Thursday, October 27, 2011

Church, State, and the Ambiguity of Banquets

When a school endorses, even tacitly, a religious viewpoint, they send a message of coercion to students and the community.  This is a tribalistic coercion, one that religious institutions thrive upon — those who aren't inclined to be chastised, embarrassed, or shunned are alternatively inclined to feign agreement with others.  This is why religion and government must be completely separated.  If you doubt this notion, or wish for further background on my thoughts, please read my previous post on school-sponsored prayer.

At our soccer banquet a few weeks ago, just before the event officially began, the head coach was speaking to a parent and I was standing nearby.  They turned to me and asked if I would deliver the opening prayer.
"Isn't this a school-sponsored event?" I asked.  They looked puzzled.  "If this is officially a school-sponsored event, that would be illegal."

"Well, the school didn't arrange this, we organized it ourselves," said the parent.  The banquet was hosted by a local church.

I don't remember my next statement as clearly, but the question of organization did punch a dart-sized hole in the sails of my argument.  "I understand, but I'm still not sure if we can do that," I responded, referring to the entire group being led in prayer.

Upon hearing the head coach's next statement, my heart sunk and my blood boiled: "It doesn't matter anyway, we're doing it."  They walked away.

I did nothing and the prayer was led by one of our players.  While irrelevant, he spoke well and thoughtfully.  More relevantly, he did not ramble about Jesus, but otherwise spoke directly and explicitly to God.
Lee v. Weisman is of vital importance here.  The Supreme Court determined that a school-endorsed, even nonsectarian, prayer at a public high school graduation ceremony is unconstitutional.  The decision uses strong language in opposition to such school endorsement (emphasis always mine):
The principle that government may accommodate the free exercise of religion does not supersede the fundamental limitations imposed by the Establishment Clause, which guarantees at a minimum that a government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise...
...supervision and control of a high school graduation ceremony places subtle and indirect public and peer pressure on attending students to stand as a group or maintain respectful silence during the invocation and benediction. A reasonable dissenter of high school age could believe that standing or remaining silent signified her own participation in, or approval of, the group exercise, rather than her respect for it. And the State may not place the student dissenter in the dilemma of participating or protesting.
However, there are aspects of the decision that indicate it does not apply 100% to such athletic banquet situations:
Petitioners' argument that the option of not attending the ceremony excuses any inducement or coercion in the ceremony itself is rejected. In this society, high school graduation is one of life's most significant occasions, and a student is not free to absent herself from the exercise in any real sense of the term "voluntary."
Lee's decision that prayers should be given and his selection of the religious participant are choices attributable to the State. Moreover, through the pamphlet and his advice that the prayers be nonsectarian, he directed and controlled the prayers' content.
While our banquet had no pamphlet, no direct control over the prayer, no clergy involved, and is surely considered more voluntary than graduation, the wording regarding pressure and coercion seem to readily apply.  Maybe there's more...

Ah, yes, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe.  As a conclusion to a debacle in which a school district twisted themselves into knots in order to support an invocation at their football games (the prayer was argued to be "student-led," and "private speech,"), the Supreme Court decided that even at this extracurricular, athletic event, and even with a student-body-elected student speaker, such endorsed prayer is unconstitutional. Some choice quotes:
The second part of the District’s argument–that there is no coercion here because attendance at an extracurricular event, unlike a graduation ceremony, is voluntary–is unpersuasive. For some students, such as cheerleaders, members of the band, and the team members themselves, attendance at football games is mandated, sometimes for class credit. The District’s argument also minimizes the immense social pressure, or truly genuine desire, felt by many students to be involved in the extracurricular event that is American high school football.... The Constitution demands that schools not force on students the difficult choice between whether to attend these games or to risk facing a personally offensive religious ritual.
...the District has established a governmental mechanism that turns the school into a forum for religious debate and empowers the student body majority to subject students of minority views to constitutionally improper messages. The award of that power alone is not acceptable.
There isn't much in this decision that can't be argued applies completely to our banquet, but there is a catch in the use of the term, "official,"
A conclusion that the message is not “private speech” is also established by factors beyond the policy’s text, including the official setting in which the invocation is delivered....
Where is the "official" line drawn?  At administrative endorsement?  At a coach's introduction?  At some degree of involuntary attendance?

