Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Year-end blog roundup

Batocchio at Vagabond Scholar has posted his annual list of Best Blog Posts of the Year (Chosen by the Bloggers Themselves). Batocchio’s list is a nice way of promoting small blogs (I’ve been getting a lot of new visitors today as a result of my own entry) and can lead you to some interesting finds.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Our school’s message to students

I’m afraid our elementary school’s recent message to students on its website is more revealing than inspiring:
Students: We are proud of your accomplishments so far this year! Congratulations on completion of the many assessments that have occurred: DIBELS, DRAs, Iowa Assessments, and the District Writing Assessment. Your behavior and academic achievements are to be commended!
I know a lot of kids at this school. There are so many things to be proud of them for. Being well-behaved test-takers is very, very low on that list.

(Via Doris.)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

“Kids as grist for the law enforcement mill”

Charles Pierce at Esquire, reflecting on youth arrest rates, writes that “something is seriously out of whack in the way we’re asking our law enforcement community to interact with our children”:
We have raised, and are now raising, generations of children who are completely ignorant of the rights they have as citizens, and we are doing it through the application of the most coercive powers the state possesses.
Read the whole post.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Does Jason Glass know better than you do?

The latest “education reform” talking point is that class size doesn’t matter. It’s been empirically proven!
[Economist Roland] Fryer found that class size, per-pupil spending, and the number of teachers with certifications or advanced degrees had nothing to do with student test scores in language and math.
. . .

Schools that focused on teacher development, data-driven instruction, creating a culture focused on student achievement, and setting high academic expectations consistently fared better.
I remember taking an SAT prep course when I was in high school. We all listened as the instructor worked through exercises designed to get our test scores up. I suspect it was all very data-driven. If that’s your vision of education, it’s probably true that class size is largely irrelevant. And who could want more for their children?

One of the people arguing that class size is unimportant is our State Director of Education, Jason Glass. “Given where class sizes currently are in most schools in the United States, I am willing to trade holding the line or even slightly increasing class size in exchange for improving educator effectiveness.” With that stance, Glass couldn’t get elected to any school board in the state of Iowa. Yet he has more control over our kids’ education than any school board has. What’s wrong with this picture?

Monday, December 19, 2011

A more human scale

Detail of Leviathan, from Giacomo
Rossignolo’s fresco, “The Last Judgment.”

Mark Mitchell writes this about the European economic crisis:
Ultimately, the issue turns on matters of scale. Through this lens, the current crisis (and this is merely part of a broader crisis that extends beyond Europe) appears as a failure to appreciate the fact that optimal human institutions—those that facilitate human flourishing—cannot exceed a certain scale, and when they do, they will inevitably suffer.

Europe’s problems, then, present an opportunity to reconsider ideas that have been ignored for too long. A renewed commitment to the principles of political decentralism, economic localism, and cultural regionalism is a radical prescription for a Europe haunted by the specter of unity, but it would provide the opportunity for Europeans to reconsider the meaning of citizenship, culture, and community on a scale that is meaningful, which is to say, suited to human beings.
Couldn’t he just as easily be talking about America’s approach to education? Anyone who’s had any interaction with their local school system knows how un-local it actually is: there’s always someone higher up to blame for whatever is being done. The federal government has effectively dictated a uniform philosophy of education – one that sees its only goal as raising standardized test scores – and the states have filled in the blanks by dictating what local school systems can and cannot do. Even within a school district, it’s never clear exactly where the buck stops – The principal? The superintendent? The school board? In the face of such a huge, increasingly centralized bureaucracy, the natural response is resignation and learned helplessness.

Isn’t that more human scale a part of what you get for your tuition dollars at a private school? Why deny it to public school students?

The concentration of policymaking power in the hands of federal officials (and to a lesser extent state officials) seems to reflect nothing but a prevailing sense that ordinary people cannot be trusted to make good decisions and need to be told what to do, for their own good. This attitude infects the entire educational system – from the way the federal government treats the states, to the way the states treat the local school boards, administrators, and teachers, and most of all to the way everyone treats the kids. It equates power with superior judgment. Why give people autonomy when you know better than they do?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Some company in Maine

In the comments to this post, Emily G. mentioned that she was working on an article about parents’ objections to PBIS in her small town in Maine. That article is now available here.

The parents’ objections to the program are very similar to those raised here:
“It felt to me like they were frequently sort of at risk of getting in trouble for being too loud,” [one parent] said. “Of all the things I would like my kid’s school to emphasize, I would like them to emphasize academic effort ... and being a good friend,” not quiet and obedience.
Parents also complained about lunchroom aides “yelling into microphones for students to be quiet,” and the “a huge disconnect between the culture of the school this year and the culture of the schools last year.” The article also contains the usual euphemisms and excuse-making on PBIS’s behalf – that it’s about feedback to create “social confidence,” and that if there’s any problem, it must be with how the program is being implemented, not with PBIS itself.

Check out the article’s sidebar as well – apparently a school board member criticized teachers for presenting only a one-sided picture of PBIS rather than discussing both the program’s strengths and drawbacks. The board member later apologized for using terms like “dog-and-pony show” and “rah-rah session” to describe the teachers’ presentation, but maintained that the school department had highlighted only “the positive side of an issue rather than making a balanced presentation.”

Sound familiar? The main difference seems to be in how actively the school board members are scrutinizing what’s going on their schools.

Maine readers: A more complete statement of my objections to PBIS appears here.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Some thoughts on “bullying”

Glenn Greenwald has a post up about the use of the word “terrorism.” An excerpt:
This topic is so vital because this meaningless, definition-free word — Terrorism — drives so many of our political debates and policies. Virtually every debate in which I ever participate quickly and prominently includes defenders of government policy invoking the word as some sort of debate-ending, magical elixir: of course President Obama has to assassinate U.S. citizens without due process: they’re Terrorists; of course we have to stay in Afghanistan: we have to stop The Terrorists; President Obama is not only right to kill people (including civilians) using drones, but is justified in boasting and even joking about it, because they’re Terrorists; of course some people should be held in prison without charges: they’re Terrorists, etc. etc. It’s a word that simultaneously means nothing and justifies everything.
I wonder if a similar phenomenon is starting to occur with the word “bullying.” Of course, no one likes a bully, and we’d all like to see less bullying in schools. But when I hear people talk about a “War on Bullying,” and about “crackdowns” and “zero tolerance,” and when I hear the word applied to an increasing range of conduct (see Iowa City’s definition here), I get an uncomfortable sense of deja vu. I can’t help wondering whether the word “bullying” is being used as a rhetorical tool to generate support for – or quell opposition to – the schools’ use of increasingly authoritarian practices to “manage behavior.” Is policing more conduct and punishing more kids the best way to teach kids to treat each other well?

I don’t think we should take the War on Drugs, for example, as our model for how to address a social problem. Bullying, like drug abuse, is a real problem, but it doesn’t automatically follow that a heavy-handed law enforcement approach is the solution.

This is particularly true in the context of bullying, because the more schools use coercion to address bullying, the more they are modeling coercive behavior. The school, after all, is telling the kids how to act, giving them no say in what it demands of them, then policing their behavior and punishing them if they don’t comply – sometimes even casting them out of the community (via suspension or expulsion). Schools can’t avoid doing some of that. But consider how often “bullying” resembles those same actions. Is it possible that some of the bullies are acting out what they see around them? How confident can we be that, if the school intensifies its focus on punitive enforcement, the kids will start to treat each other better instead of worse? And shouldn’t we be concerned about the other values that end up getting taught – even to the “well-behaved” kids – the more the school starts resembling a police state?

Greenwald and others have also written about the double standard that often applies when the words “terrorism” and “torture” are used to refer only to what other people do, and not to what we do. Similarly, it’s hard to come up with a fair definition of “bullying” that wouldn’t apply to some of what schools do to kids in the name of compulsory learning. When one kid coerces and intimidates another, it’s “bullying.” When the school coerces and intimidates the kids, it’s apparently something else – maybe “enhanced education techniques”?

