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First, Do No Harm


Dear Diane,

Sometimes an outrageous sentence does get attention. But there is, I contend, merit to thinking about the ways in which schools are a form of “incarceration.” Nonattendance is crime called truancy. Kids are indeed “locked up” or “in” for 5-6 hours for 180 or more days a year, whether they or their families like it or not.

Is it a good idea? Yes! A closer reading than some readers engaged in would have noted that I was crystal clear on one point: I approve of compulsory schooling. At least in the world we live in. I recognize that it was a progressive step forward to have made schooling a requirement for 10-12 years. (And one that doesn’t yet exist for most children in this world. Even in industrialized China there are still tuition fees for public education.)

But, but. We’ve done so at a price.

From the very first day that I spent in a Chicago public school as a substitute teacher I recognized the special taste of fear—on the part of both many of the students and most of the adult staff. Including me. It was a fear not so different than prison employees probably feel, and which gets more and more blatant as youngsters get older. “They” outnumber “us”. Ergo the first priority: “control.” If we “let up” chaos will prevail. The atmosphere was noticeably more fearful in schools with students of color, a bit less so for poor white kids, and least of all in public schools with white middle class students.

Am I exaggerating? Not by a lot.

In a variety of ways all the usual freedoms that people in our society enjoy are removed. One needs permission to go to the toilet. One needs to walk, often silently, in line. One must sit still at all costs. One is not supposed to speak unless called upon. One cannot freely associate with ones chosen friends. And for many years—and it applies still in some places—the penalties for not obeying are pretty severe—including corporal punishment and solitary confinement of a sort. Even one’s own parents often have limited access to their children while in school, and few rights to overrule the school’s decisions or influence policy. (One NYC PTA just discovered that their longstanding tradition of sponsoring a monthly Pizza lunch was breaking a nonnegotiable citywide rule!, New York Post, March 16.)

The irony is that expulsion, of course, is the ultimate punishment.

I am arguing for a recognition that whenever one removes such freedoms one has a stronger obligation to “do no harm.” Without recognizing the “peculiarity” of the institution of schooling one misses something critical. Ruling over an involuntary “workforce”—in school or out—is not ideal. The side effects are important to recognize. Unlike school people, military men acknowledge the special qualities of a draft army versus a volunteer one. We civilians forget this too often when it comes to schooling.

We’re preparing kids to be grown-ups-- members of a democratic community, and a voluntary workforce—under circumstances that are neither democratic nor voluntary. It creates contradictions. I occasionally said to kids, “What are you doing here if you don’t want to learn?” It seemed like such a natural point to make. Imagine my surprise however when one young man took me at my word. His mother called me. He claimed I told him he might as well go home. She knew he was lying, but…. I told her he wasn’t lying. I simply hadn’t intended him to take me seriously (although no doubt I sounded dead serious). We both had a laugh over it. She sent him back.

It’s perhaps why I favor erring on the side of graduating kids we aren’t sure meet our standards rather than not graduating them if we aren’t sure whether they meet our standards. The opposite policy is the one we actually employ. After at least 12 years of involuntary schooling we better be very sure before we deprive them of an entry ticket into the workforce—and even then at not very decent paying jobs. That means looking each kid in the eye and defending our decisions as in his or her best interests.

We should be sure we use their precious time, energy, and natural enthusiasm for learning from start to finish. We should be sure that the school day is, at least, an interesting and vital experience. We should demand that we put at the command of the school every condition and resource necessary, to give all kids what the wealthiest and wisest parents provide for their own. (Even if we can’t prove it raises test scores.)

It also means taking seriously our claim that democracy is the first and best means, not the last resort. Yes, Diane, as you’ve noted in your last letter, there’s precious little “public” about how we operate some of our large urban, predominantly low-income school systems. The Pizza story is just the silliest, but hardly the worst, of what schools confront daily, The very least we owe youngsters are schools that believe in the very system of governance that they are intended to serve.

Democracy was invented as a means for holding our rulers accountable—except when it comes to schools?




