Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Coercion is always the cure, never the problem

When I asked our superintendent what problem was being solved by our district’s intensified focus on behavior and discipline, he said:
Steve Murley: Well, I’ll pull back, I’ll do kind of a 50,000-foot view, which is, and having spent seventeen years in Wisconsin before I came here, it’s not an anomaly in Iowa City. This is something that you’re seeing across the country. PBIS [our district’s behavioral rewards program] was an initiative with the State Department of Public Instruction in Wisconsin and it’s an initiative with the Department of Education here in Iowa so, it – I don’t think it’s a – it’s not a Hoover issue, it’s not an Iowa City issue, I think it’s an issue you see that’s systemic across the country, and I think that the reason you see it out there, from my exposure in Wisconsin and down here in Iowa, is it is in response to issues that have been brought forward at the state level by concerns about whether behavior is an impediment to learning. That is, are incidents in the classroom arising to a level that is making it difficult for teachers to teach and students to learn?

CL: Meaning that the behavior is worse than in previous years?

SM: Mm-hmm.

CL: Is there some limit, though, to what you can do as far as behavior goes?

SM: Oh sure, when you look at, between the time that a child is born and the time that a child turns eighteen, they spend probably twelve per cent of their time in public schools; they spend eight-eight per cent of their time somewhere else. And so, when you look at it from that standpoint, and I again, I’ll go from – I have more experience with the implementation piece in Wisconsin than I do here, because they went through the process of selecting it here when I wasn’t here, so it’s difficult for me to speak to that – but I know in Wisconsin, when they looked at PBIS, one of the things that they looked at are issues that do affect us here in Iowa City, and that I think you see in many urbanized centers, which is a significant change in stability and mobility – that is, there are more kids moving in and out of your district and more kids moving from school to school in the district, and part of the underlying theoretical background of PBIS is to provide more uniformity from classroom to classroom in a school, and from school to school within a district, and from district to district within a state, so that there is more commonality than differentiation as kids move from building to building. Right or wrong, that’s the underlying theoretical basis of that.
Full context here.

The superintendent thus takes his place in the centuries-long line of people complaining about how kids today are so much more ill-behaved than the generation before them. If we were to believe every generation that made that complaint, we would conclude that by now all children must be serial killers.

What has changed recently: the nature of children, or the nature of our educational policies? If the kids aren’t meeting the school’s expectations, is it possible there’s something wrong with the expectations, and not with the kids? Is it possible that No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on raising standardized test scores is forcing our schools to make unrealistic demands on children? Is it possible that kids are acting out because of the way the schools are treating them?

Don’t expect school officials to consider those possibilities. Yeah, sure, under No Child Left Behind, school is increasingly about preparing for and taking standardized tests, and school personnel are more and more stressed out and fearful for their jobs, and the kids’ behavior is scrutinized and managed like never before, and recess has been cut to a minimum (when it’s not withheld entirely as a punishment), and lunch is down to fifteen minutes or less. But if the kids are acting out, it must be because children are different now, or because their “stability and mobility” has changed, or because their families aren’t teaching them the proper respect.

I’d be acting out, too, if I had to sit through school today.


Suzanne Lamb said...

I have been reading your blog for months, but this is my first comment. I appreciate all you are doing to make children's lives better. We unschool because it suits us, and because our local public elementary--thanks to Character Counts! and a superintendent and school board who don't seem to believe children have any civil rights at all--is simply too depressing a place for us to imagine sending our three kids. What most impresses me about your interview with the Iowa City superintendent is his total (and almost certainly deliberate) failure to speak with clarity. Phrases such as "more commonality than differentiation," "the underlying theoretical background," and "the underlying theoretical basis" are offered again and again in place of any meaningful insights about the specific district and student population he is supposed to serve.

PsychMom said...

You kind of get this picture in your mind of roving bands of homeless teenagers, converging on a school for several months, and then moving onto the next unfortunate school causing no end of mischief. I wonder who these mobile youths are?

Chris said...

Suzanne -- Welcome to the comments! I think homeschooling, and unschooling in particular, raises some challenging questions for the school system. How can they justify the increasing coercion and regimentation when so many people seem to be doing fine (or even better!) without it? Where's the added value? The more homeschoolers there are out there, the more schoolers will start asking that question, I hope.

Yeah, the Eduspeak is mind-numbing. Orwell sure was right when he said that political language is designed "to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

Chris said...

PsychMom -- Yeah, like something out of Mad Max!

Seriously, though, this is the school system's idea of self-examination: If the kids are acting out, it must be because we're just not making our demands loud, clear, and uniform enough!

PsychMom said...

The increased control just a reaction ...again blaming kids and parents for some perceived increase in misbehaviour. The analysis is superficial, the broadness of the mandate "looking" comprehensive but really just apply a thin coat over the whole issue.

When you think about it a little more, it's a very immature reaction. The system has outlawed corporal punishment but the replacement ideology is no less authoritarian. The school authorities need to meet the business guys and the industrial psychologists who have figured out that carrots and sticks just don't work. They particuliarly don't work when you want to inspire creativity and problem solving.

Karen W said...

Just saw this in a comment at kitchen table math (attributed to Mary Damer and Elaine McEwan):

"Research supports the underlying thesis of our problem-solving process: the heart of successful behavior management is good instruction. Effective teaching becomes an even more essential variable for managing student behavior when one or more of the following conditions is present: (a) a student has a particularly chaotic home environment, (b) a student’s learning problems are extensive and complex, or (c) a student’s behavior is especially impulsive."

See more of it here: http://kitchentablemath.blogspot.com/2009/02/are-we-having-fun-yet-discipline-in.html

Seems you might add "Are instructional practices contributing to increases in behavioral issues?" to the list of questions not being asked.

Chris said...

Karen -- That sounds like a good question. Are you thinkibg of any practices or trends in particular? I have to wonder whether all the standardization is making school significantly more boring, which would seem likely to make the kids more disruptive. That's part of what I'm wondering about the changes in the language arts curriculum (see today's post).

Karen W said...

The author of that quote in particular is referring to constructivist practices.

So, consider a situation where children are asked to do something that they don't know how to do, say take these blocks and invent your own multiplication algorithm. After small groups struggle for a while teacher plans show the class the area model of multiplication. In the meantime, some kids are frustrated and have no idea how to get started and there they are, sitting with blocks and a few other kids and the teacher is no longer paying attention as she sits down to help another small group first. Hard to imagine some kids won't start playing with or throwing the blocks or talk to their friends about other things or otherwise misbehave while waiting for guidance.

Now, you know that I like Montessori classrooms. But in a Montessori classroom kids choose the work and it is work they have already been shown how to do. They have learned that they can ask the teacher or another child who knows how to do the work for assistance or they can put the work away if it is too frustrating or no longer of interest.

So, I guess I might think that any instructional practice that leaves a child without enough information to do the work they are asked to do (like guess words that are too hard instead of being given decodable readers/phonics instruction), just-in-time learning, or tasks that are too simple and amount to busywork (did you see the Journeys video with 4th graders pasting words onto blank sheets of paper?) might open the door for frustrated or bored kids to get off task or really become disruptive.