Monday, August 6, 2012

What Makes Johnny (and Charmaine, and. . .) Run? Of Carrots, Sticks, and Education

One Way To Motivate

Motivation is a rather intriguing topic in the world of education, particularly these days, given all the expert opinions the corporate world is offering to or more often blatantly imposing upon public schools, districts, administrators, parents, and children. Of course, teachers themselves are always seeking guidance from more experienced and/or successful educators on how to get kids to behave and do what is demanded and expected of them in and out of class.

On July 31, 2012, writing on her Secondary Education page, Melissa Kelly tried to address the question of how to motivate students when she wrote:
One way to motivate students both behaviorally and academically is to reward them in various ways. I've created a list of ten ways that you can reward middle and high school students. Enjoy!
Here is the list of motivators Ms. Kelly recommended (I will only reproduce their names, not the details, here; click on the link for the whole thing:

1) Sit where you want for the day;
2) Class party;
3) Homework pass;
4) Games day;
5) Extra credit;
6) Small rewards;
7) Water day;
8) Extra computer time;
9) Popcorn party;
10) Take care of the class pet.

Before continuing, I need to make clear that the above list is offered to secondary teachers. In some ways, that's surprising, but I suspect that a very large number of teachers will be familiar with most or all of them, regardless of the grade band in which they teach.

I won't comment on most of these (and didn't remark directly on any of them on her blog), but must here object in particular to the third one. What message does it send to kids about homework if one is rewarded by not having to do it? Please note, I'm not suggesting that homework is something I favor, but merely that it speaks volumes to what even teachers believe about it if they consider it a motivator to give kids a free pass from doing it. If the message of that isn't, "I know I tell you all the time that homework is vital for doing well, and I require that you do it to pass (hence, I give marks for it), I've been lying, because I'm willing to let you get out of doing it, or at least some of you, as a bribe for doing something else I want you to do. So don't believe what I said about homework. Except pretend you do. And you can certainly trust the truth and sincerity of the OTHER things I tell you," then I don't know what it IS saying in reality.

In any event, here is the initial comment I DID leave:
I thought learning and doing meaningful work were their own reward. Why would students need to be bribed into participating in lessons that addressed their inborn needs to make sense of their world? Of course, if the lessons are irrelevent drudgery, bunches ‘o facts disconnected from anything that matters, even obliquely, to the students, I can well-understand the need to provide extrinsic motivation in the form of bribery.
Several replies followed, two of which are worth copying here:
1) Kathleen Bailey says:

Mr. Goldberg [sic], I don’t think you are a teacher. We work so hard to keep the students engaged in learning, to think well of themselves before, during, and after the learning process….but sometimes just a little reward can make a difference. It’s a visual something…I got this sticker because I worked hard to learn; it’s a reminder every time they see it. Teachers, before so many laws about nutrition came into our classrooms, used to be shameless and happy to dispense candy for learning. I just want them to learn and I don’t mind spending my hard earned cash for little prizes. I do not have to do it that often, but I don’t mind a bit. Movie day for weeks and weeks of work on a research paper is a good thing!

2) James Clark says:

With all due respect to Ms. Baily, Mr Goldberg [sic] is correct. I’m a teacher, and I know. You, as a teacher, must feel the bigger issue is that we are forced to bully kids into a simplistic understandings that can boiled down to a multiple choice test. Through an ignorant allegiance to standardized test scores we have a we have sneak love of learning in between preparation for quizzes. To you Mr Goldberg [sic] I would add that I use motivators of every kind. However, the bigger issue is high stakes testing and teacher bullying. You need to tell your principal today (call… I’m he or she is there) and say that you (and all your friends as well perhaps?) want standardized testing to stop. Teachers should be allowed to do what they signed up for… teach and inspire.

And those led me to write what follows:

I appreciate the responses. For what it's worth, I've been in education since 1973. I've taught at the high school level, worked as a field supervisor for secondary and elementary teachers for the Univ. of Michigan, done research in middle school math classrooms, been an elementary and secondary math coach, and done professional development work with K-12 teachers in mathematics. I've also taught math content and methods courses for elementary and secondary teachers at several colleges and universities, and been a mathematics instructor at community colleges in NYC and Michigan.

So yes, I'm a teacher. And I'm also a staunch critic of high-stakes standardized tests.

But I think there's a key point that may have been overlooked, one I intended but didn't make explicit: if you have to bribe/reward kids, there's something wrong. Whether it's that outside forces (e.g., NCLB, Race to the Top, the Common Core) or more internal/local ones (principals, departments,  districts,etc.) that push bad curriculum and "standards" into the classroom, or whether teachers simply aren't asking themselves what actually matters to kids (and please, I'm neither stupid - my son is 17 - nor cynical: kids WANT the world to make sense, and it's up to educators to help them do so. But we mostly don't for a host of reasons.

If you could teach any relevant content you wished, it would behoove you to frame your curriculum around what kids want to know to make sense of their world. Every "subject" is relevant in that regard, at least potentially. We could, if we thought about it, worked with other teachers and curriculum specialists in an inter-disciplinary way, construct units and lessons that addressed what kids want to know. And they DO want to know.