Again you get us to the heart of the matter. NCLB advocates forgot the lesson of "First Do No Harm," or they denied it by refusing to believe that trade-offs are necessary in any human endeavor. They sought more testing without necessarily realizing that it would worsen the "testing culture" in many places. They want a "culture of accountability" without realizing that many will mistake it for a testing culture.

But those of us who want a progressive and humane learning culture need to address trade-offs also. New teachers are socialized into a belief that they must earn the students' respect, and especially in hardcore inner city secondary schools they are indoctrinated into believing that effective teachers don't write disciplinary referrals. There is some value to that approach.

Taken to the extreme, and I expect that my district is pretty typical in taking it to the extreme, it means that teachers must adopt the culture of the "streets" and find their own way to survive. Some learn to intimidate, others learn to roll with the punches, many good teachers become completely ineffective, and a few learn how to be effective in the "hood's" culture of "Respect." By now, I know how to create a learning culture, but I also know that I can't protect my kids. As in a street or even a prision culture, each kid has to protect themselve. It is shameful that we adults can't protect our most vulnerable kids from violence and fear and disorder any more than we can protect them from the accountability regime that is driving them out of school.

Being so intimately involved in the community, I have a good understanding of the forces that are pushing my kids out of school, and fear of their peers and the nonstop chaos is huge. But mostly, I don't learn the brutal facts until they are in their 20s and they can admit the reality. What teenager wants to admit that they are dropping out because they are afraid? After all, they always have to demonstrate a willingness to fight over the most minor act of disrespect.

I've lost track of the number of my students who have committed murder, but its somewhere in the 20s. I've lost nearly as many as victims. Then when you add together all the violent felonies ... Few of my murderers were "tough." All of my students deserved safe and humane educational settings.

Its ironic that so many liberals who read this blog have felt free to question one of the most sacred principles of liberalism, but I see that as a tribute to the sincerity of Bridging Differences.

If anyone has an alternative to expanding the number of alternative slots available for truants and others who can't function in "regular" classes, I'm open to them. But as this exchange has implied, we can't hope for any painless answers.

3 words: Applied Behavior Analysis

Of course, "liberals" are ignorant of what this means. Sadly, I am a liberal but at least I have studied and used the principles of ABA - in fact I am certified as a Board Certified Associate Behavior Analyst.

But if you ask teachers about the principles of behavior analysis, they really don't know or understand.

School should be a place kids want to go to. Teachers should shape student behavior to make it acceptable and appropriate. I've seen schools that are not managed well and they lose lots of instructional time - time some kids need to catch with their peers in academics.

Free Universal Education Not Compulsory Schooling

Thanks for your provocative thoughts on in this blog. Obviously you hit a hot button for me and I hope that my contribution to the discussion is more than a mere rant. I want to clarify my perspective since my previous post might not have been clear. Since then I realized that there is a distinction between education and schooling in my mind that may make my reactions different from those who haven’t thought about it the same way.

An educated citizenry is a compelling interest of a democratic society. The failure to empower citizens via education will lead to the demise of meaningful feedback to correct abuses of the power to govern and thus threatens to destroy the democratic functions of the state. So, the compelling state interest is in education, not in schooling, per se.

I recognize our society’s interest in enabling citizens to become educated, but I do not support the state’s current use of power to compel attendance in schools that have a history of failing to educate their students. The government loses it’s moral authority to compel attendance in public schools when those schools fail to educate students, despite the fact that they have retained their political authority to do so.

I believe that some opposition to compulsory schooling, like John Taylor Gatto’s, is based on the idea that if our society provides an adequate free universal educational system then our citizen’s are smart enough to take full advantage of it without the state’s insulting them with compulsory attendance laws. But even if they are not, the free and universal aspects of the educational system are the important parts, not the presence or absence of compulsion.

An education system worthy of the world’s most powerful democracy is more than just a bunch of classrooms for kids. A worthy education system includes public libraries, private schools, the internet, and any other places and ways that people learn. Therefore I imagine systemic reforms along the following lines would be more appropriate for restoring the moral authority of our government to inspire (or compel, if necessary) education:

Reorganize public schools from middle school/junior high on up into free community colleges for all ages. Reorganize elementary schools to allow children to learn how to be citizens in a democracy, not peons in a hierarchy. Ensure that elementary schools provide a combination of academically focused classroom experiences and socially focused community learning experiences where the children and their parents have a significant voice in determining what’s the best combination for each child. Give older students the option to attend local community college classes, too, at their own discretion. Make sure that every student has more than one option for free education for as long as they are under 18 years old.

