Thursday, October 28, 2010

It doesn’t build character

From Education Week:

Character education has grown in popularity among educators and parents alike, but the largest federal study of schoolwide programs to date has found that, for the most part, they don’t produce any improvements in student behavior or academic performance.
I described our school’s program here.  Maybe they could cut the character education and give the kids back the time they used to have for lunch and recess.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What’s in it for me?

Here’s a good post from Joe Bower about how behavioral reward programs like PBIS stunt kids’ moral development.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Welcome, new readers

The hit counter is getting an unexpected workout today after Alfie Kohn tweeted a link to ABlogAboutSchool. Welcome, visitors; I hope you’ll find something of interest here.

I started this blog because I am concerned about school practices that treat my kids like objects to be manipulated, or data points, or means to someone else’s end, rather than as full-fledged human beings. I’m also concerned that, in their drive to raise short-term test scores, our schools have become more effective at inculcating authoritarian values than at helping kids become thinking, capable citizens of a democracy.

I don’t think of this blog as either liberal or conservative, though “anti-authoritarian” and “small-d democratic” would be fair labels. If the site has one overarching theme, it’s that today’s schools would benefit from an infusion of democratic principles and an increase in democratic accountability, and that the absence of those qualities goes a long way toward explaining why schools are increasingly authoritarian and inhumane.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the site. Some representative posts are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

This Rule is My Rule

Over at Kid-Friendly Schools, FedUpMom has a post about the trend toward dressing up disciplinary programs in the language of “choice” -- as if the children are freely choosing to subject themselves to whatever punitive system the schools have dreamed up for them. She cites “Make Your Day,” a kindergarten behavior program with various punitive “steps” for non-compliance, which depicts a child saying, “Choosing step doesn’t mean I’m a bad kid, it just means I need help making better choices.” FedUpMom concludes: “It means that progressive ideas like respecting the child have gotten just far enough that a management system that openly used coercion and punishment would not sell well. But a system that uses coercion and punishment disguised as ‘choice’ can sell very well indeed.”

I have always felt the same way about the use of so-called behavioral contracts. (Example here.) In the old days, the school told you what to do and punished you for not doing it. In today’s enlightened times, the school makes you sign a “contract” “agreeing” on what to do, then punishes you for not doing what you “agreed” to do. How progressive!

As someone who has taught Contracts many times, I can assure you: Nothing could be further from the concept of “contract” than forcing a minor to sign a document and then using her “agreement” as a basis for punishing her.

This attempt to paste a progressive face on the same old punitive coercion seems to be a common feature of current educational techniques. There is apparently no limit to the shamelessness with which schools will pursue the tactic. The “Make Your Day” program’s website, for example, contains the following song to be sung with the children:

The Rule Song
(Sung to This Land is Made for You and Me)

The rule is my rule.
The rule is your rule.
It is the student’s rule.
It is the teacher’s rule.
It is the parent’s rule.
It is the community’s.
This rule was made for you and me!

Yes, that spinning sound you hear is coming from Woody Guthrie’s grave.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

What do people expect?

Another parent recently showed me this worksheet (click to enlarge), which our elementary school uses as part of its “guidance” curriculum. It comes from a marketed program called “Social Thinking,” which was developed as a treatment for high-functioning autistic children. The goal of the program is to get kids to be more aware of how other people perceive them. “As part of our humanity,” the program’s website explains, “each of us is on a daily quest to avoid each other’s ‘weird thoughts.’ We constantly consider people around us and adjust our behavior to help people have ‘normal thoughts about us.’” Some of the program’s goals are to help kids “Navigate their behaviors for more rewarding social outcomes,” and “Adapt to the people and situations around them.”

I can see how there is some value in learning to see oneself from another person’s perspective, and I don’t presume to know anything about how to work with kids who have autism. But I’m concerned about the use of a worksheet like this in a classroom of non-autistic kids. The plain message of the worksheet, intended or not, is that you should act the way that others expect you to act, and that you shouldn’t do anything that might surprise someone else. In the hands of a school that is already overemphasizing the importance of obedience and mindless compliance, a worksheet like this seems designed to teach conformity, and to teach that there is something wrong with people who are different or “surprising.”

If we have to have a “guidance” curriculum, shouldn’t it teach the exact opposite lesson -- that you should develop your own sense of right and wrong, that you should be true to your values even in the face of peer pressure, that it’s okay to be different from what people expect you to be, that everyone is unique, that it takes all kinds to make a world? Instead, our school is obsessed with achieving “behavioral compliance,” no matter what the cost.


In other news, it’s ITBS week here in Iowa City . . .

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Blog news

To mark one year in cyberspace, I decided to update the template. The brick wall seemed like too good a metaphor to pass up. Please be tolerant if there are technical problems over the next week or so . . .

Friday, October 8, 2010

Please tell me this is a parody

The New York Times reports on the decline of picture books for young children:

The economic downturn is certainly a major factor, but many in the industry see an additional reason for the slump. Parents have begun pressing their kindergartners and first graders to leave the picture book behind and move on to more text-heavy chapter books. Publishers cite pressures from parents who are mindful of increasingly rigorous standardized testing in schools. . . .

Some parents say they just want to advance their children’s skills. Amanda Gignac, a stay-at-home mother in San Antonio who writes The Zen Leaf, a book blog, said her youngest son, Laurence, started reading chapter books when he was 4.

