WASHINGTON -- Hanging the Ten Commandments in classrooms as some in Congress propose, or requiring public elementary school students to say "Yes, Sir" and "Yes Ma'am" to teachers as a new law in Louisiana mandates -- these are some of the ways America's lawmakers are addressing a perceived lack of standards among young people. The focus on values arises from the recent spate of school violence.
But there has been a movement in U.S. schools since the late 1980's called "character education," a secular approach to imbedding ethics, values and morals into school curriculum.
Several states, including Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Virginia, require schools to incorporate character lessons in their curriculum. Esther Schaeffer, executive director of the Character Education Partnership (CEP), says some form of the curriculum is practiced in every state.
In 1995 the Department of Education began awarding grants for the "Partnerships in Character Education Pilot Project." The program, aimed at enhancing civic virtue and good citizenship, has grown to include 27 states -- Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Kentucky, South Carolina, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin.
In some schools, teachers spend time during homeroom discussing a value. In others, each month of the school year is dedicated to reminding youngsters of the need for structure and discipline in their lives. For example, October is responsibility month.
Character education has always been a part of the education system, Schaeffer said. The founding documents from nearly every state include some reference to preparing children morally and ethically as well as academically, she noted.
One of the most popular lesson plans being used by schools and community groups like the YMCA teaches respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, fairness, caring and citizenship to students.
It was developed by the Josephson Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to inculcating ethical standards in the classroom and the workplace. One of its major funders is the Johnson&Johnson Foundation.
"Before the '60s, it was a very natural to teach character in the classroom. You tried to have moral authority by virtue of being a teacher, by modeling good values and by correcting children when they were not being responsible or were being rude to one another." said former teacher Kevin Ryan, who heads the Boston University Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character.
In the 1960s, he said, schools began emphasizing "values clarification," which limited teachers to leading discussions about virtues without passing any views or judgements on to the students. Proponents of character education think the moral vacuum generated by the education fads of the '60s and '70s has created a climate for violence to grow.
Now the pendulum has clearly swung back again, but some conservatives contend that the character education taught in the schools currently emphasizes tolerance to the point that right and wrong lose their meaning.
Perry Glazner, an education analyst for Focus on the Family, a nonprofit ministry with a conservative tilt, criticizes what he calls a focus on "soft virtues" and says schools should steep students in the tougher principles of "responsibility, honesty, and forgiveness."