If compulsion is to be a component of the system then compel all citizens, no matter their age, to remain in the education system until they have attained basic mastery of core literacies in written language, mathematics, music, drawing, science, religion and critical thinking. Have them create a portfolio of work in each core literacy, in addition to having passed one of several tests in each core literacy to document their eligibility to leave the education system.

The only age-segregation that I would preserve is the distinction between Elementary School (which is for anyone who is not of full legal driving age) and the community college system (which is for anyone of any age who chooses to attend and meets the pre-requisites for the particular classes they choose.)

The point is to ensure that all it’s citizen’s become educated. That interest does not evaporate upon a citizen’s 18th birthday. Our society needs to provide a diversity of educational options in order to achieve that goal and the state should be fully subsidizing children’s learning and the basic education of adults who cannot afford it.

I agree that there is a moral burden to invoking the state’s power to compel citizen’s to behave in certain ways. The current public school system has lost it’s moral authority even though it has retained it’s political authority. My reaction to the previous post was based on this idea. It is the height of incompetence and arrogance to assert political authority in the absence of moral authority.

The current presidential administration, regardless of your opinion of them, has demonstrated a consistent inability to distinguish moral and political authority. I think John Thompson’s comment is saying something similar to this. NCLB, for instance, has been based primarily on the exertion of their political authority without regard for how it will affect their moral authority. As a result they have steadily eroded away their moral authority. The opposition holds little or no respect for them and they are finding that their allies are a lot more cautious (the ones who haven’t jumped ship already) than when they had some moral authority left. The same could be said of their policies in Iraq, as well.

The policy debate in education needs to me about educating our citizenry, not just forcing children to attend school. How do we, as a society, enable our government to regain the moral authority to get the job done? I suspect that thinking strictly in terms of schools for children is not going to address the real challenges of education today.

But how can it be compulsory when there is home schooling, private schooling, and charters?

Yes, you're right, the compelling state interest is in education, not schooling. And yet, you're also wrong; the U.S. does not compel attendance in a public school (and, as an aside, most public schools aren't that bad). Students can attend a public school (which includes charter schools), private school, or be home schooled. The other options certainly take more effort and/or money, but they are there nonetheless.

There are certainly important problems with either compulsory education or compulsory schooling, but I have yet to hear an idea without a mandate that would yield a more educated populace than our current system. In short, the positives of the mandate outweigh the negatives -- which, I think, is what both of these esteemed authors are arguing.

The compelling issue for me, then, is not whether to mandate schooling or not but, rather, what to do with those who do not want to take part. When a kid considers school incarceration and veritably refuses to take part in the normal routines of schooling, what should we do with them? Convince them to cooperate? Punish them until they comply? Remove them from the system? Put them in some sort of different environment (e.g. alternative schools)? This, to me, is where the debate belongs around compulsory education.

What is difficult for us (Americans) to see is how our school system/structure causes these more extreme feelings of entrapment within our children.

In other countries, with better designed school systems, children learn substantially *more* without “forcing” them to sit in a classroom. (This is not to say that these other countries have done away with pre-teen and teenage angst! But they do not use the “seat time” measure and truancy hammer to ensure that children show up and yet their children learn more, better and faster. And certainly, that angst is not directed at the teachers.)

The method that these other school systems use is to employ external evaluations for assessing whether children have learned enough. That is the teacher is not responsible for “grading” the students.

Because these other systems use external exams or evaluations, the student feels as if the teacher is their advocate. Additionally, the students in a classroom do not feel as if they are competing with each other for the few “A’s” since the pass/retention decision is outside of the classroom. This allows for better cooperation and collaboration between students within the classroom.

Most importantly, students to learn to trust and value their teachers’ perspective without feeling as if they are constantly being judged and evaluated. It is this teacher – student trusting relationship that allows for quality learning.