The first step to addressing bullying should be to model humane treatment of other people. Schools, given the power they have over the children who attend them, are in a particularly good position to model humane treatment of those who are weaker and more vulnerable. Wouldn’t that necessarily involve giving them some say over their own treatment? Wouldn’t it involve treating them more gently, and with more understanding, dignity, and compassion, than one could get away with? What else is bullying but a disregard, through superior force, of those principles?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Questions you’re not supposed to ask

The Answer Sheet reports on a school board member who decided to take his state’s high-stakes standardized tests and make his scores public, because of his growing doubts about the tests’ value:
“I won’t beat around the bush,” he wrote in an email. “The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62% . In our system, that’s a “D”, and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction.

He continued, “It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate.

“I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities.

. . .

“It might be argued that I’ve been out of school too long, that if I’d actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn’t that miss the point? A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.”
Yet the unquestionable “need” to raise those test scores now drives everything that happens in our schools. How much drudgery and obedience training have been imposed on kids for the sake of it? The article continues:
My school board member-friend concluded his email with this: “I can’t escape the conclusion that those of us who are expected to follow through on decisions that have been made for us are doing something ethically questionable.”
I can’t escape that conclusion either. Read the whole post. My related thoughts here.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

How many classroom teachers would this pay for?

There is a now just a year-and-a-half left in the federal grant that funds our district’s pervasive behavioral rewards program, PBIS. Apparently it’s unthinkable to stop the program now – regardless of whether it’s harming our kids’ educations – because then we might have to give some money back. But isn’t it time for the school board to start thinking about whether it will continue this program – with district money – once the federal funding runs out?

Of course, I think the program has been an unmitigated disaster, and outright harmful to the kids. But even those who feel less strongly will have to ask: does the district really want to pour resources into a program like PBIS when it could devote those same resources to other goals – such as reducing class sizes?

Treating kids like pets, continued

I.P. Pavlov in his laboratory

Commenter Hienuri’s mention of Stalinist Russia reminded me of this passage from A People’s Tragedy, Orlando Figes’s history of the Russian Revolution:
In October 1919, according to legend, Lenin paid a secret visit to the laboratory of the great physiologist I.P. Pavlov to find out if his work on the conditional reflexes of the brain might help the Bolsheviks control human behaviour. “I want the masses of Russia to follow a Communistic pattern of thinking and reacting,” Lenin explained. “There was too much individualism in the Russia of the past. Communism does not tolerate individualistic tendencies. They are harmful. They interfere with our plans. We must abolish individualism.” Pavlov was astounded. It seemed that Lenin wanted him to do for humans what he had already done for dogs. “Do you mean that you would like to standardize the population of Russia? Make them all behave in the same way?” he asked. “Exactly,” replied Lenin. “Man can be corrected. Man can be made what we want him to be.”

Whether it happened or not, the story illustrates a general truth: the ultimate aim of the Communist system was the transformation of human nature. It was an aim shared by the other so-called totalitarian regimes of the inter-war period.
Obviously Iowa City is not Soviet Russia. But when you hear someone theorizing about the potential of operant conditioning to make everyone behave in a standardized way, it’s hard not to think of PBIS. And when you look at PBIS’s promotional materials, it’s hard not to recognize some of that transformational utopianism that seems to go hand in hand with a totalitarian mindset. The common link is a view of people as objects to be manipulated, rather than thinking autonomous beings to be engaged.

Monday, November 28, 2011

What is our school teaching about liberty and justice?

Reproduction of a poster that appears
in the movie “Brazil,” purchasable here

In America, if you commit a crime, the state can jail your friends and neighbors. In America, the state can punish an entire group whenever it is too hard to sort out the innocent from the guilty. In America, you have to monitor your neighbors’ conduct, and you can be punished if you fail to report their crimes. In America, it is your duty to pressure your fellow citizens into obeying the authorities, even if you have no say in what the authorities demand. In America, you must always be willing to sacrifice your freedom in the name of law and order.

Any school that taught those false statements in a civics class would be guilty of gross educational malpractice. I worry, though, that my kids’ school is teaching them every day, in the way it handles discipline. In its zeal to enforce behavioral rules, the school is willing to punish the innocent along with the guilty, and to coerce the kids into serving as informants on one another.

Take the lunchroom. As I described here, our school is engaged in a baffling War on Lunchroom Noise, even though both parents and kids report that the lunchroom is not all that noisy, and even though no one even bothers to close the door to the room during lunch, and even though the gym classes held in the same room are significantly noisier. To achieve this dubious goal of a needlessly quiet lunchroom, the lunchroom attendants make a special point of telling the kids that their whole table (of up to sixteen kids) will be punished – by having to eat in silence – if any of them are too noisy, and so they had all better pay attention to how their table-mates are behaving. If the room gets “too noisy,” the person in charge tells the kids to raise their hands if their “neighbors” are talking.

Similarly, if the school catches a child bullying another child, it doesn’t stop at disciplining the bully. Now, apparently, the school has taken to disciplining kids who happened to see the bullying and did not report it. In such a case, the school sends an incident report to the bystander’s parents, telling them to sign it and return it to the school.

Last year, as I described here, a teacher told a roomful of kids to search each other’s desks and backpacks to find an eraser that had supposedly been stolen from the teacher’s desk.

Why would a school choose to model values and practices that are so contrary to those that our country stands for?

Collective punishment – that is, punishing an entire group for the actions of a few – has a long, ugly history. In the American criminal justice system, its use would be unconstitutional. Its use during armed conflict is a war crime under the Geneva Convention. The International Committee of the Red Cross, in its commentary on the Convention, explains that collective punishment defies “the most elementary principles of humanity,” and that collective punishment and related measures “strike at guilty and innocent alike. They are opposed to all principles based on humanity and justice.”

Requiring people to police each other’s conduct, and to report each other’s offenses to the authorities, also raises serious concerns about individual civil liberties. The general rule in America is that citizens have no legal duty to report crimes that they witness. Though such a duty would certainly have some positive effects, American law has generally rejected it, and for good reasons. Such a duty would greatly expand the power of the state over the individual. By requiring everyone to mind everyone else’s business, such a duty would make every citizen an involuntary agent of the police, and would give the state a pretext to arrest any number of otherwise law-abiding citizens. The practice evokes images of the Salem witch trials and the McCarthy era. Like collective punishment, it is one of the hallmarks of a police state.

It makes sense for the school to encourage kids to report bullying, but the school shouldn’t punish kids for not reporting other kids. Better to cultivate kids’ empathy for the victims of bullying than to depend on their fear of being punished. (When it comes to discipline, it sometimes seems like our school knows of only two ways to engage with children: carrot and stick.) As for the lunchroom, it seems like the school is going out of its way to teach these authoritarian values. The “problem” of lunchroom noise is one invented by the school; the kids in surrounding classrooms aren’t bothered by it, as the school basically acknowledges by leaving the lunchroom door open. And besides, is it really that hard to figure out which kids in the lunchroom are the noisy ones, without enlisting the other kids to become informants?

The school preaches that kids should resist peer pressure. But with these practices, it employs and encourages peer pressure as a tactic to enforce compliance with school rules.

Do the school personnel think that their treatment of the kids has no effect on what the kids will come to see as normal and acceptable? That what they model has no effect on what the kids learn? Or is it that they don’t care what the kids are learning, as long as they’re quiet and following the rules?

PBIS: Inherently bad, or just badly implemented?

