"Don't label a school as failing one day and then throw your hands up and walk away from it the next. Don't tell us that the only way to teach a child is to spend too much of a year preparing him to fill out a few bubbles in a standardized test...You didn't devote your lives to testing. You devoted it to teaching, and teaching is what you should be allowed to do." -- Candidate Barack Obama, Summer 2007

"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves." -- John Adams

Friday, November 23, 2012

Punishing Low Achievers

A very disturbing item in the news a few days ago...

Idaho Teacher in Face-Marking Incident Faces Probe
A southern Idaho teacher whose students used a permanent marker on the faces of classmates who fell short of reading goals is the subject of a formal complaint.

...One 10-year-old came home in tears after his entire face, including his eyelids, had been scribbled on with green, red and purple markers.
According to the article, the teacher allowed her students to choose their own "incentive" for their Accelerated Reader goal. The incentives the class chose were 1) staying in from recess until the goal was met or 2) having their faces drawn on with markers by peers who met their goals.

The parties involved have kept fairly quiet about the incident since it's a personnel issue...however parents brought the issue to the public eye, including a petition to the school board.

First of all, the obvious problem with the incentives put in place is the poor choice made by the teacher. I understand and can appreciate the positive learning opportunity of giving children choices, but as the adult in charge it's the teacher's job to monitor those choices and make sure that they are appropriate. The students chose to punish their peers who didn't (or couldn't) reach their goal. Punishment for failing to achieve an academic goal is not appropriate.

Second, some questions...

Were the students actually allowed to set their own goals? What if a student chose a goal of not reading any books at all? Would the teacher have allowed that?

Were all the student goals realistic? Some students, especially students with learning problems, often can't accurately determine their own limits. In that case it's up to the teacher to help them make appropriate goals.

The students chose the "incentives" based on the assumption that reaching a reading goal was a choice. This might not have been true if students weren't able to pick a realistic goal for themselves.

Finally, what's the atmosphere in this classroom that allowed the teacher to choose a punishment as an incentive? I tend to differentiate between "incentives" and "consequences." The former should be something positive. The Accelerated Reader documentation also suggests positive rewards as incentives.
Consider reinforcing meeting individualized goals with certificates, bookmarks, pencils, or other items. Some teachers allow students to enter their names in a drawing every time they score 100 percent on a quiz for a book within their ZPD. Prizes might include a free yearbook or free admission to a basketball game, prom, or other special event. Ask students to help you identify the most appealing prizes.
...prizes, not punishments.

[Although Alfie Kohn has argued against both punishment and rewards in his book Punished by Rewards. See articles HERE and HERE.]

Letting students choose incentives is fine, but punishing students for not achieving is inappropriate at any level. Punishments masquerading as "incentives" should be avoided.

The publicity which this story received makes it clear that many people think the teacher made a mistake. It's likely that some "reformers" might use this story to illustrate how much we need to fire "bad teachers." It's ironic, however,  that the teacher was just following the lead of education "reformers". The federal government as well as many state governments have been punishing students, teachers, and school systems for low achievement for nearly a dozen years, through No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and a variety of state-based initiatives (such as IREAD-3 in Indiana).

Neither classroom based punishments, nor government supported punishments are appropriate for improving academic achievement.

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Stop the Testing Insanity!


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