Public Schools and Religion

Our local elementary school recently started using a new program called The Leader In Me.  After learning more about it, I became concerned that the curriculum was built on religious (specifically Mormon) principles, and that The Covey Institute is using this curriculum to spread the word of the Church of Latter Day Saints to children.  I will admit that I could be wrong.  I could just be paranoid.  I don’t know for sure what the Covey Institute’s objectives are.  But many things about this program feel wrong, and even cult-like to me.   And I can’t shake the feeling that Franklin Covey is doing his best to make our children and families comfortable with Mormon principles without our knowing he’s doing it.

The 7 Habits Are Rooted in Religion

The Leader In Me is based on Steven Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.  Stephen Covey was a Mormon.  That alone is fine.  People of all sorts of different religions write books and teach children, and in my mind that’s a good thing.  My concern is not with Covey’s religious beliefs.  My concern is that The Leader In Me is teaching religious beliefs to kids in public schools.

The Divine Center

The 7 Habits first appeared in Stephen Covey’s book entitled “The Divine Center: Why We Need a Life Centered on God and Christ and How We Attain It”.  This is clearly a religious text.  In addition to introducing the 7 Habits in this book, Covey also says that he has discovered how to communicate Mormon truths to non-Mormons by simply changing his vocabulary. He writes, “I have found in speaking to various non-LDS groups in different cultures that we can teach and testify of many gospel principles if we are careful in selecting words which carry our meaning but come from their experience and frame of mind” (Divine Center, p. 240).

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

To reach non-LDS groups, Stephen Covey then wrote “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.  In this book, Covey refers to “natural laws in the human dimension that are just as real, just as unchanging and unarguably ‘there’ as laws such as gravity are in the physical dimension” (7 Habits, p. 32). What Covey does not say in 7 Habits, that he does state in The Divine Center, is that these laws of nature are the teachings of the LDS Church which “enable the individual personality to grow and develop until eventually he can become like his Father in Heaven” (Divine Center, p. 246). For example, The Divine Center reveals that Covey derives his principle of being pro-active rather than reactive from Mormon scriptures. (Compare The Divine Center, p. 176, with 7 Habits, pp. 70-77.)

Covey also teaches about “the upward spiral” in 7 Habits. [7 Habits, pp. 304-06.] He writes, “Renewal is the principle — and the process — that empowers us to move on an upward spiral of growth and change, of continuous improvement.” [7 Habits, p. 304.] The Divine Center reveals that he is referring to the Mormon principle of “eternal progression.” [Divine Center, pp. 180, 207, 213.] He claims that this “constantly expanding upward-spiraling movement in the development of the human soul… constitutes the road to perfection.” [Divine Center, p. 207.] Covey explains that “we eventually can become literally like Heavenly Father; we can become perfect, just as he and our elder brother, Jesus Christ, are perfect.” [Divine Center, p. 77.] Covey teaches that we have within us “the eternal seed of godhood.” [Divine Center, p. 206.] Following the correct map found in the LDS Church “liberates man” and “releases his divine potentialities.” [Divine Center, p. 246.] Covey’s belief that people have a limitless potential is derived from the Mormon doctrine that people are gods in embryo. [Divine Center, p. 164-66.] He writes, “Since we truly are sons and daughters of God the Eternal Father, we possess in embryo his nature and potential.” [Divine Center, p. 166.]

The 7 Habits themselves seem innocuous.  Being proactive, putting first things first, thinking win-win, these all appear like good, solid advice.  But I can’t ignore the religious origins of these ideas, and the thinking and beliefs of the man who presents them as “natural laws”.  In Covey’s mind, The Leader In Me program, which is used in public schools, is about teaching our children to “become literally like Heavenly Father; we can become perfect, just as he and our elder brother, Jesus Christ, are perfect”.

And before anyone goes off on me for targeting Mormons, I would be equally as upset if this program had its roots in ANY religious doctrine.  My concern is not that this material is rooted in Mormonism, it’s that it’s rooted in religion.  Public schools are not the place for any thinly veiled religious principles to be taught, be they Catholic, Islamic, Mormon, Christian, Jewish, or Buddhist.

I encourage you pick any religion that is vastly different from your own, and imagine that a man from that religion created a book for children that represents the principles of his religion, without using any actual religious language.  Then imagine that man also said that he finds using non-religious terminology is a good way to help people of other religions accept his gospel principles.  Then consider that the book is turned into a 3 year curriculum for your school that is used on a daily basis in every classroom.  It alters the terminology your kids use, and parents are encouraged to use the same terminology at home.  The school is also encouraged to share this program and its terminology with other schools.  Tell me you wouldn’t be worried.


