Wednesday, September 5, 2012

High joy? High discipline?

Over at kitchen table math, Catherine Johnson has written a post promoting high joy/high discipline schools.

Sigh. My first reaction is the same feeling I have about progressive schools: I'd like to see it done well. I've never seen progressive ed done well, with a true respect for students as individual learners. I've only ever seen it done badly, as a thin veneer of mushy curriculum laid on top of a thoroughly traditional authoritarian structure. If I could see it done well, I might be an enthusiastic convert.

I've never seen discipline done well either. I've seen (and heard of) over-the-top discipline systems where behavior becomes the entire curriculum, and learning takes a very distant back seat. I'm not a control freak by nature (I'm a chaos freak instead), and I'm deeply uncomfortable with any system that puts a high premium on unquestioning obedience. I don't think that's a useful lesson for any human being.

So, a system of discipline that I could be comfortable with would first of all have to be minimalist. That is, make as few rules as possible, about things that really matter. (Parallel to my grandfather's advice about buying insurance: "Only insure against disaster.") So, I'm fine with a rule against kids hitting each other, which of course should be supported by laws prohibiting adults from hitting the kids. On the other hand, a rule requiring kids to walk the hallways in an absolutely straight single-file line, in silence, strikes me as unnecessary and dehumanizing. The same is true for any system that punishes kids with "silent lunch".

I'm very opposed to any system that punishes kids for events that are not under their control. For instance, punishing young children for undone homework, at an age when homework is really Mom's job, and you're effectively punishing the kid for having the wrong kind of Mom. The most egregious example of this is punishing the kid for failing to obtain Mom's signature! Another example is punishing kids for getting to school late.

Following our experience with Younger Daughter, I've seen for myself that behavior problems are not easily distinguished from academic problems. All kinds of people were telling us that Younger Daughter was a discipline problem, and needed more "structure" (i.e, rules and punishments), but it turned out the source of her problems was that she had not learned to read, and felt anxious as a result. Once we got her reading, her discipline problems evaporated.

So, I think a well-designed academic program could prevent many discipline problems in the first place. If kids are learning, they're less likely to start acting up out of anxiety or boredom.

As for high joy, I only wish it was an option where I live. I almost wouldn't care what else was going on at the school. We could fill in academics at home, which we find ourselves doing anyway no matter where the kids go to school. Where I live, it seems like the model of education-as-learning has been thrown out in favor of education-as-hazing. If kids are stressed out and overworked, that proves that the school is doing its job. This becomes especially true at the high school level, where the ferocious competition for entry to "good" colleges has resulted in an insane workload and endemic sleep deprivation, which is now considered a normal rite of passage for upper-middle-class teenagers. This is not what I want for Older Daughter.

This evening, we're attending orientation for Older Daughter's first year of high school at Friends Omphalos. 8th grade was not wonderful for Older Daughter, and I'm really hoping high school will be better. Wish us luck!


  1. I agree with some of the things I see on Kitchen Table Math, but I have never been able to warm up to that site. One reason, I think, is that they often seem to compare progressive education in practice with traditional education in the ideal.

    Recently there was a post about how schools even manage to "ruin" Singapore Math. Wouldn't that make you at least stop and consider whether the problem isn't constructivist math, but something else that might be inherent in compulsory education?

    Granted, I tend to think that making people learn things regardless of whether they’re interested in learning them – especially via a huge bureaucratic institution – is a pretty low-percentage enterprise, and I tend to see education's failures in that light. KTM, on the other hand, seems to think that we are just going about the making-people-learn business in all the wrong ways, and that if we just did it right, we would see dramatic improvements.

    Many education bloggers and commentators – even some with whom I largely agree – seem to have a limitless faith in the ability of K-12 education to create a highly-skilled, well-informed, intelligent adult populace if only it were done right. It seems like most people don't want to think about how there might be limits to what is achievable; as a result, any imperfection is an excuse for some new reform. That’s certainly not an argument against all change, but it does influence how I view reform proposals. Since I’m relatively skeptical about what mass compulsory education can achieve, I’m more likely to worry about its downsides (the coercion, the authoritarianism, the association of learning with drudgery, etc.), and to focus my concern on whether we’re offering kids a humane environment in which to spend such a big chunk of their childhoods.

  2. Hey Chris -

    I'm Catherine, and I'm definitely not comparing progressive education in practice to traditional schools as an ideal. Our typical son attended a Jesuit high school here in New York, and the atmosphere there was a revelation to my husband and me. It's one of the happiest places on earth, and the secret is the high joy/high discipline connection.

    I think such schools are probably the institutional equivalent of 'authoritative parenting,' which is also characterized by high warmth and high structure/discipline.

    Warmth and structure are natural partners.

  3. traditional authoritarian structure

    I have never experienced a traditional authoritarian structure in the sense I assume you mean. Not as a child, and not as a parent.

    Our public school, which is constructivist, is quite punitive. We have zero tolerance, very harsh expulsion policies, etc.

    C's Jesuit high school, which has a traditional curriculum and traditional teaching, is not authoritarian at all.

  4. Catherine, what you describe at your public school is what I see all the time. It's "progressive" only as far as mushy curriculum, but under that it's all about authority. To my mind, it's married the worst of progressive ed to the worst of traditional ed.

    I'd be curious to see your son's Jesuit school. We've got Catholic schools around here, which I've never seriously checked out. Maybe I should ...