But if you're a secondary teacher, chances are enormous that many if not most of your students are already ruined for learning by the time they reach your classroom. They've been "schooled" to only care about grades, not learning, IF they even care about those. A few may actually want to know things for their own reasons outside the context of the school game, but they aren't the way they are because of some inherent flaw. Rather, we taught them to be that way from early on, and they learned the lessons we taught only too well. Early elementary kids are full of energy and curiosity and life, eager to learn for the most part. By third or fourth grade, much of that has been bent by well-meaning teachers and a system that corrupts everyone.

Please consider how YOU as a teacher have been corrupted by a carrot-and-stick system. It's more blatant now than it's been since unions first arose to make things more fair for professional educators: the new education "reformers" (or as I call them, deformers) are playing a bunch of the same silly "motivational" games with teachers that many teachers believe they must play with their students. And few experienced teachers LIKE the games that are being played with them now, but fail to make the connection between what they do to students (or feel they MUST do) and what the for-profit education deformers are doing to teachers.

It's ALMOST ironic.

I want to close by mentioning several people whose work; as well as public and private writing, speaking and thought have been deeply influential on what I've had to say here: A.S. Neil, Tim Pitkin, Wilhelm Reich, Alfie Kohn, Lynn Stoddard, and Marion Brady. I thank all of them for their humane, child-centered ideas about education and children.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

An Open Letter to Barack Obama About Education

Dear Mr. President:

I write this on your birthday to wish you the very happiest of days. But I also write to speak to you as a parent, educator, and someone who deeply believes in our democratic heritage and values.

When you spoke to the nation after the recent tragedy in Colorado, you appealed to people first as a father, shocked by something he knew could have happened all too easily to his own children. I, too, am a parent. My son is a fine young man of 17 who has attended public schools all his school life. And as someone who has worked in public education for 42 years, I know intimately the strengths and flaws of our education system, about which I comment in these pages and elsewhere on a regular basis. Almost all my professional work over the past 20 years has been in high-needs, inner-city schools of poverty, in Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, and New York City (including the South Bronx). And there I have seen poverty and squalor that most Americans can't even begin to imagine, including schools that would be shocking even in third-world countries. I would love to say that what you've accomplished regarding education since you took office is make real in-roads in our neediest schools and communities, but to do so would be a lie.

As long as Arne Duncan is US Sec. of Education, you will be promoting an undemocratic approach, heretofore unprecedented in our history, to imposing federal will on state and local educational practices. Were the policies your administration is effectively enforcing states to adopt good ones (which they are not), I would still hesitate to support the MEANS through which you are promoting them. But as they are not, I am doubly worried about the precedent you are setting for the next George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, or worse: since YOU forced states to accept Race to the Top and the execrable Common Core State (sic) Standards, why won't the next Republican president feel free to force through mandatory vouchers, the forcible breakdown of the separation clause, and much else even more heinous? If past is prologue, you know as well as I that they will not hesitate for an instant. And your approach to educational deform (for it is NOT reform in any traditional sense) will be used repeatedly to justify further disasters.

Duncan must go. Policies that play into the hands of corporate educational deform must go. Allowing high stakes tests to determine our policies must go.

When you were elected in 2008, progressive educators throughout the land celebrated what we saw as a return to national sanity. We believed that you would appoint an educator like Linda Darling-Hammond, Diane Ravitch or Deborah Meier to lead the DOE and bring real classroom teaching experience to bear in improving policy. Instead, you gave us Arne Duncan, a soulless, clueless, corporate drone, a man who manages to insult professional teachers (and parents, and kids) nearly every time he opens his foolish mouth and lets out his ideas about "fixing" schools.

End the madness. Make your second term the best in the history of US education by rejecting corporatization and privatization of public schools. Shut your ears to the siren calls of Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton, Coors, de Voss, and other right-wing and shamelessly greedy foundations, and leave a legacy your children and grandchildren will be proud of. Your kids go to one of the finest PRIVATE schools in the country, while the rest of the black kids in DC are living in the disaster that Michelle Rhee helped make worse and even further steeped in corruption and dishonesty. The high stakes tests don't tell us what kids know or can do. They bring down the integrity of education. They are, simply, a plague upon the land, serving the interests only of their publishers and some very blind politicians.

YOU can make a real difference by speaking out HONESTLY about how poverty and financial inequity slants the educational playing field and rigs the game to the extreme disadvantage of poor and minority students. Every politician pays lip-service to the notion of fairness and the vital importance of quality education in helping make meaningful change for the good, but few if any DO anything useful in this regard.  By supporting truly equal opportunity for everyone, a real chance for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, by including the right to a high-quality education, like the one your daughters are getting, you can help bring about real social change, change that will never come through today's high-needs education: full-time test preparation that kids in Detroit, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Houston, Los Angeles, and many other places are given, whether or not they and their parents like it. Testing isn't teaching, Mr. President, as you have acknowledged but failed to address with good policy. The time to commit to positive change is NOW.