The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Civilization begins with order, grows with liberty, and dies with chaos."...  ...Will Durant.

Commentary of the Day - May 30, 2010:  Civilization As We Know It.   Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

A couple of centuries ago, when the nation was younger and fewer things ran on batteries, Mark Twain defined civilization as the "limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities."  A few decades earlier Ralph Waldo Emerson identified the "true test of civilization" as not the census, nor the size of the cities, nor the crops, but the kind of man that the country turns out."  Borrowing from Mr. Twain's sentiment, I'm adding "nor the number of apps on your iPhone" so twenty-first century Americans can see themselves in Mr. Emerson’s nineteenth century mirror.

So what kind of man (and woman) are we turning out?

Many people point to public schools as the "we" behind every ill that currently plagues American society, from students who aren't "motivated" to workers who can't compete. Schools are especially on the hook for everything American children can't, won't, or don't do, from avoiding conception to keeping their waistlines trim.

The problem with that line of thinking is that public schools don't bring children into the world.  It's also not the job of schools to bring them up.  And despite my impressive powers when it comes to correcting spelling quizzes, I don't set national economic, military, or social policy.

As a citizen, I'll accept my fair share of the blame for the state of the union.  And, public education has spent a generation careening between extremes, heatedly spouting theoretical nonsense.  But my classroom isn't the first cause of the nation's decline.  Schools didn't invent complacency, entitlement, and self-indulgence.

We mostly reflect what's around us.  Then as schools succumb to the national disease, we help spread the infection.

There's nothing new about human conflict.  It's been a fact of life since Cain and Abel; and, it's been a problem at school for almost as long.  Schools, like society, formerly coped with bad behavior by setting standards and enforcing rules.  Breaking those rules sometimes warranted conversations or warnings and other times earned penalties.  That's because penalties, and the threat of penalties, discourage bad behavior.  If you disagree, think back to the last time you saw a state trooper in your rearview mirror.

Schools weren't the first to make excuses for antisocial behavior.  Nor were they the first to focus more on the offender's problems than on the problems he caused others.  Teachers didn't invent the fiction that punishment is always counterproductive.  But many schools and teachers did adopt that folly.  Keeping students after school is now commonly seen as repressive.  Suspending chronically disruptive kids allegedly denies them their right to an education.  Troublemakers no longer cause trouble.  They're "behaviorally challenged."

"Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports" is touted as a "systems-based method for improving student behavior."  At first glance it's hard to fault a program that calls on students to be "respectful," "responsible," and "resourceful."  And in the interest of "consistency," it also makes rhetorical sense to "set school-wide expectations for student behavior."  Claims that PBIS delivers "reduced office referral rates," as well as reductions in detentions, suspensions, and dropout rates induce schools in rocky discipline straits to "buy in."

According to promoters, PBIS requires "a major shift in a school's approach to discipline."  Allegedly for the first time, teachers explain and show students how to behave, a shift that will sound major only if you've never been a child, a parent, or a teacher.  But PBIS doesn't stop there.  Each academic subject is assigned a particular behavior.  For example, in one PBIS middle school, the math department, through classroom lessons and "student and teacher role play," is responsible for teaching students "how to comport themselves in the stairwells and the bathrooms."

Did somebody ask why Johnny can’t do math?

PBIS claims to rest on consequences.  Disciplinary incidents earn a warning, following which the school contacts parents, following which parents are invited to a conference, following which there's finally a "discipline referral to the principal's office."

While all these verbal "consequences" unfold, what happens to the rest of the kids in the class?  For how many weeks and months, and years, does the disruptive behavior persist?  Boosters boast that PBIS dramatically cuts detention and suspension rates.  That's easy to do when you stop detaining and suspending anybody.  They also complain that disruptive kids lose class time when they're suspended, but far more class time is lost by everyone else when disruptive kids aren't suspended.

PBIS's reliance on "rewards" is equally worrisome.  One PBIS school had a tardiness problem.  Students who were chronically late to class had to "meet with the principal to discuss" it.  Those who didn't respond to the discussion and continued to arrive late graduated to the next "level of support," where they received rewards, ranging from tee shirts to movie tickets, provided they weren't late more than twenty percent of the time.  Those late students whose on-time rate eventually reached one hundred percent received free meals at local restaurants.

In other words kids who broke the rules collected rewards for breaking them less often, while kids who didn’t break the rules received nothing.

What moral and practical lesson does this teach?

Another of PBIS’s 7000 subscribing schools was plagued by "fights, loud disruptions during class, and faculty being injured during altercations with students."  Their PBIS "intervention" doles out daily school store vouchers "for small achievements," as well as "a different incentive" every month, like free ice cream for kids who don't earn "discipline slips."

The principal maintains that "this works for a majority of our kids," by which she means that only a fifth of her students keep breaking the rules despite the free dessert.  She concedes she's still seeing "chronic offenders in the office on a regular basis," which shouldn't really surprise anybody since most felons who attack teachers and other children don’t stop because of free ice cream.  School officials then "work with" these "targeted" offenders to "address the causes of their behavior" and "come up with individual incentives" more to their liking.

In short, PBIS bribes offenders, mostly unsuccessfully, to follow school rules.  Replace "follow school rules" with "obey the law" and ask yourself if you want to live in a society where we pay criminals in the hope that they won't hurt us.  At the same time, we're teaching the rest of the student body, meaning society, that the reason you should obey the law is you might earn a treat or a flat screen TV.  We're also teaching them that you're more likely to be rewarded for being good if you're bad first.

I doubt Mr. Emerson would approve.

I know I don't.

Do you?

2010, Peter Berger.
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont.  Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer messages addressed to him in care of the editor.

The Irascible Professor comments: Back in the day when the IP was in public school, punishments for persistent miscreants could be far more draconian.  Generally, in the lower grades they consisted of various forms of public humiliation before one's peers (standing in the corner of the classroom, writing "I will not chew gum in class" a few hundred times on the blackboard, etc.)  For persistent cases, after-school detention was the next remedy followed by a conversation with the child's parents.  More often than not that would lead to a round of corporal punishment at home.  In the higher grades punishment most often started with additional assignments.  Repeat offenders often were given detention as a next step.  If that didn't work the visit to the vice-principal's office usually was next.  The vice-principal generally had two levels of punishment that he could inflict.  The first was the administration of a certain number of "swats" with a solid-wood paddle.  (This sometimes was referred to as the "board of education.")  The next level was the administration of swats with a wooden paddle that had holes drilled in it.  The latter was considerably more painful according to what I heard from classmates who experienced this relatively rare form of punishment.  And, when all else failed suspension and expulsion were used.  We probably had fewer disciplinary problems in the schools back then.  Though it's not clear that we weren't creating more than a few serial killers in the process.


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