Saturday, October 31, 2009

Quote of the day

"Save as the efforts of the educator connect with some activity which the child is carrying on of his own initiative independent of the educator, education becomes reduced to a pressure from without. It may, indeed, give certain external results but cannot truly be called educative."

Dear Reader (and I use the singular advisedly): Sorry for the inactivity this week: too many other obligations, and too many internet connectivity problems, to keep up with the blog. Am headed out to buy a new router, if not a new computer. Stay tuned.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Obedience counts, ctd.

The other day I cited this article for its criticisms of what passes for character education in today's schools. Really, it's worth reading in its entirety -- a thoughtful, sane take on the character education phenomenon.

..How can I comment?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Theodore Sizer

Is this blog hopelessly idealistic about what school could be? It's easy to conclude that the practices of today's schools, while perhaps unappealing, are necessary, because there is no other way. That response certainly serves the interests of those who benefit from the system the way it is, as well as those who would just prefer not to have the boat rocked. But in fact there are alternative approaches; they aren't unthinkable, and there are schools that put them into practice.

Theodore Sizer, who died on Wednesday at age 77, was the founder of the "Coalition of Essential Schools," based on the idea that schools should be egalitarian communities, "rooted in a kind of democratic pluralism." "In his ideal, educational policy should be determined from the bottom up, at the level of the school, rather than as a result of state or federal directives. Schools, he argued, should abandon one-size-fits-all educational methods like standardized tests, grading and even the grouping of students into classes by age." There are now several hundred Essential Schools across the country. Sizer's obituary is worth reading, as a reminder that things do not have to be the way they are.

..How can I comment?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Quote for the day

"If we want children to resist [peer pressure] and not be victims of others' ideas, we have to educate children to think for themselves about all ideas, including those of adults."

..How can I comment?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Obedience counts

This is National Character Counts! Week. Character Counts! is a program of character education used in schools across America, including the schools here in Iowa City.

Critics argue that programs like Character Counts! promote a conservative agenda, because of their emphasis on personal responsibility to the exclusion of social responsibility. Although the national Character Counts organization claims to be non-partisan and to have no political agenda, it often appears -- alongside Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, the Christian Coalition, and the John Birch Society -- on lists of conservative organizations. (For example, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) In fact, the phrase "character counts" is a kind of rallying cry in conservative circles, dating back to the Clinton impeachment.

I'm not sure what to make of all that. I don't really object to my kids learning about the value of Honesty, Respect, Caring, Responsibility, and Courage, the five values promoted by our school's program. I would object, though, if the program chose to promote Obedience, Obedience, Obedience, Obedience, and Obedience. After a closer look at the program's materials, I'm starting to worry.

Our school, for example, explains the meaning of "Respect" to the students this way:

Hallway: Go directly where you need to go. Use body basics.
Lunchroom: Body basics. Voice level 1 or 2.
Playground: Line up quickly when the bell rings. Use line basics.

If your child asked you what "respect" is, is that what you would say?

To show "Responsibility" in the hallway means to "Use line basics," and "Voice level 0 or 1." (Apparently the line between responsibility and respect is a very thin one.) To be "Caring" on the playground means to "use equipment appropriately," and "return equipment." To show "Honesty," you should "follow the rules even when an adult is not around," and "play fair and follow [school] game rules." To show "Courage," on the other hand, is to "follow the rules even if others don't."

To be fair: not all of the definitions focus on obeying rules. (For example, to be "Caring" means to "greet others with a smile and wave," and to "care for self, others, and school.") But most of them do.

Again, I know that schools need to have rules. But it's another thing to create a culture that prizes obedience to authority above all other values. It may serve the school's interest in maintaining order, but does it serve the long-term interests of the kids -- or, for that matter, of democracy? Does it develop character? And what message does it send when words like "courage," "responsibility," "respect," "caring," and "honesty" are co-opted in an effort to keep the kids quiet in the halls?

Click to enlarge

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

I miss Fezziwig

The other day I wondered why Evidence has become our master instead of our servant. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that Evidence is only one member of the new management team, which includes Expertise, Accountability, Productivity, and National Competitiveness. Alas, Wisdom, Curiosity, Individuality, and Humaneness -- perhaps never as high on the letterhead as they should have been -- are now scanning the want ads, and praying that their COBRA doesn't run out.

