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New Hampshire, what were you thinking?

New Hampshire, what did you do?

You have managed to shock the education world with this new law.

The state legislature passed a new law, effective January 1, 2012, which requires public school districts to write and implement a policy to allow  parents to object to any lesson taught to their children, for any reason. In addition, the school must offer the child an alternative lesson that is acceptable to the parents and the district. The intent and undefined scope of the law is astounding; it makes everything a teacher does, in any content area, subject to second-guessing and outright opposition. And if parents opt to exercise their new rights to object in any numbers, the law is also logistically unworkable. Even one objection by a parent can consume a chunk of a teacher’s precious instructional and preparation time.

Why did this issue come up now?

The curriculum is more standardized and scrutinized than ever before.

It comes at a time when a teacher’s curriculum has likely passed many levels of  scrutiny, revision, and approval, and is expected of all children within the state. Gone are the days when teachers decided what to teach by the textbooks found on the classroom shelves, or on what interested them or their students. States now expect every teacher, in every classroom, to use the state-defined learning standards to drive their curriculum and to assess student progress. Deciding what is taught and when it is taught is an involved, time intensive process.  These state standards serve as the overarching expectations for all students, and are typically well-thought out and logical. School districts then use the standards and performance indicators to develop a spiraling K-12 curriculum, with learning objectives, materials, and assessments that teach the approved content, attitudes, and skills at each grade level until graduation.

The result is a standard curriculum in grade level classrooms within a building, in all schools in a district, and from district to district throughout the state, one that builds on what was taught and hopefully mastered the previous year. How the standards are actually taught  in the classroom is not dictated by the state. This is where teachers are able to apply their professional knowledge and teaching  skills to create daily lesson plans that include specific concepts and learner objectives, teaching materials, instructional methods, and learning activities. They are answerable to the state education department and the public for the progress their students make toward mastering the standards.

The logistics are a nightmare!

Did you consider how this would actually work in the real world?

If a lesson must be substituted for one a parent feels is objectionable for some reason, who writes the lesson and who determines whether the content of any substitute lesson is appropriate for teaching in a public school?  Who screens the lesson for bias or proselytizing? Who makes sure the content is factual and enables the student to meet the learning standards set for him by the state and district? And what  happens if parents want to insert lessons or materials that condone or demonize a particular religion, that preach intolerance of certain groups, or that misrepresent the facts? How will this testy situation be handled?

Was this legislation even necessary in the first place?

What a can of contentious  worms your unnecessary law opens up within a school community!

Public school parents already have the prerogative to object to something  happening in the school or classroom. But this law sends the message that parents may now determine what their child is taught specifically, down to approving individual lessons and materials. Wise principals and teachers have always listened to parents’  concerns, and accommodated their requests when possible. But they were not obligated to change the curriculum to fit a parent’s views. As long as what they were teaching was age appropriate and followed the district and state curriculum, the school was on solid ground to respectfully decline the request. The message that the school will provide alternative lessons to meet a parent’s beliefs, biases, religion, etc is unworkable and an unwise broadening of control by factions within a community.

Did you think this through on a conceptual level before you approved it?

You seem to have forgotten why a free, democratic society depends on a public educational system.

Schools are a powerful force for the common good yet, that  educator Horace Mann called the “great equalizer” of the condition of humankind. We live in a society of many cultures and subcultures that are rich with differences and that share common goals. Students represent the diversity seen in society. Public education in a democracy is predicated on a philosophy of  tolerance and understanding of differing opinions and cultures. All children are welcome regardless of their and their parents’ beliefs, race and ethnicity, socio-economic status and educational level, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and special learning needs. The more students are exposed to, learn about, understand, and respect that which is different from them, the more harmonious a society we create. In the words of Albert Schweitzer, “The first step in the evolution of ethics is a sense of solidarity with other human beings.”

So not only is this law a logistical quagmire, it is a fundamental misreading of the purpose of public education in this country. It undermines the concept of school as a place where teachers and students share ideas freely in a climate of respect, where children learn to judge new ideas against what they already know, and to evaluate the ideas on their merits. We build solidarity based on empathy and compassion.  It is the place where students practice the pro-social skills needed to make good personal decisions and to treat others well. What is taught is fit for a pluralist society where public schools do the job of preparing our children to be citizens of good character, who are analytical and creative thinkers and problem solvers.