I received this email today from Dan Howard:
Hey Chris....Originally intended this as a comment on the blog, but it was too long:

I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now, and have been meaning to comment on many of your posts, and to thank you for creating a great forum that points out many of the problems with “rewards” based systems like PBIS. Having worked in many schools that utilize this model, and also having been a part of the early development of PBIS back when it was used primarily in organizations that provide services to people with intellectual disabilities, I have some insight into how and why PBIS has developed into something that it was never intended to be in the first place. Your assertion that it circumvents moral reasoning and fails on many levels is completely and sadly accurate. But if people understood what PBIS was really intended to do and be, it would be different.

PBIS was never intended to be a “system.” When it was first put forth back in the late 80’s, it was intended to help instill a set of *values* that would guide the actions, responses, and priorities of the *adults* and other people providing services-i.e., teachers. It was a simple introduction to the notion that it’s important to focus more on what kids are doing right than on what they’re doing wrong. The whole “5 positives to 1 negative” thing. And most importantly, it was designed to break negative behavioral patterns of the adults who were getting more and more frustrated by the behavior of their students, and reacting in an angry manner that virtually always made things worse.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Nobody noticed

LAB’s comment on a recent post seemed worthy of a post of its own:
I have a child with ASD, and this kind of nonsense is the cornerstone of special education in the public schools. Teachers and aides are breathing down the necks of special ed kids in this country, making sure they don’t “disrupt” or do something unusual. Now the schools have expanded on this idea, called it “PBIS,” and are applying these ABA-style reward/punishment behavior modifications to all students. Nobody noticed when special ed kids were being treated this way for years, but now that the icky approach used to keep them in line is being used with all kids, some people are sitting up to take notice. Thank god! So-called “positive behavior supports” are simply threats and punishments dressed up as lessons of respect and harmony. We fought for positive behavior supports for our son (as opposed to outright punishment) in public school...until we actually saw what this entailed. It’s just another way to punish kids for being less than perfect. Worst of all is that, for something like PBIS (or any ABA or reward/punishment system), it matters who is doing the punishing and the rewarding. It’s often random, at the whim or mood of the teacher or lunchroom aide, or something the same “good” kids benefit from and the same “bad” kids suffer at the hands of. You are describing our public school exactly when you say they have become obsessed with monitoring every aspect of the students’ behavior. Pure hell for both my kids. We pulled them out.
I think this comment raises some good questions. I hear about what goes on in the special ed classrooms in our elementary school, and I recognize a lot of the things I’ve been writing about on this site – except taken to an even greater extreme. I haven’t written about it here, though – not because I haven’t noticed it, but because I don’t feel sufficiently informed to make a judgment about what kids in special education need. I can’t be sure what I’d do, or what I’d want, if I were in those parents’ shoes, so it seems presumptuous to express a strong opinion about it. But I’ve wondered whether that means that I’m turning a blind eye to the treatment of kids in special ed – passively deferring to “expertise” in ways that I never would for kids in general education classrooms. How should parents like me think about our schools’ special education practices?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Talking down to kids

I went to work the other day and there was a sign posted near the faculty offices. On the sign was a photo of smiling faculty members walking single-file down the hall. Under the picture, it said: “I walk quietly down the hallways. I never run, talk on my cell phone, or disturb people who are working in nearby offices.” Above the photo, in big letters, it said, “Hallway Expectations.”

Actually, that never happened. If it did, you can bet that there would be a minor uprising. Not because the “expectations” themselves would offend, but because the sign would be so condescending.

Yet there are signs just like that one throughout my kids’ school. “Restroom Expectations,” one sign says. It then elaborates:
I use a 0 or 1 voice level.

I flush the toilet when I am finished.

I wash my hands with ONE pump of soap and TWO pulls for a paper towel.

I take care of my business quickly!

I report inappropriate activities.
Above each “expectation” there is an instructive photo of one of the school’s students, including one of a second-grade boy flushing the toilet.

Why do people think that kids prefer, or need, to be addressed in such an infantilizing way? What would be wrong with a sign that said simply, “Please flush the toilet,” or “Please keep your voice down in the bathroom?”

I wonder whether those signs serve the needs of the adults who make them more than of the kids who read them. I wonder the same thing about the euphemisms that are so common at the school, such as calling rules “expectations,” and calling obedience “respect.” Maybe the proliferation of rules, the ubiquitous reminders of them, and the obsessive emphasis on behavior make the school staff uncomfortably aware of how much the school is starting to look like an obedience training academy. Much better to pretend that the kids themselves are issuing the rules – with smiles on their faces, no less.

Friday, November 18, 2011

“The point is that it works!”

I’ve posted before about how our school’s elaborate behavioral rewards program, PBIS, teaches the kids to adopt the most primitive form of moral reasoning: “I should do as I’m told because then I’ll get a material reward.” In fact, by attempting to elicit automatic, unthinking responses to the prospect of a reward, the program arguably tries to short-circuit moral reasoning entirely. When I point that out to people who work in the schools, though, they inevitably respond with some variation of “But it works!” What they mean is that it increases compliance with school rules and reduces office referrals. They have no idea what effects it might be having on the kids’ values, and on their sense of right and wrong, and they don’t care. If it increases compliance and reduces office referrals, how could anyone object?

I couldn’t help but think of those conversations when I recently re-watched parts of A Clockwork Orange (prompted by my mention of it in this post). The story, as you probably already know, is set in a dystopian world in which violent young hoodlums roam the streets raping and murdering. One of them, Alex, is caught and subjected to an elaborate behavioral modification treatment designed to make him physically ill whenever he is tempted to do wrong. In one scene, the Minister of the Interior demonstrates the effectiveness of the treatment by bringing Alex, who has been “cured,” in front of an audience of government officials. A man comes on stage and insults and assaults Alex, but Alex does not fight back. A nearly naked woman appears on stage, but Alex’s arousal makes him fall ill. At the end of the demonstration, the prison chaplain protests:
Prison Chaplain: Choice! The boy has no real choice, has he? Self-interest – the fear of physical pain – drove him to that grotesque act of self-abasement. Its insincerity was clearly to be seen. He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice!

Minister of the Interior: Padre, these are subtleties. We are not concerned with motives, with the higher ethics. We are concerned only with cutting down crime! And with relieving the ghastly congestion in our prisons. He will be your true Christian, ready to turn the other cheek, ready to be crucified rather than crucify, sick to the very heart at the thought even of killing a fly. Reclamation! Joy before the angels of God! The point is that it works!
Wouldn’t that Minister of the Interior make a great PBIS Facilitator?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Overcrowding at Longfellow Elementary

Parents at Longfellow Elementary are concerned about the school’s unusually high class sizes, and have started a petition to bring the issue to the attention of the school board and superintendent. Some Longfellow fifth-and-sixth-grade classrooms, which are smallish rooms to begin with, have thirty-four kids in them. By comparison, my daughter’s fifth-and-sixth-grade class at Hoover, a few blocks down the road, has twenty-five students in it. Here’s the petition. From the Press-Citizen’s coverage:
“I feel as a parent, as someone who’s volunteered in the classroom every year, there’s a level of stress in the building that I haven’t felt,” said [Maeve] Clarke, the mother of a Longfellow second-grader. “There’s an overemphasis, out of necessity, of focusing on being quiet, staying in line, at the expense of focusing on learning.”
A few observations:

First, I support the petition. Thirty-four kids is way too many for one classroom, and it’s hard to understand why one school should have such a disproportionate number of large classes. Unfortunately, smaller class sizes, like those at Hoover, haven’t prevented the additional stress on the kids and the overemphasis on being quiet and staying in line, because of PBIS. Longfellow is just now in its second year of using PBIS.

Second, the superintendent points out that class size is driven in large part by the legislature’s determination of annual “allowable growth” for school district spending. It seems at least worth asking why state law should prevent a school district from choosing, through its elected representatives, to raise and spend more than the state-mandated amount of money on public education.

Third, if the overcrowding gets any worse, Longfellow parents might want to try what Detroit parents tried.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Do they think that kids think?

