

When the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a student at Morehouse College in 1947, he wrote a paper entitled “The Purpose of Education,” the central thesis of which is: “We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” He was by no means the first to say this. In fact he was standing on the shoulders of people like Maria Montessori (whose birthday in 1870 was celebrated last month) and John Dewey (born in 1859) and is by no means the last. Howard Gardner identifies interpersonal and intrapersonal as two critical intelligences, and Daniel Goleman’s research shows that emotional intelligence is more important than IQ in predicting success.

But these five people are just a few famous ones. All educators know this, and so do we all. So why do we so often talk as if we don’t? Maybe because it requires changing how “things are done.”

The culture of the school, itself, is the main vehicle for teaching young people how to behave—at least as important as the home or the church. Church may preach morality and values, and the home wires kids’ brains to be predisposed to a set of behaviors, but school culture is necessarily the primary delivery system for learning behavior, and school culture is hard to change from its original 19th Century factory model.

Yes, being responsible for social and emotional development does, indeed, make teaching important, but there was no time when an educator didn’t have to teach the whole child. In fact educating social intelligence has always been the most important value-added of a teacher. Who-I-am has always been what teachers actually teach—intentionally or not. I would never hire a teacher who didn’t understand that.

Any good teacher starts off the year by going over the behavioral expectations of a class, and smart teachers ask the students themselves to help generate a list of the disciplines required to create an environment conducive to learning. Together they generate a list of behaviors that will help everyone maximize learning. Depending on the age of the students the list may look something like: Listen when others are talking


Speak up, but don’t talk too much

Help others out

Wait your turn

Look out for each other


This is how educators “teach” responsibility and respect. Educators know that students already have a sense of what respectful and responsible behavior looks like, and know that the class will be a year-long program in practicing and getting better and better at taking responsibility and being respectful of others.

What’s this baloney about how teachers now have one more thing to do that they never had to do before? Whoever entertains that notion doesn’t understand education, and whoever talks that way is perpetuating an antiquated notion of schooling that never was educational.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Anne Schar September 17, 2013 at 10:41 pm

My daughter’s school has implemented a school wide curriculum to teach values. While I think that this is lovely what the curriculum does is make my 6 year old child feel inadequate.

Each month a value is highlighted. Her father and I are asked to write a complete sentence expressing how our child exemplifies this value. Then at the end of the month several children in the class are glorified (given a bracelet) for truly “living the value”. But everyone gets a bracelet by the end of the year.

So really, is the school rewarding those who best exemplify the value or are they just making sure that everyone gets a bracelet?

Yet, each month my daughter, who has no idea that she will eventually get a bracelet, returns home crying because she is not good enough.

Now I have to either encourage her to live the value better thus emphasizing her lack of the value (which, frankly she might need some work on sharing.,..) or I have to sit and praise her and go over how she is good enough it’s just well…well what?

The forced values curriculum makes me crazy.

I do believe, as a teacher, that values and ethics are inherent to the classroom. I am sorry that my child has to go through this curriculum. It cheapens something valuable.

danijela September 18, 2013 at 1:46 am

First of all, I’m sorry to see that so many parents obviously don’t take time to teach their children values. Also, I think that many of the parents are not aware what their children are thought in school, and there are so many things that don’t belong there. Parents should start to get more involved in their children’s lives and in the life of the school.

No, school should not teach children values through such a curriculum. And yes, school contributes to teaching values, but not through a curriculum, but through teachers living those values.

Sharon Duarte September 18, 2013 at 4:10 am

Baloney indeed…I am sitting here shaking my head in disbelief.
And the “Values Curriculum” makes me cringe, and I do believe I would protest it.
Back in the day..corporal punishment was used to deter bad behaviour. I understand Florida is fighting to have it back in Schools and Parents back the proposal..what?
It smacks of desperation doesn’t it? and Schools are grasping to find a way to be disciplinarian and need the backing of a Parent for the “Green Light” so to speak. 70 and 85% that is high. So do parents feel desperate too?
If, as Montessori stressed, all Schools, Educators, Parents and Students modelled, taught and practiced Grace and Courtesy the need for teaching (read enforcing) “strict standards of right and wrong” would be completely unnecessary.

Rick September 18, 2013 at 4:41 am

Oh, Anne Marie, This is such an important story. I want the education profession to hear it. This is what happens when adults try to “teach” kids things what kids naturally WANT to learn; i.e. how to get along with others, how to be yourself and have good relationships at the same time, how to belong to a group, how to matter in a group, how not to be embarrassed or ostracized. ALL kids care about these things more than anything else. So do all humans. I haven’t noticed that the adults have it mastered; who should be teaching whom?
I have an idea: What if we all learn together, make mistakes together, learn from conflict and from each other, and make sure that love and forgiveness reign? As you know, a teacher’s job is to create this foundation for learning, not to start handing out bracelets so that we all know who the good kids are and who the bad kids are. I would say teachers who engage in this activity need to activate their empathy and learn better social skills.

Whenever adults who are not in the classroom decide (probably rightly) that children need to be learning something, it’s fine for them to spend some time talking about it and defining what a good goal should be. The next move, however, is not to add it to the curriculum and tell the teachers they have to teach it.
Look at the culture of the school! Culture is the delivery system for education. The children know it in their bones and they are doing their best to dope out how things work in their increasingly complex social world.