Now Laurence is 6 ½, and while he regularly tackles 80-page chapter books, he is still a “reluctant reader,” Ms. Gignac said.

Sometimes, she said, he tries to go back to picture books.

“He would still read picture books now if we let him, because he doesn’t want to work to read,” she said, adding that she and her husband have kept him reading chapter books.

I kept double-checking -- but no, it was the Times, not the Onion.

UPDATE: The mom quoted in the article responds here. It’s not hard to believe that a Times reporter might take someone’s words out of context.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Will homeschoolers save the schools?

It seems like virtually everyone now knows at least one homeschooling family. Most people are still skeptical about the practice, but the mere existence of these families forces people to think, however briefly, about the possibility of doing things differently than they’ve been done in the past.

I know that there are all kinds of arguments about homeschooling, pro and con, and that it’s impossible to see homeschooling as the solution to the challenge of educating a nation full of kids, since it’s just not an option for that many people. But I do wonder if the mere presence of homeschoolers will ultimately make people look differently at certain features of our educational system that we might otherwise just take for granted.

Do homeschooled kids end up exactly the same as schooled kids? Probably not; otherwise there would be no point in doing it. They may be worse off in some respects, and better off in others. Presumably they’re different, but the more we see of them, the less it seems like there is anything disastrous in the difference. Are the outcomes perfect? No. Are the outcomes of conventional schools perfect? Hell, no.

It’s hard to generalize about homeschooling because there are so many different approaches to it. But the more traditional “school-like” homeschoolers have more in common with the lefty/libertarian “unschoolers” than you might think at first glance. They all value the opportunity to treat the child as an individual, rather than as a face in the crowd; to take each child’s particular needs into account; to allow the child to progress at a rate that is appropriate for him or her, and not one that is dictated for everyone; to immerse the child in a wider world that is not artificially limited to other children of his or her own age group; to better model values that will enable the child to lead a fulfilling life; and to reach their educational goals more efficiently, with less of the child’s time wasted. In those respects, even a relatively authoritarian homeschooling environment is more humane and child-centered than an authoritarian conventional school.

When people look across the street and see that their neighbor’s kids are somehow becoming functioning adults with only a fraction of the coercion and dehumanization that their own kids are experiencing in conventional schools, won’t they start to wonder what the added value of all that coercion and dehumanization is? Even if people remain skeptical of homeschooling itself, they may begin to look for ways to incorporate some of the positive aspects of homeschooling into their kids’ existing schools. In that way, homeschoolers may be doing conventional schools a favor in the same way that third parties have historically done the major parties a favor: the practice itself may remain marginal, but the existing institutions may be forced to address some of the underlying concerns that motivate it. One can hope, anyway.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Why can’t it be better now?

After news of yet another suicide by a gay teenager who had been tormented at school, Dan Savage has started a YouTube channel called “It Gets Better,” in which gay and lesbian adults talk about how life really does get better after high school. From the New York Times:

Q: Why did you decide to create a YouTube channel to talk to gay teenagers?

A: There was another suicide of a teenager, a kid who was being harassed for being gay. I put up a link to the story, and someone said in a comment that they wished they could have talked to the kid for five minutes to tell him it gets better. That’s always been my reaction too. I realized that with things like YouTube and social media, we can talk directly to these kids. We can make an end run around the schools that don’t protect them, from parents who want to keep gay kids isolated and churches that tell them that they are sinful or disordered. . . .

Q: The video advice you offer kids is to just hang in there. Why aren’t you telling them that you can help them now?

A: We can’t help them. That’s what makes gay adults despair and feel so helpless when we hear these stories. We can’t barge into these schools. I get to go to colleges and speak, but high schools don’t bring me in, and those are the ages that young gay people are committing suicide. I’ve read these stories for years. Because of technology, we don’t need to wait for an invitation anymore to speak to these kids. We can speak to them directly.

The channel is now filled with videos telling kids to have faith: high school will end, and things will get better. (Savage’s own video is here.)

The project is admirable and moving, but there is also a layer of sadness over it. The best that it can promise these kids is that if they can just survive for four more years, their pain will subside and they’ll find some happiness. Until then, though, there is no prospect of relief.

Intolerance and cruelty are almost universally seen as immutable features of childhood -- something to be endured, but not avoided. Is it true? How is it that, as almost everyone acknowledges, this cruelty largely dissipates the minute the kids set foot on a college campus? Is it because an extra year has utterly transformed their characters? Or is it because they suddenly find themselves in a very different kind of institution?

The cruelty of kids is a form of dehumanization: the victim is treated as an object to be used, rather than as a full-fledged human being. You don’t have to look far, in K-12 schooling, for models of that kind of behavior. Much of the national debate about education is framed in exactly those terms: kids are a means to the goal of improving the gross national product and boosting our competitiveness in the global marketplace. Our job is not to engage them as partners in their own development, but to manipulate, trick, coerce, and punish them into doing what we think is best for us -- er, I mean, for them. We give them little or no say in how they are treated, and discourage them from thinking critically about the institution they are confined to. We give them no outlet for their grievances against those institutions. We reduce their civil liberties to a minimum. We insist that they be quiet and obedient. In short, we push them around a lot -- though we tell ourselves it’s for their own good -- and we can do it because they're powerless to stop us.

Is that the recipe for getting kids to treat each other with respect and dignity?

Quote for the day

“The disappearance of a sense of responsibility is the most far-reaching consequence of submission to authority.”

--Stanley Milgram (and he should know)