I would think that educators of any stripe – and anyone who has any interaction with children – would agree on one thing: Kids are constantly trying to make sense of the world. Though they may not always be learning what adults want them to learn, kids’ minds are working overtime to figure out the people and things around them – from the workings of an iPod to the subtleties of their parents’ and teachers’ facial expressions and tones of voice, or the way a basketball bounces, or the way their friends react to them, or the sorts of things people do and don’t do, believe and don’t believe, value and don’t value. This project of understanding how the world works – processing, synthesizing, considering and reconsidering, weighing cause and effect, testing one’s understanding against reality and adjusting it accordingly, making sense of things – is practically the essence of childhood.

That’s one reason I’m continually puzzled and disappointed by our school’s embrace of PBIS, its elaborate behavioral rewards program. This program, under which the school is continually giving the kids token rewards and prizes for complying with school rules, evinces absolutely no interest in the workings of kids’ minds. To PBIS, a child is simply a collection of behaviors. If offering material rewards evokes the desired behaviors, then mission accomplished!

But what do the kids make of this extensive, openly manipulative intervention in their lives? How do they understand it? Why do they respond the way they do? Do they conclude that “good behavior” means doing whatever leads to profit? Do they devalue “being good” as something you would do only for payment? Do they learn to passively accept the moral choices made for them by others, rather than to make their own? Do they learn that the best way to influence others is by bribing them? Do they internalize the school’s conception of them as easily manipulated, as unworthy of being reasoned with, as incapable of the most basic aspects of good behavior without remedial training and conditional treats? Do they accept as normal the constant scrutiny and micromanagement of their conduct? Do they learn that unquestioning compliance with rules is the highest value? Under PBIS, nobody cares.

Under the program, the kids trade in their rewards for tickets into a weekly prize drawing. A few weeks ago, as I described here, several kids won prizes who had not put any tickets in, including a girl who had registered for the school but never attended it, and another girl who had moved to South Dakota weeks before. The kids noticed that this happened. It completely contradicted what the school had told them about how the drawings would be run. When I asked the principal about it, she explained that someone had decided to give prizes to all the kids who hadn’t yet won any. She concluded, “This has been discussed and we have moved forward.” Notably missing from this forward movement was any effort to address the questions the incident must have raised in the kids’ minds. What must they be thinking about what these adults are up to?

When they announced the prizes that day, one girl, who knew she didn’t have any entries in the drawing, was surprised to hear her own name called. The girl – who was apparently among those kids who had never won the weekly prize for good behavior – went straight to her teacher and told the truth: “But I didn’t put any tickets in.” The teacher (who presumably had no idea what had happened either) sent another girl to accept the prize instead.

What does that child make of that episode? Does anyone care?

So shines a good deed in a weary world.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The quietest kids of all, continued

A couple of weeks ago I posted about a strange occurrence in the weekly prize drawing that is part of our school’s behavioral rewards program (PBIS). Under the program, the teachers are continually giving kids rewards for “good behavior” (which usually means being passive and quiet), and then the kids turn those rewards in for entries into a weekly prize drawing. (I dislike the program for the many reasons stated here.) But that week, the prize-winners included one girl who had moved away weeks before, and one girl who had registered to attend the school but had never actually attended. I said that it raised questions about whether the school was being honest with the kids about how the prize winners are chosen.

I emailed the principal to ask about it, and she explained how it happened. The school keeps track of which students have won the weekly prizes. That week, when the principal happened to be out, someone decided to give prizes to all the kids who hadn’t won any so far this year. No one realized that the list contained the names of some kids who weren’t actually enrolled.

I consider that a pretty understandable and well-intentioned mistake. Once they’ve told the kids how the drawings work, they shouldn’t rig them; but I have a good deal of sympathy for the person who decided to make sure that nobody went that long without a prize. To me, it shows that not everyone at the school is entirely comfortable with the reality of PBIS. (It’s interesting that it occurred during a week when the principal was away.) Under PBIS, the rewards are supposed to be entirely conditional; otherwise, the incentive for the kids to comply with the school’s desires would be undermined. The natural result is that some kids will get more rewards and prizes than others, and that some may never get a prize. PBIS advertises itself as a “positive” alternative to punishment, but watching everyone else get rewards and prizes, while you’re getting none, seems a lot like punishment to me -- and apparently to someone at the school, too.

Of course, some things in school will inevitably be conditional, and schools can never avoid punishment entirely. But that doesn’t mean we need to invent reasons to treat children like lab rats. School should be about engaging the students’ minds, not about manipulating their behavior. It should develop the kids’ ability to think for themselves, not encourage them to mindlessly chase whatever reward is dangled in front of them. It should focus on intellectual inquiry, not on unquestioning obedience.

Here’s what I really don’t understand. From the way the school sometimes acts, you’d think it was swarming with hordes of juvenile anarchists just barely being restrained from revolution by the school’s behavioral interventions. It is, in fact, a collection of relatively well-behaved kids in a relatively tame Midwestern college town -- not without its problems, but much closer to It’s a Wonderful Life than to A Clockwork Orange. On the whole, the teachers are good and the kids are trying hard. So why not make school about what goes on in the classroom -- where the school’s real strengths are -- instead of slathering everything with this thick layer of manipulative bullshit?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A thousand words saved

Here’s one reason why I prefer local control over educational policy to federal control (click to enlarge):

Article here. Image from here.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The quietest kids of all

As readers of this blog know, our elementary school uses an elaborate behavioral rewards program called PBIS. Under the program, teachers reward “well-behaved” students with little string bracelets. The kids can then exchange the bracelets for entries into a prize drawing that occurs at the end of each week. The more bracelets they earn, the better their chance of winning a prize. The school announces the prize winners over the public address system every Friday afternoon.

Last week, though, when the winners were announced, people noticed something strange. One of the winners was a kindergarten-age girl who had registered for school over the summer, but whose parents then decided to keep her in pre-school for an additional year. She doesn’t attend the school. Another winner was a girl who moved to South Dakota several weeks ago.

One can only imagine how two kids who don’t attend the school, but whose names may appear on an outdated school roster, could have won the weekly prize drawing. It certainly makes you wonder whether the school is being honest with the kids about how the winners are chosen.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Perpetual, unwinnable wars (junior edition)

Defenders of PBIS, the behavioral rewards program that our elementary school uses, emphasize how “positive” it is; after all, it aims to reduce the use of punishment by making the school rules very clear and then repeatedly rewarding students who comply with them. (Not getting rewards, when others are getting them, apparently doesn’t count as punishment.) The tradeoff for this “positivity,” though, is that the school has become obsessed with behavior, behavior, behavior, reminding the kids at every opportunity -- in assemblies, in “guidance” class, in the hallways and lunchroom, on the playground, on posters and signs throughout the building, and every time rewards are given -- of its behavioral “expectations.” The (unintentional?) message to the kids is that school is first and foremost about behavior, compliance with rules, and obedience to authority.

Most of these kids were not getting punished much, if it all, before PBIS came along. Now the school is not only continuously reminding them of school rules, but also continuously obsessing over and passing judgment on their behavior. That this might not feel like a “positive” change does not seem to have occurred to anyone.

Moreover, PBIS seems to have generated new “expectations” that didn’t exist before. Take the lunchroom. Before PBIS, the kids got the same measly fifteen-minute lunch break, but were at least largely left alone while they ate. There was an adult present, but that person pretty much stayed in the background unless there was a problem -- for example, helping the younger kids open containers or milk cartons.

