Demerits go high-tech

ClassDojo — a popular behavior-tracking app — is raising privacy concerns, according to the New York Times. Tracking technologies make it easy for teachers to award points for good behavior or demerits for bad behavior. Parents can track their child’s conduct, if they choose to sign up.

But some fear a young child’s misdemeanors could be recorded for posterity. The “permanent record” really would be permanent.

HUNTER, N.Y. — For better or for worse, the third graders in Greg Fletcher’s class at Hunter Elementary School always know where they stand.

One morning in mid-October, Mr. Fletcher walked to the front of the classroom where an interactive white board displayed ClassDojo, a behavior-tracking app that lets teachers award points or subtract them based on a student’s conduct. On the board was a virtual classroom showing each student’s name, a cartoon avatar and the student’s scores so far that week.

“I’m going to have to take a point for no math homework,” Mr. Fletcher said to a blond boy in a striped shirt and then clicked on the boy’s avatar, a googly-eyed green monster, and subtracted a point.

The program emitted a disappointed pong sound, audible to the whole class — and sent a notice to the child’s parents if they had signed up for an account on the service.

In one out of three U.S. schools, at least one teacher uses ClassDojo, which is free. (There are plans to raise money by targeting ads to parents who sign up.) And there are other tracking apps available.

Critics don’t want teachers to reward of penalize students for subjective acts such as “disrespect,” reports the Times. In addition, they fear “behavior databases could potentially harm students’ reputations by unfairly saddling some with ‘a problem child’ label that could stick with them for years.”

The concerns seem silly to me. Teachers have been using points to maintain order — and to communicate their expectations — for decades. This just makes it simpler.

As for privacy, the app doesn’t require the student’s last name. ClassDojo won’t know who’s who –unless the parents sign up to track their child.

Some think it’s wrong to award points and demerits in front of the whole class — again, nothing new. Teachers can use the app privately.

Too strict?

A student at Lyons Community School in New York does an exercise before a student "circle."

A student at Lyons Community School in New York prepares for a student “circle.”

Is this working? asks a story on school discipline policies for NPR’s This American Life.

Reporter Chana Jaffe-Walt contrasts a “no excuses” charter school in Brooklyn, Achievement First Bushwick, with a nearby middle/high school, Lyons Community, which stresses “restorative justice.”

AFB students who misbehave gets demerits. Lyons students discuss their decision-making in student circles and and may go before a student justice court.

On Match Education’s blog, guest Ross T. critiques NPR’s story.

Educated in a “no excuses” school in Boston, Rousseau Mieze now teaches middle school at AFB. He’s ambivalent about his old high school’s strict discipline, she writes. She finds it “super confusing” when he gives a a demerit to a student for talking during a silent transition.

Mieze is motivated by fear, she concludes.

Fear for the well-being of their students, fear that they “won’t graduate, won’t get to college, will get suspended or arrested for horsing around or being rowdy in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

I can relate. I felt that fear, for my own part. What follows next, though, I disagree with.

Jaffe-Walt then says that while Mieze is trying to relinquish some control over his students, “his fear gets in the way.”  The implication is that he knows that the discipline he enacts is wrongheaded, but a sort of hysteria of good intentions blinds his better judgment.

The vignette is framed by a discussion of the “Schools to Prison Pipeline,” a theory that strict discipline leads students — disproportionately minority — to see themselves as “bad kids,”  writes Ross T. “The idea is that minority kids will get suspended (often unfairly), miss school, become frustrated and garner more suspensions by misbehaving out of frustration.” And then on to prison.

By contrast, the report on Lyons is glowing.

Jaffe-Walt is impressed with the commitment to dialogue, and introduces us to multiple students who have been “Lyonized,” or transformed into more reflective, socially adept community members.

She doesn’t discuss the schools’ academic results, notes Ross T. The Achievement First middle school earned straight As — based in part on students’ academic gains — on its 2012-13 DOE progress report, while Lyons’ middle school earned Ds and Cs. The Lyons high school had lower graduation rates than peer schools in its district.

In a few years, we’ll be able to see whether the “no excuses” model increases the number of low-income, minority students who become prison inmates — or college graduates.


Achievement First Bushwick students practice the violin.

As a teacher at a low-performing Memphis high school, Jessica Polner “saw dozens of suspensions and expulsions” for subjectively enforced and overly harsh rules. Carefully and consistently implemented restorative justice programs can be effective, she writes.

Head Start study: Quality doesn’t matter

Head Start’s benefits fade quickly and disappear by third grade. Advocates say that’s because the quality of Head Start programs varies significantly.

“How much does program quality really impact children’s learning and development in Head Start classrooms? asks Kristen Loschert on EdCentral.

Not much, concludes a recent study by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Using data from the Head Start Impact Study (HSIS) and follow-up reports, researchers analyzed how differences in program quality influence children’s cognitive and social-emotional development. They found “little evidence that quality matters to impacts of Head Start,” according to the report.

“I was disappointed,” admits co-researcher Stephen Bell. “We’re not really very far ahead in making Head Start better or understanding which variants of Head Start are worth emphasizing now.”

