How many years can a school system fail before it admits something’s wrong?

How many years can school boards and superintendents blame the kids and social conditions for the district’s failure?

Of course, students share some responsibility for their failure to take advantage of the opportunities presented by tax payers.  However, what if the teaching model being used is inappropriate?  That is, what if the classroom model is inconsistent with what we know about behavioral psychology?

Can we entertain that possibility for a moment?  If it were true, would that be an important reality to acknowledge?You know, a comedian can’t get away with blaming the audience for not laughing.  If the audience does not respond as desired, the comedian has to look inward at his or her presentation, timing, body language, delivery and a host of other behavioral issues.

Teaching is a behavioral science.  Yet do failing districts look inward at their classroom models to verify they are consistent with the principles of behavioral psychology?  This is not a rhetorical question.  It requires a response.

Consider that the reward currency in school is grades.  Grades are the payoff for doing what the teacher requires.  That system works well for some kids.  But what does the school have to motivate kids who do not value grades?  Most often, the answer is nothing.  The results are predictable.  Kids are passive, disengaged, playing on a cell phone and too often, acting out.

Think about it.  A grade motivated student enters the classroom with a purpose and a goal that motivates constructive behavior.  A non-grade motivated student enters the classroom with no well defined academic goal or purpose and therefore is unlikely to demonstrate the behaviors required for academic success.  Is this not a simplistic, but accurate, description of classroom reality?

Look at the classroom itself.  Students sitting at desks works ok for students with an academic purpose, but sitting at a desk encourages passivity, disengagement and provides the anonymity that encourages looking at cell phones and acting out.  If you are curious and interested in considering an option to a desk centered classroom, I recommend reading the book, “Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics,” by Peter Liljedahl.

Behavioral psychology tells us the non-grade motivated student is more likely to act constructively, if doing so has a payoff at the end of the period.  For example, if the student were given a specific academic objective at the start of the class, and if by doing what is asked by the teacher, the student could physically check off accomplishment of the objective, is it more likely he or she would be motivated to demonstrate academically constructive behaviors?

I am a retired math teacher, not a behavioral psychologist.  However, after a lot of reflection and discussion with a behavioral psychologist, it has become obvious to me that making our schools successful will require more than money, time and good intentions.

Like the unsuccessful comedian, the district leadership needs to look inward and evaluate the appropriateness of its classroom practices and teaching models. I challenge school districts to consider the possibility a major factor in the failure of school districts to successfully educate a large subgroup of students is the classroom set-up and the educational models used with these children.

To motivate superintendents to do what is necessary, school boards must make significant improvement in a district’s success with the low achieving children a significant factor in the evaluation of the superintendent.

In order to produce a more successful school district, the superintendents must have behavioral psychologists evaluate the district’s classroom practices and make recommendations to ensure they are consistent with the principles of behavioral psychology.

We should no longer accept socio-economic and racial explanations for failing schools.  We should no longer accept excuses like the problem is decades old and time is needed to make improvements.  We should not accept excuses like lack of funding.

How many years can a school system fail before it admits something’s wrong? I hope the time for the admission is now.

Time will tell.