Monday, November 15, 2010

Follow-up on Press-Citizen guest opinion

This is to follow-up on the guest opinion that I wrote for the Iowa City Press-Citizen today. Space in the Press-Citizen is very limited, so I will add a few thoughts here. First, I want to point out some things that the piece is not saying:

  • I am not telling anyone who has children with autism what they should do. I don’t know enough about that experience to have an opinion about it, and I feel for anyone whose family is affected by autism or any other disability. Nor am I criticizing the use of Social Thinking for kids who have autism. As I say in the article, “It is easy to see how such an approach could be valuable for a child who has a neurological disorder that makes social interaction hard.”

  • I am not suggesting that it’s terrible for a neurotypical child to be “treated like she has autism.” I am objecting to the contents of a specific program as applied to neurotypical children.

  • I am not endorsing anarchy or saying that the school shouldn’t care about how the kids act. In fact, I’m saying the opposite: that a genuinely rigorous approach to addressing problem behavior would involve getting the kids to think about why they should act in a certain way and to begin to develop their own moral reasoning, rather than just instructing them to follow directions and conform to expectations.

  • I am not making a personal attack on anyone. These are policy issues, and more discussion of policy issues can only be to the good. Nor am I being unsupportive of my kids’ school. I believe I am being supportive of our school by trying to get people talking about the policies that govern a large part of our kids’ lives.

  • I am not blaming the teachers. I am very happy with my kids’ teachers. I know they have relatively little say in the policies that they sometimes have to execute (which isn’t to say that they agree with me).

  • I am not saying that nothing good happens at my kids’ school, or that they never try to get the kids to think and reason. I’m talking very specifically about the school’s approach to behavior and discipline, not its approach to education more generally.

What I am saying comes down to two things.

First, I believe that our schools’ expectations about the kids’ behavior have ratcheted up to the point where they are overly restrictive, unrealistic, and not age-appropriate. I say “schools” in the plural, because I sense that this is increasingly true in many schools and school systems, though my only direct experience is with Hoover. Hoover has started to remind me of a military academy. On multiple occasions over the past year, the kids have been made to eat lunch in utter silence -- “voice level zero” -- because some of them were being too loud. Kids are allowed to use the bathroom only so many times each day and for so long. (One mom told me that her daughter runs to the bathroom as soon as they get home after school.) Recess and lunch are shorter than ever. When the kids get to school in the morning, they’re expected to wait outside until the bell rings, and then line up single file and walk silently to their classrooms. Why? Who could they possibly be disturbing during those five minutes? (The other day, one boy showed up as the bell rang and said “Hi” to a friend in another line. “Shhhh!” the other boy responded, “Don’t talk!”)

Our school’s “character education” program -- which ostensibly promotes traits such as courage, respect, responsibility, and honesty -- in fact is used mainly to convey the importance of obedience and compliance with school rules. “Respect,” for example, is defined to mean “Line up quickly when the bell rings,” and “Lunchroom: Body basics. Voice level 1 or 2.” “Honesty” means “follow the rules even when an adult is not around” and “play fair and follow [school] game rules.” “Courage” means “follow the rules even if others don’t.” And so on. Posters and signs appear throughout the classrooms and hallways as constant reminders of the rules and required “voice levels” for different activities.

First- and second-graders now have homework, to prepare them for when they’re in third and fourth grade. (Before, it was the third- and fourth-graders who had homework, to prepare them for when they’re in fifth and sixth grade.) Five-year-old boys are expected to sit still and be quiet for unrealistically long periods of time. When they don’t, it’s always the kid who has the problem; no matter how many little boys act out, no one ever questions whether the school’s expectations are age-appropriate.

I believe that this ratcheting up of expectations, and the accompanying emphasis on behavioral compliance, is a direct result of No Child Left Behind and the increasing pressure on schools to raise their standardized test scores at any cost. Ask any teacher about how schools have changed over the last ten years. Is it because kids are an utterly different species than they were ten years ago? Or is it because the laws have changed?

Second, I’m objecting to the approach that our schools are taking to deal with behavior issues. Of course schools will always have rules, and part of growing up is learning to treat others with care and respect. But it is possible to talk with kids about behavior in ways that aren’t in tension with the goal of developing thinking, questioning, intellectually curious people. Rather than instruct the kids to do whatever is expected of them, the schools could engage them in real discussions to get them to talk and to reason about how they choose to treat other people and about their own developing moral understandings. Is that approach as easy as just making rules and handing out reward tickets? Probably not, but at least it has the advantage of not teaching values (do as you’re told and don’t ask questions) that are inconsistent with the whole idea of educating people.

But instead of approaches that view children as ripe for intellectual engagement and full of potential for growth, we get behavior programs that are modeled on the treatment of disability. (The reward ticket program, incidentally, also has origins that are intertwined with the treatment of autism. Its emphasis on the use of frequent concrete rewards for desired behavior is an echo of some of the most common treatments for autism, and the program itself is a school-wide version of an approach promoted by prominent autism researchers to help reduce self-destructive behaviors associated with autism and other developmental disabilities. My objections to the program are here.) I think that represents a missed opportunity and an unfortunate diminishment of what education should be about.

I don’t send my kids to school to learn that unquestioning obedience to authority and unthinking conformity are the highest values, but I’m afraid that’s the message that our school risks sending by the way it deals with behavior issues. I think that’s bad for our kids and bad for the future of our country. I look forward to the day when the posters in the hallway will urge the kids to ask good questions, to reach their own conclusions, to show initiative and creativity -- to use their minds -- instead of just to walk single file and keep their “voice level” down.


FedUpMom said...

Chris, you've raised so many important issues here. I'll post a partial response over at Kid-Friendly Schools. Please feel free to cross-post your writings whenever you're ready. Thanks!

Chris said...

Thanks, FedUpMom! I will definitely be cross-posting some material soon, as well as commenting on your posts on this topic. Have been having trouble finding the time to post things at all lately (note the date stamp on this post!), but am hoping that things will settle down a bit as the holidays approach.