What We Value:
A Survey of One Community’s Beliefs 

Carol Montgomery and Linda Plevyak

The escalation of crimes of violence in schools makes it imperative that teachers address the subject of values and ethics in the classroom. Educators, parents, and government all seem to be relying, fairly or not, on schools to produce morally responsible citizens. But because all citizens do not share the exact same moral beliefs, this is a sensitive topic and must be approached with caution in a free society.

Is it realistic to expect students to inherit the values of their parents, as they have historically? Or would society be improved if virtues, values, and moral reasoning were taught to students in schools? If so, parents and educators would have to agree on a core set of basic beliefs that could be taught in the classroom and emphasized at home as well. The purpose of this study was to determine if there is a set of common values and beliefs that parents and educators agree should be taught in elementary classrooms today.


Is Values Education Needed?

The deliberate and formal teaching of morals and values was common in America and had widespread support until the 1930s.1 Concern over the freedom of religion and speech led to a de-emphasis on the teaching of morals and personal values in public schools. But today, many elementary teachers now find themselves spending more of their time dealing with behavior problems, rather than teaching required subject matter. This raises the question as to whether public schools should take a more assertive role in the moral (or character) development of their students.

Social changes, such as economic hardship, the breakdown of traditional family structure, and the influence of the media, have all added to the confusion over how children learn values and which ones they learn.2 Certainly, the fact that many children in the United States are living below the poverty line, and the problems associated with poverty (like drug use, unemployment, homelessness, and mental illness) get reflected in misbehavior and moral confusion. Even in middle-class families, one or both parents are working long hours, which leaves less time for active involvement in a child’s education. Open School Nights and PTA meetings are scarcely attended in many communities.

In national surveys, parents rank as top educational concerns safety, order, and knowledge of the basic subjects. Values education is not ranked as a top concern.3 But students who acquire habits of personal responsibility and ethical decision making become better students in traditional subjects and better citizens in their communities.4 When children commit to the values embraced by the school community, they become more engaged in learning, as well as more thoughtful toward peers and teachers.5


Survey Background

It seems reasonable to believe that values education could be the result of a partnership between administrators, teachers, parents, and the community at the local level. In order to better understand the thoughts of educators and parents about which (if any) values and beliefs should be taught in elementary classrooms, we gave a values education survey to parents and teachers at Frank Long Elementary School in Hinesville, Georgia, in the fall of 1988. The survey asked parents to rank, in order of impor“ance, 18 rights, freedoms, and responsibilities, in questionnaire form. It also asked parents to indicate which ones ought to be taught in school.6 The survey was sent home with 132 first graders and was also given to 42 teachers. Participants had eight days to return the survey.

The first graders at Frank Long Elementary are ethnically diverse. This group is 51% African American, 27% Caucasian, 8% African-Caucasian, 6% Hispanic, 6% Asian, and 2% Other. Teachers at Frank Long Elementary are 78% Caucasian, 17% African American, 2% Asian, and 3% Other. Participants of the study were not asked to identity race on the survey. The diversity of Frank Long Elementary’s first grade population is representative of the school and community at large.


Survey Results

The survey was returned by 112 (85%) of the parents and 37 (88%) of the teachers. Only two parents and one teacher said that values should not be taught in elementary classrooms. Forty-two percent of parents mentioned that, because children spend more waking hours at school than they do with their own families, teachers should share in the teaching of values and beliefs.

Eight choices of values and beliefs to be taught in elementary schools were agreed upon by parents and teachers, although the ranking within those eight differed (Tables 1 and 2). Those choices were

1. Respect the properties of others

2. Respect the rights of others

3. Be honest

4. Demonstrate self-control

5. Respect human life,

6. Be tolerant,

7. Be compassionate, and

8. Work for the common good.

The survey also invited parents and teachers to make written comments (side bar).

Parent and teacher attitudes toward freedom of worship differed significantly. Fifty-six percent of parents believed that freedom of worship should be emphasized, but only 33% of teachers indicated this as a priority (Tables 1 and 2).

Thus, parents and teachers do seem to agree on a core set of values and beliefs that could be taught in an elementary classroom. Legislators who mandate curriculum would do well to carefully define such a consensus (or suggest that local communities explore such questions) before any formal curriculum is put into place.


Under Consideration

Many questions, however, were not raised in our survey. How should the elementary curriculum be modified to accommodate the teaching of values? How can teachers and parents cooperate to ensure that positive values and beliefs are being taught to students? What methods should be used to teach these values and beliefs? Should they be taught through fastidious lessons, by behavior management techniques, by some combination of both, or by some other methods? How should such learning be assessed? These are some of the issues that probably should be discussed in any school that is considering a curriculum of moral education. G



1. E. S. Adler and P. Foster, “A Literature-based Approach to Teaching Values to Adolescents: Does it Work?” Adolescence 32, no. 126 (1997): 275-286; Sherry L. Field, “Character Education: A Historical Perspective,” The Educational Forum 60, no. 2 (1996): 118-123; D. R. Carlin, “Teaching Values in School,” Commonwealth 123, no. 3 (1996): 7-8.

