Sunday, May 1, 2011

Democratic citizens, yes -- but right-thinking, obedient ones!

Via the school district’s new blog, I’ve learned that the district is considering the following additions to its “Ends Policy,” which states the district’s educational goals:

The District will ensure that students become responsible, independent, lifelong learners capable of making informed decisions in a democratic society as well as in the dynamic global community.

Character Development
Students will demonstrate knowledge and understanding of community accepted intrapersonal, interpersonal and civic values consistent with the ICCSD Equity Statement. Students will demonstrate acceptance and internalization of those values through their behavior during the school day.

This statement struck me as internally inconsistent, so I submitted the following comment:

I’m a little puzzled by this statement. Isn’t there an inherent tension between (1) wanting students to be independent thinkers who can participate in a democracy, and (2) insisting that they “accept and internalize” a particular set of values? The former sounds like education to me; the latter sounds like indoctrination.

I’m in complete agreement with the ICCSD Equity Statement. But I don’t think you promote those values by setting out to make kids agree with them -- which, if anything, is likely to engender resentment and resistance. The goal of education should be to promote inquiry, not to dictate beliefs and values.

I’d love it if our schools did encourage the kids to be independent thinkers who could someday participate intelligently in our democracy. My experience, though, has been that the schools put much more energy into ensuring that the kids are quiet and obedient than into fostering people who are able and inclined to participate in a democracy. You can’t put that much emphasis on behavioral compliance without undermining the values of inquiry and independent thought.

Ultimately, democracy is about questioning the rules of the world you find yourself in. But our schools seem to be working awfully hard at achieving unquestioning compliance with rules, and I’m afraid that attitude is reflected in the idea that we should set out to get the kids to “accept and internalize” community-accepted values.

The district’s use of PBIS -- which aims to achieve behavioral compliance not through engaging the students in thinking about what’s right and wrong, but by developing conditioned responses to token rewards -- and its character education program -- which focuses largely on obedience -- are two examples that leap to mind.

My main post on PBIS is here, and on “Character Counts” here. More on this topic generally here, here, and throughout the site.

UPDATE: I just submitted this follow-up comment:

As an alternative, how about something like this:

“The district aspires to prepare its students to be independent and capable participants in a democratic society. It is not the district’s goal to indoctrinate the students into any one set of beliefs or opinions. Instead, the district seeks to foster an environment in which students are encouraged to question received ideas, to think deeply about value questions, and make their own informed judgments, as they will be called upon to do when they become voters.”

I’d even be fine with adding a line like, “Nothing in this statement means that the district shouldn’t adopt and enforce rules about student conduct.” Of course schools will have rules; what concerns me is the effort to get compliance at the expense of core educational values, like the importance of thoughtful reflection and inquiry.

My comments are currently “awaiting moderation.” visible on the site.


northTOmom said...

I love your alternative statement! I can't wait to hear how they respond.

Chris said...

I'm curious to see whether and how they respond as well. I wish I knew more (my own fault) about what prompted the board to consider this change.

I think the language of the statement is especially striking when you remember that some of the people it applies to -- some high school seniors -- are actually already voters. Is there any other example of a governmental body requiring some of its voters to "accept and internalize" one of its policies?

Stoz said...

One inherent problem with your alternative statement idea is that it's simply not true. The goal of the school is not to promote free-thinking students, so why would they put that in their mission statement?

You should probably instead propose that they change the first half of their statement to bring it in line with reality. Instead of:

"The District will ensure that students become responsible, independent, lifelong learners capable of making informed decisions in a democratic society as well as in the dynamic global community."

It should be something like:

"The District will ensure that students become unquestioning, dependent machines capable of obeying commands in an authoritarian society as well as in the dynamic global community."

Chris said...

Stoz -- such a cynic!

I suppose the Ends Policy probably doesn't have that much effect on what actually goes on in the schools, but I'm glad they have one, and that they have to talk about it once in a while. Sometimes it seems like what happens in the schools is just the result of some kind of weird auto-pilot inertia. In school board campaigns, the discussion seems to focus entirely on money, boundaries, buildings, etc. -- which are important, I know -- but without any real discussion of what we should actually trying to accomplish, or of how we conceive of education.

Sure, bureaucracies are inevitably self-serving and self-perpetuating. But the school board itself is elected, and, for better or worse, I doubt most of the board members care much about whether they get reelected. I don't think any of the board members are intending to turn the kids into unthinking, obedient little worker bees, though I do think many of the district's practices work toward that end. My guess is that the board members would disavow indoctrination as a goal. But the fact is, they want a lot of things -- thoughtful, independent kids, lifelong learners, compliance with behavioral rules, high standardized test scores, approved character traits and values -- that aren't entirely consistent. Just getting these things talked about would be a step in the right direction. It would also tell us a lot about our board members that we don't usually learn in election campaigns.

Deb Thornton said...

The job of the schools is not to teach character traits and values - that is the job of the parents.

The schools should focus on what they're supposed to do - reading, writing and math. And they are failing at doing for a large number of students.

I disagree - the board members care deeply about being re-elected. That's the only way they can ensure their issues and ideas continue. Including this ends policy.

Chris said...

Deb -- Thanks for commenting! Of course, I have no way of knowing how much the board members care about getting reelected. I guess I'm just projecting; it seems like an awfully thankless job that comes with a lot of burdens on one's personal life and family time.

I see the mission of the schools more broadly than you do. I think discussion of ethics, and of right and wrong, is perfectly appropriate and important, and is largely what the humanities are about -- as long as no one "right answer" is being dictated.

I agree, though, that it's one thing to require that students comply with district policies, and a very different thing to require that they "accept and internalize" them. A governmental body has no business requiring people (adults or children) to agree with its policies.

It's worth noting that, although I agree with the district's Equity Statement, not everyone does, and some of its provisions are potentially controversial -- in particular, its inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity. My feeling is that someone who supports the Equity Statement should not be afraid of allowing students to debate it and reach their own conclusions about it. When someone's support for the statement is a result of his or her free choice, it is likely to be much more meaningful and lasting than if it is the result of compulsion or indoctrination. Moreover, the process of confronting different opinions and defending one's own is an important part of any real education.

FedUpMom said...

Chris, I wish you the best of luck. But I'm cynical enough to think that even if the schools had the best possible statement of goals, it would still be a very long hard slog to get the schools to actually conform to the goals.

Your post reminded me of a terrific Richard Elmore essay, which I excerpted at KFS:

Richard Elmore re: Beliefs vs. Practices

Chris said...

That's a nice link, FedUpMom. Number 3 on his list is relevant, too: "I used to think that public institutions embodied the collective values of society. And now I think that they embody the interests of the people who work in them."