Thursday, October 15, 2009


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?