New Hampshire, it is telling that the legislator who introduced the bill was surprised by the furor it caused across the country. His surprise reveals a profound lack of understanding of what public education means in a diverse, democratic society, how curriculum is developed, and the way schools operate on a daily basis.

My Violence Continuum book is now available!

My latest book, The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate, was released a few weeks ago and is the featured title on the publisher’s home page.

It is now available online at:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

Rowman and Littlefield Education

This year be a champion!

Here’s a New Year’s Resolution I can get behind:

“Be a social-emotional champion for children.”

In an Edutopia op ed piece, Rutgers’  professor Maurice Elias asks us to go beyond merely promoting children’s social and emotional development, to being active champions who speak out against injustice. Elias, and my new book on school violence, ask that we pay consistent attention to the  “subtle and not so subtle instances of harassment, intimidation, and bullying” that span the violence continuum and erode the trust students and parents have in us and in the educational system.

The goal of safe school climate initiatives is to create a climate (feeling) and eventually a culture (practices) where students’ civil and human rights are protected, everyday, by everyone, and in all situations. In this nurturing environment, emotional and physical safety are the driving forces behind everything we do in our schools and classrooms. This commitment to preserve the dignity of all students, to advocate for them when they have no voice, in turn provides children with the safe haven we owe them.

And most importantly, as Elias points out, once we start acting as a vocal, consistent champion for our students, there is no turning back. We will never again be able to ignore injustices and turn away as our students suffer. The obligation to speak out will be part of our personal and professional belief system and our commitment to doing what is right.

With this new resolution – a sincere promise we make to ourselves on behalf of our children – all students will prosper academically, socially, psychologically, and emotionally.

So this year promise to be a champion for social-emotional development. Resolve to speak out when you see attitudes, behavior, practices, and policies that are harmful and hurtful to our children.


* For more information visit the George Lucas Educational Foundation at Edutopia, “a place of inspiration and aspiration based on the urgent belief that improving education is the key to the survival of the human race…not just the vision for this new world of learning but the real-world information and community connections to make it a reality.”

New release date for The Violence Continuum

My new book, The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate, is now set for a December (not November) release.

I’ve seen the cover and love the way it illustrates the concept that violence is behavior that hurts others and also an abuse of power, and that it can be subtle or obvious, physical or emotional. What our children face in school is skewed toward the subtle end to the mid-point of the continuum, and the damage is serious whatever form it takes.

True grit: personal and social responsibility

What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” a  9/14/11 New York Times article by Paul Tough

In my recent three-part blog I focused on the “good ideas” this article presented for building moral and performance character and the missteps the two profiled schools made trying to put the good ideas into practice. The lack of understanding of child development and motivation so captured my attention, I never really addressed the meaning of the title.

The secret to success is failure.

How can opposites like success and failure be co-dependent? The author is channeling the message of the Friedrich Nietzsche quote, That which does not kill us makes us stronger, and the still familiar 19th century axiom, If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again. Human development, including academic learning, is by nature a succession of trial and error. The reality is that success in life depends on our ability to cope with and triumph over adversity. Life is full of adversity and grit is the foundation of resilience.

So why do some children…

  • Willingly put forth the effort to learn, while others balk at tough challenges and hard work?
  • Believe they can do whatever they are asked to do, while others lack confidence in their chances of success?
  • Take risks and rally from setbacks, while others become discouraged and give up?

The answer lies in how much grit they have developed from their life experiences, a combination of moral and performance character  strengths that include:

  • A sense of personal and social responsibility
  • Courage
  • Integrity
  • Tenacity
  • Self-discipline
  • Self-reliance
  • Efficacy and
  • Intrinsic motivation

These character strengths develop in the normal course of daily life as we set goals and overcome obstacles, unless…

  • Children are given everything they need, and they are protected from the character-building challenges of life.
  • We allow mediocre effort and accept mediocre outcomes.
  • Children are so emotionally, socially, or physically impoverished that the obstacles they face are monumental, and the supports that would help them prevail are absent.