Gary September 20, 2013 at 11:29 am

Our whole culture teaches values all the time and that’s what has me worried. However, unless we work to change the culture, whether of family, school or community, kids will pick up what they see and hear whether at home, at school or in the media. The latter worries me the most on behalf of our future. But, I still have faith that good will prevail over evil and that good guys do not finish last nor the one with the most toys wins.

Marty Dutcher September 22, 2013 at 7:01 pm

I enjoyed reading the thoughtful responses to your post, Rick. Anne’s was particularly poignant, and I like your response about parents, children, and teachers all learning together. I kept being reminded of my many, many conversations with young adults over the years. It appears that we don’t start learning about the world outside of school until we get outside of school. This happened to be true for me as well. We don’t find our passions, our callings, our “genius”, or our values, until we get away from teaching environments. That’s perhaps a bit strong, and I don’t really mean we don’t learning anything valuable in school. But one problem is that we as parents and educators automatically, in our thinking process, compare “teaching environments” against the “absence of teaching environments”, rather than compare “teaching environments” with “learning environments.” We have had too few conversations about specifically what learning environments consist of to grasp the concept as easily as we grip the familiar teaching environment. I cringe when I think about having our educational system start teaching parents how to parent, as well as how to teach values (though I suppose there are circumstances that are worse, and thus replacing them with teaching environments would be an improvement). We invented “values” because they were useful and satisfying in a collaborative social environment. And that is where they can still be found. Telling someone how good chocolate is just isn’t the same as eating it.

Rogier Gregoire Ed.D September 23, 2013 at 5:31 am

It seems the article conflates a number of different qualities without adequately defining those differences. More to the point is the simple question that focuses on the subjective reality “Who am I?” Which the author inverts to a didactic objective question “Who I am” The first is an effort at self definition while the second is really a declarative posed as a question. The confusion is subtle but revealing the first is a search for personal definition while the second suggests an imposed identity – who I should be. A didactic pedagogy imposes a common or accepted value system the seach for ones self is a search for ones character.

Sabbey September 23, 2013 at 8:43 pm

I said the same thing at back to school night, teaching character education has always been part of the elementary school world, nothing new there. The distinction for us this year is we have parent events to strengthen our partnership. One is to come and discuss the book, Blessings of a Skinned Knee with faculty and admin facilitating the discussion.

John S Green September 26, 2013 at 10:20 am

Modeling ethics and honesty begins at home by parents and older siblings. It continues in school by teachers, aides, and classmates.

Social media is not an influence on young children, but the reaction and interaction by parents and educators is important.

To Anne’s dilemma with the bracelet fiasco, I would push back and ask that her daughter not participate (It would have been better to do it immediately). The school has denigrated the value system by offering everyone another ‘participation trophy’, and worse, they hand them out without a moral compass. A case of an extremely poor plan, executed even worse.

Rick September 26, 2013 at 7:14 pm

I love: “without a moral compass.”

Erin Choi February 22, 2016 at 4:41 pm

I think that teachers should start teaching character and moral through curriculum. I personally think that all schools teach character and moral indirectly, but if teachers began to teach these things directly, our society would advance. Also, as students approach the 20th century, technology and social medias and slowly erasing moral and character, so if these things are not taught at all, what will happen?

In Anne’s story I agree that the school has denigrated the value system, but the curriculum was not set up. The bracelets as awards are just like normal certificates that students can get by having a good attitude. Yes, they should not have awarded students with material objects, but they have the right idea.

People need to start seeing moral and character as an obligatory thing to be taught or all interests and friendships will fade as relationships and things people love are developed upon character and moral. Again, these things are fading, even right now, and without moral and character a intelligent person would be corrupt. Although moral and character are difficult to teach directly, why not start finding the best methods to do so now?

Rick February 22, 2016 at 9:09 pm

Erin, thank you for your thoughtful comments. You are right that values can be taught directly. The cultural context and the pedagogical techniques will determine if they reinforce the desired behavior or if the lessons will be taken as hypocrisy.

lallchandlatchman April 26, 2016 at 2:16 pm

Despite of changing roles in society’ home needs to instill moral values before and during early school years.No other institution can teach moral values easier, cheaper and more effective than the parents home .

Tokyo February 19, 2017 at 9:56 pm

Rewards for children living values in the classroom, is inappropriate. As an educator I always ask myself and my teachers, what is my/your intention in doing this? Giving rewards for doing things that are socially inherent, misses the entire point of socialisation and emotionalisation of children. Granted I am a preschool teacher and can be creative when doing this. I always tell parents that my goal is to teach children about life……with of course the values that I think are important having been born in the late 50’s. Most teachers work in schools with children from many cultures so we need to be careful which values we teach and how we teach them, without being disrespectful of a culture. Morals are not universal.

Ayushi October 5, 2017 at 6:41 am

It cannot be an either, or question. Values are definitely key but at the same time absolving either of the parties of responsibility is not right. School promote social interaction of kids – that is the only place kid meets other kids and learn many core values. We cannot ignore that fact. Similarly we at believe that values is something that parents do shape a lot given the time spent with the kid. Parent influence learning a lot just by the sheer time /amount of exposure. Check out more interesting perspectives on

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