Thursday, August 18, 2011

Treating kids like pets, continued

Our school has a new principal this year, and I took the opportunity to ask if she would consider making some changes to the way the school administers the heinous PBIS program, under which quiet and obedient students are given token rewards which they use to compete for weekly prizes. The good news is that she wrote me a substantial, candid reply responding to the concerns I raised; I really appreciated her willingness to give a direct and candid answer, which (ahem) has not always been my experience.

The bad news is that the new principal is a big supporter of PBIS. (I later learned that she was previously a “professional development facilitator” for PBIS.) She defended the use of PBIS because it “establishes a desire by students, who wouldn’t normally think about behaving appropriately in school, to think otherwise.” (On that point, I have never disagreed.) But she also wrote that “The PBiS program is meant to get students ‘thinking’ about appropriate behaviors and ask questions about why these expectations are in place.”

Again, I really do appreciate her response. But on that last point, I have to conclude that she is simply in denial. Few people want to think of themselves as promoting unquestioning obedience to authority, but a close look at PBIS reveals that that is exactly its mission. It is entirely devoted to making the rules very clear and then using tangible rewards to train kids to reflexively obey them, whatever they might be. It is one hundred percent about obedience training, and zero percent about getting kids to think for themselves about what’s right and wrong and about how to behave. Scan their extensive website in vain for any evidence to the contrary.

In my view, that is a horrible, harmful, and dehumanizing thing to teach children, the kind of “education” you’d expect to find in an authoritarian state or dictatorship, not in a participatory democracy. I know that in any school setting there will inevitably be some emphasis on the importance of following instructions. But to make unquestioning obedience the entire focus of a school’s behavioral program, to the complete exclusion of teaching the kids to think for themselves and develop moral reasoning of their own, is to do the kids an egregious wrong. It is anti-educational, anti-intellectual, and fundamentally inhumane. It’s how we treat dogs, not how we treat people.

We just lived through the Twentieth Century; it’s not hard to think of occasions when authorities have told people to do things that they should have refused to do. This is true even of school officials and teachers. The examples aren’t confined to Nazi Germany or totalitarian societies; just look at the American South during the civil rights struggle, or to the sexual abuse scandals that have plagued Catholic schools, or to what you read in the current news, or even to things that have happened here in Iowa City schools. I certainly don’t send my kids to school to learn that they should accept everything the teacher says and do whatever he or she commands, regardless of whether it is right or wrong. But that is exactly what PBIS is designed to teach, and I’m afraid it’s exactly what they are learning. (The unfortunate “character education” program simply drives the message home.)

A while back, our district invited suggestions as to whom a new elementary school should be named after. At the time, I joked that I would suggest test-prep magnate Stanley Kaplan. But I’m beginning to think this would be the most fitting choice:



KD said...

LOL at naming a school after Cesar, I know some people that are huge fans of his.

What I have to say next doesn't totally relate to your post, but is something that has always bothered me.

I attended Catholic schools for grades 1-12. I never knew any classmates to come forward with experiences of being sexually abused but I have given the topic a lot of thought. I'm not sure my classmates were the most compliant or nonquestioning bunch. What I do think made the problem worse though is that I think a kid didn't think he stood a chance against a person in authority, if he were to bring such an accusation. or if he were to make such an accusation, he would be branded as a liar. People in my parents day seemed hesitant to advocate for their children, or if they did advocate the only real choice they would have would be to send their kids to a different school.

Looking back, for the most part I had a mostly good experience. I remember though complaining about a handful of teachers, and my parents would flat out not believe what I was saying...a very confusing experience.

Which brings me to my seems schools today still want us to treat kids as liars. I've encountered this line of thinking more than once. When I attended the junior high orientation last year, one of the school officials seemed to stressing that the default setting for the average junior high kid is to be dishonest, and made a joke "We'll only believe 50% of what they tell us about you, if you only believe 50% of what they tell you about us.

FedUpMom said...

The principal wrote:

“The PBiS program is meant to get students ‘thinking’ about appropriate behaviors and ask questions about why these expectations are in place.”

I like the way she put "thinking" in quotation marks. Of course the program doesn't encourage kids to ask questions. There's no provision for it. It's just about rewarding "good" behavior as defined by those in authority.

It's called "positive" because it emphasizes rewards over punishments, but they're really just two sides of the same authoritarian coin.

Chris said...

