Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Free Lunch

Back in a previous life, when I worked in theatre, I went to a conference in Philadelphia, one event of which was a guided tour of the city led by Teller, of Penn and Teller. Teller is the smaller of the two Insane Magicians—the sinister and silent partner. On this tour, however, he was very talkative. He showed us all of the venues and street-corners where he and his partner had performed as street magicians, before they found fame and fortune. He talked about the city, the people, and the various trials and tribulations faced by street performers of all kinds. One thing he said, a thing that has stuck with me for years, was that a real street performer had to give a real performance, with a beginning, a middle, and an end…the end being the passing of the hat. As far as he was concerned, the musician who simply left the hat on the sidewalk while he noodled around on his instrument was not a true street performer—or at least not a good one. The job of the street performer is to demand and hold the audience’s attention—to give you a real show right when you weren’t expecting one—and to make you stick around right when you were planning on walking away.

In my own little theatre company, we often debated about giving free performances as benefits or audience-builders. What we soon discovered was that people did not give much respect or value to things to which their creators had not assigned a value. In other words, people felt they were probably going to get what they had paid for—and if it was free of charge, it was probably crap.

Obviously, this rule has exceptions. Free Shakespeare in Central Park draws thousands of people every summer. On the other hand, free Shakespeare is only cash-free; you still have to spend the entire day standing in line to get one of the very limited number of tickets. That scarcity creates a value, and if you want your ticket, you do pay some kind of price for it.

There is a new report out about education, and this one finally starts to include some non-school data. Schoolteachers have long known that the problems they face in the classroom have serious roots outside of school—roots they are often unable to address. They get all the blame for poor student performance, but how much of the responsibility truly rests with them? Some, surely…but not all.

We talk about the societal value of guaranteeing all of our children an education. Few societies in history have tried to do that. Sometimes we say we’re trying to provide an equal education for all children, which is, historically, even more of a radical idea. Now, since No Child Left Behind, we claim that we are trying to provide a college-preparatory education for all children, which is so radical as to be, perhaps, ludicrous. Can we really provide both equity and excellence…to every student in the country?

Well, that’s a question for another day. Today I’m thinking about the idea of value. We talk about the value of compulsary, universal, K-12 education as though this value is self-evident and universally shared. And I’m not sure it is…especially among its recipients.

There was a survey I head about recently (I wish I had attribution, but I don’t, so it could be apocryphal) comparing high-school student attitudes towards education in India and the United States. Students in India used very goal-oriented language when talking about their schooling: I will learn things I need in order to succeed; I will be able to get a job; I will be able to get into a good college; and so on. Students in the U.S. used much more passive language: it’s something I have to do; my parents want me to graduate; I go because I have to; my teachers give me good grades; my teachers hate me; and so on. The comparison was startling and revealing: one group sees education as something they do; the other sees education as something that is done to them. One group sees education as a means to an end—an end that they value highly; the other group sees it as a thing in itself—a thing that they do not particularly value, or even understand. Is it any surprise that India’s students are outperfoming ours?

I saw this first-hand when I was teaching. Motivating my kids was often very difficult—sometimes excruciatingly difficult. Because so many of them didn’t come to school with their own reasons for working hard, I had to give them reasons—constantly. I had to perform for them; I had to make the case; I had to convince them…every single day. And some kids simply refused to play along. Positive reinforcement meant nothing to them, because the goal held no value to them. It was my goal, not theirs. Negative reinforcement meant even less to them, because there was not much I could do to them that they would care about, and there was nothing I could deny them or take from them that they valued.

When people talk about suspensions or expulsions or the like, the phrase that is constantly invoked is, “You cannot deny a child an education.” But you know what? The ones who are really denying them an education are the kids who are behaving like idiots in the classroom (or who aren’t showing up at all). We’re there, every day, working our tails off for them. We’re offering, not denying. But you can’t force an education down someone’s throat. In fact, you could argue that it’s immoral to do so. Offering universal education to everyone is one thing; demanding that everyone take it is another. Ultimately, if they don’t want it or think they need it, they’re going to walk away from it.

So how do you create a sense of value around something that an audience may be taking for granted? There are three ways. First, you can sell the hell out of it. Second, you can assign a real cost to it. Third, you can limit its availability. There are plenty of teachers doing their best to focus on number one—but selling by itself is not enough.

Now, you might think that numbers two and three would chase people away rather than draw them in, but you’d be wrong. Think about my theatre example. With the exception of shows-featuring-movie-stars and such things, more people will attend a show that costs a dollar than one that is offered for free. People will fight hard to get limited seats because the limitation seems to suggest value. If the same show were offered in an arena where there was plenty of room for everyone…well, they might come, and they might not. I know it seems perverse, but the easier and more available you make some things, they less people will value and respect them.

Now, I’m not saying we should make all education private and force people to pay cash for their schooling. But perhaps we shouldn’t be hiding the already-existing costs so much. Kids don’t know what their education costs—how much money and effort is being expended on their behalf. They don’t know where the money comes from. And therefore, they don’t make any connection between how hard their parents are working, how much is taken from their paychecks, and where that money goes. It’s invisible money. It’s “free.” Perhaps ten year olds shouldn’t have to think about issues like this, but seventeen-year olds certainly should. If they skip school, or act up, they’re not just wasting time; they’re wasting money and effort—the money and effort of the adults all around them. And they should be made to think about that—and to wonder whether such largesse is infinite.

