Ain’t That a Shame by Russ Walsh, author of A Parent’s Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century

By Russ Walsh | Russ On Reading | 2017 | Twitter: @ruswalsh | Author of A Parent’s Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century: Navigating Education Reform to Get the Best Education for My Child | ON SALE 40% off on Amazon, $11.95. | Syndication made possible through Patreon.

By Russ Walsh

The great Fats Domino died this past week. The blog post takes its name from one of his greatest songs, a tune that has been running through my head since I read of his passing. Maybe that is why a recent article from Kappan caught my eye. The article by Joan F. Goodman, professor of education at the Graduate School of Education, addresses the issue of shaming as a disciplinary strategy in schools, particularly charter schools. The article entitled, The Shame of Shaming, is behind a pay-wall,  but well worth the read if you can get access to it (Kappan, October 2017). I have voiced my own concern about charter school shaming practices in earlier posts here and here. The Kappan article adds to that thinking with some important, scholarly insights that cannot be ignored.

Shaming, defined by Goodman as “public censure of a student designed to induce humiliation”, occurs with some regularity in most schools, of course, but Goodman wanted to look at school policies that directly condone and even encourage shaming as a disciplinary measure. In our country’s 10 largest cities none explicitly endorses a policy that meets the definition of shaming above, but a number of shaming techniques are explicitly spelled out in the parent/student handbooks of charter management organizations (CMOs) in these cities. Goodman focused her study on nine CMOs representing more than 500 schools. The endorsed practices she found in 2/3rds of the handbooks for these schools included the following, which will be familiar to anyone who has been following the educational reform movement.

  • Public data walls in the classrooms or hallways, displaying information on student behavior, academic achievement, or disciplinary infractions;
  • Physical or simulated separation from the students’ peer group via silent lunches or clothing changes (in my own experience I have seen kids forced to wear ugly yellow highlighter-colored shirts as a mark of their minor infraction like talking while in line); and
  • Public apologies (often in the form of a letter to be read aloud in front of the class).

These shaming practices are often meted out to students for very minor infractions, such as failure to turn in homework, failure to keep eyes on the teacher, talking in the lunch line, etc. Do these officially sanctioned shaming strategies work? Not according to the experts. Goodman summarizes the findings of researchers and concludes that 

Shame fails to inhibit future acts of wrongdoing and may even make matters worse. It is associated with defensively motivated anger, future substance use, risk taking, and externalization of blame.

In other words, shaming works directly against our desire as teachers to develop thoughtful, reflective, self-actualized learners who are willing to take the risks necessary for learning to take place. Shaming is an educational dead end. Imagine that this bankrupt and cruel strategy is being foisted most often upon our most vulnerable students, students of color in impoverished areas of our cities, and we must wonder about the motivations of these charter management organizations. This is nothing less than institutionalized child abuse, at best motivated by well-meaning, but clueless education reformers, or at worst, a racist response designed to foster a compliant, low-wage work force for the white and wealthy captains of American industry.

I call on all who champion charter schools, including Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, to immediately disavow any form of policy driven shaming practices from any school that receives public funds in any form (that includes all charters and most parochial and private schools). And after all shaming practices are eliminated from policy, we can focus on the very needed work to ensure that shaming is never used as a disciplinary tactic against children as any part, official or unofficial, of an educational program. 

Schools are designed and run by adults. We should expect our public officials to behave like adults and not try to control children by abusing them through public shaming.

I am sure we all have our school-based shaming stories to share. When I was a sophomore in high school, I made the junior varsity basketball team and while I was probably the 12th player on a 12 man team, I was pleased and proud of the accomplishment. The team, of course, had a few rules, which included keeping your nose clean in class, getting respectable grades, and absolutely no smoking. These were reasonable rules and I managed to follow two of them. I was, however, a smoker and my close friends were smokers, so even though it was against the rules, I continued to smoke. I got caught. Some assistant coach saw me smoking at the local teen gathering place and reported me to the coach. 

Here is how my coach chose to inform me of my violation of team rules. The whole team was gathered in the locker room before the first game of the season, dressing for the game. We were laughing and clowning and generally trying not to show how nervous we surely all were. Coach came in for our pregame meeting. He began by saying that one of us had shown that he was not a team player by breaking the rules. He said, “Walsh you were seen smoking after school hours yesterday. Get dressed and get out. You are off the team.” As my teammates listened to coach’s pregame instructions, I stood there in that small room, putting on my street clothes, while everyone tried to avoid looking at me and I choked back tears.

Now, I broke the rules. I deserved to be punished. I deserved to be kicked off the team. What I didn’t deserve was to be shamed in front of my teammates. Coach could have called me into his office before we all got dressed or he could have brought me down during school or even after school to tell me not to appear that evening, but coach decided to shame me, probably to “make an example” of me for the other players. Adults should not abuse 15 year-olds to make examples for others.

The shaming did not make me a better basketball player. It did not make me a better rule follower. It did not even make me quit smoking. It did breed resentment, but fortunately for me I had a reasonably healthy ego and home support system and I got past it quickly. But I have never forgotten it. In the end, I hope it made me a more empathetic teacher and coach.

Shaming has no place in our schools, yet charter schools make shaming a part of school policy for poor, minority children. Fats had it right, Ain’t That a Shame.

Russ Walsh is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century: Navigating Education Reform to Get the Best Education for My Child ON SALE 40% off on Amazon, $11.95. 

Related: Garn Press Education Books

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