11 thoughts on “Public Schools and Religion

  1. Thank you! I am dealing with this very same issue at my child’s school. I am deeply concerned about the religious roots of this program. I am currently looking for ways to stop this program at our school but have not found the silver bullet. I found your blog very encouraging and hope others actually start to see this program for what it really is; a slyly worded and skillfully marketed faith based self-help remedy.

    • I hope that you are able to find a way to stop the program at your school. I’m very happy to say that at least for now, our school is no longer using this curriculum, though other schools in our district are still using it. In case it helps, here are few things that we did that may have made a difference. The program was brought into our school in a non-traditional way (and since some of us distrust the Covey Institute greatly, we wondered if this is an intentional ploy on their part). We discovered that the materials did not go through the same review process that other curriculum goes through before being put into the school. We were able to raise a formal complaint with our district’s materials review committee and subject the program to stronger scrutiny. That alone did not get the program removed, but it did raise visibility of our concerns. We also showed up at multiple school board meetings and each time raised concerns about the program. In the end, we weren’t told why the program was removed from our school, just that the teachers voted not to continue it. The implication was that those of us raising a stink made things so miserable that they decided it was easier to get rid of the program than continue in the antagonistic environment. It worries us, though, that other schools in our district are still moving forward with this program. Honestly that’s a big reason I created this blog – in case the program every circles back to our school again.

  2. It sounds like you are saying that the devil is in the details. If you were to extract the basic methods without the religious references, would you still object to the ideas of the “Seven Habits” being presented to your children? Note: I don’t mean to imply that I support Covey’s ideas or business model, which I think has the potential to become exploitative of impressionable children. However, I think it would be helpful to children to have a simple structured way of thinking about goal oriented behavior such as the “Seven Habits.” What would you recommend as an alternative?

  3. My concerns are so varied that it’s hard to say which parts are ok, and which aren’t. I believe a lighter weight approach to the 7 Habits in schools could be successful. I won’t argue that there isn’t anything good in them – especially the conflict negotiation strategies (though our school already uses Kelso’s Choices, which work very well too). My concerns in order from biggest to least are probably the marketing pyramid scheme, the lack of independent research about the program, the fact that it wasn’t created by educators, the cost of the program (and what is necessarily given up by the school to pay that cost), followed by the religious origins and the cult-like feel of the program once it was running in our school. The 7 Habits themselves are really not the problem. As for what I would recommend as an alternative, I’m not an educator either :). I will say, though, that the ills schools seem to be trying to fix with this program would be better addressed with more funding, higher teacher salaries, and smaller classroom sizes. I trust our teachers to do the right things when they have the right support. People are unhappy with our schools, but we don’t spend the money needed to fix it. I’m pretty sure the Leader in Me fad isn’t the answer.

    • More funding, higher salaries and smaller class size. I’ve heard this solution promoted for 40 years. It takes money my friend lots of money. Are you willing to pay twice as much in taxes? If so, now get the rest of the population to go along. Money is not the answer. It does not work. Research supports this soundly. There is strong evidence that when teacher salaries were rising in the 70’s and 80’s, achievement fell. Look it up. There are plenty of successful schools doing it with less. Let’s forget the simplistic answers.

  4. It’s sad to think that this great program is catching so much negative vibes.i think if you fully understood the greatness that this prgm teaches no one in their right mine would reject it. It’s not religion they teach its morals and values.

  5. I teach in a Leader In Me school…unfortunately. Of course I say that with a big asterisk because I am not taking any steps to leave my school nor do I want to leave because I love our students and I believe in them, and in truth, I believe that is where I am supposed to be.

    The unfortunate part, though, is that they decided to implement LIM. From the first time it was discussed the hair on the back of my neck stood up. We had a voluntary meeting to discuss whether we wanted to consider this program or not so I attended simply to find out more about was all new to me, so I had no clue if I’d be pro or con. This meeting, however, consisted who I now refer to as the kool aid drinkers and they weren’t discussing possibilities, they were discussing how to convince everyone to on board and how unroll the program the following year. The decision was already made.

    When I spoke up wondering what, exactly, the program was and asking if the decision was made I was honestly jumped on with a ton of, “What’s wrong with it?” or “What part don’t you think you like?” etc. To make it scarier, no less than four people from the meeting (mind you there were only probably 10 there) sought me out within 48 hours to “just talk” about it.

    I honestly didn’t know what hit me, but I did know that I was keeping my mouth closed because anything I said WOULD be used against me, so that I did.