When I think about this change in management, I think about Scrooge's visit, with the ghost of Christmas past, to the office of his former employer, Fezziwig. It is Christmas Eve, and the fat and jovial Fezziwig is closing up early to put on his annual Christmas party. Scrooge, gripped by "the strangest agitation," watches as Fezziwig's family, friends, employees and neighbors pour into room: "In they all came, one after another; some shyly, some boldly, some gracefully, some awkwardly, some pushing, some pulling; in they all came, anyhow and everyhow. . . . There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer." Old Fezziwig himself dances to top them all. By the end of the party, when everyone has exhausted themselves, Fezziwig's apprentices -- one of whom is Scrooge's younger self -- are "pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig."

The ghost chides Scrooge: "He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?"

Momentarily not himself, Scrooge replies, "It isn't that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune."

As I watched my daughter head off to her fifth straight day of standardized testing last week, I couldn't help thinking that our schools have become more Scrooge than Fezziwig. We seem to have made a collective decision that the things that are "impossible to add and count up" simply do not matter. If a school fails to raise its test scores, it can get in serious trouble. But if it turns out kids with no intellectual curiosity, kids who see reading as a chore, kids who perform just to please the teacher and get by, kids who've never learned how to use good judgment, ask a good question, or make a good decision, kids who see adults as adversaries, kids who take no pleasure in learning -- nothing bad will happen to it.

The teachers do what they can to promote a broader conception of learning, but that's the system they're up against. When it comes time to hold schools, principals, and teachers "accountable," it's the test scores that count; the rest might as well be volunteer work. That's where Accountability has gotten us. Scrooge, of course, was a paragon of Accountability, at least until the ghosts knocked some sense into his head.

..How can I comment?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Quote for the day

"We tend to think, now, of the ideal family as a little hatchery for future contributors to the Social Security system, non-criminals who will enhance national productivity while lowering the cost per capita of preventable illness. We have forgotten that old American nonsense about alabaster cities, about building the stately mansions of the soul. We have lowered our hopes abysmally, for no reason obvious to me, without a murmur I have ever heard. To fulfill or fall short of such minor aspirations as we have now is the selfsame misery."

--Marilynne Robinson on "Family," in The Death of Adam.

Robinson attributes that lowering of hopes to "a new upsurge of that famous Western rationalism, old enemy of reasonableness, always so right at the time, always so shocking in retrospect." When the time finally comes to put test-driven education -- and all its accompanying "programs" -- to rest, I can't think of a better epitaph.

..How can I comment?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Should poor kids get less humane treatment?

One reader points out that the rewards ticket program seems to have been adopted only in the elementary schools with families of lower socioeconomic status, but not in the high-SES schools, in our district. One of the common criticisms of these programs is that they function as big tracking systems, so the poor kids get trained to be quiet little worker bees, while the kids from high-income families don't.

Expect more posts on this issue.

..How can I comment?


This blogger has a guest opinion in today's Press-Citizen on our Orwellian reward tickets program.

Update: That link has gone stale, so here is the text of that guest editorial:

School Rewards Program Conjures Orwell

The calendar reads 2009, but in the Iowa City schools, it’s looking more like 1984.

Elementary schools across the district have begun to implement a new program of “Positive Behavioral Supports.” Translated, that means a campaign to saturate the kids with a pervasive program of token rewards for complying with school rules. Under this program, teachers are tasked with continually handing out dozens of little red tickets reading “Stellar Job!” to kids who are well-behaved in the hallways or lunchroom, or at recess. The students collect the tickets to be entered into a lottery at the end of each week, where they can win a prize -- a special lunch with the teacher, perhaps, or the chance to sit in a special chair. (The details vary from school to school.)

Ideally, according to the program’s promotional materials, the students will feel the way good employees feel in a well-managed workplace.

The poor teachers who are saddled with this program are sometimes even wearing the ticket books on strings around their necks, so they will remember to dispense their daily quota.

