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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.

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