With PBIS, though, came the Perpetual War on Lunchroom Noise. We have a lunchroom, so we must have lunchroom expectations, and we must make them clear and insist that they be followed. Suddenly it became the lunchroom attendants’ mission to reduce the noise level. This entails frequently yelling at the kids to be quiet, and usually turning down the lights to make the point. If some kids don’t comply, their entire table has to be silent. There are days when the entire lunchroom is required to eat lunch in silence, because some of the kids have been too noisy. Tables at which the kids are too noisy may be dismissed last, thus getting less time at recess; sometimes the lunchroom attendants expressly threaten to hold the whole room in from recess until they are quieter. Plastic cups of different colors are placed on each table; a green cup means the kids can talk, but if they’re too loud, they get the yellow cup, and can only whisper -- forget about talking to your friend across the table. And if they are still too loud, they get the red cup, which means they have to be silent for the rest of lunch.

A couple of weeks ago, the lunchroom attendants began threatening that if the kids weren’t quieter at lunch, they would start to have assigned seats. This threat came after more than two years of constant scolding about the lunchroom noise levels. For all the yelling and darkening and threats and plastic cups and missed recess time and enforced silence, there is no indication that this lunchroom full of young children is any quieter than it ever was. If anything, judging from the elevation of the threats, it may even be noisier.

Some questions: How did the school go about deciding what an age-appropriate “lunchroom expectation” was? Will the failure to reduce lunchroom noise, after over two years of trying, lead them to reconsider that decision? Or just to adopt increasingly heavy-handed interventions? What’s been gained? Even if noise had been reduced, would it have been worth the price? What is the school modeling about how public institutions should interact with the people they govern? Is the lunchroom now a more “positive” place?

UPDATE: Today the lunchroom attendant had a new, police-like whistle, which she blew loudly to get the kids’ attention. “I’ll blow it again if you don’t quiet down,” she said, prompting some kids to put their hands over their ears. Then she blew it again. What a positive development.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Occupy Iowa City on education

Occupy Iowa City encampment, College Green Park

A reader points out that Occupy Iowa City, our local offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement, has posted a statement of principles that includes these paragraphs:
We witness the degradation of public schools which do not provide the skills needed for creative and free thought, or for full participation in economic or political systems.

. . .

We affirm the necessity of affordable public education for all people, so that they may be fully informed, creative and curious participants in a just society.
I’m very sympathetic to a lot of the concerns that the Occupiers have raised, if not to all of them in every particular. Those statements about education are, of course, unspecific and designed to appeal to a broad range of people. But I don’t think I’m projecting -- especially given their other principles -- when I conclude that the protesters would probably share my concern about public schools that seem designed to produce compliant subjects of a totalitarian state rather than skeptical, questioning citizens capable of participating in a democracy.

I’m also glad to see any acknowledgment that the disturbing economic and political trends in our country -- the increasingly authoritarian view of government, the decline in civil liberties, the two-tiered system of justice, the disproportionate influence of the wealthy, the militarism, the pitting of people against one another to fight over a smaller pie -- might be related to how schools are treating our kids.

I don’t know where this movement will go, but right now, these people are saying some things that need saying.

Related post here.

Monday, October 24, 2011

School district survey due tonight

I just received this message from Julie Van Dyke about our school district’s survey on district operations:
Hi Folks,

The crucial ICCSD survey will close at midnight tonight, Monday, 10/24. Please fwd this request and info to as many ICCSD stakeholders as possible. We can be candid in our comments, as long was we phrase them without indicating who we are, because the surveys go directly to the audit consulting firm - not to the school district. The consulting firm will combine the multiple choice scoring and comments into a report they provide to the district.

Survey at

Friday, October 21, 2011

The beginning of the end for No Child Left Behind?

The Times reports that the Senate Education Committee, chaired by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, has approved a bill that “would greatly reduce Washington’s role in overseeing public schools.”
[The bill] would continue to require states to test students in grades 3 through 8 annually in reading and math, but would eliminate most provisions in the law that put the federal Department of Education in the position of supervising the performance of the nation’s 100,000 public schools. The department would continue to closely oversee how states manage their worst-performing schools.
Apparently the bill would release states from the “mandate that schools be deemed failures if all their students were not proficient in reading and math by 2014.” Further, it “would not require states to set any student achievement targets,” and it drops “the requirement that schools evaluate teachers based on student test scores and other methods.”
Civil rights and business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the legislation would so thoroughly eviscerate the federal role in school accountability that they could not support it. But powerful groups representing superintendents, principals, teachers and school boards said they were delighted.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan criticized the bill, which is a point in its favor.

It was a bad idea to put the federal government in charge of our schools, and it would be an even worse idea to keep it in charge after the disaster that was No Child Left Behind. Best of luck to Harkin and the other Senators who support this bill.

What is PBIS teaching our kids about moral reasoning? (continued)

Under our district’s behavioral rewards program, PBIS, teachers give out token rewards to kids who they “catch” complying with the school’s “expectations” (that is, obeying school rules). Each time a student gets a reward, he or she is entered into a lottery at the end of the week to win a special prize. At our elementary school, for example, the prize might be toy sunglasses, lip gloss, a notebook, some special pencils, candy, or the like. I have many objections to the program; one is that it teaches that the reason to “be good” is to get a material reward -- the most primitive form of moral reasoning, if you’d call it moral reasoning at all.

Recently, at another elementary school in our district, the weekly prize was a pair of tickets to a University of Iowa football game, a prize that might easily have been worth hundreds of dollars. (The tickets had been donated to the school.) Football is big in Iowa City, to put it mildly -- especially among boys. Some of the kids started competing to get behavior rewards like never before. Then, at the end of the week, one student, a kindergartner, won the football tickets. At least one boy was in tears after learning that his week of good behavior didn’t pay off as he had hoped.

If you see a child as nothing but a collection of behaviors, that story might not bother you at all. The prize had exactly its desired effect, after all, in getting kids to comply with school rules. This is precisely how PBIS is supposed to work. Good behavior is up! Office referrals are down! How could anyone complain?

But if you see kids as having minds, and if you care not only about what they do but about why they do it, and if you think that how they understand their world matters, then you might find that story pretty disturbing. On the one hand, I suppose the kids might have learned a valuable lesson about gambling. What they learned about good behavior and moral reasoning, one can only imagine.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Public forum on school district “operations”

Julie Van Dyke asked me to let everyone know about this:
Iowa City Community School District Seeks Public Input On Operations Audit

The Iowa City Community School District will host a public forum Monday, October 17 at 7:00 p.m. at City High Opstad Auditorium to gather input on what community members see as areas needing improvement in the School District Operations. The District has retained an outside firm to engage in a process audit to help look at how the school district does business. The audit will include interviews of District personnel and community members in individual, small group, and open forum settings. It is vital for community members to provide open and honest feedback in the areas of human resources, technology, business, custodial and food services.
I’m not sure exactly what types of issues fall under the category of “Operations,” which, on its face, would seem to describe everything the school district does. Is it safe to assume that this event is not directed toward such things as curricular concerns or redistricting issues? If anyone has more information, please chime in in the comments.

UPDATE: And a reminder from Julie's earlier comment: There will be a "Town Hall" meeting with representatives of the Governor's office this Sunday at 1 p.m. at West High about the proposed Education Blueprint.

Monday, October 10, 2011

And it’s only the first day of Testing Week

Today the lunchroom guards attendants at our elementary school told the kids (for about the millionth time) that they were being too noisy at lunch. This time, though, they said that if the kids weren’t quieter at lunch tomorrow, there would be assigned seats at lunch for the rest of the year.

I’m sure this had nothing to do with the fact that while some groups were in the lunchroom, other groups were taking the ITBS, our state’s annual week-long high-stakes standardized test.

Completely unrelated cartoon here.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Quote for the week: Iowa Test of Basic Skills edition

“Getting through another year of AYP successfully is like passing a ridiculously large and hard stool. You do it because you have to, there’s a modicum of relief when it’s done, and you pray you haven’t done too much damage when passing it.”