Exposing children to academic activities was considered a mark of a high-quality program. However,  “3-year-olds who received less exposure to academic activities . . . demonstrated better behavior outcomes” through kindergarten.

If even “quality” Head Start programs don’t produce lasting benefits, then why are we spending billions of dollars? Maybe something else — parenting support for single moms? — would make a difference.

Study: Behavior game really works

Teachers have used the “Good Behavior Game” for 40 years, writes Holly Yettick in Ed Week. Now there’s evidence the old-fashioned game really does improve classroom behavior — significantly.

The class is divided into two teams of even size. Teams get debits for breaking the classroom rules and credits for behaving well. At the end of the week or day, the group with the best behavior and/or fewest infractions gets some type of reward.

The game “allows teachers to engage in several behavior management strategies including acknowledging appropriate behavior, teaching classroom rules, providing feedback about inappropriate behavior, verbal praise, and providing rewards as reinforcement,” writes Andrea Flower, an assistant professor of education at the University of Texas at Austin and her co-authors in a journal article.

. . . the Good Behavior Game had  “a moderate to large effect” on reducing a wide range of challenging classroom behaviors, including aggression, talking out of turn and straying from the task at hand. . . . The game was equally effective in elementary and secondary schools, with behavior immediately improving and remaining better than it had been.

It works best when students choose their own rewards.

Fidgety boys, sputtering economy

Fidgety boys end up as unemployed men, writes David Leonhardt in the New York Times.

The gender gap in school readiness is wider than the gap between low-income and middle-class kids, researchers say. Boys are more likely to struggle in school, college and the workforce.

By kindergarten, girls are substantially more attentive, better behaved, more sensitive, more persistent, more flexible and more independent than boys, according to a new paper from Third Way, a Washington research group. The gap grows over the course of elementary school and feeds into academic gaps between the sexes.

The gender gap in school readiness is wider than the gap between low-income and middle-class kids, researchers say. Boys are more likely to struggle in school, college and the workforce.

In the last 25 years, the portion of women earning a four-year college degree has jumped more than 75 percent and women’s median earnings are up almost 35 percent. Men’s earnings haven’t risen at all, writes Leonhardt. “Men are much more likely to be idle — neither working, looking for work nor caring for family — than they once were and much more likely to be idle than women.”

Some blame the surge in single-parent families for the “boy crisis.” Girls who grow up with one parent — usually a mother — do almost as well as girls from two-parent families. Boys do much worse.

Others say schools aren’t boy friendly. In elementary school classrooms, fidgety boys are expected to sit still and pay attention to the female teacher.

ClassDojo: Teachers disagree

ClassDojo is free software that makes it easy for teachers to award positive or negative points for students’ behavior, track the data and show reports to parents and administrators.

Larry Cuban looks at why some teachers use it and others don’t, analyzing the perspectives of two teachers in British Columbia.

Karen, the first-grade teacher, said the tool would undercut her goals of getting six year-olds to manage their impulses. She wrote:

1. Class Dojo reinforces external rewards. They may work in the short run but fail over time to get students to regulate their behavior.
2. One-click assessments of children’s behavior miss the complexity of individual students and why they do what they do.

3. It is “humiliating” to display publicly those students who get minus points; shame doesn’t help students learn.

Erin, another primary-grade teacher, worried that ClassDojo depended on points, rewards and punishments rather than intrinsic rewards. But when she tried the software, she found it goes “beyond extrinsic rewards.”

. . . ClassDojo helped students state and track their expectations in reading and writing. In addition, the software tool collected and displayed information that helped the teaching assistant monitor special-needs students’ behavior in the class as well as the overall group’s behavior.

Other teachers have written about ClassDojo  herehere and here.

Cuban interviewed Mayrin Bunyagidj, a first-grade teacher at a Menlo Park (CA) private school. She has 16 students in her class.

Because the school focuses on building character–the “Code of the Heart” (e.g., being caring, ready to work, respectful, and responsible) she showed me on her Smart Board how she uses the software to reinforce “positive” student behaviors daily and connect those behaviors to “Code of the Heart.” With this tool, she no longer “nags students.”

When I asked her whether using rewards (e.g., sitting at the teacher’s desk, winning tickets for a weekly lottery to get bracelets and other school gifts) kills intrinsic motivation, she quickly replied that it has the “opposite effect.”  Children want to improve, she said. They work hard to do better, not for the rewards but because they want to. Mayrin suggested that ClassDojo helped her bridge the ideological differences between using extrinsic and intrinsic rewards in motivating students.

Teachers can use points and rewards — or names on the chalkboard — to help children internalize what they “ought to do,” concludes Cuban. Socialization is a “primary function” of tax-supported public schools.

Learning to get along

Can we all get along? Children will learn how to cooperate and “collaborate” in San Francisco elementary and middle schools, reports the San Francisco Chronicle.