    I went through all of the 7 Habits training as a staff, multiple LIM trainings as a school. Each and every LIM/Covey thing I’ve encountered has made my stomach lurch.

    Let me say, with 100% clarity, that there is not one of the habits that I have a problem with. In fact I’ve been teaching those principles with my daily routines, lessons, and issues that come up with for years. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all lived by those principles?

    It’s the implementation that I always had issue with. I could never pinpoint it until the last few days when I just happened to google “LIM cult” and started to find so many articles. Is it really a cult? I’m not an extremist so I have a hard time jumping on that bandwagon.

    Because I’m not an extremist, though, I also have a hard time jumping on the LIM bandwagon. The ritualistic manner in which we are trained, personally, and the same way we’re supposed to present the program makes me ill. I literally saw a presenter reprimanded for not presenting a slide in a power point presentation properly…apparently the appropriate script was not “memorized.” Really?

    Our school is plastered with LIM propaganda in every nook and cranny. We are REQUIRED to do a “Leadership Day” and some other “bring the community in” event twice a year. Why? So we can become a lighthouse school. Why? Um…haven’t quite figured that one out yet. Yes, we get to say we are lighthouse. I could swear I heard someone say we’d get a break in the implementation fees, but that has never been mentioned again and if it ever comes up that idea is quickly shot down.

    These are just two small examples. LIM has invaded, and it appears as though most people have taken great, big, giant pitchers of the kool aid.

    Then there is the money. Yes, 40-60k to get it started was on the mark. The yearly fee after that I don’t know, but I also don’t know why we have to pay ONE CENT more. Everyone in my building has been teaching it for a few years now. Guess what, folks, we don’t need to spend money to teach any of this, but if you wanted to pay for the training then let us on our own I could at least understand. Once trained, however, we don’t need the LIM gods looking down on us. I receive a 2 hour training session on our new literacy unit and am expected to implement it with no further training or follow up…and I can. We all can. The hours of training I’ve received for Covey training or LIM, which would have been curriculum training otherwise, is upward of 50 hours! What do I know now that I didn’t know when we started? Nothing other than the jargon. And guess what? I’m thinking that everything I learned could have been learned by simply reading the LIM book which is available on Amazon for under $14.

    Where did we get the money from? We found a way to make it work with our Title One funds. Yup, the money intended to improve scores of our lowest achieving students is being spent (I’d estimate around 80% of it, but I don’t know for certain) to become a lighthouse school.

    Honestly, IF we could get our lowest students to start to live the habits they probably would start to improve, but they aren’t living them and they aren’t improving by leaps and bounds. They are improving by about the same amount as they were before we implemented. If it wasn’t enough pre LIM why is it enough now?

    Our other students aren’t living them either. In all my years teaching I have only seen a decline in “responsibility” in the students and their parents. We have some shining stars that can recite the habits and live them, but really, they would be living them without LIM…they just wouldn’t know the terms. My other students can recite them too. They know what they “should” be doing, but they aren’t doing it. Now, however, they care less than they ever did (I feel that’s a statement on society more than the implementation of LIM).

    I have wonderful families and parents of my students, but yes, some of them struggle with responsibility as well. I am expected to solve everything, allow for excuses when a student doesn’t live up to expectations, etc. Our families aren’t changing either.

    Oh, did I mention we offer training for parents too? Guess who shows up? The parents who are already living the habits without the training. We’re not affecting our families either. Some know the terms, are proud that their kids are “becoming leaders” but they don’t know what it was like before LIM. Their students would have been “becoming leaders” anyhow. That’s what happens when kids grow up. They mature. They learn. They know more than they did. Our students are no more leaders now than they were before. We have our stars, our middle of the road kids, and our students that really struggle…just like we always did.

    Our leadership day is right around the corner for the year. We’ll spend hours in our classrooms creating wonderful LIM projects to hang in the hallways. We’ll sub out staff to plan for the day and train our students in their various roles for the day…tour guides, greeters, presenters, student panels, etc. We’ll sub more staff out on the actual day so that they can help make the day flow appropriately. That’s a ton of time away from what I really have to teach.

    Then the real fun begins…the day arrives. I happen to choose to keep my door closed and ATTEMPT to have business as usual. My students who want to be involved leave for their allotted time, but even those are getting fewer and fewer. Most of my kids don’t volunteer and I don’t push it. Our kids are told to dress professionally, be quiet in the hallways, walk in nice straight lines, and not be too noisy in the classrooms or the guests will hear them. You know…you’re leaders and you want to show everyone that! Ahem, so if we’re making leaders why are we giving them all of these strict expectations? That would be because they don’t ever do those things on a regular basis. If we’re truly leaders then why change one part of our day. C’mon in, folks, look at us leaders (which also just seems creepy to me anyhow, but that’s a whole other topic)…we’re leaders all the time, not just pretending to be leaders on leadership day!