As things currently stand, though, they don’t wonder about that. They can’t, really—because that largesse is never threatened. You can’t deny a child an education. They hear that. They know it’s said. And it means one thing to them: “I’m untouchable!” And it’s true. Really, you can’t do anything to these kids…unless they pull a gun on you. You can send them to the principal’s office. You can suspend them for a day. But you can’t throw them out. You can’t ever take school away from them, or say, “Fine, if you don’t care, go home.” I taught at one school that allowed us to say this (a private school, obviously). Guess what? When I confronted a kid and said, “If you’re going to keep acting like a lunatic, I don’t want you here today. Go home,” the kid usually begged to stay in school and started negotiating about what he could do to make things better.

Think about this the way a good parent would think about anything of value that a child has. You take care of that puppy or I’m going to have to take it away from you. You share TV privileges with your brother or you’ll have to turn it off. If you don’t want to lose it, you’d better…whatever. Do your chores. Brush your teeth. Behave. Until there’s a cost associated with something the child is doing, until there’s a realization that they might actually lose it, they don’t think about how much they want or need it. They just take it for granted. “Sure, I like it,” they think, “but what’s the big deal?” When something is a big deal, we parents have to make it into big deal.

Well, if that applies to parenting, why shouldn’t it apply to schooling? Don’t you think there are kids out there who would learn the value of what they’re being given if there was a real threat to take it away from them? And I don’t mean permanently or forever. I’m not being cruel here. There should always be a way back in. But kids who think they can skip class when they want to and come back when they feel like it—those kids should learn that this might not be so. The kids who think they can act up, throw things, curse at the teacher, and disrupt other kids who are trying to work—all with impunity—all without any real consequence—they should learn some consequences. Looking back at your actions and saying, “I really blew it” is a major part of learning. It’s part of growing up. In fact, growth is impossible without mistakes, loss, and reflection.

I say there should always be a way back in, and there should—because the life lesson shouldn’t cost kids so much that it ruins the rest of their lives. So let them back in…but not easily, or quickly, or without effort. No, no. It’s easy the first time. Come one, come all—we assume the best and we offer you everything we’ve got. But if you screw up and show you don’t care—let’s say three times—we have the right to kick you out. For real and possibly for good (with due process, of course, and according to some pretty serious rules and regulations). And if you decide that you want to get back in, well,..that’s fine with us. But we’re going to need a letter explaining why you want to get back in, and we’re going to need a recommendation from an employer or someone else, and we’re going to need an essay explaining your goals and dreams, and what you plan to do to achieve them. Something like that. We want you to work your way back into school. We want it to be a little bit harder, so that you value it once we let you back in.

If middle and high school kids knew that this was a real possibility, how many of them would really push things to the limit? A bunch, I’m sure—but fewer, I think, than the number who act with complete license and impunity right now. And of the kids who are foolish enough to get themselves thrown out, how many would (eventually) work to get back in? A surprising number, I think. I honestly think that a “throw-out” policy could reduce the number of eventual drop-outs. I think the kids would learn that there was something going on at school that was worth their attendance and attention. I think a lot of them would take a more active and proprietary attitude towards their education—and actually start thinking of it as their education. By learning that they had something to lose, they might begin to realize that they had something to gain.

It’s carrot and stick. We shouldn’t be afraid of the metaphorical stick. All three of the things that create value have to be in play--because they really are in play, in life. Walking away from your education does have a cost. Aiming for college is a competition, and there isn't room for everyone. By creating a fantasy-land of untouchability in school, we're not setting these kids up for success in life.

We need to do more on the selling front—especially for kids who are not deeply enmeshed in a college-oriented context. We have to make that world more tangible and real to them, so that it’s more than an idea to them. It has to be a real goal—an achievable goal—and a goal they want. And then we have to make those other two points clear: it costs you something to get there, and there isn’t room for everyone.

Believe me, you’ll see more real work happening in school. And more active engagement, and (to use an ed-world cliché) ownership of one’s education. And a little less knuckle-headed, self-destructive behavior. This education business isn’t so rarified and strange as to be immune from the forces that drive the rest of us in our lives.

The big brother holds up a ball and shows it to his little brother. “You want it?” he says. The little brother says yes and reaches for it. The big brother lifts it up out of reach. “You want it?” he says again. “You gotta work for it. Come on!” And the little brother jumps and jumps and jumps to reach it. Why? It’s just a goddamn ball. He didn't care about it two minutes ago. And the big brother is a jerk. But he is the big brother, and he does seem to find it valuable—so valuable he’s making his kid brother work for it—so valuable he’s not sure just anyone can have it. Crazy? Perhaps. But this is how desire is born.


Paula said...

I hope that you try and publish this excellent post as an article or op/ed piece, somewhere where thousands of people can see it.

Candice said...

When I get out of the hospital, remind me to show you my lesson plan for my community college students where we factored in the cost of each missed day of class. Yeah, it was a reading class but it was a WORD problem...

I found data on how much funding came from taxes, how much from tuition, other state funding, etc. We determined that each hour of class missed cost SOMEONE x amount of dollars... and we broke it down in percentages: how much the state wasted, how much tuition wasted (in state versus out of state), etc. I wanted them to realize that this whole education thing had a price, and that people were paying it, and that every time they chose not to show up, they were WASTING not just learning opportunity or obligations to learning teams or respect for their teachers, but cold hard cash.

Also, what Paula said.

Heather said...

Uh, that comment from Candice was actually from Heather...