Friday, April 9, 2010

Weird science

Our school’s behavioral rewards program (also known as PBIS) claims to be “evidence-based” and supported by “peer-reviewed randomized control trial research studies.” A closer look at the program’s materials, though, might lead someone to question whether it is truly informed by science, or whether it is simply bound and determined to put some scientific credentials on its marketing materials. Although the program cloaks itself in the language of science, it cannot contain its cult-like evangelical fervor, which bursts from virtually every page of its website.

The most striking aspect of the website is the contrast between the program's ambitious certitude, on the one hand, and the banality of its content, on the other. The program unashamedly seeks to pervade every aspect of a child’s world -- not just the hallways, playground, and cafeteria, but also the classroom, the community, and the home. It then summarizes that goal using helpful charts like this one (in case you’re more of a visual learner, I guess):

In the web page accompanying this chart, the program gives us its vision of education in a pithy two sentences that are far more revealing than was probably intended:

Education is a vital cog to any community. Quality education creates high caliber employees, college students, supporters, and consumers.

To ensure that our kids will become these high caliber employees and consumers, the site not only recommends that parents “participate on the leadership team” and even start distributing rewards tickets in the home (redeemable at school!), but also that local businesses be recruited into the program. For example (and I’m not making these up):

Grocery store chooses one student per week from gotcha [i.e., reward ticket] drawing to serve as an apprentice on Saturday at the grocery store.

Car oil change company gives out letters for the school to send out to exemplar students giving the parents 15% off their next oil change.

Discount cards donated by restaurants, bookstores, discount stores, grocery stores, etc. earned for receiving a predetermined number of gotchas.

The site also urges people to cultivate political support for PBIS, and even to use the children as lobbyists on its behalf (“Have the students talk about what a difference Sw-PBIS has meant [sic] to them”). When the federal government was allocating its economic stimulus money, PBIS was ready with a brochure promoting the use of stimulus money for -- you guessed it -- PBIS. A remarkable amount of the site is dedicated to Amway-like discussions of how to talk other people into supporting PBIS.

One state’s PBIS advocates summed up the program’s mission in a nutshell (emphasis in the original):

to have EVERY teacher and administrator in EVERY school district in the state knowledgeable about and engaged in the use of Positive Behavior Supports as a means to enhance the learning of EVERY student.

Science, in its best form, is skeptical and self-questioning, and reaches conclusions only tentatively. Do these materials reflect a scientific mindset? Or do they reflect some weird amalgam of Madison Avenue pitching and messianic fervor?

..How can I comment?