Wednesday, June 3, 2015


Too much modern ed reformy stuff is built on a foundation of shame.

We are to shame the students. Put up data walls with student names so that the laggards will be held up to the world for all to see how slack and inadequate they are. Their shame at being labeled failures in front of their peers, their teachers, the janitorial staff, and strangers wandering in off the street-- that shaming will drive them to develop some grit and up their game. We build entire schools around the idea that we will shame students for every single infraction.

We are to shame the teachers. Rate and rank staff. Even publish them in the paper. Display their suckiness to all the world. Once they have been publicly shamed, they will finally get their students' test scores up.

We are to shame the schools. Let's grade them, so that those nasty D and F schools can be shamed into finally Doing Something.

The shame program fails for two reasons.

First, it assumes that every layer of education is hampered by people who know how to do more excellent work, but they just don't bother. Those eight-year-olds who can't pass the reading test yet? They're just slacking because they don't feel like trying to learn anything. Or maybe it's their teacher, who went into teaching because she doesn't really care whether students learn or not.

Everybody is just holding out, the reasoning goes. So we just need to give them a shock to the system to get them to fork over the goods (that they have had all along).

But the even-bigger issue here is the idea that shame is an effective motivator.

Shame makes people small, weak, unconfident, broken. Shame is a great motivator if you want to strip away a person's confidence or independence. That's not what we're trying to do in school.
You cannot shame people into excellence. You can not make them stronger by making them feel weak. You do not help them stand up by knocking them down.

Management By Shame is not a winning idea, not just because it's wrong to stomp on people, but because it just doesn't work. It's like withholding meals from a child to make her stronger, or running a child's clothing through a shredder to make him dress more fashionably, or like throwing people in debtor's prison to make them pay their debts.

It is deliberately trying to create a deficit in the very qualities (strength, independence, confidence) that the person needs to success. Sure, there are people who will respond to shaming by fighting back, by taking the shame as a challenge; those are people fortunate enough to have a surplus of the necessary qualities. But that is not all people; I don't believe it's most people or even many people.

The fact that some people can take a psychic beat-down does not mean it's a good idea. Some people can bench press hundreds of pounds, but that does not mean we should drop an anvil on everyone. Shame is a lousy motivator. We have known that since the days that somebody walked into a classroom and said, "Yeah, I don't think sending a kid into the corner to wear a dunce cap really helps."

It's also interesting to notice who deserves to be shamed and who does not. We rush to shame students, teachers and schools, and yet reformsters never propose that we shame the legislatures that don't adequately fund the school or the corporate chieftains who strip-mine education for profits.
If we are serious about improving education, we will stop trying to beat people down instead of trying to lift them up. The culture of a school should be all about supporting and strengthening everyone. That doesn't mean we ignore mistakes and misdeeds. But we need a better response, a better plan, than punishment and shame.

Originally posted at  View from the Cheap Seats

1 comment:

  1. "The fact that some people can take a psychic beat-down does not mean it's a good idea."

    And some can't take it.

    In Los Angeles, a beloved teacher named Rigoberto Ruelas was distraught after the L.A. TIMES published the bogus VAM data on him (and thousands of other teachers, by the way). When parents started asking for their students to be switched to the other teacher in his grade with higher VAM scores, Ruelas took his own life.

    "As a teacher in an impoverished, gang-ridden area of South Los Angeles, Rigoberto Ruelas always reached out to the toughest kids. He would tutor them on weekends and after school, visit their homes, encourage them to aim high and go to college.

    "The fifth-grade teacher at Miramonte Elementary School was so passionate about his mission that, school authorities say, he had near perfect attendance in 14 years on the job.

    "So when Ruelas, 39, failed to show up for work last week, his colleagues instantly began to worry. And their worst fears were confirmed Sunday morning. In the Big Tujunga Canyon area of the Angeles National Forest, a search-and-rescue team with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department discovered Ruelas' body in a ravine about 100 feet below a nearby bridge.

    "The Los Angeles County Coroner determined he had committed suicide.

    " ... "

    "Miramonte Principal Martin Sandoval described Ruelas, a South Gate native, as a caring teacher who loved the outdoors. For the teachers and staff, he organized volleyball games at the beach, hiking trips and bonfires, said Carmen Jimenez, 24, a Miramonte nurse assistant.

    "He was a very happy individual," Sandoval said. "He grew up in this community and he felt a desire and need to help this community."

    "Andromeda Palma, a 13-year-old eighth-grader, stopped by after school to leave a balloon at the memorial. She said she used to struggle at math, but he taught her to succeed and not to give up.

    " 'He told me it is not about where you are from but if you don't go to school you are nothing in this world,' she said with tears in her eyes. 'Now I am doing real good because of him.'

    "Sandoval said like all teachers, Ruelas apparently felt pressure to perform well. 'Things that were happening in the district, budget cuts, testing, seem to put us all under the microscope,' Sandoval said.

    "Many staff members saw Ruelas at a school celebration on Friday, Sept. 17. While some said he seemed normal, others said he was distracted and upset.

    " 'He wasn't smiling like he always smiled,' said Maria Jimenez, a school aide. 'Other parents noticed it too and were asking what was wrong.'

    "Crisis counselors were on campus to help students or teachers who sought help. District Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, along with union and school leaders, met with teachers and staff early Monday, and about 100 parents turned out later for an emotional meeting with school officials.

    " 'Mr. Ruelas was a passionate and caring teacher, who put his students first,' Cortines said in a statement. 'He made a difference in the lives of so many in his classroom, and by staying after the bell rang to tutor students.'

    "A community memorial service is scheduled for Wednesday at 5 p.m. at Presentation Catholic Church in Los Angeles."

    The HUFFPOST also covered this: