Sunday, October 09, 2011

"Johnny, that was a most excellent 'fuck-you'...!"

In my local paper is a story about the Allentown School District's latest bright idea for improving attendance, test scores and general morale among the district's notoriously troublesome and unmotivated high school population. (As background, also in the paper is a separate story about how Allentown has the highest percentage of high-school dropouts in the Lehigh Valley, the umbrella region in which I live.) Apparently in the old unenlightened days, teachers faced with a student who told that teacher to "fuck off!" might have have sent said student to the principal's office, where he might be likely to receive a suspension. But that would cause the student to miss work, which, in the end, just further handicapped the student in his [non]effort to get a good education. (See the reasoning here? The penalty caused the student to miss work. Not the offense.)

The new Allentown policy, says the article, is an outgrowth of a national scholastic movement known as "School-wide Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports, which began in the special education realm more than two decades ago and spread to all sectors of public education." The article goes on to outline the thinking behind the initiative:

The theory is that if educators collectively and enthusiastically set up and enforce a schoolwide system of recognizing and rewarding students for good behavior, they will change into law-abiding pupils with better grades. Students' good behavior is tracked through a point system, and at the end of a week or month students get some sort of prize if they reach certain goals that show constant or improved behavior....
Sound eerily familiar? Like a repackaging of the same, tired "self-esteem-based" model of learning, except this time adapted for a student body that likes to carry guns to school? The net result is that in practice, teachers have effectively ended up rewarding kids for negative behavior, as the code is difficult to understand and even more difficult to apply. Hell, I found even the newspaper article confusing and inconsistent.

Anyway, the piece continues:
But almost all studies on whether the positive-behavior method works are done at the elementary level... Little or no research exists on its effect in high schools, especially in urban settings....
That should ring a bell, too, especially to anyone who's read SHAM. These new experiments in positivity, like the self-esteem movement as a whole, were conjured and embraced based on...well, nothing. Someone with a PhD got a bright idea rooted in a vague, touchy-feely notion of how the world ought to work, began selling that idea to his colleagues, and the rest is history. Nary a thought was given to pragmatics, the wider social implications, the law of unintended consequences, etc.

Although the early Victimization movement, as described in my book, has mostly given way to self-help's Empowerment wing in our post-Oprah/post-Secret culture, some of these "reinforce-my-victimhood" ideologies are tough to root out, notably in education. (
It bears noting that policy infected with self-esteem-based flaws has now found its way to American colleges. That was, of course, predictable: How else were colleges going to handle this influx of poorly prepared freshmen?) No, we don't want to just write off "urban" students. And I do believe that rewarding positive behavior and achievement is a very, very good thing. But if in practice it means that we look the other way when kids mouth off, act the fool, set a horrible example or even potentially endanger their fellow students, that just undermines the educational mission as a whole, and heightens the odds that another generation of hooligans will be unleashed on society after graduation, if they make it that far.

1 comment:

Liz Ditz said...

Hi Steve, I'm familiar with PBS through special education, where it's a lot better than the alternative (punishing the student).

Here is a good lay introduction to how PBS is used relative to special education:

The thing is, to do PBS well, you have to know why the child is exhibiting undesired behaviors (called a functional behavioral analysis, or FBA) and only then devise a PBS plan unique to that child.

In short, I wouldn't throw out the whole idea of PBS but as a huge blanket one-size-fits-all approach...well I think you are on target.