A couple of weeks ago I posted about a strange occurrence in the weekly prize drawing that is part of our school’s behavioral rewards program (PBIS). Under the program, the teachers are continually giving kids rewards for “good behavior” (which usually means being passive and quiet), and then the kids turn those rewards in for entries into a weekly prize drawing. (I dislike the program for the many reasons stated here.) But that week, the prize-winners included one girl who had moved away weeks before, and one girl who had registered to attend the school but had never actually attended. I said that it raised questions about whether the school was being honest with the kids about how the prize winners are chosen.
I emailed the principal to ask about it, and she explained how it happened. The school keeps track of which students have won the weekly prizes. That week, when the principal happened to be out, someone decided to give prizes to all the kids who hadn’t won any so far this year. No one realized that the list contained the names of some kids who weren’t actually enrolled.
I consider that a pretty understandable and well-intentioned mistake. Once they’ve told the kids how the drawings work, they shouldn’t rig them; but I have a good deal of sympathy for the person who decided to make sure that nobody went that long without a prize. To me, it shows that not everyone at the school is entirely comfortable with the reality of PBIS. (It’s interesting that it occurred during a week when the principal was away.) Under PBIS, the rewards are supposed to be entirely conditional; otherwise, the incentive for the kids to comply with the school’s desires would be undermined. The natural result is that some kids will get more rewards and prizes than others, and that some may never get a prize. PBIS advertises itself as a “positive” alternative to punishment, but watching everyone else get rewards and prizes, while you’re getting none, seems a lot like punishment to me -- and apparently to someone at the school, too.
Of course, some things in school will inevitably be conditional, and schools can never avoid punishment entirely. But that doesn’t mean we need to invent reasons to treat children like lab rats. School should be about engaging the students’ minds, not about manipulating their behavior. It should develop the kids’ ability to think for themselves, not encourage them to mindlessly chase whatever reward is dangled in front of them. It should focus on intellectual inquiry, not on unquestioning obedience.
Here’s what I really don’t understand. From the way the school sometimes acts, you’d think it was swarming with hordes of juvenile anarchists just barely being restrained from revolution by the school’s behavioral interventions. It is, in fact, a collection of relatively well-behaved kids in a relatively tame Midwestern college town -- not without its problems, but much closer to It’s a Wonderful Life than to A Clockwork Orange. On the whole, the teachers are good and the kids are trying hard. So why not make school about what goes on in the classroom -- where the school’s real strengths are -- instead of slathering everything with this thick layer of manipulative bullshit?