Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 7

Resolving Conflicts Over Values

Aided by the state's 3Rs project, public school officials and conservative Christians have found common ground in a southern California school district.

My Monday morning began with a telephone call from an upset mother who complained bitterly to me, the assistant superintendent, about a new self-esteem program called Tribes at her 3rd grader's school. My son says that he can't tell me what was said in his class during "sharing" because it is "confidential." Why can't the schools just teach basic skills to our kids and leave the parenting up to us? Many of us feel that this program undermines us as parents.
The child was referring to Community Share Time, when students meet in small groups to share their feelings. (In another activity, called "Secrets," each student is asked to write down one or two secrets about himself or herself, which are then used in a small group activity.)
The mother said that several parents wanted to schedule a Parent Advisory Council meeting to talk about the Tribes program. Recognizing that this problem could very quickly mushroom into a serious issue affecting the entire district, I invited her to come in and talk about it the following day. In preparation for our meeting, I met with the school's principal and then with the superintendent, Dan Steele, to develop a strategy for dealing with this potential crisis.

Teach Self-Esteem?

Parental concerns about a self-esteem program came as no surprise to us, as such programs frequently are subject to public criticism. Parents are concerned that children may say something in the group sessions that other children may not be ready to hear, that children do not understand issues of confidentiality, and that the teacher is taking on the role of a therapist and is promoting a social agenda at the expense of instructional time.
Beyond concerns about Tribes, we, like many districts in southern California, have dealt with conflicts over a panoply of issues—school prayer, outcome-based education, multicultural education, sex education, Christmas concerts, evolution vs. creationism. Here in the Snowline Joint Unified School District in the town of Phelan, conservative Christians often bring these issues to the table. They feel that many times public educators do not recognize their point of view.
Because we are acutely aware of the damaging effects of negative publicity and an us-against-them climate, we have worked to prevent the district from splitting into opposing factions. Over the past six years, we have tried to establish common ground on the issues that divide us, while protecting the conscience of every student and parent. The California 3Rs project has provided the framework to do this.

First Amendment Principles

The 3Rs project is a joint endeavor of the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association and The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. It has been implemented through the work of Charles Haynes and Oliver Thomas of the center and, in our area, the San Bernardino County Schools Office.
The project's goal is threefold: (1) to prepare educators and community leaders to return to the guiding principles of the First Amendment—the three Rs of religious liberty: rights, responsibility, and respect—as they address issues of religious liberty and religious and ethnic diversity in their schools and communities; (2) to prepare educators to teach about religions and cultures in ways that are constitutionally permissible and educationally sound; and (3) to use these First Amendment principles in learning to live with cultural, racial, or religious differences and in mediating disputes that may arise.
Few would disagree with using First Amendment principles to solve conflict in public school settings, but one might legitimately ask, What do these principles look like in the day-to-day operations of a school district? How, for example, were they used to solve the conflict over the elementary school's self-esteem program?

The Principles Applied

We believe that everyone—even dissenting voices—has a right to be heard and respected and that, to find the common good, we must begin by acknowledging our deepest differences (hence the name of the 3Rs curriculum, "Living with Our Deepest Differences"). Thus, although we didn't believe that teachers were intentionally trying to take over the parents' role, we made a point of treating the parents' feelings with respect—with the clear understanding that it is they who ultimately have the responsibility for all aspects of their children's education.
After talking with the principal and meeting with the parent who had registered the complaint about Tribes, I agreed to schedule a Parent Advisory Council meeting to enable more parents to voice their concerns to the principal and one of the school's lead teachers. (Our school district established the council to give us feedback on potentially controversial issues.)
We were surprised to see more than 40 parents turn out for the meeting, many of them prepared to quote from articles, psychologists' reports, and other materials that were critical of Tribes. Parents were most concerned about the Community Share Time. The principal and a lead teacher tried—unsuccessfully—to answer questions and reassure them. Finally, we agreed to form a subcommittee composed of four teachers and four Parent Advisory Council members to address the concerns.

Ground Rules for Cooperation

I approached the subcommittee meeting with a good deal of apprehension. Teachers as well as parents had expressed anger and animosity. Teachers felt unfairly criticized in their attempts to help kids in every way possible. Parents were put off by what they saw as the school's defensiveness and lack of consideration for their feelings.
At the first meeting, I tried to get the entire group to agree to a set of common beliefs and working assumptions—ground rules for working together. These stated, for example, that: The working group agrees, by consensus, to all decisions; and publicly demonstrates support of agreed-upon outcomes. The working group believes that ...The primary role of education is the direct instruction of curriculum as defined by district and state. Attempts to build self-esteem and a constructive school climate, conflict resolution, and cooperative group skill instruction are appropriate to the extent that they improve student performance.Public educators are not professional counselors or trained therapists and should not function in these roles.The primary responsibility for teaching values rests with the family. Core civic values and virtues, as defined in the History/Social Science Framework, are taught within the school's curriculum.The school strengthens and supports the parent-child relationship, and encourages children to discuss with their parents all concerns.
We felt that if group members could not agree on basic beliefs about the role of parents, teachers, and the school, the likelihood of developing a proposal that would meet everyone's needs was slim. In the end, much to the mutual relief of parents and teachers, the group did agree. But not before these statements elicited some lively discussion.