    In case you didn’t know what leadership day is, by the way, it’s a place to showcase all of the great skills we’re teaching our students. Community members are invited, but don’t often attend. Mostly it’s other staff from other schools trying to decide if they want to be a LIM school or not…drink up, this kool aid is really tasty!!

    I could go on and on…as if I haven’t written enough, but I’ll part with this. Our students don’t like it. Yep, we get the eye rolls and attitude too (it’s so hard NOT to do it myself in front of the students). They tell me they hate it on occasion in private. When they come back to visit almost everyone has told me they hated it and never really used any of it. And when the next school up started to implement it (yup, due to US) the students just died.

    Cult or not, it’s not ok for so many reasons. I’d love for someone in my district to latch onto this information and run with it. It’s the only way I see any changes soon…we’re now in about 10 schools in my district…yup, thanks to us again! Until then, I do as minimally as I can get away with because I honestly fear for my job. I cannot afford to lose it, and making a “bad name” for myself can’t serve me well. Gulp, gulp (running to bathroom to spit it out before I have to swallow.

    Keep up the fight. Leader in Me is not all it’s cracked up to be for sure.

    • Thanks for posting this. I have started to see a few more teachers who are speaking up against The Leader In Me around the Internet, and it’s really great to hear that perspective. One strong commonality is the concern about losing your job if you don’t go along with the program. That was a huge issue at our school. It may have been a total coincidence, but the one teacher who voted against bringing the program to our school was put on probation the next year. I also heard from some of the teachers that when they voted, the choices were

      – Yes
      – I’m ok with it if everyone else wants to do it
      – No

      Many teachers voted that they were ok with it if everyone else wanted to do it, but very few were a solid yes. The principal told the parent community that the teachers were 100% in support of the program. The teacher who told me about this somewhat skewed vote and its representation to the parents later told me she was very nervous about being seen talking to me, because she was worried someone would think she was the one sharing confidential information with the parents. What kind of program causes schools and teachers to behave in a way where they’re worried the teacher or parent in the next classroom over is going to turn them in for speaking their mind – or the truth?!

      At the first parent meeting about the program (after our school had agreed to do it, and after the teachers had been through the multi-day training), a parent with concerns stood up and said she felt like there was a feeling of brainwashing coming off the teachers now that they had been through the training. Three teacher who were present at the meeting loudly protested all at the same time that wasn’t true, the training was nothing like that. It was almost comical (if it weren’t so scary) the group-think that was going on.

      When I brought my concerns to our principal, she was clearly trying to figure out how to get me to buy into it, and told me she really though my concerns were just a misunderstanding and a miscommunication about what the program is all about. She wasn’t at all interested in really listening to and considering my concerns.

      I read this comment tonight on someone else’s blog about The Leader In Me:

      “I do not agree that the book is promoting a cult. I am a religious person too, and do not find the book offensive to my religion. Although I did have to chuckle a bit as I read the book, because it is like the ten commandments reworded in a secular way to make it good for the masses.”

      In my experience, people with strong religious beliefs find this curriculum comforting, because it IS very reminiscent of the teachings of the church (any church). But schools shouldn’t feel like churches.

      I think Kenneth Saltman, a DePaul University professor of Educational Policy, who reviewed the Johns Hopkins study about the Leader In Me, hit the nail on the head when he said that he’s “not convinced public schools need to be teaching corporate culture, saying schools are ‘supposed to encourage debate, dialogue, dissent.’ “. You can read the article this quote was taken from here:

  6. I think the very title of your blog is a statement that you have a problem with he MORMON roots. If you want me to believe that it is a problem with religion in general then you should probably change the title of your blog…

  7. This program is being heavily intertwined into my child’s school and I’m very upset by it. The actual costs are too high and I don’t feel classroom instruction time should be spent on indoctrinating my kids with corporate jargon and buzz words. Not every child is meant to be a leader. A community could not function if everyone insisted on being a leader. It’s not the schools place to go there and to spend classroom time doing it. I think this would be fine as an afterschool program in public schools that parents could opt in to having their child involved in. It’s creepy hearing my kids come home singing these songs like be proactive. Be proactive every day in every way to the tune of where is thumpkin….yeah that was time well spent in public school!

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