A few days after our banquet, I spoke to our Athletic Director.  We had a very good discussion regarding the gray areas involved, as well as the nature of our community and, frankly, the desire to retain quality coaches.  We both agreed that if a significant challenge to this prayer were to be made, it would be much more effective if a student or parent initiated it.  A court might even say that as a teacher, I am above the kind of social pressure discussed in the cases above, and therefore am not harmed and have no standing to complain.  Ultimately, however, in a community where invocations are expected, challenges aren't made, and retainment of key coaches may depend on their ability to run banquets as they please, what student would dare step up?  Perhaps I should try to convince Jessica Ahlquist to move here and join the soccer team.

In the end...I hope it's the end...the AD spoke to the Superintendent and decided to send an email to all head coaches.  He asked that instead of inviting prayer, they lead a "moment of reflection" instead.  While the ardent crusader of principles in me is tempted to dig into Wallace v. Jaffree and the possibly contradictory Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act in Illinois, I'm satisfied for now...

...and a little nervous about our spring soccer season.  I've had no contact with the head soccer coach since that email was sent.

Performance Incentives Part 2

There is a very unique individual on our soccer team.  He works fairly hard and has made notable improvements, but he is, quite frankly, most likely completely unable to reach the skill level of the next least capable player on our team.  Not for many years.  There seems to be a disconnect between what his brain intends and what his muscles do in response that I would call impossible to ignore.  His movements are jerky and awkward, far beyond the point of a lanky teenager after an extreme growth spurt.  His head jostles, tilted, when he runs.  Furthermore, he has a brand of humor and interpersonal skills that initially left his teammates speechless.  When he began the season without speaking much, it seemed reasonable to hypothesize about where he fits on the autistic spectrum, but he soon opened up and became less inhibited than almost any other player.  I do not have the adequate training to postulate what makes his mind so different than that of his peers, but it's very clearly different.

The funny thing is that while he has a Gifted Individualized Education Plan (GIEP), he doesn't have any other IEP stuff or diagnosis of any sort of mental variation from the norm.  Side note; while he's considered gifted, he isn't taking any honors classes...but I don't know how common that is.  I've spoken to his guidance counselor and have information from his nurse as well.  His parents, I'm told, have some similar social characteristics.

I'll admit to having a debatably unfair curiosity about the psychology (and perhaps neurology) of this player (and perhaps his parents), but I don't want that to detract from a point I'd like to make about incentives.

This student very likely receives an "advanced" rating in most categories tested by the state, and because of that, the school has no incentive to seek clarity in their understanding of his psychology.  To clarify, a school has three possible incentives to evaluate a student for an IEP or any other form of support:

1) Parents' request.  Federal law requires that schools thoroughly follow through on these.  In this student's case, this hasn't happened and probably never will.
2) Inadequate state test scores.  As discussed in Performance Incentives Part 1, schools invest a lot of energy and resources into these students.  In this case, this incentive doesn't exist because his tests are fine.
3) Righteousness.  Alas, there isn't much room for this when higher priorities (test scores, dangerous behavioral issues, maintaining a safe environment, addressing abusive situations) exist.

The third possible incentive is one that understandably ranks low in priority, and that is the crux of the point I'm making.  If "test scores" could be removed from the list of things that trump a righteous moral obligation to understand every student well enough to prepare them as well as possible for their adult lives, schools would be more capable of providing their best support to every student.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Performance Incentives Part 1

The school at which I work is currently in "warning" status; we did not make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) last year.  This fact has our administration breathing down our necks to make sure we implement strategies in all of our classes to boost students' reading scores (primarily).  Allow me to adjust my tone — enabling teachers to help students develop important skills in ways that don't impede teachers' own class' learning requirements is a good thing, but I'm obviously bitter about the effects of standardized testing.

Part of this push to improve scores has been a discussion of student motivation.  I remember joking about making patterns with the answer sheet bubbles with my friends when I was in high school, and I probably knew a person or two who followed through.  Many students simply don't care.  With theory and research behind them, our administration considers it wise to offer incentives to the junior class based on their overall performance.  If we make AYP, perhaps the school could open up another part of campus for these students to eat their lunches next year, or perhaps we could allow them more freedoms during their study halls.

Taking another step back from students and their test scores, let's consider how schools are encouraged to produce better test scores.  Mostly thanks to No Child Left Behind, this encouragement comes in the way of threats to things that schools would prefer to maintain.  The message sent is that if scores don't improve, the state will first take away a school's ability to make decisions, then a school's administrators' jobs, and then a school's teachers' jobs.

Positive and negative reinforcement are terms that differ in their lay and scientific meanings.  In lay terms, positive reinforcement means saying, "Good job," and negative reinforcement means giving a spanking.  In the scientific terminology of that which I've read, positive reinforcement means providing the addition of something to a subject's experience, such as, "Good job, have a cookie."  Negative reinforcement means removing something from a subject's experience, such as, "Bad job, I'm taking away your toys."  According to these definitions, positive reinforcement could even mean, "Bad job, have a kick in the shin," and negative reinforcement could mean, "Good job, I'll now remove those pebbles from your shoes."  As far as I know, psychological research consistently demonstrates that positive reinforcement (adding something) is more effective than negative reinforcement (taking away something).

Given this background, I present to you conclusive evidence that politicians do not understand the things they need to in order to properly make decisions about education:

Schools attempt to incentivize good performance from students with positive reinforcement, as research and theory indicate they should.  The government attempts to incentivize good performance from schools with negative reinforcement, as nothing but illogical thinking indicates they should.  Therefore, people should recognize that educational policy-makers in government are incompetent.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

I'm Not As Cool As I Pretend To Be

I follow several other teachers' blogs, one of which is also by a first-year teacher, and find myself at this point amazed that they can regularly blog AND teach successfully.

I guess I'm just not that cool, hence the fact that I haven't published a post since school started.  I do, however, have some things in the works.  One post is on some terrible research, one is on some odd higher education happenings in the UK, and a couple are on edu-philosophical mind-wanderings.

Meanwhile, during an unusually work-free Sunday afternoon, I'll describe how things have been:

They started out hectic.  I went to school daily for about three weeks prior to the beginning of school, but simply didn't know the right questions to ask and wound up swamped with papers and having no clue about how to truly function.  The first week of school was a whirlwind.

It's funny, I did go through the semester of student teaching which prompted this blog, but it still somehow was lightyears easier than my first year of solo teaching.  I've been assigned, as every new teacher is, a veteran teacher as a mentor.  Mrs. W is great, but does so much work that I avoid asking her questions as long as possible for fear of being a pest.  I shouldn't do that, but I do.

I've also been coaching soccer.  I'm assisting a head coach that has been around the proverbial block, and coaching the JV team mostly on my own.  The other coach is smart, experienced, principled, and deserving of respect, but we've had a couple of uncomfortable clashes nonetheless.  I once made him quite angry by talking to a possibly-injured player and a parent in order to quell a misunderstanding and defend this coach's trainer-recommended decision to not allow this student to play during this particular game.  I've also been routinely dumbstruck by his insistence on my getting every JV player almost-equal playing time due to such a practice being seemingly antithetical to his espoused principles.

I'll probably write about this in detail later, but as I see things there is a balance between "providing playing experience" and "selecting for team success" that must be struck at every level of sporting play.  It just seems that this coach and I disagree in practice on where the balance is struck for JV, even though we agree in principle.

I've finally got myself organized enough to be able to breathe (which I'll only remember to do if it's on a to-do list).  Thanks for keeping up, folks.