History of RTI and PBIS
Though it is not a positively linear progression, the story of public education in the twentieth century is one of increasing educational opportunities. In the early part of the century, disabled students were frequently left out of public education. By the 1970s, however, advocates for these students stepped into the wake of racial desegregation and scored a landmark legislative victory. The Education for all Handicapped Children Act (EHA), passed in 1975, had two aims: 1) identify students who to that point had been denied a public education and place them in appropriate programs and 2) the implementation of accountability measures and procedural safeguards, such as Individualized Learning Plans (IEPs) and annual meetings, that would ensure schools were meeting the needs of its students.
Over time, schools developed the necessary programs to accommodate disabled students and classroom teachers become more amenable to the reforms. As time wore on, however, teachers began use the referral process a little too liberally — by their logic, any student who was struggling in class qualified as a referral. This led to ballooning numbers in the referral process, which overtaxed special education departments.
Amidst a flurry of reforms in the early 2000s, the Bush Administration responded to this trend in special education. With the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, and the Individual with Disabilities Education Act in 2004, the Bush Administration effectively mandated what has come to be known as Response to Intervention (RTI). RTI requires publics schools to take a proactive approach to identifying and teaching struggling learners. According to RTI, it is the job of classroom teachers to employ research-backed interventions for struggling students, with successful outcomes being determined by measurable data. The call for RTI has given rise to several programmatic options over the last few years. Among the most popular is Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a system built upon the principles of applied behavioral psychology.
Though it has only recently been formalized into a coherent model, PBIS is long on intellectual history. Most of the work within behavioral psychology is attributable to three academics: Ivan Pavlov, John Watson, and B.F. Skinner. Pavlov and Watson conducted a variety of experiments that established the broad framework of behaviorism. Pavlov’s work, in particular, came to called “classical conditioning.” In the 1950s, B.F. Skinner began really develop the theory of behaviorism. Through his work with rats, he introduced a new type of conditioning, operant conditioning, and, though it stirred debate among behaviorists, popularized the argument that positive reinforcement was more a more effective means of modifying behavior than negative reinforcement.
The spirit of behaviorism can also be traced back to the early twentieth century. Historically, the Progressive Era, which ran approximately from 1900 to 1920 — some historians would date it as far back as 1892 — was an age of order and reform. A generation of unfettered capitalism created many social inequities and spawned a great deal of political corruption. Still, the titans of the age sought greater profits. Many, especially those whose businesses were built around factory labor, looked to the work of Frederick Taylor, who popularized the notion of scientific management of the workplace in order to iron out any and all inefficiencies. This reorganization of labor and the workplace had massive economic implications, but it was consistent with the age — an ordering of chaotic, and in this case, inefficient, life. The theory of scientific management permeated contemporary expert thinking and it was along these lines that modern schools were designed.
The Problems of Praise
The question of whether or not PBIS is effective at modifying behavior is moot. There is ample evidence that demonstrates that PBIS framework is typically successful at changing student behavior and it would be foolish to challenge that evidence. However, this concession does imply defeat. Just because PBIS is a research-backed framework does not mean that it is appropriate for high school students. In fact, there is an emerging body of psychological and educational research that is beginning to call into question some of the philosophical foundations and operational principles of PBIS.
PBIS relies upon positive reinforcement, which is to say that is built upon positive praise that is reinforced with some reward. Rewards can vary based upon implementation methods, but it must be something of value to students. While seemingly harmless, this dual action of praise then reward is somewhat problematic and can lead to dangerous, albeit unintended, consequences, particularly in a high school environment. For one, praise frequently occurs in public social context and by high school, students have become increasingly skilled at reading the subtext of public praise. A 1983 study by W.U. Meyer revealed that students actually interpret praise as a sign of weakness, demonstrative of a teacher’s belief that a particular student is struggling or is approaching his/her academic ceiling. Interestingly enough, criticism, Meyer found, conveys to students a sense that the teacher truly believes in their abilities. While this finding is likely to vary depending context and student, it certainly warrants consideration about how teachers express their faith in their students.
Relatedly, there is also the issue of too much praise. A meta-analysis of praise and motivation, published by Henderlong and Lepper in 2002, found that excessive praise can have detrimental effects. Both in life and school over-praised children tend to grow increasingly concerned with serving and maintaining their image. These students often become risk-averse and are actually more prone to antisocial behaviors such as lying, cheating, and even belittling their peers. In her book, Mindset, Carol Dweck (2006) indirectly explores this phenomenon, arguing that insincere, non-specific, and misguided praise can actually mislead children about the nature of intelligence, forcing them overcompensate socially when they find themselves struggling in intellectually challenging environments.
Taken together, this psychological research suggests that PBIS may not be developmentally appropriate for high school students. While schools and teachers should avoid completely discontinuing the use of praise as it can prove useful in specific situations, they must also be aware that praise has many potentially damaging downsides. High schools are extremely complicated environments, populated by hundreds of hormonal, sensitive, and socially-minded students — it is imperative not to lose sight of that fact.
PBIS and Higher Order Thinking
The matter of praise aside, there are also important questions about whether or not PBIS supports higher order thinking skills. PBIS positions itself as a model that supports academic performance and helps to resolve behavioral problems. By helping students meet their behavioral needs, proponents argue, PBIS also supports academic instruction by reducing time that the teacher may otherwise spend on “classroom management issues.” And while this logic is not unsound and is actually supported by research — in some schools where PBIS has been implemented with fidelity, tests scores have increased — it somewhat sidesteps the issue. As a practical measure, there can be little doubt that in PBIS schools, teachers are attempting to use praise and rewards not only to modify social behavior but also academic behavior as well. This creates yet another problem.
