In the 1960s and 1970s, when social change came in radical spurts, a number of approaches to teaching values in the public schools gained favor only to be thrown out and replaced by something new. Teachers were understandably confused. Most eventually shied away from teaching values at all.
Since the mid-1980s, a number of Maryland school districts have been struggling with ways to teach values in the classroom again. Howard County is the latest to step forward with a far-reaching plan to begin teaching a set of 18 "core values" throughout its public schools this year.
The values Howard school officials have endorsed are basic ones, with many of them stemming from ideas promulgated in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They include an appreciation of diversity, commitment to learning, democracy, honesty and respect for self. They correctly stay away from veering into religious doctrines.
But officials face a difficult task in changing decades of tradition, which has told teachers that values education is best avoided in the classroom. Now that the school system has given its assent to this kind of teaching, some classroom instructors will still be hesitant, while others will eagerly pick up the charge.
Officials will need to monitor closely what happens in the classroom. While the list of core values may seem simple, the interpretations and feelings that teachers bring to them can vary widely. A rudimentary concept like justice can mean something entirely different to different people.
To school officials' credit, an extensive survey was conducted in 1990 to gauge reaction to the idea of teaching the 18 core values. The results were supportive of the system's goals. That at least indicates some level of community consensus.
Even so, not everyone will be pleased. Religious organizations in particular may feel Howard's program does not go far enough. But considering how different the Howard program is from the "values-neutral" approach of years past, this new thrust is squarely on the right track.