-- Michael Doyle, on the annual gauntlet of standardized testing to meet No Child Left Behind’s “adequate yearly progress” requirements. This week in Iowa City, students will spend hours every day taking standardized tests.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Does the Governor love my child?

“I love my child,” a homeschooling mom once said to me. “Does the teacher love my child?” That’s as good an explanation as I have ever heard for homeschooling. It’s also, I think, a good argument for local control over educational policy. The teachers, in my experience, do at least have relationships with the kids and care about them as individuals. Do the school administrators? The superintendent? The Secretary of Education? The Congressperson?

The best way to put power in the hands of the people most likely to treat kids humanely -- that is, parents and teachers -- is to give local communities real control over their schools.

(I didn’t want to let the blog’s second birthday go by without a post. Looks like I just made it under the wire.)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Why is school choice so unappealing?

I don’t think all schools should be the same. One of my complaints about No Child Left Behind is that it imposes a single educational philosophy on every public school in America: school is about raising short-term standardized test scores, period. That strikes me as wrong not just because I disagree with that philosophy, but because I value pluralism. Moreover, it seems short-sighted: why put all of our eggs in any one basket? Why turn educational policy into a nationwide winner-take-all battle -- especially if there’s a good chance you might lose that battle?

If it were up to me, I’d allow genuine local control over educational policy. There’s no reason that schools in Iowa City should have to follow the same approach as schools in, say, rural Texas, or even schools in more conservative parts of Iowa. Why not let each community do it in its own way? Wouldn’t more people be satisfied that way?

But this idea raises one of the age-old tensions in law and politics. To get more freedom for myself, I have to grant more freedom to other people. Many people in Iowa City might dislike the choices made by that Texas town, and want to put a stop to them. But you can’t have it both ways. Is it more important to preserve our community’s freedom to run its schools as it chooses, or to stop that Texas town from doing its own thing? Remember, if everything is decided at the federal level, it might end up that the Texans are the ones telling Iowa City what to do, not the other way around. Arguably, that is exactly what has happened, and I’m thinking of one Texan in particular.

So you would think that I’d be drawn to the idea of school choice, and at least in theory, I am. But school choice is complicated by yet another issue: we’re making choices about what to do with a completely disenfranchised set of people -- children -- who have no choice in the matter at all. Suppose our district starts up the Corporal Punishment Magnet School, filled entirely by kids whose parents choose it. No one would be forcing me to choose it, so could I object? I think I could.

So even in theory, it’s hard not to have some ambivalence about school choice. Then you see what passes for school choice in practice, and ambivalence turns to skepticism and suspicion. Though some people are making valiant efforts to create charter schools that follow humane educational principles, they can’t escape the law’s requirement that all schools are ultimately judged solely on their success in raising standardized test scores. The kind of choice I’d like to make is simply not allowed.

Meanwhile, though, consider some of the choices that are allowed. When our current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, was the head of the Chicago school system, he “oversaw the controversial move to bring full-fledged military academies to the Windy City.” Andy Kroll reports:
Today, Chicago has six military high schools run by a branch of the armed services. Six smaller military academies share buildings with existing high schools. Nearly three dozen JROTC programs exist in regular high schools, where students attend a daily JROTC class and wear uniforms to school one day a week. And at the middle school level, there is a JROTC program for sixth, seventh- and eighth-graders.

Chicago may have the nation’s biggest JROTC program, but it is no longer an anomaly. Due to increases in federal funding for JROTC programs, the military’s presence in public schools is greater than ever before. More than a dozen academies partly funded by the Department of Defense have sprouted up from Philadelphia to Oakland, and the National Defense Authorization Act of 2009 passed last year will increase the number of JROTC units nationwide from 3,400 to 3,700 by 2020, at a cost of $170 million. (Peacework magazine obtained a list of schools that have requested JROTC programs.) The Marines are in discussions to open new JROTC academies in Atlanta, Las Vegas, and New Orleans, helping to expand a program that critics contend has blurred the line between education and recruitment. . . .

Now that Duncan is the nation’s top education official, anti-recruitment activists worry that he will use his position to promote the expansion of JROTC and military academies as solutions for cash-strapped or underperforming school districts. . . . “These are positive learning environments,” Duncan said in 2007. “I love the sense of leadership. I love the sense of discipline.”
Meanwhile, former Defense Secretary William Cohen is reported to have called JROTC “one of the best recruiting services that we could have.”

Can a pluralist object?

Cartoon of the day

. . . is here.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Guest post: Authoritarian Education Styles and American Competitiveness

Justin Birch has been reading this blog and asked if he could write the following guest post, which seemed right up this blog’s alley. He tells me that he wanted to be a high school teacher, and then a college professor, before encountering the difficulties of graduate school and professional academia. Now, as a writer and editor, he works to promote the quality and availability of undergraduate education in America.

[UPDATE: In July 2012, asked me to remove the link to from this post, on the grounds that “We believe this link may have been compensated by a marketer and no longer want them pointing to the site.” See this post.]

UPDATE 9/26/12:  I'm going to go ahead and remove the link to, even though the site never adequately answered my questions about why the link should be removed.  Again, see this post.]

Americans are known for their competitive spirit. Whether the conversation is politics or sports, arguments can quickly grow heated. What happens when we turn that competitive nature to our education system?

It has long been a topic of conversation that changes need to be made in the education system in order for our students to compete on the international stage. Much attention recently has been devoted to the promise of charter schools or online colleges to outperform public institutions. However, it’s helpful to know what’s being compared. The perception reflected by rhetoric about other countries’ education systems is that they churn out perfect little soldiers, able to recite documents and perform complex mathematical functions by rote, but incapable of creativity and free thinking. Although this perception is quite inaccurate, it continues to be propagated by news media and creeps into the consciousness of our educational leaders, influencing their decisions on how best to compete with other countries.

The prime example of the influence of this thinking in action is the No Child Left Behind Act’s requirement that schools must perform according to certain national standards in order to receive funding. Should student scores not reach a minimum acceptable mark, the school is designated “failing” and faces sanction. Progress is only measured in one way, however: standardized testing. The most common criticism of standardized testing is that the only thing it can effectively measure is students’ ability to take standardized tests.

What skills are required to take a standardized test? The ability to follow instructions, memorize isolated facts, and then regurgitate information on demand. By the same token, what does standardized testing fail to measure? Creativity, imagination, emotional intelligence, innovation — all the values that have traditionally been measures of American success.

Professor Yong Zhao of Michigan State University has studied the problem of standardized testing and expressed concern that by forcing our kids to conform to measurable standards through testing of only readily quantifiable subjects (math, science, and reading) Americans are tossing away the very talents that have always given the United States a competitive edge in the world.

The other problem that surfaces when so much emphasis is placed on the results of testing and numbers is that someone will always find a way to game the system. In 2011, a scandal rocked the Atlanta public school system when it was discovered teachers and principals had actually been altering tests taken by students to make it appear test scores were better than they actually were. Who does this benefit?

What kind of future America are we creating with our heavy emphasis on standardized testing? Do we really want a workforce only excellent at obeying instructions and short-term memorization? Do we want cheating and lying to be the only effective way to get ahead? Or do we want creative workers adept and deeper learning who can think around corners and come up with innovative solutions to problems?

To make matters worse, not only are we putting all our eggs in the basket of quantifiable education results, we aren’t even doing it well. The reality is that when it comes to quantifiable test scores we are consistently outperformed by countries like Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea. However, once again we aren’t truly comparing apples to apples. Students in other countries may begin formal education at different ages, and other factors may lead to the differences in test scores.

In our efforts to create a more authoritarian framework in our schools and thanks to our competitive nature we find ourselves whipping our students to produce better numbers and teaching to the tests, or altering the numbers when they don’t suit us. Students and teachers are sacrificing their innate drive to learning in order to score higher in arbitrary measures of success. If we wish to truly remain competitive in the global market, we must harness the creativity and talents that embody American spirit and teach to those, even if they aren’t so easily quantified.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Love it or leave it?