The plan is for the program to move eventually into the classroom itself, and then into the community and the home. For example, the program’s website explains how local businesses could be recruited to give discounts or free merchandise to kids who accumulate tickets. Parents are exhorted to “participate on the leadership team” and even to pass out reward tickets at home. If all goes according to plan, not a minute will go by when the kids aren’t reminded of their school’s rules about good behavior.

And let’s be clear what the program means by good behavior. Students aren’t getting tickets for thinking critically, for asking good questions, or for being kind to someone else. They are getting tickets for standing in line, following instructions, and being quiet. That’s what it means to do a “Stellar Job!” Winston Smith would feel right at home.

I’m reluctant to turn my child’s every waking hour over to the latest enthusiasm of these so-called experts. The objections to this program are too numerous to list here. A sampler:

I want my kids to do the right thing because they have thought about what’s right and developed a set of values of their own, not because someone is paying them to. I want school to help them think about their conduct and values, not develop unthinking responses to artificial stimuli. I want them to be treated as human beings to be engaged, not laboratory subjects to be manipulated. I want them to learn that language -- even a little phrase like “Stellar job!” -- should have real meaning. I want them to learn that passive obedience to authority is not the highest value. I want to prepare them to become citizens in a democracy, not subjects of a totalitarian state.

Why has our school system adopted this program? Its supporters won’t say it outright, but the reason is clear: These schools are desperate to raise their test scores, and live in fear of what will happen to them, under the No Child Left Behind law, if they don’t. If creating Orwellian obedience schools is what it takes to squeeze a few more test points out of the kids, so be it. No Child Left Behind forces the school systems to think in these terms.

But not the parents. Parents remain entirely free to see the kids as human beings rather than as data points. I hope they’ll speak up.

Until there is a standardized test that measures intellectual curiosity, creativity, initiative, inquiry, and character, we shouldn’t turn our schools into test-prep centers. I’d like this single-minded obsession with test scores to pack up and leave our schools once and for all -- and take Big Brother with it.

..How can I comment?

Alfie Kohn on our red tickets

In an exchange of emails with A Blog About School, Alfie Kohn, author and advocate of humane approaches to education, had this to say about our reward tickets program:

"Ugh" is right. What drives me crazy about programs like this one is the tendency to do things TO children (like dangling goodies in front of them) to make them behave in whatever ways the adults demand, rather than working WITH children to help them become independent, critical thinkers who are part of a democratic community. In other words, the problem with PBIS and umpteen similar programs that have come and gone before it is not only with the technique (essentially, manipulation) but also with the goal (compliance).

In response to your blog: I'm not sure it's necessary to say, in effect, "Research may support the use of rewards, but research isn't everything." If the outcome evaluated in the research is temporary compliance, then, sure, rewards, like punishments, can be "effective." But if the outcome being studied is kids' commitment to good values or learning, generosity or responsibility or love of learning, then research not only fails to support the value of incentive programs; scores of studies demonstrate that rewards -- and a behavioral focus more generally -- actually do harm. I've reviewed this literature in Punished by Rewards, Beyond Discipline, and in many articles (available on my website). In effect, carrot-and-stick control makes no sense regardless of whether we're concerned about respectful ways of dealing with children or what the data say. There's no need to concede the latter to the behaviorists!

I am certainly not conceding that research supports the use of programs like this one, or that they "work" in achieving anything other than short term compliance. My point has only been that value judgments have to come first, before we can decide what's important to measure. Kohn's books and articles, which thoroughly review the evidence about the effects of rewards programs, appear here. His conclusion: we're in for some more "unintended consequences," to put it mildly.

By the way, Kohn's email was titled: "PBIS = TKLP (Treating Kids Like Pets)".

Related posts:

Behavioral, yes. Positive and supporting? Maybe not.

Evidence and values

What’s good for General Motors . . .


Weird science

Some company in Connecticut

Caution: Experts at work (continued)

Treating kids like pets, continued

Scenes from the first week of school

..How can I comment?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What's good for General Motors . . .

Our school's rewards ticket program comes with its own promotional materials, which make a special point of noting that, under the program, the teachers' treatment of the kids would parallel the way good business managers treat their employees.

