Tuesday, March 13, 2012

On Punishing Students Who Fail

Caring parents want so much for their children to be well and to do well. We love them, and we want them to be happy. We sometimes go to great extremes to achieve that.

ABC News carried a brief story about a Florida father whose son, in seventh grade, is failing three classes.
[1] As a last resort, the father brought his son to a busy intersection and had him wear a sign reading “Hey, I want to be a class clown, is it wrong?” and “I’m in the 7th grade and I have a “F” for the semester. Is anything wrong with that. Blow your horn if you don’t think so. Thank you!!!”

When Yahoo news posted the story, many left comments both for and against the father’s actions. A number praised him for caring enough to show his love and take action on the boy’s behalf. Many parents, they said, just don’t seem to care at all. Some pointed out that there are too many things we don’t know about the situation to make a fair assessment. The ABC newscaster commented that the student was getting an “A” in humiliation.

For my part, I have not received any request from the family to evaluate them or their actions, nor do I expect to get any such request. The story does prompt me to write comment on a couple of issues it raises, however. The first is about punishing children in general. Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s work showed compellingly that both punishment and rewards are extrinsic motivation, and that any such motivation that comes from outside of us is ineffective in the long term. Intrinsic motivation, Deming found, is the most effective and consistent force that drives us. We are motivated from within when we do things for our reasons, not because we are punished if we don’t or rewarded if we do. Systems of punishment and reward do not tap into a person’s own inner motivation; on the contrary, they can interfere with any inner motivation that was once present.

The second issue the sign-wearing youth raises is that of public humiliation. Paul writes in Ephesians 6:4, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” In the discipline and instruction of the Lord Jesus, we lead by example and service, not by lording it over others (Matt. 20:25) and certainly not by humiliating them publicly. The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates that no child shall be subject to any “form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”
[2] Everyone has the right to their human dignity – no one has the right to take that away from them. Being a parent or a teacher does not give us that right, and being a child does not take that right away.

The third question the story raises is, for me, “who failed?” According to an article in the Tampa Bay Times, Florida’s schools rank near the bottom nationally. Yet, Education Magazine gave Florida an “A” in standards and accountability. Will higher standards and accountability save our schools? In the absence of a motivational learning environment, high standards and accountability will actually guarantee that many students miss the mark! Not surprisingly, Education Magazine gave Florida “C's for school climate and efforts to improve teacher quality.”
[3] If we want students to perform to high standards, we need to provide an environment in which they can thrive. Otherwise, we fail them. According to the young man in the Florida story, his experience made him realize that his failure was his fault. I agree that we should all take personal responsibility for our actions, and still I am sad to think of him shouldering all the blame, in a system that is also failing. Are we ready to do our part?

I realize that the concerns I raise and the opinions I express show that I am not in agreement with this Florida dad’s approach to his son’s situation, as far as I understand it from the outside. It is not my intention to disparage him; he raises concerns that are important to all of us, difficult questions for every parent. My intention is to speak to the issues raised in a general way, rather than to his actions or motives, which are not mine to judge. I very much wish this father and his son every success.

[1] http://news.yahoo.com/video/us-15749625/failing-student-wears-sign-as-punishment-28585171.html#crsl=%252Fvideo%252Fus-15749625%252Ffailing-student-wears-sign-as-punishment-28585171.html
[2] http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/crc.htm
[3] http://www.sptimes.com/2005/03/06/State/Schools_still_rank_ne.shtml

1 comment:

  1. This was so sad. I have a hard time understanding how a parent could ever be so unsympathetic to a child.