Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Nobody cares how behavior and discipline policies are affecting your child

Over the past three or four years, we have seen big changes in our district’s approach to behavior and discipline in the schools. At our elementary school last year, the incidence of disciplinary measures skyrocketed, even though the principal conceded that the kids were no worse behaved than in previous years. Although the kids get a measly fifteen-minute lunch break, the school has decided to use that time to police and manage the kids’ behavior and “voice levels” much more than in years past – at times even requiring the kids to spend a big chunk of their brief lunch period in total silence. (See posts here, here, here, and here.) The district has also implemented a pervasive behavioral conditioning program (PBIS), under which kids are rewarded, primarily for being quiet and obedient, with tokens, candy, small toys, or tickets into a weekly raffle.

As readers of this blog know, I’m concerned about what these discipline and behavior policies are teaching the kids, and about how they’re affecting the kids’ experience of school. Are the kids learning unquestioning compliance with authority? Are they learning mindless conformity to the “expectations” of those around them? Are they learning not to think for themselves about right and wrong? Are they learning that the reason to be well-behaved is to get material rewards? Are they learning that good behavior is about acquisitiveness and competition with their classmates? Are they internalizing increasingly authoritarian values?  Are they learning that “being good” in school is primarily about being quiet and obedient? Are they experiencing school as the place where their behavior is constantly scrutinized, judged, and micromanaged? Are they learning to scrutinize, judge, and micromanage the behavior of their classmates? Are they learning that there is no sphere of life that the authorities cannot rightfully monitor and manage? Are they learning that it’s okay to punish everyone whenever it’s too hard to sort out the innocent from the guilty? Are they learning that it’s their job to monitor and report on the misbehavior of their friends and classmates? Are they learning that education is a chore that no one would engage in without constant coercion and manipulation? Are they learning that school is a big drag?

Nowadays, school policies are often defended as being “evidence-based,” so I wanted to know whether the district is assessing all of the effects of these policies, or just their effects on test scores and the rate of office referrals. In my view, adopting a policy based entirely on the assessment of one or two effects is like prescribing a drug without having any idea what the side effects are. So in my Q&A with the district administrators, I asked about how these policies would be assessed:

CL: Well, how are you going to assess whether it [PBIS] is working?

Superintendent Steve Murley: They’re doing the same thing here that they were doing in Wisconsin, which is gathering data. We send lots of data to the state –

CL: What’s the data measuring?

SM: Well, it’s purportedly supposed to measure incidents that arise to a level at which some type of action is taken by the school.

CL: Where’s the measurement of whether that has any effect on learning?

SM: Well, again, at the state level, their intent is to gather those and then to do the correlations with the state-level test data, and –

CL: Test data is going to be all it is?

SM: That’s, that’s what they work with.

CL: Is there going to be any attempt to assess attitudes toward learning as a result of changes like this?

SM: There is in Iowa, though I don’t know that they’re going to do the correlational analysis with it, and that’s – we do the Iowa Youth Survey, and that’s designed to gather information about the climate of the school and how kids feel about the time that they spend in school. I don’t know if they’re making, if they’re doing that correlational inference with, with that data.

CL: Is there any attempt to assess what effect is has on things like curiosity, skepticism, skepticism toward what they’re told, the ability to think for themselves – You’re shaking your head no, just for the record –

SM: No, no.

CL: Doesn’t that concern anybody?

SM: Oh sure, but they don’t do a very good job measuring those things in general, so there’s, there’s –

CL: But it seems like those are what people’s objections are. If you don’t measure the objections, how can you assess the program?

SM: Understood. Again, I look at it – my goal is to tell you what I understand about what they’re doing at it from the state level, and the assessments they have available to them are the Iowa assessments, and –

CL: But –

SM: I guess I would argue that they don’t, they don’t measure skepticism and curiosity and some of those types of things.

CL: I would argue that too.

. . .

CL: I guess I’m still wondering how you will assess whether these changes in discipline and behavior and all that are solving more problems than they are causing. I’m just not sure how that’s going to get examined.

SM: Those kinds of research are tough to do in schools. And one of the reasons they’re difficult to do is we don’t do controlled experimentation. We don’t do something here and not there, and so it can be very difficult for us to actually assess causation. Sometimes the best we can do is correlation, and in some cases we can’t even do that.

CL: Well, I agree with what [Assistant Superintendent] Becky [Furlong] said, that that’s what judgment is for. But this focus on numbers, numbers, numbers seems to be a recipe for ignoring judgment.

SM: And depending on what the numbers are, some of that comes to us as part of our mandated state reporting process.
Full context here.

The upshot: Nobody cares. The district has adopted increasingly harsh, intrusive, infantilizing, and authoritarian behavior management and discipline policies. No one is making any effort to assess the full effects of those policies on the children. The district doesn’t care. The school board members don’t care. The state legislators don’t care. The Governor doesn’t care. And so on. Everyone is busily going about doing whatever they are told to do by higher authorities without raising any difficult questions, and teaching the children to do likewise.


LAB said...

A key issue here is that the media is reporting, very uncritically, the recent rise (since PBIS took hold, I assume) in disciplinary measures in schools. They're not skeptical, and not bothering to figure out if the kids truly are "worse" than ever or if the PBIS crackdown is just catching more random, minor "offenders" (i.e., a child talking too loud to his friend at lunch, a child who gets into an argument with another kid on the playground and they both end up in the office). This kind of reporting is rampant today: look only at the numbers (we have 27 kids a day being sent to the principal's office, therefore kids are out of control!) while ignoring the details (more behaviors than ever before are cause for disciplinary measures, therefore more kids are being disciplined). There's no increase in bad behavior, but there's certainly an increase in discipline for things that didn't used to be formally disciplined. Nevertheless, as the media clutches its pearls and reports on the escalating number of kids getting in trouble in school, they are inadvertently driving the "need" for PBIS and other types of behavior policing in schools. This whole issue is chasing its tail.