Students in these types of school systems are ahead in learning by at least one year by 8th grade and report a higher level of satisfaction with the classroom interactions. Wouldn’t it be great if our 8th graders reported that they appreciated, liked and respected their teachers!

In our country our schools are focused on getting children to sit in their seats for 6 hours a day, not on ensuring that they learn a necessary amount of material to succeed in our world. This focus on seat time and the unfair burdens we place on our teachers to be everything for our students (policeman, judge and jury, executioner) has resulted in a rather mediocre education for our children. Would we not be better off if our teachers could just teach?

As much as we bemoan the state of our schools, truly innovated solutions that are successfully used around the world are completely ignored. (Why?) Should we not learn from the daily struggles of teachers around the world that insist/clearly demonstrate that for quality learning to take place children must trust and respect their teachers in a non-judgmental environment?

The definition of insanity, “Keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Erin Johnson

I agree with dickey45's recommendations about knowledge of ABA for teachers (and, I would like to add, for *everyone*). I, too, do not see these universal laws of behavior strategically used in school systems. In my opinion, not only does this contribute to a loss of instructional time, as dickey45 correctly identifies, but also to bullying in schools (aka systemic oppression). Punishment based systems do not stop with students--they extend, spiraling out into our world, and recreating themselves exponentially. Perhaps we should teach ABA not only to our teachers, but to our students, families, *administrators*, .......I would also like to add that a major difference in the education of special education teachers compared to general education teachers is special educators' knowledge and application of ABA.


Tell us morre about ABA. Where is it being used? By Whom? For what? Results?


Same questions for schools using external assessments.

John's entry reinforces my long held belif that folks who teach in urban schools should be paid a hell of a lot more than the rest of us. You people are the true heroes of our public schools. I'm not sure how you endure.

ABA is used with children with developmental disabilities. It is heavily used in NJ, FL, CA, and some others.

If you've ever done or heard of Positive Behavior Supports - that is school-wide ABA (not individual).

If you have ever used positive reinforcement to increase a student's behavior (sitting in the chair, getting out homework, attending to the teacher), you are doing ABA.

If you took the Early Elementary Praxis II, you have been tested on many of the principles of ABA.

If you know that punishment has short term benefits with many possible problems (abuse of power, teaching children that punishment is acceptable), then you have some knowledge of ABA.

If you tell your spouse that it was great that he or she put the dirty clothes in the hamper and that it made it easier to do the laundry (because this behavior is not typical and you are trying to increase it), you are doing ABA.

If you use clicker training with your dog or cat by moving from a food based reward system to a sound based reward system, you are using ABA.


There are multiple types of external evaluations used in school systems around the world. While they vary from high school exit exams to end-of-course exams to committee evaluations, the key benefit of using external evaluations of students is allowing teachers to focus solely on teaching. That is the student see their teachers as an advocate for learning *not* as a judge.

When Fuchs and Woessman (2003) reexamined the PISA data to tease out the answer to the question, “What are the differences between more successful and less successful school systems?” The clear answer was that the more successful school systems use external evaluations of student learning. In fact they found that by 8th grade, students in systems using external evaluations had a 1 year advantage in learning. This held up over a wide variety of cultural and economic systems.

Their take home point is that students learn better when the “grading” is not done by the teacher.

When Ireland proposed changing their system to eliminate exit exams and use teacher grades, the Secondary Teachers of Ireland vehemently rejected the proposal stating:

“Major strengths of the Irish educational system have been:
(i) The pastoral contribution of teachers in relation to their pupils
(ii) the perception of the teacher by the pupil as an advocate in terms of nationally certified examinations rather than as a judge.

The introduction of school-based assessment by the pupil's own teacher for certification purposes would undermine those two roles, to the detriment of all concerned.

The role of the teacher as judge rather than advocate may lead to legal accountability in terms of marks awarded for certification purposes. This would automatically result in a distancing between the teacher, the pupil and the parent.

It also opens the door to possible distortion of the results in response to either parental pressure or to pressure emanating from competition among local schools for pupils”

There are multiple ways that we could change the school system to appropriately assess student learning that does not involve the teacher giving out grades. Possibilities include high school exit exams, committee evaluations by the school district and end-of-course exams coupled with performance/project requirements.

