"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Inner City School Failures - Is It A Case Of Too Many Carrots?

ST LOUIS - The Turner v. Clayton and King-Willmann v. Webster Groves cases continue to wind their way through the court system.  It is expected that the Turner case will wind up today in St Louis County Courts. The question the court is addressing is whether or not surrounding districts must allow children from unaccredited districts to enroll.  Though this is a highly charged debate, nothing ground breaking will come out of these trials because this is the only question being addressed.  The law seems pretty clear.  The surrounding districts are looking primarily for some organized way to handle the transfer.  The better question to be asked and answered is not going to be addressed; Why did the St. Louis City schools (and for that matter Kansas City too) fail?

Unless and until someone of character is willing to address that issue, all the fixes proposed in the recent legislation (annexation, transfers, charter schools, tax credits for private schools) will simply be band aids, and you know band aids don't stick for very long. How do we know the problem will persist?  Senator Chappelle-Nadal (District 14) said, at the recent public education panel on the Turner Fix at Washington University, that they had a lot of performance problems in north city schools and, now that those kids moved to North County, they have those same problems there.

Dr. Richard Curwin is the director of the Master's program in Behavior Disorder at David Yellin College in Jerusalem and the author of 20 books related to motivation and behavior, including Discipline with Dignity.  He believes that a system designed to motivate people (students) to perform that is based solely on positive rewards is doomed to fail. So many people, with truly good intentions, go into inner city schools believing that they can turn things around for students by simply being their cheerleader, someone who keeps telling them they can do it and rewarding the times they do while simultaneously ignoring the times they fall short of the goal set.

After twenty years and $2+ billion spent on the Kansas City schools, it seems hard to believe that no one has ever gone into those classrooms with sincere concern about how well the children do and a positive attitude.  Yet many came loaded with prizes and eagerly awaited the day their students participated and achieved, believing they were the first ones to try this.  Dr. Curwin wrote of a time when he was a teacher,
"When I taught seventh grade English, I frequently gave stickers to my students. One day I ran out, and informed my students that there will be no stickers for a few days. A riot ensued. "Where's my sticker?" "I want a sticker!" "I won't do anything without a sticker!!!" I discovered they had become addicted to stickers. A parent even called that night to complain that her son was upset because I didn't give him his sticker. I decided to never use them again

Hyperbole aside, there is an addictive quality to rewards; and when children expect them, they become dependent on them"
That last line is eye opening and may explain some of what has happened in our inner city schools. Those in charge should be asking "Have we addicted these children to rewards such that they will only achieve when the reward is present?  And if we have, what is the long term cost of this policy?"  In an article for Edutopia Dr. Curwin wrote,
"When I talk with educational professionals and parents about why it is best not to use rewards in both academic and behavioral situations, I frequently hear the response, "But it works." Before debating whether or not rewards work, we need to understand what the word "works" really means. For example, if I went to the doctor with a sore knee, one solution that would end the pain would be to amputate my leg. There is no doubt this solution would work. But it is still the wrong answer.

What's missing is that we must look not only at the benefit of the strategy but also at the cost, and decide if the gain is worth the price. When it comes to educating and raising children, at school and at home, there is always a cost, no matter what solution is selected. Some of the costs are obvious, many are hidden, but they must be considered whenever we determine if something works. When it comes to rewards, before we examine the potential benefits, lets fully examine the costs. They are very high."
The reward need not be something tangible.  The reward may be, as is the case of a Rockwood School, a homework free night. That is not the specific reward they offer.  What their policy says is that if a student doesn't turn in the homework assignment on time, they will be required to do it in school during lunch. There is no zero given for the missing assignment.  Approximately 30% of the students now regularly do their homework during this specially monitored session.  The school must now shuffle personnel to staff this session and the students are learning that they can easily avoid doing work at home. Everyone, including parents, is being conditioned that there should be no time spent outside of school either absorbing material or developing skills.