In each of these three situations, schools can and should teach grit by:

  • Creating a healthy, non-violent school climate that feels safe, where students can take the risks needed to learn without fear of ridicule or shame.
  • Committing to a dignity-preserving discipline approach where students know clearly what we expect of them, and are consistently held responsible for their choices, and for fixing any problems they cause.
  • Intentionally teaching the qualities of grit through the curriculum, and high expectations and nurturing guidance.
  • Considering the context of students’ lives, their assets and stresses, and building from where they are in their moral development.
  • Providing experiences that foster students’ sense of efficacy – their belief that through their personal resources, hard work and tenacity, and the support of caring adults, they can prevail.
  • Modeling grit and other character strengths in everything we do.

Personal and Social Responsibility

This determination and sense of responsibility helps us reach our life goals, goals that hopefully benefit us personally and foster the common good. Because grit without a moral foundation is dangerous. Our grit needs to be driven by a pro-social belief system that respects the inherent human rights of all people, acknowledges the interdependence of members of a community, and motivates us to make constructive contributions to our school, our family, and society.

Part Three: Building on the good idea

Part three of my response to “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” a  9/14/11 New York Times article by Paul Tough

So how do we build on the good idea?

  • The KIPP school was on the right track when they asked teachers to embed concepts and the language of character strengths into lessons in all disciplines, to encourage self-awareness and personal skills, and to replace inappropriate learned behavior with positive thinking and constructive action. They then took a wrong turn and defeated their efforts by instituting a character report card.
  • The Riverdale school headmaster had “a philosophical issue with quantifying character,” and wisely chose to forgo a formal evaluation of each student’s character development. He also had concerns that “nice guy values” such as respect, tolerance, and honesty were too general and abstract to teach. He chose to personally lead a publicity campaign that stressed the moral and behavioral traits linked to success in life. Vocal, visible, passionate leadership is a critical part of a safe school climate plan that builds character.

But awareness isn’t enough to help all students develop into thinking, compassionate, self-directed, morally responsible members of our school, family, and civic communities. Between the rigidness of a character report card and the randomness of an awareness effort lies the intentional commitment to teach, model, and expect pro-social skills, character traits, attitudes, and behavior. This approach acknowledges that character development is a process, not merely a product, and that violence prevention and character education are the same thing. They are a way of being, not a program to implement. Without an artificial label or the constraint of a report card, learning to be non-violent people of good character…never goes out of style, is never is too time-consuming, and is never optional.

This is true because it is:

  • a belief system.
  • the heart of a holistic education.
  • the driving force behind the climate and culture of the school.
  • embedded in everything that happens from instruction to classroom management to formal discipline policies.
  • clearly visible in positive actions and healthy relationships.

How do we make sure schools are violence-free safe havens where students achieve academically and develop a social conscience?

By being proactive. The way to teach moral and performance character that creates a safe school climate is to focus our efforts on prevention, and then intervene early if a child is not making good progress. We treat it as a K-12 goal, get everyone involved – including parents – and take it seriously. These prevention and early intervention stages, followed by late intervention and post-incident responses when necessary, can do the most good for the most children.

Prevention centers around a psychology of success that creates respectful adult-student, student-student, and adult-adult relationships. It is founded on the premise that you can actively teach students to have and show empathy and compassion, to show consideration and tolerance of others, to be trustworthy and guided by integrity, and all those other nice guy qualities. A focus on prevention provides a school experience rich with challenges and supports that build the positive personal assets needed for a successful adulthood.

What does prevention look like?