Given the nature of our culture, I would suspect that end-of-course exams (say starting in middle school with those in high school counting towards college) would be the most palatable. Especially, considering that Americans don’t like “high stakes tests” that a single high school exit exam might become. Additionally, end-of-course exams would allow great flexibility in allowing children to take classes that interest them while still completing the work needed to graduate.

But most importantly, letting teachers teach (and not grade) changes the dynamic in the classroom so that students think of their teachers as being a resource, a help and an advocate for mastering the material needed to pass these external evaluations. Additionally, students see their classmates as resources, help and friends, not as competition.

The solutions to our schools problems do not lie in layering bad ideas (NCLB with “testing and accountability”) upon worse ones (horrible school structure that overburdens our teachers and minimizes our children’s potential).

When I hear Deborah speak to her teaching experience, her advocacy and warmth toward her students is clear and vibrant. We need to change our school structure to allow more teachers to embrace the advocacy point of view to enable our children to enjoy a quality learning environment.

Erin Johnson

In regard to ABA in schools, I would like to add to dickey45's points:
Teachers of students with emotional disorders (many would argue, possibly particularly those with an ABA background, that a more acceptable term for this disability category is 'behavior' disorders), are educated in the principles and use of ABA. To reiterate, special educators have different backgrounds than general educators. These differences may be something we want to look at in improving schools, and defining what 'highly qualified' (though I dislike that term) means.

There is a saying that you should not attempt to launch a revolution until you have enough votes to win an election. I think this is overlooked as we seek to enhance education by upping the required age of compulsory ed. PISA has some data about the age at which 90% of the population is involved in formal schooling. It helps to provide something of an apples to apples comparison across systems that mix Early Childhood Ed, Primary, Secondary, Post Secondanary. The same data includes the ages at which compulsory education begins and ends. In the US, we lose kids before the end of compulsory ed--more than 10% are not in school a full year before the average legal end point. Japan, by contrast, involves 90% of the population a full year past the age of compulsory attendance. This says to me that there are other factors more important than legal requirements. Perhaps we would be well advised to pay attention to altering our culture of school attending.

Thanks to dicky45 for the info re ABA--despite some of the uses that he suggests have crept into our culture, we typically lack much systematization in its application throughout schools. Erin--good info re outside examinations. Kim--re: training and certification of teachers--I agree that there needs to be some relooking. But that relooking needs to have some emphasis on how to ensure that students with disabilities get both teachers with a high level of knowledge in behavior, accommodations and ensure access AND a high level of content knowledge. It had looked to me like NCLB might end up providing this emphasis. I think the states wimped out and just allowed teachers with special education expertise to "pick up" some content credentials in minimal ways. If we are going to continue to relegate kids with special needs to the special ed department (instead of regarding them as general education students needing additional assistance), we need to look at some solutions that combine both content and meeting needs. Perhaps Special Education should require Master's Level certification as a minimum?

To answer dickey45's question, "But how can it be compulsory when there is home schooling, private schooling, and charters?"

It is compulsory because there are compulsory schooling laws on the books that provide for penalties for failing to comply. The compulsory schooling laws are the reason that various states impose restrictions on how home schooling and charters can operate.

The recent California Supreme Court decision about home schooling is a good example. Here's the Home School Legal Defense Fund Update on that situation:
The courts are essentially saying that the state has the final say in education, not parents.

In regards to ABA,

I assume that the image in my mind about manipulating people using rewards probably doesn't apply since it must be too simple. But, I suspect that all the "liberals" that do not understand it have the same image in their heads when such things are brought up.

What image or other explanation can you give me to better understand how ABA can be used to teach complex ideas and skills? Or would you post a link to an explanation that you recommend for the un-/ mis-informed.

Given my simplistic image of manipulation-by-reward (which is reinforced by your example of using clickers with dogs) then I fail to see how it applies to teaching the creative aspects of science or analytic aspects of the arts, for instance. I also fail to see how it accounts for how personal and social identity influence our behavior. Strictly behavioral analysis of human activities seems to be grossly inadequate for dealing with issues like the influences of class, race, and gender, for instance.

