Friday, May 28, 2010

Against maximizing

Is there a more bureaucratic word than “maximize”? The word was born for PowerPoint presentations. To maximize standardized test scores, we may have to neglect untestable qualities like creativity, initiative, skepticism, or the ability to ask a good question; we may have to train our kids to be passively obedient to all authority figures; we may have to cut luxuries like art and music from the curriculum; we may have to bribe the kids to quiet down and pay attention; we may have to squeeze the pleasure out of education and make learning a chore. But who can object to “maximizing academic achievement”?

Maximizing any one variable, of course, tends to come at the expense of all other variables. Such an approach has a name, borrowed from economics: the “corner solution.” As Jason Kuznicki explains:

A corner solution arises whenever, when faced with a tradeoff among two or more variables, we declare that one of the variables is to be minimized [or maximized] regardless of the state of the others. In public policy, some corner solutions are justified, but most are not.

“We have to control our borders” is one example of a corner solution. It posits that unauthorized border crossings are to be minimized, and it says nothing about the other factors that probably ought to be relevant to sound border policy – factors like expense, loss of civil liberties, collateral damage, our international reputation, and the sheer fact that without illegal immigrants, many sectors of the economy might entirely collapse. The corner solution ignores all that. In so doing, it obtains a clarity that may or may not be real, but that is politically very useful.

“Politically very useful”: that’s not how I like to think about my kids.

It is delusional to think that education is a science or can be approached like one. You don’t help kids become intelligent, capable, happy adults by maximizing quantifiable variables; you do it through judgment, experience, and wisdom. We should be freeing teachers to develop and use those qualities, rather than forcing them to execute some pseudo-scientific centrally-determined plan.

Incidentally, a search for the word “maximize” on the PBIS website brings up a hundred and fourteen results.


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Recommended reading

Check out Homework Headaches, written by another parent driven to blogging by the state of our schools – in his case, by the excessive and mind-numbing homework assigned to his seven- and ten-year-old daughters.


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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Caution: Experts at work (continued)

By now everyone has heard the story of George Rekers -- the co-founder of the Christian conservative Family Research Council and proponent of “curing” homosexuality, who was recently discovered to have hired a male prostitute from a website called Rentboy.com to be his “traveling companion” and to give him nude massages. (Rekers denies that he is gay or that he did anything inappropriate in hiring the man.) Rekers’s story may be old news, but I just today read the following detail:

In 1974, Rekers, a leading thinker in the so-called ex-gay movement, was presented with a 4-year-old “effeminate boy” named Kraig, whose parents had enrolled him in the program. Rekers put Kraig in a “play-observation room” with his mother, who was equipped with a listening device. When the boy played with girly toys, the doctors instructed her to avert her eyes from the child.

According to a 2001 account in Brain, Child Magazine, “On one such occasion, his distress was such that he began to scream, but his mother just looked away. His anxiety increased, and he did whatever he could to get her to respond to him . . . . Kraig became so hysterical, and his mother so uncomfortable, that one of the clinicians had to enter and take Kraig, screaming, from the room.”

Rekers’s research team continued the experiment in the family’s home. Kraig received red chips for feminine behavior and blue chips for masculine behavior.

. . .

The blue chips could be cashed in for candy or television time. The red chips earned him a “swat” or spanking from his father. Researchers periodically entered the family’s home to ensure proper implementation of the reward-punishment system.

After two years, the boy supposedly manned up. Over the decades, Rekers, who ran countless similar experiments, held Kraig up as “the poster boy for behavioral treatment of boyhood effeminacy.”

At age 18, shamed by his childhood diagnosis and treatment, Rekers’s poster boy attempted suicide, according to Gender Shock, a book by journalist Phyllis Burke.


I won’t equate Rekers’s quackery with programs like PBIS, but they obviously share some assumptions about how adults should intervene in the lives of children, and about how to understand human behavior. Stories like the one above certainly make you wonder about the long-term consequences of trying to change a child’s behavior without paying any attention to the underlying reasons for that behavior.

Rekers, by the way, has a Ph.D. in human developmental psychology from UCLA, is on the faculty of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine -- where he chaired the psychology faculty for almost twenty years -- and is the author of over a hundred academic publications, including footnote-filled studies in peer-reviewed journals advancing his theories about using behavioral techniques to “cure” homosexuality. The man’s obviously an expert. Has your brain shut down yet?


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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Evidence and values, revisited

Yesterday I wrote about how any invocation of expert authority is enough to stop most parents from questioning educational policy decisions, even though those decisions often hinge on value judgments that parents are just as qualified as experts to make. If, for example, the focus stays on whether behavioral rewards “work” to make children more obedient, parents can be quickly cowed by anyone who cites an empirical study. But if we focused on the value judgments that necessarily have to come first -- for example, whether schools should put their main focus on qualities other than blind obedience -- the institution could no longer pull rank on the parents by claiming special expertise.

As it turns out: brain research shows that when people are given expert advice, the decision-making parts of their brains often shut down. (And if a scientific study says it, it must be true!)

This topic has gotten me to thinking about my email exchange with Alfie Kohn last October. Kohn agreed that we need to challenge the behaviorists on issues of values, but good-naturedly scolded me for ceding the question of evidence to them. Any thorough analysis of the evidence, Kohn has argued extensively in his books, shows that reward systems do not promote the desired behaviors over the long term, and ultimately have negative consequences. So, Kohn argued, we should challenge the behaviorists’ evidence as well.