There are many different taxonomies of thinking in education. Among the most influential is that of Benjamin Bloom, who in 1956 charted out various thinking skills and organized them in order of increasingly complexity. Though not initially impactful, within a generation Bloom’s taxonomy gained momentum; by the 1980s and 1990s, it was very much in vogue. The graphic to the right shows the schema. However, just as soon as it become popular, it was almost made obsolete by the technological revolution of the last thirty years. Recognizing this, Lorin Anderson, a former student of Bloom, teamed together with a number of scholars to update the taxonomy. Remarkably, the new taxonomy looks relatively similar with some semantic differences although a sizable change took place at the top: “creating” supplanted “evaluation.” This is only sensible as access to technology has become increasingly widespread both in and out of schools.
Herein lay the problem. If “creating” is the most sophisticated thinking skill, then positive reinforcement will not be of any assistance. There have been many studies done in recent years that support this finding. A more recent one, by Duke behavioral economist Dan Ariely (2008) is most instructive. Ariely and his team found that rewards — they used money in the study, the supreme motivator one would think — and praise do not help with creativity or problem-solving. The explanation for this is somewhat intuitive and it also exists in other research. When we are faced with a creative tasks, the pressure of a reward actually narrows our thinking and increases what psychologists call our “functional fixedness.” We start to see fewer solutions to whatever question or problem is in front of us. Sam Glucksburg found this in his research as early as 1962 and it has been reproduced both in popular culture and academic experiments over time.
Returning to Ariely’s study, he concluded that rewards are strong motivators for linear tasks. In other words, if teachers are attempting to use the rewards in PBIS as carrots to motivate students to complete a worksheet or other lower-order thinking tasks, the results will be agreeable. But if teachers are using carrots with any of the more dynamic, inquiry-based curricular approaches, such project-based learning, service-learning or expeditionary learning — and there is plenty of educational research that suggest teachers should be moving their mode of instructional delivery in that direction — then they would be inhibiting rather than empowering students’ thinking.
PBIS and Democratic Schools
Articulating his thoughts on the aims of education in a democracy, John Dewey (1917) argued that a proper democratic education must entail “civic efficiency, or good citizenship,” by which he meant the “ability to judge men and measures wisely and to take a determining part in making as well as obeying laws.” To put it succinctly, the role of schools in a democracy is produce effective citizens and decent human beings. While it is hard to argue that PBIS subscribes to a similar philosophy, there are some internal inconsistencies that undermine the potential achievement of these aims.
For students to become familiar with the process of democracy, it is critical that they experience democratic environments. Moreover, those environments must extend to them authentic and appropriate decision-making power over aspects of school that most directly impact their lives. When a school is considering whether or not to implement PBIS, there is a preferential process though it is not always followed. Initially PBIS is explored as a possible option for a comprehensive behavioral system. The first phase is simple enough. After an introduction to the principles of PBIS and some discussion, the faculty of a school, after an introduction to and discussion of the principles of PBIS, faculty vote on whether to adopt the system — the “grand design” so to speak. Assuming its passage, the school then moves into the next phase. The faculty, administration, and in some cases, students, go about constructing the site-specific model. Matters of norms, rewards, and other architectural elements are determined at this point. Over time, the school then phases in its model and adjusts it according to collected data.
While not illogical, this phasing model lacks a democratic spirit. In intentionally excluding students from the first phrase of the process, it misses an opportunity to make them a part of a truly important decision that will greatly affect their daily lives in school. In many instances, PBIS involves a major philosophical shift in how to manage behavior. To leave students out of this conversation sends a clear signal about who has power and who does not. While bringing some of them into the fold in the second phase is a nice gesture, it is difficult not to see it as political gamesmanship, meant to sell PBIS to students. If students had been consulted from the start, the whole process would be a more genuine and less likely to alienate students.
PBIS further undermines democratic principles in that it does not advance an egalitarian student-teacher partnership in education. The student-teacher relationship is greatly complicated in that PBIS calls for it to become mediated by rewards, which again leaves little doubt as to who has power and who does not. The act of distributing rewards is likely to reinforce the teacher’s traditional authority over the student.
While well-intentioned, PBIS is simply not an appropriate program for high school students. There are many dangerous outcomes when it comes to rewards and praise — far too many for those two modes of reinforcement to be the cornerstone of any program. PBIS does not directly support higher order thinking skills, nor could it be pointed to such an end. Lastly, though it possesses a few democratic elements, it also reinforces the traditional unequal distribution of power between teachers and students and fails to advance democracy in schools in any significant way.
In reality, PBIS takes a short-term approach to behavior management. If schools are interested in the long-term social and emotional health of their students, then the work of psychologist Daniel Goleman, who is a strong promoter of emotional intelligence, would be the most prudent option. Though Goleman’s work has yet to be crystallized into a packaged program, it takes a much longer and more constructive view of human behavior. Decency cannot be coaxed and manufactured, as PBIS implies; it must be cultivated through mistakes and reflection.
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2) Ariely, D., Gneezy, U., Lowenstein, G. , Mazar, N. (2009). Large stakes and big mistakes. Review of Economic Studies, 76, 451-469.
3) Dewey, John (2004). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. Mineola, NY: Dover.
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8) Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York, NY. Bantam Books.
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