  • A community where protecting each child’s dignity and basic human rights is a top priority.
  • An exciting, nurturing environment that provides personally motivating learning experiences and expects students to work hard.
  • A positive discipline approach that develops an intrinsic motivation to make good choices, by having students identify and take responsibility for their mistakes, and fix the messes they make.
  • A climate where students and adults are not allowed to be mean, use putdowns, bully, threaten, discriminate or show intolerance.
  • Efforts tailored to meet the unique needs of the school, grade level, individuals, and groups.
  • Children who are consistently and actively taught positive social skills and held to high, developmentally appropriate expectations for behavior.
  • Children skilled in the language of cooperation and conflict resolution, who have the self-control necessary to express themselves peacefully, and know how to get their needs met without resorting to hurtful behavior.
  • Effective teaching strategies that stress collaboration in place of competition such as working with a partner and cooperative learning, and being grouped with those you would not normally choose.
  • Regular class meetings that teach and offer practice for pro-social and language skills development including listening to and considering other people’s the perspectives, offering possible solutions to problems, and recognizing and expressing appreciation for the efforts of others.
  • A curriculum that stresses high-level thinking skills such as consideration of  historical and cultural context, cause and effect, points of view, personal choice and decision-making, and applies this thinking to real life situations.
  • A school staff of adults that believe in, consistently model, and expect non-violent, constructive behavior.

The pro-social skills learned in prevention efforts lead students to ethical behavior and rewarding relationships. This is the opposite of a psychology of failure that stresses comparison and competition, uses public shaming and punishments as consequences, that emphasizes extrinsic rewards, and damages relationships.

What does early intervention look like?

With effective violence prevention efforts in place, the next part of the safe school climate plan addresses those children who are, for some reason, not internalizing and applying the prevention messages to their lives. The staff of a safe school does not ignore negative behavior, nor does it give up on helping these children no matter how challenging.

  • A team approach that includes teachers, specialists, and their parents or guardians that creates a strong student support system.
  • Trusted adults that students can talk to and who check in on them regularly.
  • Anger-management and conflict resolution training.
  • In school and out of school mentoring and counseling services.
  • Support groups designed to teach coping skills.
  • Positive social norms efforts that can sway children who have one foot on the side of trouble to step back and join the majority of their well-behaved peers.
  • Students’ concerns are taken seriously and addressed.
  • Students, including those who are the source of misbehavior, feel safe and not alone.

So we build on the good ideas by…

  • Intentionally embedding them in all aspects of school life.
  • Believing that it is possible to teach positive social skills and strength of character.
  • Realizing it is as important to do this as it is to teach academics.
  • Keeping the promise we make to students, their families, and society, that schools are safe havens where all children are treated well and taught to treat others the same way.

Part Two: Subverting the good idea

Part two of my response to “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” a  9/14/11 New York Times article by Paul Tough

The Fatal Mistake: KIPP decided to institute their first ever “character report card.” 

Imagine…

A report card for a child’s character.

A report card that assigns a numerical value to a child’s character.

A report card that assigns a numerical value to a child’s character, the personal qualities that define the very essence of who he is as a human being.

A report card that assigns a numerical value to a child’s character, the personal qualities that define the very essence of who he is as a human being, qualities that are still undeveloped and evolving.

A report card that assigns a numerical value to a child’s character, the personal qualities that define the very essence of who he is as a human being, qualities that are still undeveloped and evolving, and records this CPA (character point average) in the child’s permanent record.

How it works:

The KIPP Character Report Card requires that twice a year all teachers grade each of their students, using a scale of one to five, on 24 statements that represent the desired character strengths the school is encouraging. Some of the thinking behind the decision was how useful a character CPA would be to colleges and work places as they try to select the best candidates, and that parents would like to know how their child’s CPA stacks up against the rest of the class.

The fundamental problem:

They made becoming a good person a competitive sport instead of a personal journey.

A report card approach to building character ignores what research and experience tell us: extrinsic (external) rewards develop a shallow and brief commitment to a desired behavior.  When external generic praise, grades, prizes, stickers, competitions, charts, etc.  are used to reward behavior, students tend to work only enough to reach the reward, and then stop. They are externally motivated to care – temporarily – and with the artificial reward removed, there is no reason to continue to strive to improve.

External rewards, such as a quantitative report card, fail to nurture development of the intrinsic (internal) system of motivation, beliefs, and attitudes needed to sustain personal effort. And personal effort and commitment are what proponents claim are the keys to performance and moral character, and what their students are lacking.