2. J. Traiger, “The Time is Now: Reflections on Moral Education,” Education 7 (3) (1995): 432-434; C. Tyree, M. Vance, and M. McJunkin, “Teaching Values to Promote a More Caring World: A Moral Dilemma for the 21st Century,” Journal for a Just and Caring Education 3, no. 2 (1997): 215-226.

3. J. Johnson and J. Immerwahr, “Teaching Values: What Does the Public Really Want?” USA Today 124 (2602): 90-91.

4. B. D. Brooks and M. E. Kann, “The Schoo#146;s Role in Weaving Values Back Into the Fabric of Society,” Education Digest 58, no. 8 (1993): 67-71.

5. S. Paintal, “Among Friends: Classrooms Where Caring and Learning Prevail,” Childhood Education 74, no. 3 (1998): 180.

6. The rights, responsibilities, and freedoms included in this inquiry were taken from the Report of the National Council for the Social Studies Task Force on Scope and Sequence, “In Search of a Scope and Sequence for Social Studies,” Social Education 53, no. 6 (1989): 376-385.

7. In the art and communication exercise shown in the photos, students practice sharing materials and giving constructive criticism and praise. First, students share ideas and materials to create geometric designs. Then they present their final projects to the class. Students in the audience discuss what they like about each picture, what they might have added or deleted (had that picture been theirs to edit), and then they estimate how may shapes were used to create the picture.


About the Authors

Carol Montgomery is a first grade teacher at Frank Long Elementary School in Hinesville, Georgia. She has an M.A. in Early Childhood Education from Georgia Southern University and is pursuing an Education Specialist degree from there. Linda Plevyak is an assistant professor in the Early Childhood and Reading Department at the Georgia Southern University in Statesboro.

A Sample of Parent Responses

“These issues should not be forced upon the children at school. However, I feel they should be introduced and made known to them. The parents have the ultimate responsibility to teach values at home. These days it looks as if the majority of homes are teaching NO values; maybe the school system could help.”


“A lot of parents don’t have that much time with their children because they have to work. School is one place each child can go to and learn the values that can make him or her a ‘better’ person.”

“The more education that is taught to our children in the one place they spend at least 85% of their time, school, the more our children will grow and benefit in life in the long run.”

“I believe values should be taught at home by the parents. Since the child spends at least 6 hours out of a day in school, values should be reinforced and taught in the schools also.”

“All values should be taught not only at school, but at home to ensure equality in the child’s future.”

“I feel that every adult in a child’s life has an obligation of modeling responsible behavior. But because our society is producing more and more youths who are not acting responsible, I feel that these values need to be stressed in elementary school.”

“It is very clear that some parents are not teaching kids this. It is a shame that some kids only get a touch of this in school. Teachers are greatly underpaid.”


A Sample of Teacher Responses

“Since these values are not being taught at home or by example in society, it has fallen to the education system.”

“I don’t know if we should be teaching responsibility or reinforcing it! The foundation should be implanted by the family.”


“I truly feel this must be taught at school because parents and television do not teach the children. I think this is the only way to make an impact on the behaviors we see in our classrooms.”


“I think many of these (values) are covered in our day-to-day rules in the classroom. However, it would be nice to focus all attention on these individual values, to leave open for discussion, and dismiss misconceptions.”


“Values should be stressed at the elementary level to help students cope with decisions they will encounter in their middle grades. Being able to make responsible decisions will play a big role in their success.”



Table 1. Parents rank responsibilities, freedoms, and rights in order of importance.


98% - Respect the property of others

97% - Respect the rights of others

96% - Be honest

95% - Demonstrate self-control

95% - Respect human life

90% - Be tolerant

88% - Be compassionate

86% - Work for the common good

72% - Right to justice

71% - Right to equality of opportunity

69% - Right to privacy

68% - Freedom of thought

64% - Freedom of expression

64% - Right to security

63% - Right to liberty

61% - Right to dignity

56% - Freedom of worship

53% - Freedom of assembly

Table 2. Teachers rank responsibilities, freedoms, and rights in order of importance.

100% - Respect the rights of others

100% - Be honest

97% - Demonstrate self-control

97% - Respect the property of others

81% - Respect human life

81% - Be tolerant

81% - Be compassionate

72% - Work for the common good

67% - Freedom of thought

67% - Right to equality of opportunity

64% - Right to privacy

58% - Freedom of expression

58% - Right to security

47% - Right to justice

44% - Right to dignity

42% - Right to liberty

33% - Freedom of worship

33% - Freedom of assembly