We have developed schools that are all carrots and virtually no sticks. What shifting to charter or private schools does is enable someone to reintroduce a stick.  In the case of Kansas City, one parent suggested, in essence, that the entire district be taken down to start over.  This only works if you recognize what you built into the old system that caused it to fail.  This enables you to reintroduce the stick, but only if you acknowledge that is one of the elements missing.

Admittedly, the problem is complex and so will the solution be, but discipline problems are one of the top challenges noted by teachers in all school districts. If those that make policy at the very highest level don't address discipline in their solutions, the band aid will fall off.

Here are some more of Dr. Curwin's  thoughts about rewards.

1) Satiation

Satiation means that more of something is required to get the same effect. Examples are pain medication or hot water in a bath. I love a hot bath, but eventually it starts to feel cooler, and I add more hot water. Rewards are like that. Children never say, "That's way too much. Please give me less." They often say, "Is that all? I want more." Eventually, rewards like stickers, food, parties, toys or candy become expected, and their effect is greatly reduced. It is a common myth that you can start with rewards and later remove them. This happens very rarely.

2) Addiction

Satiation leads to addiction. Many children become addicted to rewards and will not work without them.

3) Finishing

In school there is a difference between learning from your lesson and simply finishing it. Did you ever take and pass a foreign language course in high school or college? Can you speak that language now? Did you ever take a required course and passed it while learning nothing? This phenomenon is called "finishing." Bribes tend to produce "finishers" rather than "learners." Children are more interested in finishing their work and getting the reward than actually learning what the lesson is designed to teach. Finishing work is far less important than learning from the work that is finished.

4) Manipulation

We do not like it when children try to manipulate us. Yet when we manipulate them, we teach them how to be master manipulators.
Giving your wife flowers (or receiving them from your husband) illustrates this concept. If the flowers are meant to show love, it is appreciation. If they are meant to convince the recipient to do a favor for the giver, it is a manipulation. Many children, who have been manipulated throughout their lives, are very sensitive about it and react negatively to further manipulation.
Sometimes even the winners lose. Talia was a charming eighth grader who studied hard and gave thoughtful answers in class. Her teacher continually said to the class, "Why can't more of you be like Talia? She always does her work and tries hard." Other children began to tease her about being the teacher's pet. She was occasionally shunned. She began doing small annoying things, albeit mild, and stopped handing in homework to stop this persecution and to get the teacher to stop using her as an example. Many children do not like being singled out for doing well.

5) Increased Pressure

The more we tell children how good they are, the greater the fall if they cannot live up to all that praise. Pressure leads to insecurity. It is far better to build confidence from the inside by designing activities that challenge children than it is to simply reward them.

6) Bribes

Bribes reduce choices and the skill of making them. When we offer an incentive for a child to do something, then we are deciding for that child what we want him to do. Obviously, this is not generically bad. There are many times when we need to make decisions for children, especially those involving safety. But when we decide for others, we take away the ability of that person to choose, and an opportunity is lost to teach decision-making skills. One way to identify great teachers and parents is by how well they balance telling children what to do and letting them make their own choice. 

Bribes are threats in disguise. Withholding rewards can be used as a threat hammer very easily. The truth is that threats and bribes are two sides of the same coin: control.


  1. Great job Anngie-- I re-blogged it

  2. Anngie,

    You write in the last sentence (quoting Dr. Curwin):

    "Bribes are threats in disguise. Withholding rewards can be used as a threat hammer very easily. The truth is that threats and bribes are two sides of the same coin: control."

    Sounds like how Arne Duncan and the DOEd bribed the states into adopting common core standards. No signing onto the CCS? Threat of no Title I money. Does your state want a waiver from NCLB? Feds: gotta sign onto those common core standards to get the waiver.

    Bribes and threats always come back to bite you...if you are dealing with kids or taxpayers. Or school districts.

  3. What a great point: "a system designed to motivate people (students) to perform that is based solely on positive rewards is doomed to fail."

    Calls to mind Heb. 12:6, "For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”

    Also makes me wonder if this thinking affects Head Start Programs effectiveness?



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