Doris said...

Thanks for taking the time to transcribe a portion of the conversation (depressing to read, as it was). I agree w/ LAB that the media reporting is far too uncritical.

I think plenty of people care, but it's a scary thing to try to buck the system when it is your kid who will have to live with the consequences of your decision.

My youngest took a violin lesson in public school from 8:30-8:45 each Thursday this past year. At some point she started reporting that the principal was offering a vocabulary "word of the day" during intercom announcements. Maybe I'm misinterpreting, but it sounded like standardized test prep to me. And, I'm embarrassed to admit this, but hearing about it made me worry: will my kids be disadvantaged when they take standardized tests because they haven't been drilled on the information . . . ?

I wonder. Do you think we're witnessing a fundamental shift in the nature of how childhood is conceptualized? Maybe the dept. of ed. should be folded into the dept. of labor, and then child labor laws could be applied to how children are treated by the educational system.

Chris said...

LAB -- That's right. The school system would have you believe that if the kids are being disciplined more, it must be because the fundamental nature of children of is changing, not because school policies have changed. Which is more likely?

More in an upcoming post.

Chris said...

Doris -- Yes, by "nobody cares," I meant nobody in power in the school system cares. I know lots of parents who care.

Great point about the child labor laws. Why do people think we have those laws? If school is a "job" (as our school has told the kids) and exists solely to generate a globally competitive "workforce," why make any distinction between schoolwork and paid labor?

Or do we just have child labor laws to protect adults from competition in the labor market?

Chris said...

From a reader email: "They aren't collecting [the data] to make good decisions--the decision is made. We are going to have PBIS whether the community likes it or not. The data collection is just about compliance."

Chris said...

Doris -- by the way, although this post does contain only a portion of the conversation, I did post virtually the entire conversation here.

Another Chris said...

How did we get something like PBIS attached to NCLB and why is it so pervasive, elusive, and difficult to corner? Perhaps this video will help some people understand the wide-ranging effects of the passage of NCLB and the kind of philosophy behind it that led to wholesale adoption of PBIS and other insidious "best practices" of the "reform" movement:

You can skip ahead to 2:18 to see the (to me horrifying) Manage Behavior part of the tape. Although Direct Instruction, as a contained, scripted, for-sale program, failed to achieve universal mandatory status through NCLB, it was "direct instruction", as a philosophy, that reigned supreme in Reading First and the handful of "approved" programs that came to dominate reading instruction today.

While DI is far too complex to explain in much detail in a blog comment suffice it to say that DI was the preferred model used in Houston by Rod Paige before he became the Secretary of Education under Bush and produced the "Texas Miracle" that wasn't -- the one that formed the foundation of today's instructional requirements.

DI was one of the "preferred" methods that received DOE approval as "research-based" and "effective" as a Reading First program and Chris Doherty (the director of Reading First) was an employee of the Direct Instruction company.

More background here:

Even though Reading First is now defunct the impact that it had on reading instruction has permeated everything and everyone associated with current programs.

DI has failed to achieve any kind of national status, largely because of the antagonistic demeanor of its founder and proponents towards anyone who is not a DI proponent. It has some success with some children but they portray it as the silver bullet for all reading ills.

The behavioral management component of DI is shared by pretty much everyone who formulated NCLB from the Fordham Foundation to the more zealous charter school systems such as KIPP and Harlem Achievement. The much-celebrated book "Teach Like a Champion" with its "49 techniques that put students on a path to college" is like a DI bible.

DI originated as a way to overcome the learning gap between minority, inner-city children and their white peers. It has great success in some instances and was widely adopted nationally for use with special education and at-risk school populations. It is still popular with charter schools and "turn around" schools because it is based in total teacher control, student compliance, and standardized everything. It was seen as an answer to the "wooly headed" and "fuzzy feel-good" progressive reforms of the 70's and beyond and was, therefore, embraced by the conservative side of the learning wars quite readily and it permeates the entire structure and philosophy of NCLB and its proponents.

That's where PBIS comes from and that's part of the reason why it has become the kudzu of public education today -- it's roots are deeply intwined in a philosophy of education that came to dominate America under George W. Bush and continues its rise under Barack Obama. To question PBIS is to question the foundation and underpinnings of the entire standards/testing/reform movement.

The video link I offered above chills me to the bone and sickens my stomach. My personal philosophy is so far opposite that portrayed that I can't even begin to fathom how well-meaning adults can look at children in that way and treat them like they do. But that is exactly what PBIS is and how it is implemented and why it is so important that sane people like Chris keep raising opposition to PBIS and its effects on our children.

It's all about the compliance and obeying those in authority. Period.

Chris said...

Another Chris -- Thanks for that comment. That video is hard to watch. Here's the clickable link, and here's the link to the Trelease article.

I agree that PBIS is inextricable from the whole No-Child-Left-Behind-standardized-testing-obsessed "reform" movement. I think what they most have in common is a view of kids as more like objects than like people, and a kind of Utopian faith in the idea that we just need to more tightly control all these inferior beings (teachers, parents, and elected school boards included).

Chris said...

Sorry -- here's the clickable link to the video.

PsychMom said...

Chilling. I couldn't handle more than about a minute of it. How did we get to a place where this is OK...even considered ideal handling of children?