For example, happy employees, we are told, like to "feel the mission of the organization makes them feel like their jobs are important." Under the rewards program, students will "feel that the mission of the school makes them feel like their jobs are important." (Emphasis theirs.)

Happy employees "have a supervisor who cares and pays attention"; the students will "have a teacher who cares and pays attention."

And so on. As one parent said to me, "I wonder what the schools that produce managers look like."

It's no coincidence that the program's materials read like this (click below to enlarge), since big business is one of the prime backers of test-driven education. If you need any confirmation, check out this creepy press release from the National Association of Manufacturers, commending the new Secretary of Education for his commitment to "using data to help drive decision-making and accountability in education" and his advocacy for "performance-based evaluation systems," with the goal of preparing the students "for the high-performance workforce that is necessary to succeed in today's hyper-competitive global economy," and ensuring their "success in high quality middle class jobs, including those in manufacturing."

I know the kids are going to have to get jobs someday. But school isn't the "workplace." School should be an extension of the home; teachers are stand-ins for parents, not for bosses. Parents know that there is a lot more to their children than their future earning potential. We should focus on what's good for the kids, not on what's good for the National Association of Manufacturers.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Caution: Experts at work

In The Schools Our Kids Deserve, Alfie Kohn quotes an article describing Success For All, a program for elementary school instruction. Kohn reminds us that the article was written "by a journalist who supports the program, at least for poor schools."

Success For All, designed by Robert Slavin and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins University, "tells schools precisely what to teach and how to teach it--to the point of scripting, nearly minute by minute, every teacher's activity in every classroom every day of the year. . . . Teachers must use a series of catch phrases and hand signals developed by Success For All. In kindergarten and first grade every piece of classroom material (readers, posters, tapes, videos, lesson plans, books--everything) is provided by the program. . . . Success For All . . . teaches reading primarily through phonics. . . . Students are tested, put into groups based upon their skills levels, drilled in reading skills, regrouped, and drilled some more. . . . [A first-grade teacher] stands at the blackboard and says, 'Okay, let's get ready for our shared story. Ready, read!' The students read the first page of the story loudly, in unison. . . . 'Okay, do your first word,' she says. The students call out together, 'Only! O [clap] N [clap] L [clap] Y [clap]. Only!' . . . 'If you work right, you'll earn points for your work team! You clear?' Twenty voices call out, 'Yes!'"

At the time the article appeared, Success For All had already been adopted in 1,100 schools across the country, largely in an attempt to raise reading scores. I'm not sure whom I feel sorrier for, the teachers or the kids.

I will concede that Success For All is different in degree from our reward tickets program. But is it different in kind?

..How can I comment?

Monday, October 12, 2009

People, or data points?

A reader writes:

The whole atmosphere of public school is geared toward generating data points, not compassionate, ethical, complex, and intellectually engaged human beings. Within that problematic framework, however, you find a lot of great teachers who are really trying their best.

Amen. The teachers are doing everything they can, and are in no position to complain about the problematic framework. But they've been given the project of putting a humane face on a less and less humane system. I'm very grateful to them for it, but I don't envy them.

..How can I comment?

A true believer

The other day I took issue with a statement made by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. It's worth taking a closer look at the article in which that statement appeared.

Hirsch, one of the Godfathers of high-stakes testing, was attempting to explain why, since high-stakes testing was formally incorporated into the No Child Left Behind law, reading scores have fallen. The problem is not with the use of high-stakes tests, he explains; the problem is the "unintended consequence that much time is being misspent on how-to skills and test preparation."

Unintended consequence? Gee, I guess nobody could have seen that coming. But Hirsch's proposed cure is no better than the disease. He proposes to have the state dictate a uniform curriculum that would apply to the first five grades of every elementary school -- every child reading the same material. Then we can base the high-stakes test on that uniform curriculum! (How this will eliminate the incentive to use drills and test-prep exercises is unexplained.)

This is revolutionary fervor disguised as expertise. If we have failed, the argument goes, it is only because our stranglehold was insufficiently tight. Conveniently, all failures can be explained away in this manner. Hirsch, for all his advocacy of "cultural literacy," seems never to have heard of the word "hubris."

..How can I comment?

Quote for the day

"I believe that education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living."

..How can I comment?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

ITBS week is here

This is the week when the students at our elementary school (and presumably everywhere in America) hunker down and take their Iowa Test of Basic Skills. We are told that they should "get a good night's sleep, eat a good breakfast and use good test-taking skills" -- for whose sake, exactly, is never explained. This blog, of course, will keep talking about the effects that high-stakes testing is having on our schools and on our kids. But there are other people who have made the case better than I ever could -- particularly FairTest, and authors such as Alfie Kohn and Deborah Meier. Check them out!

..How can I comment?

Our "evidence-based" world

Readers of this blog (if I dare to use the plural there) are familiar with the plan, currently being instituted in my children's school, to immerse the kids in a running stream of little red tickets reading "Stellar job!", culminating in a lottery-like drawing at the end of each week. At a recent school meeting, parents were assured that this behavioral rewards program is "evidence-based."

This phrase -- "evidence-based" -- has been cropping up more and more frequently. You may remember it from the last time your health insurer denied you coverage. In fact, its primary function is to deny -- to scoff at the naive idea that we should direct our resources toward any effort that has not received the blessing of an empirical study in a peer-reviewed journal. It flows from the principle -- or the unexamined assumption -- that the only things that have value are those that can be measured.

Don't get me wrong: evidence is a wonderful tool. But when did evidence become the master instead of the servant? Instead of a flashlight helping us see, it's now the searchlight on the prison tower, marking off the boundaries of what's permissible to consider. Don't go beyond that fence!

And what a small and dreary prison yard. Where is the standardized test that measures intellectual curiosity, creativity, inquiry, initiative, or character? If I advocate that those qualities should be central to education, I suppose I am not being "evidence-based."

Fortunately, those qualities have not disappeared from our schools. But they're now subsisting on the considerable charity of teachers, who, when their hands are not chained, do all they can to inject some humanity into the institution. What a far cry from being at the heart of the enterprise.

..How can I comment?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Evidence and values, ctd.

I recently read an astounding assertion by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. Defending the pervasive use of standardized testing in the schools, Hirsch wrote this:

Ample research shows that scores on fill-in-the-bubble reading tests are the most reliable predictors of Americans' future economic status and ability to become effective citizens.

I sure would like to see the empirical model that enables researchers to measure effective citizenship. Hasn't Hirsch fallen into exactly the problem I discussed here?

To be fair, Hirsch probably means that you can't be an effective citizen if you can't read well. But what if effective citizenship hinges on other qualities too? What if the schools conclude (as they seem to have concluded) that they can't maximize reading scores without taking an increasingly authoritarian approach to school discipline, and without putting special emphasis on passive compliance and obedience? Is that what makes a good citizen? Doesn't your answer depend on your values?

Life would certainly be easier if research and evidence could tell us what our values should be. But value judgments are not testable. Evidence can help shed light on the consequences of different choices, but it can't tell you whether to like or dislike those consequences. When competing values are at stake -- which is almost always -- the discussion inevitably has to move beyond evidence to the question of what kind of people we want to be.

..How can I comment?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Quote for the day

"I believe that our own experience instructs us that the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained, and he only holds the key to his own secret. By your tampering and thwarting and too much governing he may be hindered from his end and kept out of his own. Respect the child. Wait and see the new product of Nature. Nature loves analogies, but not repetitions. Respect the child. Be not too much his parent. Trespass not on his solitude."

..How can I comment?

Evidence and values

When people discuss rewards programs like the one I argued against here, they often frame the question as whether the program "works." Such a program, its supporters say, is "evidence-based," and there is research showing that it works.

I agree that evidence is important, and that we should look at the research about programs like these. But it's also true that there are some things evidence can't do.

For example, at a recent meeting to discuss the use of reward "tickets" at our school, one parent, a preschool teacher, explained why she opposed the program. "I know that kids need help learning good behavior, but if one of my preschoolers did a good thing, and I responded by handing him one of these tickets, it would just feel so condescending."

I am sure there are people who don't think there is anything wrong with acting condescending toward a four-year-old. There are also those, like the woman at the meeting, who do. Is there any research, any experimental design, that could prove one right and the other wrong?

