Values: They’re the third rail of public education. You can talk about preparing students for college or career or learning basic skills, or you can talk about teaching dancing or drumming or DNA. Just don’t talk about teaching values.

I can understand people’s skittishness around teaching values. In a school system with a million children from literally hundreds of ethnic groups and cultural backgrounds, any inkling of values education starts to sound like one group imposing its views on another or, worse, like fundamentalism creeping into our curriculum. Or take the worry a step further: in a public school system where many of our students are the descendants of former slaves and others are considered “illegal” because of how they came to the country, delving into the question of values can be a minefield.

So, the common thinking goes, leave the values to the churches and focus on the basics in public schools. If only it were that simple.

Whether we admit it or not, we are in fact constantly teaching values. When a teacher calls on a student, she is teaching a value. When another scolds a student in the hallway, he is teaching values. Whether you ask a student to study for a test, help out a peer, or be quiet and listen, you are teaching values. The question is not whether we will teach values. Inevitably, we do. The question is how we will teach them.

Some of the most successful schools I have ever had the privilege of working with stood out most of all in the fact that they were willing—even eager—to explicitly and emphatically talk about values. They didn’t simply write values down in a mission statement and leave them at the door, but rather they made them part of the discussion that leadership had with staff and staff had with students.

At first, this may sound like a frightening cult or religious education. It was neither. First of all, the values they emphasized were ones that cut across various religions and are, frankly, central to success in the United States. They felt far more secular than religious. These values included perseverance, courage, and respect.

Second, the way they emphasized values was not cultlike but, rather, quite the opposite: everyone was encouraged to critically reflect on the values. Teachers were asked to reflect on values during staff development and think about what these actually look like in practice. Students, in turn, would read articles about current events and question the values at play, or they would nominate peers to receive awards for exhibiting particular values and reflect on why.

The third key thing that struck me about this discussion of values was that it was done in a way that encouraged internalized accountability without external quantification. Students did not get grades on their perseverance and courage. They never received a report card that highlighted effort and resilience. But they did talk about these values constantly through daily, weekly, and monthly systems built into what the school did: awards, reflection journals, classroom posters, and more.

For transfer school students who have struggled in school, building the skills and knowledge that lead to success is critical; yet, often I see transfer schools so focused on academic performance that they neglect to discuss the values that support that performance. If we can admit that values are critical to academic success—not only admit it but discuss it openly and thoughtfully in our schools and integrate it explicitly into the practices at our schools—we will help students to have more meaningful, successful, and happy lives when they step outside the school doors. If we are teaching values anyway, we might as well teach them effectively.