The negative stereotyping of behaviorist approaches to teaching seem to stem from the apparent reduction of education to the actions of behavioral technicians (teachers) who program student automatons. Assuming that the "liberal" perspective is based on a moral foundation of compassion and respect then this dehumanizing image is a huge obstacle to understanding. If this is true then the rejection dickey45 observes is true and is based on moral grounds, not merely technical objections. That's a pretty significant challenge to overcome.

Don, to this day, we laugh about the teachers that see my son and exclaim "wow, he doesn't seem like a robot."

Maybe because he isn't. ABA has given him the skills he needs to think AND generalize. The ABA given to him is only as good as the folks that created his program and carried it out. Yeah, he could have more skills but we did the best we could with what we had: not much.

I look at classrooms of kids and I see them not working very hard. They are not fluent, they don't care, they think it is busy work, they are uninspired. It is the work of the teacher to find that motivation, that thing that inspires. ABA gives you the tools and the where-with-all to find the motivating contingencies with the positive reinforcement to improve student learning. The by-product should be a happier student because, well, the student should WANT to learn - by the definition of ABA itself - when teaching is done right.

Please excuse my rambling - I had an extra glass of wine ;) Oh, and I'm a gal :)

I felt a need to respond to Don Berg as a parent who has clamored for years to get teachers to look into PBIS, an outgrowth of ABA (I think). There is a lot of lip service to Positive Behavior Support, particularly due to requirements in IDEA. But there is very little understanding.

Many of us come from homes/communities with a profound commitment to the use of punishment to shape behavior--to greater or lesser degrees. Teachers know that this is not acceptable, at least when it comes to corporal punishment. So, lacking any deep understanding of more positive ways to shape values and behavior they fall into a weak acceptance of rewards for doing the right thing. They set up plans to reward the right thing with tokens and toys and breaks (actually, in my experience they are not terribly good at identifying effective rewards either). Then they develop a "fall back" plan that spells out a graduated system of punishments to use when the "rewards" don't work. This allows them to continue pretty much as things were and to work their way up to suspension and expulsion for difficult cases (which gets them out of the classroom so that they can continue as they were).

Much of this really relates to Deb's current post about what to do when schools get "scary." What is really different about PBIS, when effectively implemented is that it takes a much more holistic approach. It looks at the environment as a whole to determine what factors trigger and maintain behaviors that are problematic. If a kid has learned that her classmates laugh and she gets sent to the office everytime she knocks her books on the floor, this becomes a very effective tool for getting recognition and avoiding difficult work. Unless those things change, the token given for NOT knocking her books to the floor is not likely to have much impact (or another behavior will emerge to serve the same function). On the other hand, if a system of help is assured when work is challenging and attention from peers is regularly available (just because she is a part of the group), it is likely that things overall will get better.

Now, this has always seemed to me to be an appeal to higher order thinking--particularly if the student (and the class) is "in on" what is happening. It goes further in relation to whole school applications. It calls on students to be involved in problem solving when environmental (ie: noise or fighting in the cafeteria) problems are identified. It calls on teachers to pay attention to engagement of students so that they are not finding diversions out of boredom.

While it is likely true that there are some Skinnerian derivatives embedded in the philosophy, I find a lot more of Bronfenbrenner--who suggests that the highest level of development occurs in settings that devolve power to the developing child, or Vygotsky, who suggests a constant urging beyond the known and comfortable.

Regarding ABA...
Murray Sidman's classic, "Coercion and its Fallout" (stodgy title belies fascinating, brilliant work), astutely discusses behaviorism. The author states in his intoduction that his reason for writing this book, first published in 1989 and revised in 2000, is to open up communication and, hopefully, address misconceptions. I found it life changing.
Regarding the teaching profession...
Margo, I agree that content knowledge for teachers is critical. I also agree that special educators need to have just as much content knowledge as general educators. The same for general educators having education and experience in working with students with disabilities. Our expectations for both professions are probably currently too low, and translate to medicrity for our students. A suggestion for improving the teaching profession is to treat teachers with respect, a part of which is paying teachers as professionals. I am not sure that raising the bar without raising professional regard works.

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