Imagine two approaches to teaching ethical reasoning to elementary schoolers (or to anyone, for that matter):
In the first, teachers would pose questions to the students about ethical quandaries. The teacher would solicit opinions from the students, and in response, would ask further questions. At first, the hypotheticals might be relatively easy: for example, the students might be asked how they would respond to a friend who pressures them to shoplift. But, as the discussion progressed, the questions could become progressively more challenging: What if a teacher asks you to reveal something that a friend told you in confidence? How much money would you give or lend to a friend who needs it more than you do? Throughout the discussion, the teacher would refrain from dictating any “right answers” to the questions (which are, after all, questions of opinion). Instead, the teacher would use further questions to get the kids thinking about right and wrong and developing their own nascent codes of moral reasoning. The teacher would also point out patterns in the kids’ responses, giving the kids a vocabulary for talking about ethical choices.
In the second approach, the teachers would tell the students rules about what kind of behavior is right and what is wrong. The teachers would spend large amounts of time and effort to make the rules as clear as possible, so everyone will know them. Throughout the day, the teachers would give token rewards to students who they “catch” following the rules: a paper ticket, say, or a string bracelet. Kids would use the rewards to enter into weekly drawings to win prizes -- the more rewards you accumulate, the better your chance to win. Classrooms, too, would compete against each other to get the highest number of rewards. The use of material gain as an incentive for the kids to obey the rules would be defended on the (empirically suspect) grounds that eventually the kids will internalize the “right” attitudes. The implicit message would be that the highest value is to always do as you are told, and that people in positions of authority are automatically the arbiters of ethical right and wrong.
Unfortunately, you don’t need to imagine the second approach; it is the reality in Iowa City public schools (and in many other places as well). I doubt that the people administering PBIS, and all the similar authoritarian behavioral programs (examples here and here), think of themselves as teaching ethical reasoning -- and granted, what they’re doing is barely worthy of that label. But there’s no question that those programs are teaching kids lessons about their ethical obligations -- about what it means to be “good” -- and those lessons are: always do what others expect of you, always obey whatever rules you are given, let the people in authority tell you what to think. When, exactly, did our community choose that approach?