To someone like me who opposes this kind of program, the issue is one of values. The fact that the program may "work" to increase compliance with school rules doesn't lead me to support it, any more than I would support corporal punishment if the evidence showed that it "worked." So I'm afraid that until we start talking about values, we're just going to be talking past one another.

..How can I comment?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Prize or feedback?

One supporter of the rewards program disagrees with my characterization of the program as culminating in a "prize." She points out that the student who is chosen in the drawing at the end of each week does not receive a tangible item, but instead "gets a special lunch with the principal or teacher, gets to sit in a special chair, gets to do a special job in the classroom, etc."

That's important to point out, and I suppose I'd feel even worse if the student were given, say, a bag of candy. But it still strikes me as a prize, and my sense is that the students experience it as one. It functions the same way the tickets themselves function -- as an incentive, as something they can "win." In terms of its function as feedback, I don't see a real distinction between the special chair and the tangible item.

..How can I comment?

Behavioral, yes. Positive and supporting? Maybe not.

Here is a letter that I am sending to the members of our school board:

I write to express my disagreement with a program that is currently being instituted in the Iowa City schools, and specifically in Hoover School, which my three daughters attend.

Hoover has recently started running a school-wide program of “positive behavioral supports,” apparently as part of the “Safe Schools Healthy Students” grant. As part of this program, teachers and staff are continually giving red “Stellar Job!” tickets to students whom they observe doing something praiseworthy in the hallways or lunchroom or at recess. The students collect the tickets to be entered into a lottery for a special prize at the end of each week.

Before I continue, I want to emphasize three things. First, I am not writing to criticize Hoover’s teachers or principal, who, as I understand it, had no choice in the adoption of this program, and who, for all I know, may dislike it themselves. Second, I am not taking any position on whether reward systems make sense for kids with learning disabilities or with autism; I hope the school system will take the opinions of the parents of those children into account in making those decisions. Third, I don’t doubt that this kind of program can increase compliance with school rules, at least in the short term. I object to it anyway, because I fear that those gains are coming at too high a cost, in terms of the messages that are being sent and the values that are being instilled.

I am against this program for several reasons:

1. The use of reward systems and token economies in education is very controversial. Many parents are uncomfortable with it, and a lot of research has raised concerns about its long-term consequences. Principal Kehoe at Hoover helpfully forwarded me an article defending the practice, but for every study one can cite in its favor, one can find a study that is critical of it. Moreover, all the empirical research in the world cannot resolve differences over values, which are at the heart of many parents’ objections, including mine. Given the lack of consensus on the pervasive use of rewards, and the significant number of parents who dislike it, the Board should not be adopting it as a school- or district-wide practice.

2. By essentially paying the students to be well-behaved, the program sends the message that good behavior is a chore -- a “job!” -- something you wouldn’t choose to do unless you’re compensated. The school might as well be telling the kids: “We know that nobody would want to be well-behaved, unless there’s something in it for them!” That is the opposite of the message I want to send my kids. I want them to do the right thing because they have thought about what’s right and developed a set of values of their own, not because someone else is paying them to. It may not be as easy as handing out reward tickets, but I think it’s the schools’ job to help students learn to think about their own behavior and values, rather than to develop unthinking responses to various artificial stimuli.

3. I am uncomfortable with the program’s emphasis on payment. The tickets are basically a stand-in for money -- or worse, for lottery tickets. The program creates a culture in which success is defined as the accumulation of these tickets -- I am told that some students have become virtually obsessed with getting more tickets. Though its goal is to encourage good behavior, the program actually promotes -- and depends on -- a type of greed.

4. The program models a disrespectful -- and frankly, kind of creepy -- way of interacting with other people. Rather than treat the kids as human beings to be engaged, it treats them more like laboratory animals to be manipulated. Kids know when they are being manipulated. But this program puts the stamp of approval on that kind of manipulation, and on treating other people instrumentally, as a means to an end. I hope that when my daughter someday approaches her Congressperson about an issue she cares about, she’ll offer a persuasive argument, not a bribe. But I worry that this program is teaching exactly the opposite lesson.