  5. Hi, Catherine -- My comment sounded more confrontational than I intended. I think parents blogging about school, no matter what they think, is all to the good. I was just trying to put my finger on why I don't click with your site. I do think it has to do with my inability to work up much enthusiasm for debates over which type of compulsory education curriculum is most effective. I know that some are better than others (and I'm certainly persuadable that Singapore Math is better than, say, Everyday Math), and I suspect that you could demonstrate that difference on tests of whether kids are at grade level. I just doubt that it makes much difference in people's math abilities later in life. My focus in elementary school would not be on achieving particular grade-level milestones, but just on not making kids hate math or become life-long math-phobes, and that's where criticisms of Everyday Math hit home with me.

    I like what Roger Schank had to say about the "is algebtra necessary" debate here.

    I went to Catholic high school and am glad I did for a number of reasons. Still, I think it's hard to compare any private school with public schools, since private schools don't have to take all comers, and can easily expel problem students.

    My feelings about what passes for progressive education are pretty much summed up by this cartoon.

    I think you can find lots of liberal homeschoolers who have success stories about genuinely progressive education. But in America's public schools?

  6. Wow, Chris, I would expect there's a big difference in adult outcome between Singapore and Everyday Math. With Singapore, maybe you forget some of the details in adulthood, but with Everyday Math, you never saw it in the first place.

    Here's another way to think about it. I think the dumbing-down and hollowing-out of the curriculum is one of the reasons for this bizarre authoritarianism that is spreading like kudzu. The school has to do something all day, and the teachers have to have something to think about. Nature abhors a vacuum. If the schools aren't busying themselves teaching actual content-rich subjects like math and history, they'll invent something else to obsess about, like Perfect Lunchroom Behavior.

    Love the cartoon!

  7. I think it's the other way around: feeling pressured to raise short-term standardized test scores, the schools try to squeeze more instructional time into the day, and then have to double down on behavior management as a result.

    These math curriculum wars have been going on forever, and the messiah is always somehow just around the next corner. Have the real math abilities of the adult U.S. population varied significantly from one generation to the next? And if so, can the variance really be traced to elementary school math curricula? My guess is that people end up knowing as much math as they need to know to do the things they’re interested in doing. It would be nice if people knew more – if they were more capable of evaluating the numerical claims made in public policy debates, for example – but if they don’t, is it really because they weren’t taught well in math class thirty, forty, or fifty years ago?

  8. And correct me if I'm wrong, but long-range statistics about the effect of different curricular choices on actual math skills later in life -- that is, the one thing we should actually care about -- are the one type of statistics you never see in these debates.

    Again, these curricular wars have been going on for decades upon decades -- so where are the longitudinal studies?

  9. Chris, I don't think this debate will be resolved any time soon.

    I agree with you that the public schools are all running scared of the standardized tests, but it doesn't lead to more instruction in any useful sense I can see. If anything, they may be working harder to bring up the very lowest-performing students, while ignoring the needs of any students who meet the (low and, if the schools have anything to say about it, swiftly descending) benchmarks.

    And increasingly I feel that the schools, and many teachers in them, just don't know anymore what real academic content looks like, or what actual learning of a subject is. It's such an incoherent muddle at this point.

    Chris, if you have the time, I recommend Out in Left Field as a way to understand the math curriculum wars. Katharine's posts of side-by-side fuzzy math with Singapore math was the argument that convinced me. A few years ago, I sounded more like you when it came to the math wars. But if you look closely at the curriculum, the real shocker is how little actual math our kids are being exposed to. It's bound to affect them.

  10. Just put my son with learning disabilities into our local public 5th grade. In addition to the extreme authoritarianism and disrespect of the children, he is graded every day on the "classwork" in math. Result: he gets F's on his "classwork" because he wasn't exposed to what they're doing right now at his previous school and yet the teacher is grading these "review" exercises where he's trying to learn it; he gets A's on his homework because I'm actually teaching him how to do it while he's at home; and then he gets a C on the quiz, which demonstrates that he is halfway to being able to understand the concepts at the point where they test and move on. He feels humiliated. I can't tell you how disgusted I am.

  11. Rosemary, I'm sorry to hear this. Ugh.

    Have you talked to the teacher? Could you get her to at least not put a grade on his classwork, since this isn't review for him? Or, could you conceivably get hold of the materials and prep him ahead of time? (You'd be doing what the school should have done, but it might help your son feel better.)

  12. Thanks for the support! He's also supposed to have an IEP but doesn't have one yet. I wasn't even allowed to meet with his teachers before school started. The entire 5th grade year seems to be devoted to drill and kill in preparation for Virginia's "standards of learning" test at the end. I already homeschool my autistic son. I'm seriously thinking of pulling this child out as well if he is willing. He may hate the thought of it. If he wants to stay at the school, I'll try to do what you suggest in addition to 1. extra time on tests in a room without distractions 2. math tutoring after school 3. assistive technology (i.e. you shouldn't be unable to learn how to do 3 digit multiplication just because you don't remember your times tables--use a calculator). It's so much work to fight the schools for what a kid with special needs needs, homeschooling is in many ways easier.

  13. Anonymous, homeschooling is way easier than sending a kid to school. I homeschooled my gifted child because it was just easier.

  14. I agree with a lot of this. All this problems and my parents think school days should be longer!