A commenter on this post asked, “Why exactly do you send your children to public schools? It seems as though your tone throughout much of what I have read is that of exteme disbelief in the public school system as a whole. If this is the case, then why not homeschool or send your children to private schools?”

That’s a reasonable question, and I’m afraid the answer isn’t very profound. If I were independently wealthy, and my wife would agree to the idea, and my kids were willing to give it a try, I’d be homeschooling (probably along these lines) in a minute. Unfortunately, I can’t get past even the first item on that list. I’m not willing to give up my career, which is not one that I could just step back into after ten or twelve years away. As for private schools, they are often governed by the same educational philosophies that I’ve objected to on this blog. In any event, there are very few private options here, and none of them excite me enough to justify spending three tuitions times thirteen years (much of which would probably end up coming out of our already inadequate college funds). So here we are.

So I’m certainly not claiming any altruistic “stay and fight” motivation for staying in the public schools. That said, would we really be better off if anyone who was unhappy with the public schools simply took their kids out and paid for private schooling? How would the schools ever change or improve under that approach?

More importantly: taking my kids out of the schools wouldn’t fix what I’m concerned about. Even if I were focused only on my own self-interest, and didn’t care at all about any kids other than my own, I’d still have to worry about what goes in our school system, because I live in a world run by the people who go through it. I worry that authoritarian educational approaches naturally lead, for example, to things like this and then to things like this. I don’t want our schools to model authoritarian values, because I don’t want to live in an authoritarian society. That’s true regardless of whether I happen to have any kids in the system.

When I get asked why I don’t just homeschool, I do wonder about one thing. We’re constantly hearing from school “reformers” who want to make school even more coercive, who want to pile on the schoolwork at younger and younger ages, who want to extend the school day and the school year, and who want ever more intervention into kids’ lives. Do they get asked the same question?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

School board chair: Rewards are unnecessary gimmicks

Our school board tonight elected Marla Swesey, the top vote-getter in the recent school board election, as its new chair. In response to my candidate questionnaire, Swesey, who was a teacher here for twenty-six years, had this to say about using rewards in school:
I have never been a believer of stickers or prizes used to reward students for good work or behavior. Students should be motivated to feel the intrinsic worth of doing a good job on their schoolwork or doing a good deed. Students are capable of feeling pride in their accomplishments without prizes. Students are naturally curious and should get excited about learning without all the gimmicks. There are times when classes need to celebrate in some way for accomplishments or great deeds that the class achieves. But these celebrations would not be done on a regular basis.
Yes, she did go on to say that “this is not a decision for the school board to make but it certainly can be a discussion with the Superintendent so that he can pass on the discussion with the school principals, who in turn can discuss the issue with the teachers.” I think even that approach would be a step in the right direction. Not that long ago, it was probably true that the district itself had no policy about rewards, and the practice probably varied a lot from school to school and teacher to teacher. But I wonder if the new chair realizes that that’s no longer the case, and that the district is now requiring schools to use rewards extensively, and whether that would affect her conclusion about whether the board should have some say in the matter.

I won’t get my hopes up that anything will change, but nonetheless it’s nice to hear someone connected with the school system -- the school board chair, no less -- talking sense about the use of rewards in school.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Data vs. judgment

Gary Gutting has some sanity -- “critical thinking,” even! -- about the limitations of standardized test score data. This passage in particular caught my attention:
There is also the question of whether any standardized test is adequate or needed to evaluate certain sorts of student learning. There was a time when we were happy with Miss Goodteacher’s judgment that her class knew how to read. There are doubtless cases where we can’t trust instructors’ judgments. But is there reason, especially in college-level work, to think that this is generally the case?
Sometimes, when I complain about the effect that high-stakes testing is having on K-12 education, I get asked: “But how else can we tell if students are learning, or if teachers and schools are performing well?” I’m never sure what to say first in response to that question. Part of me wants to say, “Yes, it would be great if there were an objective measure of those things, but wishing doesn’t make it so.” Another part wants to say, “But the benefits of using such an imperfect way to assess those things might be far outweighed by the ill effects of using it -- for example, by the increasingly narrow focus of schools on one or two goals -- ‘teaching to the test’ -- at the expense of all others.”

But usually what I end up saying is: “Hire good people, give them enough pay and enough autonomy that they’ll stick around and develop wisdom and judgment, and then let them use their wisdom and judgment.” Many people seem to find that unthinkable, and would much prefer the false security of a number, regardless of what that number represents and how that assessment distorts the educational process. Yet my answer is a pretty close description of how our higher education system works. It’s also a pretty good description of Finland’s vaunted educational system. Is it so outlandish to think it might work in our K-12 schools?

I think people distrust that approach because they don’t have faith that our K-12 teachers would have the good judgment necessary to make it work. But isn’t that a self-fulfilling prophecy? We rely more on standardized tests, and teachers are forced to teach to those tests, and their teaching itself becomes standardized, and they have less autonomy in the classroom, and their jobs become less satisfying, and good teachers leave the profession, and fewer qualified people become teachers, and so we trust them even less to have good judgment, and so on. Is that a recipe for good education?

It sometimes seems like people are desperate to find some scientific substitute for individual human judgment. But if we can’t count on our educators to have good judgment, how can we count on them to make good use of standardized test data?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Junk food as a reward, continued

In response to my emails about the use of candy and junk food as a reward in our school, the superintendent forwarded to me an email that went out to all district teachers today (I’ve turned the attachments into links):
Dear Teachers,

This e-mail is to remind you of the district’s Wellness Policy, which states that the district supports and promotes proper dietary habits contributing to students’ health status and academic performance. This includes foods in the classroom. The complete policy is on the district web page, under Health Services and Food Services/ Nutrition. Attached to this e-mail are guidelines for you to follow in implementing the policy, as well as a parent handout.

** Please note the following highlights from the policy as you plan your classroom celebrations, request or bring classroom snacks, plan fundraising with student-sponsored clubs, and consider using foods as rewards for students.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Buy now, pay later

One thing that drives me crazy is when people use a narrowly-defined short-term “gain” to justify intervening in kids’ lives, without regard to the long-term consequences. Using elaborate reward systems means fewer referrals to the principal’s office! Piling on homework will raise third-grade standardized test scores! Even if there were evidence to support these assertions, who would define success so narrowly? I’d much rather raise a kid who enjoys reading than one whose third-grade test scores are higher but who thinks of reading as a chore.

I’ve been meaning for some time to link to this article by Marcia Angell in the New York Review of Books. It reviews three books that discuss the increasing diagnosis of mental illness and the corresponding increase in the use of psychiatric drugs. If what the authors say is true, the story is basically one long parade of short-term thinking at the expense of long-term well-being, with a big dose of corporate avarice and bad government policy driving it all:
For obvious reasons, drug companies make very sure that their positive studies are published in medical journals and doctors know about them, while the negative ones often languish unseen within the FDA, which regards them as proprietary and therefore confidential. This practice greatly biases the medical literature, medical education, and treatment decisions.
. . .

Whereas [Irving] Kirsch concludes that antidepressants are probably no more effective than placebos, [Robert] Whitaker concludes that they and most of the other psychoactive drugs are not only ineffective but harmful.
. . .

Moreover, Whitaker contends, the natural history of mental illness has changed. Whereas conditions such as schizophrenia and depression were once mainly self-limited or episodic, with each episode usually lasting no more than six months and interspersed with long periods of normalcy, the conditions are now chronic and lifelong. Whitaker believes that this might be because drugs, even those that relieve symptoms in the short term, cause long-term mental harms that continue after the underlying illness would have naturally resolved.
The review then specifically focuses on the increasing use of psychiatric drugs on children:
What should be of greatest concern for Americans is the astonishing rise in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness in children, sometimes as young as two years old.
. . .

