Dear Decaturish – City Schools of Decatur has room for improvement

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt October 19, 2017

The Decatur School Board at its April 11, 2017 meeting. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

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Dear Decaturish,

We moved to Decatur mainly because of the excellent reputation of the school system. While it’s better than surrounding districts, there is room for improvement. Problems of overcrowding and underfunding are already being discussed, but I’ve noticed some different problems, which I’d like more parents to be aware of so we can advocate for improvements together.

Most City Schools of Decatur elementary teachers use some sort of extrinsic reward system. For example, my first-grade daughter’s teacher uses an online system called Class Dojo to award and dock points to students for certain behaviors. When they acquire enough points, she encourages them to choose a cheap trinket from what she’s calling a “treasure box” as if these trinkets were important goals worth pursuing. My third-grade daughter’s teachers have used these extrinsic rewards as well, and used public discipline systems, such as shame charts, moving students’ names up and down a chart on the wall so the whole class can keep track of how their fellow students have been behaving.

I’ve learned from other parents that these practices are common throughout the school district. I’m not singling out my daughters’ teachers, or their school, Westchester Elementary, as in any way exceptional in this district. They’re just typical examples.

It’s well-documented that systems like these can motivate children to be compliant in the short term, while causing serious harm to their intrinsic motivation and emotional development in the long term. I referred my first grade daughter’s teacher to an article summarizing this research.

She replied that she’s using Responsive Classroom, a teaching system designed to nurture exactly the kind of social and emotional intelligence that I’m concerned about, so I should rest assured that her reward system is fine. She gave me a link to their website so I could learn more.

Responsive Classroom seems like a very good, evidence-based teaching system. On that website, I found articles like this explaining how reward systems like this are harmful, and thus excluded from Responsive Classroom.

Teaching Without Using Rewards

I found this, which explains why public discipline systems are excluded from Responsive Classroom, naming Class Dojo as an example of what not to do:

Public Discipline Systems

I wrote back and spoke to her, pointing out this discrepancy, but was unable to engage her on this topic. She replied that all children are different, which is true and irrelevant, as it doesn’t justify applying the same extrinsic reward system to all the students in the class. She assured me that her Class Dojo and trinket system is only one motivation system she uses, so I shouldn’t be concerned. She hands out reward stickers, and also puts pompoms in a jar based on class behavior, promising a party to the class when the jar is full. All these extrinsic reward systems are excluded from Responsive Classroom. She made no mention of Responsive Classroom’s actual classroom management tools, such as reinforcing language. She assured me that she has years of training and experience and really cares about kids, which I assume is a generic form letter she sends to any parent who has any complaint.

I then spoke to principal Lofstrand. Both the teacher and the principal insist that they are using Responsive Classroom, and that these extrinsic reward systems are compatible with Responsive Classroom, contradicting the information on the Responsive Classroom website. These claims contradict experiences I’ve heard from other teachers who worked in other Responsive Classroom schools outside CSD, who explained to me that they did not use extrinsic reward and public discipline systems because these are incompatible with Responsive Classroom. I have a friend whose son goes to a non-CSD Responsive Classroom school, and she describes it as matching the description on their website, and very different from CSD. I wrote to Responsive Classroom directly, and they confirmed that these techniques are incompatible with their system. When I tried to get Lofstrand to address this paradox, she too changed the subject to say that all children are different.

When Lofstrand realized that some parents were questioning the discipline systems in the school, she organized a meeting, which she advertised as a presentation about Responsive Classroom and other classroom management tools. However, her actual presentation was mainly about classroom management in general. She made no mention of the classroom management tools described on Responsive Classroom’s website, such as reinforcing language, reminding language, redirecting language, etc. She described Responsive Classroom as a system for cultivating a caring community in the school, but didn’t describe how it does that, by, for example, avoiding things such as shame charts that are harmful to a sense of community. Instead she said  that Responsive Classroom lacks management tools, so teachers are required to add their own, such as trinket rewards and shame charts. (She didn’t use those particular terms.)

At the meeting, I told Lofstrand that Responsive Classroom’s website contradicted what she was saying. She replied that all children are different. This was a completely off-topic response, as Responsive Classroom was designed to work with real, diverse populations of students. Saying that all children are different is no excuse not to use it, and certainly not an excuse to claim to use it while actually doing things antithetical to it.

I then contacted superintendent Dude, who directed me to Bruce Roaden, Executive Director of Student Support. I asked Roaden to read those two articles on Responsive Classroom’s website, explaining why they exclude extrinsic rewards and public discipline systems, and I pointed out that most CSD teachers are not currently following the system they claim to follow. Despite CSD’s claim to use Responsive Classroom, Roaden didn’t seem to know anything about it, or CSD’s use of it, and dismissed these evidence-backed articles as “opinion pieces.” He couldn’t tell me who had chosen Responsive Classroom as CSD’s elementary teaching system, or why it was chosen, or who had decided to leave out the classroom management tools and substitute harmful ones, or why. Roaden seemed surprised that just because CSD claims to use Responsive Classroom, I would expect them to use Responsive Classroom’s management tools. I told him that I considered this a reasonable expectation. I said that if CSD has no intention of closely following Responsive Classroom, they should not claim that they do, since this is false advertising. I suggested that at most they could say that they’re partly influenced by some Responsive Classroom ideas, or phrases of that nature that more accurately convey CSD’s partial use of Responsive Classroom.

Mr. Roaden said that he’ll be setting CSD’s new classroom management policy. To do this, he plans to ask CSD teachers what works for them, and tell them to keep doing that. I pointed out that teachers see students for only one school year, and so don’t see the long-term effects of their methods. He added that he’ll ask high schoolers their opinions.

I wrote to Dr. Dude, explaining that Mr. Roaden had not adequately addressed my concerns. Dr. Dude wrote back: “I concur with Mr. Roaden’s expression that the posts you shared are opinion pieces. I looked at the research that their site shares and noticed that there are only two studies cited, one of which is about SEL programs in general. While I have not done a literature review of the subject, and do not plan to, what I have reviewed indicates to me that there are benefits to this system but nothing I have reviewed shows anything close to the harm to students you describe.”

He gave me permission to share his email, preferably in the context of the whole email thread. I’ll be happy to forward this to anyone who would like to read it.

CSD policy is being built on a foundation of habits, unfounded beliefs, and the opinions of teenagers. Evidence would be my first choice as a basis for policy, but apparently that’s completely off the table with our current superintendent.

I hope that once my fellow Decatur parents are aware of these problems, many will share my concern about some or all of them, and contact teachers, principals, and the school board, advocating for improvements. Let’s not settle for being the best school district in the area. Let’s instead strive to be the best school district we can be.


Melissa Kacalanos

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