Friday, November 26, 2010

Paying Kids to Stay in School: Do the Ends Justifiy the Means?

Chris Spence, director of education of the Toronto District School Board, is a fascinating character. An ex-CFLer (Canadian Football League, for my American readers), he is an experienced educator with big ideas, and enthusiasm to spare. Since assuming the job of director of education for the TDSB in 2009, he has spearheaded a variety of unorthodox projects. Some, like the new Africentric Alternative School, have come to fruition; others—for example, a package of specialty schools, including single-sex elementary and middle schools, a sports academy and a choir school—he continues to fight for.

Spence is an avid Twitterer, with 1900 followers, many prominent educationists among them; he himself follows an eclectic group of educators, policy makers and politicians, as well as celebrities such as Kanye West and Justin Beiber.

I am one of Spence's 1900 followers, and I'm therefore the happy recipient of his often eccentric tweets about education and life. I don't always agree with his positions. I share neither his unbridled zeal for technology in school nor his belief that STEM should be the principal focus of contemporary education. But even when I disagree with him, I admire the passion he brings to his job, and his apparent openness to new educational ideas. However, once in a while he tweets something that gives me pause, and makes me worry that his passion may be morphing into a kind of Kool-Aid-drinking fervour. I especially feel this way when he tweets ideas that seem to be "ripped" from American media headlines about the so-called crisis in education.

An example: on November 14, he tweeted "Should we pay kids in our more disadvantaged communities to do well in school? Perhaps, as part of a poverty reduction scheme?"

Now, this is a practice that has been tried in the US and Mexico (and to a lesser extent in Canada) with varying degrees of success. (See here, here and here.) Some studies have found that financial incentives are effective, but most have found that they work best on the kids who need them least: motivated students perform better with cash incentives, unmotivated students do not. But whether the practice works or not is, in my view, completely beside the point. There are times when it is important to be clear about the values we as a society are trying to inculcate in our children. Times when we need to understand that the ends do not always justify the means. For example, it has been argued that the threat of corporal punishment in schools* deters some kids from misbehaving. A case could also be made—though I haven't actually heard anyone make it—that Ritalin should be given to all school children, not just those diagnosed with attention disorders. After all, Ritalin is a drug that helps kids focus; if it were dispensed to all children, classroom-management problems would undoubtedly melt away. Calm classrooms full of medicated kids would likely translate into better test scores, which is something education officials seem to care very much about these days.

But, of course, no one in education today is seriously advocating a return to the strap or medicating all children, because it is obvious that such practices violate the tenets of what we hold to be our values. So the question is, do we believe bribing children is right or wrong? In education, do we or don't we believe that intrinsic motivation on the part of children is superior to extrinsic motivation? These are the questions we need to be asking, not simply do cash incentives work.

There is another reason why I take umbrage at the idea of paying poor kids to stay in school: it is essentially an admission of defeat. By offering money to certain kids in exchange for staying in school, we are conceding that the education on offer at our schools is not relevant or exciting enough in its own right to hold these kids' interest. More important, we're also affirming our collective unwillingness to tackle the root problem—poverty—head on, revealing instead a timorous inclination to chip at it around the edges by doling out a few dollars here and there through the school system. Both of these admissions are depressing. Do Spence, and other advocates of paying the poor to stay in school, really want to make them?

* While researching this post, I was surprised to learn that the corporal punishment in school is still permitted in 20 States in the US, and that it was not officially banned in Canada until 2004.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

New Report Cards—Progress?

Readers of this blog may recall that several months ago, I reviewed the Toronto District School Board's new, purportedly jargon-free, parent-friendly report card, piloted in 19 schools last June. (See post here.) This November we are seeing the results of yet another reform of the report card system, this one a province-wide initiative to replace the fall graded report card with an ungraded "Elementary Progress Report Card." The progress report was spearheaded by teachers who complained that November is too soon to come up with letter grades for students. According to ministry of education literature, the advantage of the progress report is that it provides, in a greatly expanded section, detailed information about a student's work habits—for instance, Responsibility, Organization, Collaboration—skills which the ministry considers to be more reliable indicators of student success (or lack thereof) than grades in the early part of the year. The brochure accompanying the new report card explains that with respect to specific subjects, the progress report offers personalized comments about a student's "progress towards" (as opposed to "achievement of") grade-level curriculum standards. Thus, in the subject section of the new report, grades are replaced by three categories: "progressing with difficulty," "progressing well," and "progressing very well."

