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.