A Kick in the Head

Experts in child-rearing know exactly when punishment, like a swift hard spank, can be most effective. It must be delivered as soon as possible after the bad behavior, it must be memorable in its magnitude, and it must be used sparingly, only for dangerous acts, when reason won't work. The only time I ever spanked my son was when he dashed into a NYC street at the age of three. He never did it again. Apparently, a good hard spank worked for congress as well. As Mitch McConnell said about the recent tactics in Washington to use the debt ceiling deadline as a tactic for negotiation, "there's no education in the second kick of a mule." Effectively used, punishment produces one-trial learning. But to make sure that the bad behavior doesn't recur, it must be followed-up by rewarding good behavior that is incompatible with the bad behavior. Negotiation to solve our nation's problems may only be productive if the specter of "The Spank" is hanging over the bargaining table.

If punishment becomes a way of life, if it is the primary method for education, it produces many negative side effects on students ranging from mild anxiety to incapacitating broken spirits. Punishment must not be the pervasive controlling factor in education. Unfortunately, the politicians and bureaucrats who are imposing high-stakes testing on our nation's schools with punishment for failure to follow have instituted a failing system that produces exactly the opposite results they intend. It will not elevate learning. It will destroy creativity, critical thinking, innovation, community and trust and will foster cheating, gaming the system and the school dropout rate. What will it take for the educational policy makers to see this? Why do they persist in exhibiting this bad behavior when the results are clearly not what they purport to want?

Schools are currently forced to impose testing as a way of life because it is tied to funding. No tests, no money. If you read Diane Ravitch's new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools, you will see a reasoned and well-documented account of the failure of testing to improve education. Indeed, it is sucking the joy of learning out of the classroom. There is push-back from parents who are opting out and challenging people like NY State's Education Commissioner John King, Jr.

In a democracy, it is difficult for the people to give a kick in the head to the powers-that-be so that they change a destructive course they have put in place. It takes time for the grassroots to find their voice, to get their message out, to get organized, and to sustain it long enough to cause pain that is punishing. Ultimately, the people will have their way. But there is a price to be paid. Like the government shut-down, it will be everyday citizens who will bear the costs of the intransigence of a few. In education, it is the passion for learning of children that is sacrificed. For a parent, this is unacceptable.

You'd think experts on education policy would know better. They need a strong lesson like a kick in the head.