So, do these progress reports, sent home in our case on November 16, actually represent "progress" for parents and students? My answer, and that of my kids, is an ambivalent yes and no.

Initially, my daughters were opposed to the ungraded report cards; in their view grades, and grades alone, tell you how well you're doing at school. I've always told them that marks don't matter all that much, that learning is what is important. In fact, although they've always been excellent students, I did not even let them see their report cards until Grade 3 (when they put their foot down and demanded to read them). But while I was attempting to de-emphasize grades, the school and teachers were succeeding in teaching them a different lesson: grades do matter, they matter more than almost anything else. For the past three years, virtually everything my daughters have produced for school, both in the classroom and at home—including notes in their workbooks, artwork, math desk work and homework, grammar exercises, and dramatic performances—has been graded. In my opinion, this mania for grading has several deleterious effects, not the least of which is the way it discourages children from experimenting or trying new things. But that is a subject for another post. For the moment, suffice it to say that given teachers' penchant for grading everything they do, my daughters could be forgiven for concluding that grades are indeed the point of education.

So the girls' initial disappointment with the lack of grades was understandable. Interestingly, however, as they read through the new report cards, they seemed to enjoy not seeing letter grades. It was a change, a relief perhaps, and it led them to the comments, which previously they had dismissed as irrelevant.

But, being savvy readers-between-the-lines, they immediately noted that the new categories—"progressing with difficulty," "progressing well," and "progressing very well"—could be easily correlated to grades, and that the comments, while marginally more personalized, still had a cookie-cutter feel to them, and were consequently not particularly revealing of their specific strengths and weaknesses.

My own take on the new report cards is nearly as ambivalent as that of my daughters. I do find the "progress" reports, with their detailed comments in both the work habits and subject sections, slightly more helpful than graded reports in conveying a sense of how my daughters are doing. I've heard parents complain that grades give them a truer picture of how their child is faring academically, and prevent any potential surprises come February, when the first graded report card is sent home. I don't think this is a valid concern: in our school, and I suspect in a majority of schools in the TDSB, practically every quiz, assignment or test, has to be signed by the parent and returned to the teacher, so how could there be any surprises?

My problem with the new report cards is, on the contrary, that they do not, in the end, constitute an alternative to graded reports. I think the ministry of education is trying to have it both ways. On the one hand it seems to be trying to de-emphasize grades, and direct parents' attention to what it deems most important at this point in the school year: work habits. But on the other hand, the new "progress" categories in effect re-introduce grades through the back door. It is also somewhat disingenuous to proclaim that grades don't matter in the first term, but are useful and necessary in the second or third terms. I'm sure I'm in a minority here, but I'd be happy if there were no grades in elementary school, full stop. Then perhaps it would not be an uphill battle to convince my daughters that learning—challenging oneself, thinking critically, experimenting—is the point of education, not grades. But if the ministry and school boards are going to commit to grades, I see little point in committing to them two thirds of the time, as they have chosen to do.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Reflections on Remembrance Day and Kids

Over on PhD in Parenting there is a post entitled "More than 2 minutes of silence" about innovative ways to commemorate Remembrance Day with children. Below is the comment I submitted in response to this post:

I’m very conflicted about how to celebrate Remembrance Day with my kids. They have great-great uncles who fought in WWI; one of them was blinded in the trenches and came back to Canada to help found the CNIB. However, I feel that Remembrance Day has become politicized in ways that rub me the wrong way. For instance, instead of being about remembering the war dead, it’s often talked about in terms of men and women who gave their lives in the name of “freedom.” But many wars have nothing to do with freedom (WWI is arguably one of them, Afghanistan another), and everything to do with a political system that still believes it is OK to send men and women off to kill and be killed. We tell our children to use their words, yet our politicians continue to countenance the use of guns to resolve conflicts.

I guess I'm trying to say that, for me, what is lacking in Remembrance Day ceremonies is an emphasis on peace. So this November 11 I took the opportunity to tell my children about the interesting history of the white poppy, and how there are people who are trying to prevent it from being made available as an alternative—or a complement—to the red poppy. And how, ironically, these are the same people who talk about the value of fighting for “freedom.”

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


My post on "constructivist math" generated a bit of discussion on mathematics—as opposed to parenting—blogs, which is, I think, a good thing. Given the importance of math and science both in education and (as we are always being told) in the global economy, I think it is unfortunate that there exist so few avenues of dialogue between math teachers and parents, and between mathematicians and non-math types like me. In any case, here are links to two blogs where my original post is discussed:

Republic of Mathematics

The Max Ray Blog at the Math Forum