Thursday, October 8, 2009

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?