“If kids don’t come to school prepared to collaborate, we punish them, blame their family, blame their neighborhood, blame their race, their socio-economic situation, instead of reaching deeply to teach them,” said Matthew Hartford, principal at Lakeshore Alternative Elementary School. “Some kids need to learn it.”

Schools are using a program called Second Step to teach K-8 students how to listen, manage stress, be empathetic and deal with conflicts.

San Francisco teacher Anastasia Fusscas leaned down and whispered the sentence to one of her fourth-grade students.

“We respect other people.”

The Lakeshore student turned to a classmate and whispered the sentence he had heard, who then repeated it into the ear of the next person and so on until the last student in the circle whispered the sentence back to the teacher.

Fusscas started laughing. As was the case with most games of Telephone, the sentence had been garbled along the way.

“Do not touch a lot of people,” she said, repeating what she heard. “Well, that’s a good rule too.”

But the real lesson of the day wasn’t about respect or the avoidance of excessive physical contact.

The Second Step lesson was about listening and ways to listen better, like making eye contact, asking clarifying questions and not interrupting.

While teaching listening skills takes class time, it’s worth it when students are more focused, stay on task and listen, the teacher says.

San Francisco Unified no longer will suspend students for “willful defiance.”

Scholarship promise raises blacks’ grades

Black students raised their grades significantly when they were promised college scholarships, concludes an Education Next report on the Kalamazoo Promise.

Public school graduates in Kalamazoo, Michigan are guaranteed a full scholarship to any public college or university in the state. Once in college, they must maintain a 2.0 average to keep receiving the scholarship.

The Promise reduced behavior problems for all high school students and “had a dramatic positive effect on high school GPAs” for African-Americans. By the third year of the program, African-American students raised their GPAs by 0.7 points. 

It’s not clear whether scholarship promise programs are the best use of the money, writes Nora Caplan-Bricker in New Republic.

The Pittsburgh Promise — a college scholarship for a 2.5 GPA — motivates students to try harder to raise their grades, a study found.

In El Dorado, Arkansas, Promise-eligible third graders had pulled ahead of students in nearby towns by 14 points in math and 12 points in literacy four years later.

‘Smart pill’ doesn’t improve schoolwork

The “smart pill” isn’t so smartreports Nature. ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) meds improve classroom behavior for the first year or so, but do little for academic achievement, according to “a growing body of evidence.”  

In the early 1990s, the MTA study began following four groups of elementary children with ADHD. They received medication, behavior therapy, medication and therapy or whatever care they had already been receiving.

After 14 months, the medicated groups showed better control of ADHD.  The drugs/therapy group had higher grades, but the regular care group was second best. And the gains didn’t last.

By three years in, the four groups had become indistinguishable on every measure. Treatment conferred no lasting benefit in terms of grades, test scores or social adjustment. Eight years later, it was the same story. 

. . . A 2013 review of randomized controlled trials longer than 12 months similarly concluded that there is scant evidence for improvements in ADHD symptoms or academic performance lasting much beyond a year.

A few studies show long-term gains in academic performance, but the boost is small and fades over time.

Social, emotional, but where’s the learning?

First graders react to the question, “What face do you make when your mother compliments you?” during a class session called “Feeling Faces” at Public School 24 in New York City. — Emile Wamsteker for Education Week

Teachers are using Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) to manage classes, reports Education Week.

Already dubious about SEL’s claims to make children nicer and prepare them for the 21st century, Katharine Beals sees SEL for classroom management as intrusive and manipulative.

It starts with an obvious tactic: “Giving students input in classroom rules and making them make amends and apologize when they hurt someone’s feelings.” Students also learn simple vocabulary words related to feelings, practice identifying their emotions and act out their feelings.

It all takes more time than a traditional incentives-based classroom management system, a teacher tells Education Week.

The program also invades students’ privacy, writes Beals.

Students convene for class meetings, during which they express their feelings and solve problems.

. . . Ms. Diaz said she has conversations with the class about not repeating what they hear from members of their “class family.” In addition, she explains that as a mandated reporter of child abuse and neglect, she must pass on certain information to counselors and administrators.

Also, Ms. Diaz said, she warns parents at the start of the year that their children may open up to her about what’s going on at home.

One activity sounds like “emotional abuse” to Beals.

Maria Diaz’s 5th graders were revisiting a lesson in social-emotional learning they’d done recently in which they drew pictures of themselves and then listened to a story. Each time students heard a “put-down,” or a hurtful statement about someone in the story, Ms. Diaz had them tear off a piece of their self-portraits in a show of empathy.

. . . The “put-downs” activity . . . brought much of the class to tears.

The goal is to make kids “more responsible and empathetic,” writes Beals. These are “two traits which the teachers we’ve read about, as well the architects of these programs, appear to be lacking in spades.”

“SEL-based classrooms also do not work for every child,” Ed Week admits. “Students with behavioral issues may require an extrinsic-rewards system or a more structured approach.”

Beals asks: “Why are we forcing students who don’t have behavioral issues to waste so much time on these privacy-invading, time-wasting exercises?”

Is SEL useful, harmless or manipulative?