Learning to be Free

by Martin Harris

This unlikely (black swan) event in education is worthy of note: near Seattle, a graded school has rewarded students who have demonstrated scholastic Proficiency (they actually learned the Reading and Math they were there to learn) with a day off: a sunny day in usually rain-soaked Bellingham, a not-very-up-scale city (incomes and housing values are below State averages) with clear-cut-logging origins no longer mentionable and weekly “global-peace” rallies which proudly are. The city’s Wiki page on the Web reveals that the ten largest employers are now all government, medicine, or education; these tertiary (services) and quaternary (information) economies have thoroughly displaced such once-real and dominant new-wealth creators as agriculture (primary) and manufacturing (secondary). Side-bar: a new sector label –quinary– is being proposed for the labeling of such beyond-the-traditional-economy new sectors as home-schooling and grow-your-own. Now, the Associated Press surprisingly reports, the Bellingham Christian School, a private academy there (such an event at a public school would have been beyond even black swan expectations) has rewarded students who showed they could function at grade level with a day-in-the-sun. That was all 205 students, if academy teaching on the Left Coast is as rigorous and productive as academy teaching here in Appalachia, and possibly (no data available) in eastern blue States like Vermont: when social promotion doesn’t happen while tested-Proficiency promotion does, every student is Proficient at grade level, wherever he/she may be in the grade sequence. Examples: Providence Academy and 10 others in Washington County, TN, the Bridge School and nine others in Addison County, VT. The AP report doesn’t tell us whether any non-Proficient Bellingham student wouldn’t have had the day off; for all, it was a day of freedom, a perhaps-quinary-sector non-monetary reward with a possible contrast/parallel to the offer-em-real-money bribe-gambits being tried by fairly desperate public schools in New York City and the District of Columbia. (The Atlanta public-school edu-crat approach – “improve” their students’ test papers and scores so as to claim very false pedagogical success, and thereby very real financial rewards to staff—isn’t relevant here.)

Neither is the endless argument over the relative reward-value of non-fungible time (which can’t be replaced, once spent) and fungible money, which can, except to note that chronically under-funded (supposedly) education doubtless finds it easier to give students a no-monetary-cost day off than to dip into the staff salaries or –even worse; up the pupil-teacher ratio– to break loose a few bucks. Whether the students value freedom over funding, the AP doesn’t say. The day-off-for-achievement initiative is defensible for two very basic reasons: one is that just about all students, a small special-ed percentage excepted, are intellectually quite capable of learning the sorts of intellectual disciplines entry-level taught in primary and secondary schools, public or private, as author Charles Murray has indicated in his controversial-for-race-reasons books on the human IQ, and verified in e-mail conversations on that subject with your Humble Scribe; and the other is that they do so at varying rates for varying reasons, most frequently lack-of-interest, which means that some students sit in classrooms in varying states of boredom while their less-motivated peers are again (and again, and again) presented the same materials the “some” have already mastered. While such repetition is dominating classroom time, students who aren’t there miss nothing. Indeed, some of those who have previously chosen not-to-learn might change their attitudes with such a freedom-reward enticing them.

(The modern social-promotion phenomenon, whereby students who chose not to learn are enabled to remain in the classroom with those who chose to learn, thereby demanding more teacher-time for repetition and more boredom for the already-proficient, is very much relevant here; prior to its adoption as a newly-trendy edu-fad in the late ‘60’s, only students who had mastered the material were promoted to the next grade; those who had chosen not to, weren’t. A grade-retention policy meant that there was less boredom (but still some, as we veterans of those earlier practices can recall) in the classroom, and therefore more of a likelihood that any miss-a-day reward would also cause some missed learning.) The Bellingham experiment, replicated on a larger scale across a range of school types (yes, even public) could very well discredit an exactly-opposite proposal now being pushed, mostly in public-ed contexts: the extended school year or day. The advocates start their argument with a set of facts –their students aren’t reaching Proficiency in satisfactory percentages, with typically only a third or so showing grade-level mastery on the NAEP tests– and respond with the historical fact that the summer recess is an obsolete hold-over from a once-near-universal agricultural past. Which it is. They then argue that keeping every student, not just the non-Proficient, in school, will result in the almost-100% Proficient results their other nine months of already-mandatory classroom effort has (now famously, thanks to more widespread publicity for NAEP test scores) failed to produce. They don’t explain how doing the same thing over again will produce a different result; a little Einstein-in-English lingo quote, there. It just isn’t (without use of the I-word) explicable.

Whether the day-of-freedom reward will function as an incentive for improved achievement on the parts of those disengaged-by-choice “students” who could master the material if they so wish (mostly, they don’t, although there is some evidence that some teachers teach such reverse-motivated types better than others do) the Bellingham experiment, if pursued, will eventually reveal. There’s a chance it won’t, that a variety of pro-status-quo political and think-tank pressures will be deployed to make sure that Bellingham’s day-off reward remains a (not-to-be-repeated) black swan event. If it is so suppressed at the lower-education level, enthusiasts can point to a far-more-widespread actual application, an informal, leader-less, and officially-disapproved but widespread student application of the principle at the higher-education level, where the student tradition of cutting (mostly Friday afternoon, pre-football weekend) classes has been passed down from upperclassmen to underclassmen for generations: read a chapter ahead in the professor’s text, master it, and you won’t miss either the off-the-campus train-ride-to-away (oops, now it’s a car-pool) or the content of the 1.40-to-4.10 lecture-and-lab. It’s worked, all these decades, for those students who were and are sufficiently motivated to learn. Just like the grade-schoolers in Bellingham, except that there the reward was formally designed, educator-led, and officially-approved. The adults in the room have also earned a day off.