5. The rewards themselves seem dishonest. Standing quietly in the hallway is not the same as doing a “stellar job!” on something. To say otherwise is to devalue the meaning of language, to lower the standards of excellence to the point where they are virtually meaningless, and to rob the teachers of credibility. The kids know they didn’t do a stellar job of anything, so the lesson is that it’s okay to twist language -- to say what you don’t mean -- to get other people to do what you want. (A much more appropriate message would be “Thank you!,” although I would still object to the program for the other reasons I have identified.)

Genuine praise comes from sincere pleasure at a child’s achievements, and will happen naturally without programs and grant money. But this program is not about praise, it is about feigning praise to get compliance. By forcing the teachers to say things they don’t really mean, the program ends up modeling insincerity.

6. The program forces the school to become a kind of Big Brother, constantly scrutinizing the kids and passing judgment on them. Do we really want the school to try to get inside their heads to that degree? There is no reason to think that kids will react to that kind of pervasive scrutiny any differently than we, as adults, would react to it; if anything, they will have fewer defenses to the feelings it would provoke and the stress that it would create. A child should be encouraged to develop a conception of self that is his or her own, not dependent on the constant approval of someone else. A little freedom, a little privacy, and an occasional break from the watchful eye of the teachers are healthy ingredients in the process of growing up, even if the kids might be a little less orderly in the hallways as a result.

7. The distribution of reward tickets is inevitably going to be arbitrary. A student who is on her best behavior may still not get tickets, and so will feel inexplicably punished. Moreover, even well-intentioned teachers can fall victim to unconscious biases; studies have shown, for example, that kids who are perceived to be physically attractive are likely to receive more favorable attention from their teachers. In a system where the teachers are passing out scores of reward tickets every day, there is every reason to be concerned that the tickets will be distributed in ways that are arbitrary and unintentionally hurtful.

8. We are being encouraged to think of these behavioral manipulation techniques as “positive,” and as distinguishable from a system of punishing students for bad behavior. But there is no real distinction. If you reward well-behaved students with lottery tickets, then by definition you are punishing those students to whom you don’t give a ticket. Maybe some use of punishment is inevitable in a school full of kids, but to claim that this system is not about punishment is disingenuous.

9. Even if I agreed with the pervasive use of rewards, I would object to what is being rewarded here. The students are not getting tickets for thinking creatively, for asking good questions, or (with a few exceptions) for being kind to someone else -- even if the school wanted to reward that behavior, it would be impossible to reliably identify it in the hallways and the lunchroom. Instead, the students are being rewarded for being quiet, for following the rules, and for obeying the teachers. Ask any kid what it means to “be good” in school, and you get the same answer: “Be quiet, and do what the teacher says.”

I know that schools need to have rules and to enforce them, but I object to the increasing emphasis on unquestioning obedience to authority as the one value that stands above all others. I want my kids to learn that obedience to authority is not the highest value. I want them to learn to think for themselves, to question the world they find themselves in, and not to let their self-worth or values depend on some authority figure’s opinion. I want to prepare them to become citizens in a democracy, not subjects of an authoritarian state. I worry that thirteen years of “Be quiet and do what the teacher says” is not advancing those goals.

I don’t mean to say that our school teaches nothing but compliance with rules. Of course the school is also trying to engage the students and make them think. And I understand that without some order in the classroom, teaching becomes impossible. I’m talking about a matter of degree: at some point, an overemphasis on obedience will necessarily undermine any emphasis on inquiry and thought. Sure, all schools want their students to learn to think, but inevitably actions speak louder than words: no one gets kept in from recess for failing to think deeply or to ask a good question.

I should add that the emphasis on unquestioning compliance with the wishes of others is especially a concern for the parents of girls -- it is exactly the habit you don’t want them taking into their adolescent years.

10. I can’t help but wonder whether this program is yet another result of our school systems’ increasingly single-minded pursuit of higher standardized test scores. It appears to be part and parcel of the general increase in strictness, regimentation, and rigidity that has followed from the effort to squeeze every last testing point out of the students. I’m just one person, but for what it’s worth: I do not care whether you add a few more points to my daughters’ standardized test scores. It is not worth turning the school into a behavioral laboratory or a military academy. I am much more concerned that my daughters grow up in a humane environment where the main emphasis is on thought and inquiry, rather than on compliance and obedience. I believe you can get a good education -- in fact, a better education -- without being immersed in reward systems or authoritarian values.

