Public Schools' Elusive "Nice Values".

Author:Mccluskey, Neal

"... Why [is it] so hard for public schools to inculcate values? Short answer: we just do not agree on them, and a lot of people fear what their kids might be taught."

IT IS BACK-TO-SCHOOL time, and that means in addition to lots of yellow buses, we will be seeing the annual spate of education polls. For instance, the 2019 Phi Delta Kappa poll furnishes some interesting information illustrating why it is so hard for public schools to inculcate values. Short answer: we just do not agree on them, and a lot of people fear what their kids might be taught.

This edition of the survey--PDK is an organization of professional educators--has a special focus on teaching religion, civics, and other values-based subjects, as well as presenting regular fare such as grades for public schools and lists of perceived "biggest problems." Taken as a whole, it reveals that most people want values taught, but there is major disagreement about what values specifically, and the possible consequences of teaching them. It is what we see play out in districts nationwide.

Start with civics. A central promise since the earliest days of American public schooling advocacy was that "common" schools would form good citizens but, to the extent that involves things like teaching how government works, it is not happening. One reason may be that, while those who are supposed to govern public schools--"the people"--overwhelmingly agree that civics should be taught, they do not think it is nearly as important as other things.

When asked what "the main goal of a public school education" should be, 25% of respondents replied "to prepare students to be good citizens"; 21%, "to prepare students for work"; and 53%, "to prepare students academically." The results for parents were similar. The next problem is, if you do teach civics, what do you include? Some 27% of respondents, and 29% of parents, were at least "somewhat" concerned that "civics classes might include political content" with which they would disagree, with 35% of Republicans feeling that way. That is less stark than one might expect if one thinks of such heated showdowns as those in Michigan and Texas over the core word "democracy," but having more than one in four people fearing political bias means there is a good chance of polarizing disagreement in lots of schools, making even basic civics something of a minefield to avoid.

Even more precarious is religion, but many Americans are religious, and we have seen several...

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