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August 10, 2001

Socialization Messages in American Primary Schools: An Organizational Analysis

Washington, DC--A widespread belief among the American public is that schools no longer “teach values” - or that they only teach values concerned with contemporary interests in cultural diversity. A new study of primary school classrooms, just published in the July 2001 issue of Sociology of Education, challenges this conventional wisdom by showing that values continue to permeate classroom and school life. The study, directed by Professor Steven Brint of the University of California, Riverside, is based on observations and interviews in 64 classrooms at 10 Southern California schools.

Brint and his coauthors, Mary F. Contreras and Michael T. Matthews, find that value messages are expressed in five distinct levels of classroom and school organization: in face-to-face interaction in the classroom, in the formal curriculum, in routine classroom practices, in school-wide programs, and in uses of public space. The primary value messages conveyed through face-to-face interaction in the classroom concern requirements for orderliness and hard work. However, both traditional virtues (such as responsibility, honesty, and fairness) and modern values (such as cultural diversity, variety and choice) were also expressed in face-to-face interaction, though less frequently. Value messages in the social studies and literature curriculum also mixed traditional and modern values, with many lessons extolling the values of cultural diversity and others extolling such traditional virtues as courage and persistence in the face of adversity. Routine classroom practices have begun to supplement traditional emphases on achievement and individualism with emphases on group activity, variety, choice and material rewards. School-wide programs and uses of public space attempt to control disorder, while encouraging all students to feel a strong sense of self-esteem and identification with the school.

The authors argue that the value messages found in today's schools are based on the organization's priorities for order, effort, and a sense of identification among all students. Stories and events celebrating cultural diversity can, for example, encourage students who might otherwise feel alienated to identify with the school, and they do not otherwise threaten the schools' organizational priorities. Programs, such as “character education,” that do not correspond as directly to the schools' organizational priorities do not have as high a chance of being adopted.

The authors hypothesize that new values enter the school in one of two ways: (1) through the mobilization of social groups whose preferences are ultimately legitimated by the state; and (2) through the appeal of practices that reflect changes in adult middle class lives. The first mechanism of change can be seen, for example, in the adoption of multicultural themes in the curriculum. The second mechanism of change can be seen in the popularity of group activities, activity centers, and rotations, reflecting the growing importance of work teams, variety and choice in adult lives in American society.

The authors conclude that problems of socialization in today's schools have little to do with the disappearance or displacement of traditional values teaching. Some traditional values remain important in the schools, while new values have been added that more accurately reflect the circumstances of adult lives today. A more serious problem, they argue, is the tendency of schools to reinterpret values along the lines suggested by organizational interest. Thus, value terms such as citizenship, self-esteem and respect are in widespread use in the schools, but their meaning is interpreted in ways that are biased by the schools' interests in maximizing order, minimizing trouble, and making all students feel a sense of identification with the school.

***Members of the media interested in obtaining the article can find it on the ASA homepage at www.asanet.org/page.ww?section=Publications&name=Publications. For further information or a copy of the July 2001 issue of the Sociology of Education, contact the American Sociological Association's Public Information Office at (202) 383-9005 x320; pubinfo@asanet.org.

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The American Sociological Association (www.asanet.org), founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.