Over at Novometro, some pyschopath named Caroline has a bug up her butt about the American Indian Public Charter School. Feel free to visit and read her inane ramblings for yourself if you like. Basically, she’s insisting, despite total lack of evidence or logic, that Mr. Chavis is “engineering massive cheating on his school’s test scores.”
Caroline sounds to me like your typical knee-jerk anti-charter school squawker. Who cares that our public school system has spectacularly failed our children in every conceivable way? The jobs are union, and that’s all that matters. Down with innovation and experimentation in education and up with pensions and total lack of teacher accountability.
But what I mostly want to respond to is Caroline’s assertion that Mr. Chavis’s incentives based on humiliation is a “treatment that middle-class whites like me…would NEVER tolerate for our kids.” Perhaps Caroline would indeed never tolerate her children being treated in such a manner (although if she’s sending her children to public school, I don’t think she really has a choice), but many parents will.
In my overwhelmingly white, middle-class, suburban high school, humiliation was often the preferred incentive in the most advanced classes. In my AP Physics class, our teacher, Mr. Slone, had an elaborate system of reward and humiliation to encourage student achievement. We had an exam every Friday, which was followed each Monday by the distribution of certain “prizes.” On the reward side, there was the “pizza prize.” Each exam would feature a bonus question, a problem our teacher deemed so difficult that no one in the class would be able to solve it. If anyone did manage to correctly solve the problem, he would post their name on the board atop a large photocopy of their solution. He would also buy this student a pizza, which the student would then get to share with whichever classmates he choose.
On the humiliation side, it began with the relatively innocuous “spoon” award. A student who answered a question correctly, but employed an inefficient path to reach the answer was given an oversized spoon to keep at his desk all week. This answer, as well, would be photocopied and posted on the board for all to mock. (The name of this honor derived from a metaphor our teacher used to demonstrate the benefits of conservation of energy versus kinematics to solve certain problems – one approach was said to be like knocking a wall down with a sledgehammer, while the other was like trying to tunnel through the same wall with a spoon.)
Then it got a little meaner. There was a standing promise that if everyone in the class got an A on a test, we would be brought donuts every morning for the following week. Every Monday morning as we walked into the classroom, we would see a list on the board titled “These idiots kept you from getting donuts this week,” featuring the names of anyone in the class who scored below 90. Then he would distribute the real kicker, the “class moron award.” This charmingly titled prize was given to whichever student had scored the worst on the test. They would be given a dunce cap, on which he had pinned a piece of paper with their grade, and were forced to wear it for the whole class period all week. He would then distribute photocopies of the student’s graded test to the entire class.
This seems to me not dissimilar to the approach Mr. Chavis employs at AIPCS. For the entire year, I lived in abject terror of being forced to wear a dunce cap all week or seeing my name on the board as the lone idiot standing between my peers and their sugar. Mr. Slone actively encouraged students to mock their peers’ poor performance, and he seemed to have no limit on the level of cruelty he would tolerate. It was, frankly, the only class I ever studied for during high school. And boy did I study.
Do I approve of Mr. Slone’s pedagogy? Not really. I think he was a sadistic asshole who made my life a living hell for nine months. Was it effective? Every single student in the class got a 5 on their AP test, so it would seem the answer is yes. I’m not certain it was worth it. Today, I certainly don’t remember the first thing about how to calculate the magnitude of the electric field between the plates of a parallel-plate capacitor whose plate dimensions and spacing are not known and I couldn’t begin to tell you what Columb’s law actually says. But if one’s goal is simply to improve test scores, I see no reason to doubt that Mr. Chavis’s methods can create excellent results. And in my experience, Caroline’s racist assertion that only poor minorities would subject their children to this sort of misery in exchange for academic achievement is demonstrably false.