On the first day at our elementary school, all the kids had to attend a school-wide assembly, at which the new principal made several announcements.
First, she said that every morning on the public address system, she would be leading the Pledge of Allegiance and the Hoover School Pledge, after which there would be a “patriotic song.”
Second, she told the kids that there would be changes in the behavioral rewards program (PBIS) that the school has been using for two years. Instead of receiving red tickets for good behavior, the kids would now receive colorful rope bracelets that they could wear on their arms. The red tickets used to end up in people’s pockets or desks, she explained; now people will be able to see just by looking at a child that he or she has been congratulated. She explained that the kids could choose whether to keep the bracelets or turn them in for entries into the weekly prize lottery. Unlike in previous years, when the prize was usually a special lunch with the principal, the prizes would now be material goods -- little toys, for example.
Third, she explained that there would be a new system for addressing behavior in the lunchroom. Each sixteen-person lunch table would have a plastic cup placed on it. If the kids at that table were well-behaved, the cup would be green, and the kids could talk in normal conversational voices (“voice level 2”) for the duration of the fifteen-minute lunch period. If the kids were too noisy, though, they would get a yellow cup, and would be allowed only to whisper. If they continued to be too noisy, they would get a red cup, and all the kids at the table would have to eat their lunches in silence.
The next day, each classroom of kids was taken on a lengthy tour of the “Expectation Stations,” to be told the “expectations” (translation: rules) for each area of the building. In the hallways, for example, they were to be completely silent, and to walk only on the right side, and only in single file -- no stepping out of line. Even when they’re outside the building on their way to the temporary building, they should be totally quiet and follow the hallway rules. The teacher told them that in the junior high, the students walk chaotically and noisily through the halls, and that they wouldn’t like that at all.
The groups of kids -- even the sixth graders, who are eleven years old and in their seventh year of elementary school -- were then taken into the girls’ bathroom, where the guidance teacher told them not to hang on the stall doors, not to write on the walls, to use no more than two pushes on the towel dispenser, and only one or two squirts of soap (unless it’s really low; then you can use a third). “If you sprinkle when you tinkle,” the teacher told them, “be neat and wipe the seat.” “If it doesn’t look nice, flush twice.” The kids were taken on similar tours of the lunchroom expectations (those cups again), and the playground expectations.
“They treat us like babies,” one child said afterward.
In several classrooms, the teachers introduced reward systems (sometimes called “Classroom Cash”), under which well-behaved kids would win prizes of various kinds.
One mom complained to the principal about the school’s excessive focus on behavior and obedience, citing the kids’ tour of the girls’ bathroom as being particularly, in her words, “disrespectful of the kids.” “When there are sixth graders who know how to read, you don’t take them all back and work on the alphabet with them,” she said. “They’re going to come away from all this thinking, ‘This is the level they think I’m capable of.’”
The principal said that all kids need to know what the expectations are, and that the kids had spent only “ten minutes” in the girls’ bathroom. Another adult who was present in a classroom, however, was surprised that they had “spent hours” talking about “expectations.”
In the lunchroom, two girls were trying to talk, but the boys at the table were being noisy. Soon the red cup came down. Everyone, including the two girls, then had to be silent for the remainder of lunch.
(Thus teaching the valuable civics lesson: It’s okay to punish everyone whenever it’s too hard to sort out the innocent from the guilty.)
Mid-week, the principal announced that they running out of bracelets, because too many kids were choosing to accumulate them, rather than trade them in for the lottery tickets. (The school doesn’t use the term “lottery tickets,” but I don’t know any other way to describe them.) The principal asked the kids either to turn the bracelets in for tickets right away, or to take them home and leave them there.
One mom was concerned about her daughter being asked to recite daily pledges, because the kids “are just mindlessly reciting the words and have no idea what Pledging means let alone what allegiance is.” She suggested that her daughter ask her teacher about the pledges and “maybe have a class discussion.” After school the next day, her daughter told her that “she asked and didn’t get much of an answer and they had to get to math.”
Other Iowa City schools are reportedly also increasing their emphasis on behavior and obedience. At a nearby elementary school that serves relatively affluent families and had previously escaped much of the behavior management craze, the kids are now being given rigid “hallway expectations,” and there are even assigned seats at lunch.
One mom, whose daughter just started junior high after attending a private elementary school, was “appalled” by all the focus on behavior management.
As I walked to the school one afternoon to pick up my kids, I was approached by a sixth grader wearing the orange-and-yellow vest of the after-school safety patrol. The boy hesitantly, but very politely and courteously, asked me not to walk on the grass and to use the sidewalk instead. It is against the rules for kids or parents to walk unnecessarily on the grass in front of our elementary school.
The guidance teacher visited the fifth-and-sixth grade classrooms to begin a three-week lesson on the importance of study skills. She lectured the children that if they did not work hard and perform well in school -- elementary school -- they would not go to a good college, would not get a good job, and would have an unhappy life. (More on this “guidance” in an upcoming post.)
At the end of the week, the lottery drawing was held, and one child in each classroom won a prize. The prizes included candy, sunglasses, lip gloss, notebooks, etc. The winner in one classroom happened to be my daughter. The other winners had taken all the candy, so she got a notebook.
I hardly know where to begin in listing my objections to the atmosphere that the school has created. The constant use of tangible rewards encourages materialism and acquisitiveness. It sends the message, “We know you wouldn’t choose to behave well; it’s something you would do only if you’re paid to do it.” The use of candy as a reward is particularly disturbing: teaching the kids not only that good behavior is a chore, but that candy is what everyone should want.
The program is infantilizing and demeaning to the kids. It insults them: treating them all as if they’re incapable of good behavior without dumbed-down instructions and prizes. Rather than give the kids a chance to behave well on their own, it assumes in advance that they all need remedial instruction.
The program teaches authoritarian values. The message in our school is loud and clear: reflexive obedience to authority is the highest value. The prizes aren’t distributed for originality, for asking good questions, or for thinking critically about the class material. It couldn’t be clearer what the school cares most about. “Being good” means being quiet, docile, and obedient.
The entire approach is fundamentally anti-intellectual. The rewards are designed to produce an automatic response, not a thoughtful one. They are treating the kids the way Pavlov treated his dogs. Rather than do the hard work of helping kids think and reason about their own behavior and about right and wrong, PBIS cares only about getting compliance, long-term consequences be damned.
I don’t know anyone who thinks that kids should be taught to obey every adult, regardless of what they’re told to do. They can’t escape having to use their own judgment about what they should and shouldn’t do. Our school’s approach gives them no help at all in developing that judgment; the message is simply, “Do what we say and you’ll get a prize. If we say something else tomorrow, do that.” If critical thinking means anything at all, it means judging for yourself the things you are told to think and do, and not just complying in a spirit of passive obedience.
The program is absurdly restrictive. I don’t know anyone who walks single-file in silence down a hallway.
The “pledging” is simply indoctrination. What’s the theory behind it? That putting words in the kids’ mouths will make them think what we want them to think?
I could go on (and I do, here). Ultimately, the cumulative effect of all of these so-called educational practices is to turn school -- and, by extension, learning -- into a petty, dreary, small-minded, joyless enterprise. School is where you go to be constantly scrutinized and judged, to be treated like a baby (or a dog), to be told what to do and what to think. Greed (prizes, “cash”) and fear (unhappy life) are the reasons you do it. Learning, and treating other people well, can’t possibly have any intrinsic appeal, or the school wouldn’t put so much energy into making you do them. Is this what we want to teach our kids?