Don McDuffie, a Pasadena teacher, has a new curriculum to help enliven and organize his restless sixth-grade class. R.H. Iannone, an Irwindale principal, saw vandalism and disciplinary problems plummet after similar classes were introduced in his elementary school.

What both had done, in schools facing social problems ranging from poverty to broken homes, was introduce a set of lessons on honesty, generosity, courage and tolerance.

The movement, little-noticed but rapidly growing in American education, has many names -- character education, values education, ethical education. At a time of intense controversy over prayer and religion in school, it has begun to offer parents and teachers a way to talk about good and evil without the constitutional taint of religion.

With the help of foundations in San Antonio and in this Los Angeles suburb, more than 13,000 U.S. classrooms are discussing values -- the latest movement to gain a considerable following before reaching Washington.

"Families are disintegrating," according to a brochure distributed by the American Institute for Character Education, spearhead of the movement. "All too often parents are not able to provide the guidance needed by their children. Sunday schools have lost much of their influence. Vandalism, drug and alcohol abuse are rampant, shoplifting and other juvenile delinquency problems are widespread."

"The whole society has in recent years been neglecting how to teach young people to behave," said Frank G. Goble, a wealthy retired engineer whose Thomas Jefferson Research Center here has spent more than $1 million to promote character education in scores of school districts from Los Angeles to Baltimore.

Despite its growing popularity in the West, Southwest and Midwest, character education apparently has yet to dent any public school districts in the Washington area.

"We've tried to steer clear of that," said George Hamel, spokesman for the Fairfax County schools. The general feeling, he said, is that "it is not the job of the public schools to teach" moral issues like sex education and values.

A values education commission set up by the Maryland General Assembly drew up 18 character and citizenship values for use by schools, "but to the best of my knowledge that hasn't gone very far, and I'm not aware of anybody here locally teaching values," said Kenneth K. Muir, Montgomery County schools spokesman.

Echoing the views of Associate Schools Superintendent James T. Guines of the District and Prince George's County schools spokesman Brian Porter, Muir said teachers indicate their feelings about the differences between right and wrong "100 different ways in a typical elementary classroom."

Creators of the character education program argue, however, that results come only when children are forced to confront issues of honesty and self-esteem in special classroom discussions.

"When does a child get the opportunity to explore this with anyone?" asked Young Jay Mulkey, president of the San Antonio-based American Institute for Character Education. "He can't go to his parents and say, 'Well, I'm going to steal.' "

Mulkey said some critics have criticized his institute as being too conservative by insisting that moral values should be taught; others have labeled it too liberal for failing to mention God and religion.

"I don't think building character is either right or left, Republican or Democrat," Mulkey said.

Goble shows visitors sheaves of letters from satisfied school administrators.

Charles Goulding, school superintendent in Flat Rock, Mich., said the program had reduced school vandalism.

Officials of the Modesto, Calif., schools called character education "a critically important element" in a substantial increase in reading and mathematics scores and a decline in absenteeism.

Ten Dade County, Fla., schools reported a 20 percent decline in vandalism.

Public School 63 in Indianapolis reported that the cost of replacing broken windows dropped from $3,500 to $100 a year.

Iannone, who until recently ran the Merwin School in Irwindale, Calif., said the program helped cut annual vandalism costs there from about $25,000 in 1975 to about $500 in 1982. Along with a program of citizenship awards, dress codes and careful testing, the character education program transformed the atmosphere at his low- and middle-income school.

"The number of students referred to the principal for disciplinary action decreased by almost 80 percent" Iannone said. "Suspensions have become rare and paddling nonexistent."

Mulkey said sales of his institute's 10-year-old character education curriculum stagnated in the late 1970s, but now have begun to double every year.

Some districts, while showing interest in anything that can build character or self-esteem, have been less enthusiastic about the program.

"It's boring," said an official with the San Francisco schools who reviewed the program. The material is not varied enough to keep children interested, the official said, and teachers complain that the illustrations do not show enough minority groups and do not account for "cultural differences."

"Some oppose it by saying, 'That's not our job,' or, 'You can't do it without religion,' or, 'Whose values do you teach?' " Goble said.

Tom Cordy, a high school special education teacher in Peru, N.Y., says he has not been impressed with programs he has seen in "values clarification," an effort to teach thinking on values that was used in his district in the 1970s. "The kids wrote it off as free time: 'We don't have to study for this,' " he said. "We do convey our values as a teacher . . . . "

Goble and Mulkey, however, say "values clarification" is too vague and does not have their program's record of success.

McDuffie said he has seen no problem in bridging cultural gaps as he instructs students of Hispanic, Asian, African and European descent. The character instruction, he said, has helped what began as an often distracted class become far more prepared for learning.

The program may take 20 minutes three days a week from time available for other subjects, but "when you eliminate the discipline problem," Mulkey said, "you actually have more time to teach."

A century ago, Goble argued, reading books and even penmanship guides contained moral lessons, but gradually after 1900 these became unfashionable as educators and pediatricians recommended giving children more personal choice.

The movement to return to some old-fashioned values in the schools began with Russell C. Hill, owner of a San Antonio printing and office supply company, whose daughter had been killed the night of her high school graduation by a drunk driver. Hill organized the precursor of the American Institute for Character Education in 1942 and began to distribute a "Freedom's Code" of universal traits he thought should be taught in school.

Mulkey and Goble argue that this list sums up the moral thrust of the human race and applies to any culture. In the San Antonio curriculum, the values are listed as: courage and convictions, generosity, kindness and helpfulness, honesty and truthfulness, honor, justice and tolerance, use of time and talents, freedom of choice, freedom of speech, citizenship, right to be an individual, right to equal opportunity and economic security.

With a $2 million grant in 1969 from the Eli Lilly Endowment, the San Antonio institute began to test character education programs in the local schools. Mulkey was among the primary school teachers who experimented with the idea, using a Socratic, question-and-answer, method and relying on animal stories, which Goble said are "less threatening" to children.

In a current lesson, the teacher read the story of "Skippy the kangaroo." Skippy grabs things from other kangaroos and refuses to share. Her unhappy classmates take revenge by inviting her to play, spreading their toys in front of her and then quickly snatching them away. This makes Skippy cry.

The teacher is instructed to ask children how they thought Skippy and her friends felt about what happened. Then the teacher reads the end of the story, in which Skippy's mother explains how her behavior looks to others. "I didn't know I was being that ugly," Skippy says. "I'm not going to be like that anymore."

In older classes like McDuffie's sixth grade at Jefferson Primary School here, the approach is subtler. Trying to show the consequences of choice in modern society, McDuffie asked his pupils if it was fair that those who finished their work could play with the class computer.

One boy, after pondering a moment, raised his hand to defend the sad justice of this. "I feel disappointed in myself" when he has not finished in time, he said.

As part of McDuffie's lesson on the limits of freedom, he asked his class what parts of their daily lives left them no choices. One boy responded, "Whether to ride my bike to school."

"Why don't you have a choice?" McDuffie asked.

" 'Cause I don't have a bike," the boy said. "Somebody stole it."