I see Kohn’s logic, but I also know what happens when experts start debating the merits of their evidentiary claims: the average person throws up his hands, and the institution gets its way. If I’ve noticed this effect, and brain scientists have even studied it, you had better believe that school administrators have noticed it too. I can’t help but think that they welcome any opportunity to change the subject from what values we should pursue to what evidence the experts can summon.


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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Values, not programs

Back in Connecticut, Aimee is posting about more humane and respectful alternatives to programs like PBIS. I’m on her side, but I also share her skepticism about the need for any of these packaged “programs,” with their workshops and institutes, their implementation consultants and development kits. I certainly prefer the education-as-humane-engagement industry to the education-as-control-and-manipulation industry, but I disagree that what teachers really need is a high-priced instruction manual.

Most parents I know would laugh at the idea of getting trained in some kind of marketed program to manage their kids’ learning or behavior in the home. Nor is there any movement to provide extensive training in step-by-step teaching techniques to college and university professors -- most of whom are sent into the classroom on the assumption that, with a little common sense and a few semesters of practice, they can teach as well as anyone else. University professors are amateurs when it comes to teaching in the same way that all parents are amateurs when it comes to parenting, yet the world keeps turning.

In K-12 education, though, you’re nowhere if you don’t have a program, and if it comes with its own jargon, even better. Let me suggest that one of the primary functions of these programs, like of all types of jargon, is to wall out the layman -- in this case, the parent -- and to hang a big sign on that wall saying KEEP OUT. We’re experts, and we’ve got evidence-based methods, scientifically tested, so unless you’re trained in this field -- preferably with a doctorate -- step aside, please, and let us handle this.

I’m skeptical that this elevation of expertise actually helps our kids grow and learn. But as a walling-out technique, it sure does work. Faced with an authority figure brandishing a claim that a program is supported by the latest cutting-edge research, most laymen wilt. What parent is going to devote his or her spare hours and energy to scrutinizing the methodology of some education-school research article to debate its merits with someone whose livelihood depends on defending it? A fancy website with cool graphics, official-looking charts and graphs, and several footnotes -- even if it doesn’t withstand just a few minutes of close scrutiny -- is enough to send most people down the path of least resistance.

Funny how presenting everything as an issue of technique (“Does it work?”), rather than as an issue of values (“What do we want for our kids?”), has the effect of putting the institution in charge, rather than the parents. If we were to discuss the values that underlie our educational policies, there would be no rationale for excluding parents from the debate. Experts, after all, can’t tell you what values to hold. So that topic is, conveniently, ignored.

Give my child a thoughtful, humane teacher who respects kids, sympathizes with them, and takes them seriously. One who values inquiry, initiative, creativity, and intellectual curiosity. Give that teacher enough autonomy in the classroom that he or she can enjoy the job and stay in it long enough to acquire some skill and some wisdom. Then the kids will do fine -- and you won’t even need a flow chart.


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Saturday, May 8, 2010

The risks of rewards

Alfie Kohn has written a whole book -- Punished by Rewards -- about why we should be reluctant to use rewards to motivate our kids in school. For a much briefer sampling of his arguments, check out this essay of his, The Risks of Rewards. More of his articles on the subject are available here.


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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Is math necessary in elementary school?

Our school works awfully hard to keep the students up to “grade-level” in math, and the kids work awfully hard to get there. Not just at our school, of course; schools across the country are measured, in part, by how many of their kids meet benchmarks on standardized math tests each year. The importance of meeting those benchmarks is used to justify behavioral programs like PBIS and the “character education” programs that are designed to keep kids quiet and obedient so teachers can maximize on-task time.

How sure are we that kids benefit from learning math in this way? What would happen if we didn’t introduce math at all until, say, sixth grade? In 1929, a school superintendent named L.P. Benezet suggested trying exactly that. “For some years, I had noted that the effect of the early introduction of arithmetic had been to dull and almost chloroform the child’s reasoning facilities,” he wrote.

In the fall of 1929 I made up my mind to try the experiment of abandoning all formal instruction in arithmetic below the seventh grade and concentrating on teaching the children to read, to reason, and to recite - my new Three R’s. And by reciting I did not mean giving back, verbatim, the words of the teacher or of the textbook. I meant speaking the English language.

You can read more about his experiment here. The upshot:

Benezet showed that kids who received just one year of arithmetic, in sixth grade, performed at least as well on standard calculations and much better on story problems than kids who had received several years of arithmetic training. This was all the more remarkable because of the fact that those who received just one year of training were from the poorest neighborhoods--the neighborhoods that had previously produced the poorest test results.

I don’t vouch for this one study’s methods or conclusions. (Benezet’s paper is here.) But I do wonder how open our current educational establishment would be to Benezet’s hypothesis, no matter how much evidence supported it. (Funny how unconventional ideas simply don’t get studied, and so remain forever “non-evidence-based.”) When we’re choosing between different educational approaches, shouldn’t the burden of proof be on those whose approach is more coercive, more burdensome and time-consuming, and more likely to make the kids dislike the subject matter?


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