It seems ironic that this is all being done in the name of preparing the students for college and for adulthood. To me, that reflects an impoverished and short-sighted understanding of what a school should be, and of what it means to be well-educated. I believe that this emphasis on test scores is failing our kids: that it is not at all anticipating what adulthood will demand of them, or even what might someday attract the attention of a college admissions officer. By making so much contingent on raising test scores in the short term, our system is distorting the broader mission of schools, for the worse.

11. Finally, the program is simply unnecessary. I have never heard anyone complain that the students at Hoover were too noisy in the hallways, too disorderly at lunch, or insufficiently inclined to line up after recess. Hoover wasn’t broken, and did not need to be “fixed” in this way.

Thank you for listening.

Related posts:

Evidence and values

What’s good for General Motors . . .

Alfie Kohn on our red tickets


Weird science

Some company in Connecticut

The risks of rewards

Caution: Experts at work (continued)

Treating kids like pets, continued

Scenes from the first week of school

..How can I comment?

Comment policy

People, including me, can naturally get pretty worked up about anything that affects their kids. But this is a small town, and when the argument’s over, we all have to keep living with each other. I’ve done enough web-surfing to be leery of opening up this blog to unlimited anonymous comments. I want to make sure that the focus stays on ideas, and not on personalities. So, at least for now, I’m going to take comments only through email.

Parents, students, teachers, and interested onlookers: I’d love it if you sent me your thoughts at ABlogAboutSchool [ at ] gmail [ dot ] com. Please be aware that I may post or quote your emails on the blog.

UPDATE: For posts after September 15, 2010, I have enabled comments. (See this post.) I still welcome comments by email on earlier posts.

Welcome to A Blog About School

A funny thing happens when you talk about school with another parent. Maybe you’re waiting outside the building at three o’clock for the kids to get out. You’re making small talk with another dad. You start talking about what the kids are saying about school.

“My kids say they only get fifteen minutes for lunch,” he might say.

“Yeah, I think that’s all they get,” you say.

“And just getting through the line takes time.”

“Especially if they’re buying lunch.”

“My kids bring their lunch, but they never finish it. There’s not enough time in fifteen minutes.”

“Sometimes mine eat theirs on the way home.”

“Seems like they could give them more than fifteen minutes for lunch.”

“Yeah, seems crazy.”


Shoulders are shrugged.
The bell rings.
The subject is never revisited.

I imagine a prisoner in solitary confinement, using a spoon to tap out messages in Morse code on the bars of his cell. Suddenly, he hears some tapping in response -- someone else wants to talk! Then the moment passes and he’s alone again.

Of course, you could talk to the principal, or the superintendent, or the school board. You would probably get some sympathy -- these are all good people trying to do their best. “Yes, it really is too bad that lunch has to be so short. But it’s so hard to accommodate the schedule, and the kids start to get unruly, and the next group of kids needs the room,” etc.

As you stand there, by yourself, you wonder: But what if all the parents agreed that fifteen minutes was too short? Would that make a difference? And then you realize: it doesn’t matter, because no one will ever know how many parents agree with you. There is no mechanism for expanding that conversation beyond the three o’clock small talk. Sometimes it almost seems as if that is by design.

Therefore: a blog. On a blog, I can toss out some ideas -- not just to parents, but to teachers, kids, people at other schools, anyone who’s interested -- and see what kind of response they get. Even if it doesn’t change any minds, it might at least reassure a few people that they are not alone in their opinions. (On the other hand, it may just prove that I am, in fact, alone. I promise not to be surprised.)

In the spirit of any self-respecting blog, I have posted an inaugural rant. Although it’s a response to a very specific practice that has recently begun at my kids’ school, it can also serve as a kind of initial manifesto for this blog, and, hopefully, as something that will stimulate some debate.

Of course, I have no idea where this is going. Maybe I’ll get tired of it in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, thanks for tuning in.

UPDATE: On the issue of the fifteen-minute lunch, a group of parents has petitioned the school superintendent for change. See this post.

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