The practical flaws:

  • Grading students on 24 statements is too laborious, time-consuming, and cumbersome a system to be sustained.
  • The evaluation itself is subjective and open to teacher interpretation, resulting in inconsistent ratings assigned by individual teachers.
  • The school would need to create a detailed rubric for each of the 24 statements that describes what level one behavior looks like, what level two behavior looks like, and so on, and then share with, carefully explain, and teach these values and behaviors to the students, and their parents.
  • Quantifying character traits could reward compliant go-along, get-along behavior, be used to punish a student a teacher does not like, and could easily discourage the lively classroom discourse necessary for students to become critical, conceptual, divergent thinkers who express opinions and challenge ideas.
  • As with a GPA, teachers would need to support their rankings with empirical evidence and documented anecdotes. This is a very personal, sensitive, and emotional kind of evaluation. You do not assign a number to a student’s character on a whim or a gut feeling, and get away with it. You will be challenged and rightly so.

How this practice hurts, not helps, students:

  • Assigning a number to describe a child’s character development is counterproductive and misguided. It makes human development a competition, complete with a number that labels the child, in the same way students and parents often use academic grades.
  • It is human nature to focus on the  negative. Receiving less than a rating of 5 would plant self-doubt and insecurity, even if the teacher tells the student that a 4 is a good rating.
  • For the most challenged students who are trying to develop new character strengths, the low scores on their character report card may confirm the negative feelings they already have about themselves. The system tears the child down, when it should recognize improvement, encourage her to keep trying, and to believe through continued hard work she can be successful.
  • And at the same time, when a child receives all fives, it is easy for her to become complacent, even overly self-satisfied, and consider her work done. And we know no one is ever done evolving as a person.
  • A program that rewards a child’s positive behavior observed in one circumstance can also fail to notice negative behaviors happening in other circumstances. Teachers do not know what students are like in all situations, especially when it comes to under the radar relational and covert aggression, such as rumor spreading, discrimination, exclusion, and cyber-bullying. One of the worst things we can do is reward sneaky or deceitful behavior, and an evaluation system based on isolated observations can do just that. Imagine the hypocrisy of a student with a 4.8 CPA on “Social Intelligence – Demonstrates respect for feelings of others,”  who writes unkind things about others on Facebook.

Imagine yourself in this situation.

There is a much more compassionate and effective way to help students develop moral and performance character.

To be continued…

Part One: Co-opting a good idea

Review of  “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” a  9/14/11 New York Times article by Paul Tough

The author of this article mentions, often with little or no insight or analysis, some of the most critical issues in education today including the nature and nurturing of character development (the basis of violence prevention), competition and collaboration, and intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, including reward systems and report cards.

To summarize the “plot” of the article, the author explored the efforts of two atypical New York City schools – the private and prestigious Riverdale Country School for the affluent, and the free KIPP charter school with enrollment open to all NYC students (by lottery). Both focus on preparing students for college and turning out people who are successful in life. Not liking the results they were seeing, they each identified the need to look more closely at character development, and ways to teach those essential character traits typical of a high functioning, autonomous adult.

Using Martin Seligman’s work on positive psychology and his 800-page book (tome) on character strengths and virtues, the headmaster and superintendent of the respective schools looked at the practical benefits of teaching both:

  •  “Moral character” – high quality values such as  honesty, integrity, compassion, and fairness, and
  •  “Performance character,” –  high quality behavior such as persistence, team work, self-control, and something researcher Angela Duckworth calls “grit.”

The Good Idea:

The KIPP School ultimately chose the seven of  Duckworth’s 24 identified character strengths that were the most predictive of  “life satisfaction and high achievement.”

  • zest
  • grit
  • self-control
  • social intelligence
  • gratitude
  • optimism
  • curiosity

While life satisfaction and high achievement are not synonymous with living a life of high moral character, the list is useful, especially if social intelligence encompasses positive moral traits and pro-social beliefs and skills.

KIPP then took these seven strengths and converted them into 24 statements, such as the student:

  • Is eager to explore new things.
  • Believes that effort will improve his or her future.
  • Allows others to speak without interruption.
  • Remains calm even when criticized or otherwise provoked.

The intent was to use these statements as goals for behavior, and to gauge a child’s progress toward high moral and behavioral character. As we read over the list, they sound like the qualities we’d like to see in everyone.

But then they took a wrong turn.

To be continued…