The apparent prevalence of “juvenile bipolar disorder” jumped forty-fold between 1993 and 2004, and that of “autism” increased from one in five hundred children to one in ninety over the same decade. Ten percent of ten-year-old boys now take daily stimulants for ADHD—“attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder”—and 500,000 children take antipsychotic drugs.
. . .

One would be hard pressed to find a two-year-old who is not sometimes irritable, a boy in fifth grade who is not sometimes inattentive, or a girl in middle school who is not anxious. (Imagine what taking a drug that causes obesity would do to such a girl.) Whether such children are labeled as having a mental disorder and treated with prescription drugs depends a lot on who they are and the pressures their parents face. As low-income families experience growing economic hardship, many are finding that applying for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments on the basis of mental disability is the only way to survive.
. . .

In December 2006 a four-year-old child named Rebecca Riley died in a small town near Boston from a combination of Clonidine and Depakote, which she had been prescribed, along with Seroquel, to treat “ADHD” and “bipolar disorder”—diagnoses she received when she was two years old.
. . .

Rebecca’s two older siblings had been given the same diagnoses and were each taking three psychoactive drugs. The parents had obtained SSI benefits for the siblings and for themselves, and were applying for benefits for Rebecca when she died. The family’s total income from SSI was about $30,000 per year.
The whole thing is really a must-read. Part 1 is here; part 2 is here.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Mandatory patriotism

I’ve posted before (here, here, and here) about the irony of trying to teach democratic values using authoritarian methods, so this Op-Ed in today’s Times, on “Constitution Day,” caught my eye. It focuses on the federal law requiring schools that receive federal funds to provide educational programming to observe Constitution Day. (As I went to link to it, I realized it was written by an old friend with whom I’ve fallen out of touch.) An excerpt:
Since Constitution Day is not a particularly well-known holiday, its mandatory patriotism may not seem like a big deal. But mandatory patriotism is corrosive even if accomplished bit by bit.

Consider the Pledge of Allegiance, recited by tens of millions of students every school day. Most schools are obligated by state or local laws to start the day with the pledge, but the real target of the pledge laws are the kids. Children have a constitutional right to opt out, but a refusal is so fraught with social risk that it is not a real alternative for most. The reaction to the rare child who refuses proves the point: last year, for instance, a Maryland teacher yelled at a 13-year-old girl who refused to recite the pledge and called a school security officer to escort her from the classroom. . . .

We should recall Justice Robert H. Jackson’s words from almost 70 years ago, in his opinion protecting the right of students to refuse to recite the pledge: “To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous, instead of a compulsory routine, is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds.”
Read the whole piece. As I noted here, our school’s new principal has decided to personally lead the kids in saying the Pledge every day. Why?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

What is PBIS teaching our kids about moral reasoning?

From Engaging Troubling Students: A Constructivist Approach, by Scot Danforth and Terry Jo Smith (emphasis mine):
An important question for educators to ask involves the distinction between “shaping” students’ behaviors and promoting their moral development. Lawrence Kohlberg (1967, 1984), a developmental psychologist, developed a hierarchical schema of moral development through which he believes children evolve. . . .

Thomas (1992) explains that in the first stage of the Preconventional [or Premoral] Level, referred to as the Obedience and Punishment Orientation, a child judges whether an action is good or bad based on whether it results in a punishment. Doing the “right thing” is equated with avoiding punishment. This judgment does not involve the human meaning of the act, just its consequences. The second stage of the Preconventional Level is referred to as the naive instrumental level. This stage involves actions based on what “pays off” for the child, not on a sense of justice or loyalty. . . .

The second level of moral development in Kohlberg’s schema is the Conventional Level and involves conformity to the expectations of the family, group, or nation. The third level is the Postconventional Level, in which moral behavior is first defined in terms of individual rights but advances toward universal principles of justice.

Behavior modification is the systematic enactment of the Premoral Level of development. This is particularly problematic in light of Kohlberg’s beliefs about how moral development is fostered. . . . Kohlberg theorized that the environmental aspects affecting children’s moral development are “(1) the child’s opportunities to learn social roles and (2) the form of justice in the social institutions with which the child is familiar” (Thomas, 1992, p. 503).

The behavior modification systems commonly used in schools, according to Kohlberg’s schemas, do not involve moral reasoning at all. Drummed into students’ heads all day is the morally bankrupt message of “behave and you’ll be rewarded.” If the form of justice in social institutions affects moral development, as Kohlberg has suggested, then classrooms provide promising opportunities to promote moral development. In particular, a classroom culture that is based on the concept of a community has the potential to promote moral development that involves rights and responsibilities, as well as relationships between the individual and the group. We are deeply concerned by the long-term impact of classrooms that operate on premoral principles.
I don’t know if I buy completely into Kohlberg’s theory. But “premoral” sounds like just the right word for PBIS. Why are our schools modeling and encouraging this “morally bankrupt” way of thinking?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Live-blogging the school board election results

Consider this your source for nerdy commentary on the school board election returns as they come in tonight. For precinct-by-precinct results, read the updates that appear below the tables. For information on the candidates, click here.

Monday, September 12, 2011


During the first week of school, as part of our district’s “guidance curriculum,” the fifth- and sixth-grade classes started a unit on study skills. To introduce the unit, the teacher put a page up on the overhead projector with the heading, in large letters:

The page then contained a list of statements, including:
Your performance in school determines the quality of your future life: size of income -- person you marry -- station in life -- satisfaction from spare time activities -- etc.

Up to one third of your life is spent in school.

Your main job at this time is studying, being a student.

You are “paid” with knowledge and grades for going to school.

Getting high grades is only one of many rewards of a good student. Even more important is the satisfaction that comes from a job well done -- the best job you are capable of doing! PRIDE!

Studying will be a burden unless YOU do something to make it enjoyable.

The skills you learn and the habits you adopt will remain with you throughout your life.

You become an expert only after continual practice.

Unless you work with each skill repeatedly, the skill will be lost!

Reward yourself if you do a good job.

Where to begin? How about with the outright falsity of what they’re teaching these kids? Your performance in school -- in fifth grade, no less! -- determines the quality of your future life? The person you marry? The satisfaction you get from spare time activities? These are the kind of pseudo-scientific factoids that our kids should learn to be skeptical of. Instead, they’re encouraged to swallow them whole: YES, IT’S A FACT! Please, show me the empirical research supporting these assertions.

I’m sure one could find studies showing correlations between, say, high school or college grades and income. Correlation, of course, doesn’t prove causation, because another cause -- socioeconomic status? -- might be driving both variables. But even if you could prove that getting good grades in college has, for many people, some independent effect on income, it would still be false to say that your performance in fifth grade, or any grade, “determines” the quality of your future life.

As one girl said to her friend, “You should have brought up Einstein.” Or, I thought, George W. Bush.

Second, “station in life”?! Does the district really mean to teach that everyone has a “station in life” that is fixed by the time they finish school? And to pass that “fact” along without any reflection on whether it is just or unjust?

Third, what a vision of school! Did anyone stop to consider that portraying school as a thirteen-year sentence in a labor camp, preceded by a stern lecture, might not be the best motivational strategy? (The word “job” appears six times.) What does it say about the district’s faith in the quality of its classroom experiences that it chooses to use fear as the main motivator for going to school? What does it say about the district’s understanding of motivation? What does it say about the district’s own attitude toward the learning process?

As another parent said after reading the list, “It’s as if they’ve never been intellectually interested in anything in their lives.”

Finally, what about the kids who are struggling? What will this do to their motivation? If they’re trying hard and still not “performing well,” what message -- other than frustration and despair -- will they take away from this presentation, as they anticipate their lowly, inevitable, and apparently deserved “station in life”?

Click the image to see the whole sheet.