KD -- I went to a Catholic high school. There were rumors that some of the priests were hitting on students, but I don't know if they were true. But it was an open secret that one of the teachers was sexually involved with a student. If anyone had complained about it, it wouldn't have been a case of the school not believing the student; it would have been the school knowing it was true and choosing to look the other way.

Like you, I'm surprised by how reflexively some people choose to disbelieve kids' reports of what goes on in school. It seems to go beyond any sensible skepticism and to reflect a kind of wishful thinking. Of course, it can also be just self-serving; no school staff member likes to be criticized by a student. Better to inoculate yourself against criticism by suggesting in advance that kids are inherently liars.

A comment like the one you mention by a school official is really inexcusable. So much for respect.

Chris said...

FedUpMom -- Yeah, I got a kick out of the quotes around "thinking" -- as if to acknowledge that what she's describing isn't what people normally mean by "thinking."

Doris said...

Hi, Chris--I want to join in the conversation about the school board election but need a little more time to read the available materials about the candidates. In the interval, I thought you might enjoy ("enjoy")this article on PBIS from The Innovation Journal. The topic of the article is "the complexities associated with the process of persuading people to adopt new ideas" (2)--with PBIS being the case study. Note especially the first full paragraph on pg. 14, which addresses the topic of teachers who are not enthusiastic about the implementation of PBIS in their schools: "To respond to such criticisms of PBIS, team members can provide rewards, incentives, and recognition for teachers when their students exhibited desired behaviors."

Chris said...

Doris -- Thanks for commenting! That's a great link. (Here it is in clickable form.)

So instead of actually listening to what teachers might have to say about the programs you're imposing on them, or reasoning with them about why PBIS is or isn't a good idea, or just tolerating dissent, let's apply our pseudo-scientific behavioral techniques to alter their thinking! I think that quote is very revealing of the mindset of PBIS's promoters, and of today's top-down education "reformers" in general.

Doris said...

Chris--Yes! My thoughts exactly (were my thoughts as coherent as your prose). On a related note, the "Principal's Piece" in the current newsletter from your children's elementary school (my children's former school) is focused almost entirely on PBIS. Here's a choice excerpt: "PBiS includes school-wide procedures and processes intended for all students and all staff in all settings." So much for tolerating dissent. And even more ominously: "Throughout the school year, ideas for making a PBiS home-school connection will be in the headlines."

Chris said...

Doris -- Yes, I've been trying to work up the stomach to go over that handout closely. Expect more about it in a future post.

Chris said...

By the way, that business about "making a PBiS home-school connection" is all part of the PBIS plan: they want the kids to be scrutinized and rewarded constantly, at school *and* at home. They even want businesses in the community to get on board, by, for example, offering discounts to kids who have enough reward tickets. See this post.

Again, I do think there are differences right now in how PBIS is being implemented in different schools. From what I hear, those differences are growing smaller, as more schools are making more use of the program. This is consistent with the program's promotional materials, which make it clear that the goal is to make the program more pervasive over time, not less.

KD said...

Chris, I looked at your earlier post and the PBIS website. I hadn't realized that schools were actually encouraged to hand out discount coupons etc.

My elementary age kid received four coupons for free kid's meals last year. The restaurant is very far away in relation to our school, so I'm sure that it is a deterrent to many people using the coupons. Even so, I don't think it is the place of the school to get involved in promoting a business...which is really the function of the coupons.

Anonymous said...

Nice comments, I agree with your concerns. I work in the schools - the behaviorists have taken over the past ten years and run around passing out M&M's to students who fit their criteria of goodness. It's pretty sad, I can't wait until I can retire from the schools. I'm a school psychologist too, but I'm not a behaviorist as I too think much of these approaches are dehumanizing ("give the dog a bone"). I utilize a lot of empowering strategies, a lot of positive psychology. You know, behaviorists don't believe humans think. Anyway, nice post (and PBIS is a tragic approach)...

Chris said...

Anonymous -- Thanks for commenting. You're singing my tune (or vice versa). We've somehow put people in charge of our schools who don't believe in the concept of the mind.

Anonymous said...

My sons have come home from school to report that the tickets are given to the "bad kids" when in a moment they are doing something they should just being doing anyway. My sons are frustrated because they make the right choice all day long but they not rewarded. My children place no value in the system and the tickets what few they receive, are meaningless to them. PBIS is a I doggy treat system. It is a way to control the masses.