Group Work on Tribes

As for Tribes, the parents were surprised to hear some of the teachers agreeing with their concerns about certain aspects of the program, such as the focus on "confidentiality" and the fact that some of the exercises look like therapy experiences. Sensing that there would be no significant disagreement, the teachers and parents paired up and reviewed the Tribes manual.
The group eliminated the philosophy sections, which present the author's views of social environment and human behavior, children's social development, and self-esteem as the key to life. They also eliminated some specific activities, such as "Secrets"; left some intact; and revised others. For example, they gave more structure to the Community Circle activity by dropping all of the negative sentence stems ("I feel angry when ...") and adding a statement advising teachers not to ask questions designed to have students reveal intimate information.
One of the parents prepared a draft of the revised manual and presented it to the subcommittee, where it was unanimously approved. The following week, subcommittee members presented the revision at a faculty meeting and at a PTA evening session. Although some still have reservations about the program, it continues to operate at the school under its new name: The 3 Rs—Respect, Responsibility, and Roadrunner Pride.

The Heritage School

In addition to revising Tribes, we have taken an even more dramatic step to accommodate the interests and values of our fairly large conservative constituency. In 1993, in response to ongoing conservative political activity, the superintendent met with staff and school board members to explore the possibility of supporting a "school of choice." A group of conservative parents was formed to look into the matter, and in the spring of 1994, they warily agreed to work with district staff. The result was the Heritage School, a K–6 school that opened last September with an enrollment of 317 students.
Although parents and staff members consider the school to be very successful, its evolution has not been problem-free. Suspicion, mistrust, frustration, and disappointment have plagued the process. On more than one occasion, some members of the school's Steering Committee have threatened to resign. Local newspapers have published letters to the editor criticizing the board for giving in to "far-right religious extremists," although letters of support have appeared as well. Some teachers and administrators have felt that district officials were not supporting them in what they saw as an us-against-them issue. (Obstacles to finding common ground are as formidable within the educational community as outside of it.)
District teachers began voluntarily transferring to the Heritage School in April 1995, a move accompanied in each case with some trauma at their home school. Nobody publicly supported a teacher's decision to transfer. Of the 317 Heritage students, 37 were not enrolled in any of Snowline's schools even though they lived within the attendance boundaries, and another 13 students transferred from schools outside of the district.
Despite the problems, the school does show how two groups of people who often have held adversarial positions can learn to trust each other and work together toward a common goal.

What Works

  1. Establish policies that (a) the school district's board of trustees clearly support and (b) define the role of parents and the community in public schools, the role of teaching about religion in schools, and the role of civic debate about controversial issues. As an outgrowth of our work with the 3Rs project, for example, our board has adopted guiding principles for dealing with conflicts in public education. These civic ground rules were developed by members of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center in collaboration with many religious and educational organizations. They address issues of religious liberty and public schools, the meaning of citizenship in a democratic society, the relationship between parents and schools, and the conduct of public disputes.
  2. Encourage the participation of every segment of the community, so that everyone takes responsibility for the education of our children. Our district has made a concerted effort to involve many constituencies by (1) making ongoing, systematic contact with community organizations (the Ministerial Council, the Parent Advisory Council, the PTA Council, Kiwanis and Lions Club, and Senior Citizens); (2) developing school-community task forces in response to particular issues, such as outcome-based education, drug prevention and intervention, and student performance standards; and (3) sponsoring activities designed to benefit the community, such as a continuing education program and a Senior Citizens Appreciation Day, when the county and the school district treat 300 senior citizens to a holiday dinner and student performance.
  3. Recognize parents as having the primary responsibility for the upbringing of their children, including the children's education. When our district's board of trustees agreed to conservative parents' request to form a traditional alternative school within the district, their decision represented a major reversal of common practice in public schools. But even parents who didn't opt for this approach have the ultimate responsibility for placing their children in our educational programs. They may request that their children be placed in any school and in any program they desire, with the exception of federal or state-mandated programs such as special education. This policy has caused difficulties among some staff members and administrators, but we uphold it.
  4. Avoid labels or educational jargon—two of the major obstacles to finding common ground. Experiences with outcome-based education and the formation of a traditional school have made us much more sensitive to the use of terms that trigger emotional responses, but that mean different things to different people. For example, a term often used in California Frameworks and a recognized goal among educators is "to teach students to think critically." Among some parents, this means "to teach children to criticize or question authority."Similarly, to many educators, the phrase "return to basic skills" suggests the old rote memorization of insignificant data, drill-and-kill learning, and the elimination of visual and performing arts, physical education, foreign language, and other curricular areas. For members of our Heritage School Steering Committee, however, the term simply means making sure that all students can read, write, and compute at an acceptable level.During discussions with members of the Outcome-Based Education Task Force and Traditional School Steering Committee, we found that we made the most progress when we deliberately avoided resorting to labels and instead described the classroom or the students' specific behavior. For example, by starting our discussions with, "What does a 'back-to-basics' classroom look like? What are students doing? What is the teacher doing?" we were able to move forward.
  5. Be aware that in attempting to find common ground, your own unrecognized prejudices may often surface. We began five years ago with the naive assumption that we would create an open, accepting environment and would help others recognize their narrow perspectives. Compromise and an effort to reflect the community's values and beliefs come easy when we agree with the community and the compromise! What is more difficult is to actually compromise and publicly support a different philosophy because we believe in the rights and responsibilities of parents in bringing up their own children.My initial resistance to compromise came in part from my unrecognized prejudices. I still struggle with the notion that I, as a professional educator, know what is best for all children. But I also have gained a different perspective on issues such as home schooling, governmental control, and parent choice in educational programs. In attempting to include and understand the many different voices in our community, I have had an opportunity to clarify and reexamine my own beliefs and values. For that I am grateful.
End Notes

1 J. Gibbs, (1987), Tribes: A Process for Social Development and Cooperative Learning, (Santa Rosa, Calif.: Center Source Publications).

2 A pamphlet on the principles, "Religious Liberty, Public Education, and the Future of American Democracy—A Statement of Principles," is available free of charge from The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, Vanderbilt University, 1207 18th Ave., South, Nashville, TN 37212.

Jan Vondra has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 196008.jpg
Working Constructively with Families
Go To Publication