Our school has a new principal this year, and I took the opportunity to ask if she would consider making some changes to the way the school administers the heinous PBIS program, under which quiet and obedient students are given token rewards which they use to compete for weekly prizes. The good news is that she wrote me a substantial, candid reply responding to the concerns I raised; I really appreciated her willingness to give a direct and candid answer, which (ahem) has not always been my experience.
The bad news is that the new principal is a big supporter of PBIS. (I later learned that she was previously a “professional development facilitator” for PBIS.) She defended the use of PBIS because it “establishes a desire by students, who wouldn’t normally think about behaving appropriately in school, to think otherwise.” (On that point, I have never disagreed.) But she also wrote that “The PBiS program is meant to get students ‘thinking’ about appropriate behaviors and ask questions about why these expectations are in place.”
Again, I really do appreciate her response. But on that last point, I have to conclude that she is simply in denial. Few people want to think of themselves as promoting unquestioning obedience to authority, but a close look at PBIS reveals that that is exactly its mission. It is entirely devoted to making the rules very clear and then using tangible rewards to train kids to reflexively obey them, whatever they might be. It is one hundred percent about obedience training, and zero percent about getting kids to think for themselves about what’s right and wrong and about how to behave. Scan their extensive website in vain for any evidence to the contrary.
In my view, that is a horrible, harmful, and dehumanizing thing to teach children, the kind of “education” you’d expect to find in an authoritarian state or dictatorship, not in a participatory democracy. I know that in any school setting there will inevitably be some emphasis on the importance of following instructions. But to make unquestioning obedience the entire focus of a school’s behavioral program, to the complete exclusion of teaching the kids to think for themselves and develop moral reasoning of their own, is to do the kids an egregious wrong. It is anti-educational, anti-intellectual, and fundamentally inhumane. It’s how we treat dogs, not how we treat people.
We just lived through the Twentieth Century; it’s not hard to think of occasions when authorities have told people to do things that they should have refused to do. This is true even of school officials and teachers. The examples aren’t confined to Nazi Germany or totalitarian societies; just look at the American South during the civil rights struggle, or to the sexual abuse scandals that have plagued Catholic schools, or to what you read in the current news, or even to things that have happened here in Iowa City schools. I certainly don’t send my kids to school to learn that they should accept everything the teacher says and do whatever he or she commands, regardless of whether it is right or wrong. But that is exactly what PBIS is designed to teach, and I’m afraid it’s exactly what they are learning. (The unfortunate “character education” program simply drives the message home.)
A while back, our district invited suggestions as to whom a new elementary school should be named after. At the time, I joked that I would suggest test-prep magnate Stanley Kaplan. But I’m beginning to think this would be the most fitting choice: