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What Works Best--Self-Discipline or Punishment?

by Neil Abrahams, Houston Independent School District.

What is written in this discussion sounds fine if you don't spend time in classrooms. But when you face a room where half the students have no interest in learning, where you are expected to produce results, and where administrators are at best not a hindrance, these words sound empty.

I teach high school mathematics, and I know that many of my students could do well if they wanted to. Unfortunately, few of those who can do well, want to. I do encounter increasing behavior problems, but behavior is only part of what's preventing my students from learning. As I see it, too much money is poorly spent, administrators are lowering teacher morale, and the state is ready to punish schools that don't meet state standards.

Teachers need to be able to count on students' self-discipline if they are to succeed, yet America's youth culture and consumerism hinder the development of the self-discipline that is necessary for learning. Self-discipline may well be more responsible for differences in acheivement than any other factor. This is not to suggest that self-discipline alone correlates with academic achievement. I'm only suggesting that some students have more of a desire to succeed academically than others; those others may have more of a desire to start small businesses than attend college, for example.

If that's the case, than trying to increase academic achievement by holding teachers and administrators accountable for their students' performance on standardized tests is a misguided effort. The best way to turn a person off is to threaten them, and that's precisely what state-imposed tests do. Threats may increase performance in lower-level tasks, but not in higher-level tasks, which is what we all trying to do. (See Alfie Kohn's "Punished by Reward" for more on what motivates people, particularly students.)

Money and energy devoted to state tests (such as TAAS) is money and energy not available for other purposes. Emergency measures to quickly increase test scores to "acceptable" levels do little, if any, good. Better teachers using appropriate resources and methods will be of more help.

Neil Abrahams teaches mathematics in the Houston Independent School District. He can be reached by e-mail at: neil@itrw.com.

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Last Update: 12/29/98