What makes the average grade-school child happy? Not necessarily notching a high score on a math test, if the results of a little study recently featured in Education Week, the education establishment’s paper of record, are to be believed.
The study’s headline-grabbing conclusion was that, in general, teachers who do well in raising kids’ test scores do worse in making them happy in class.
Among progressive educators, who are a strong influence in teacher-training institutions, that is a heavy indictment. To them, cultivating a joy of self-directed discovery among kids is more important than imparting actual knowledge to them. Feelings trump facts.
In the latest perverse twist of that philosophy, progressives have said they believe educators should concentrate heavily on kids’ social-emotional learning. Pay heed to their psyches and maybe their intellects will benefit.
The featured study, which University of Maryland researcher David Blazar conducted by examining data from four school districts in three states, found a weak relationship between how 4th- and 5th-graders performed on math tests and their behavior plus “feeling of efficacy.” However, with regard to student happiness, the study found a “moderate negative association”—meaning that, on average, the larger the test-score gains, the less happy the students.
In a write-up for the online publication Chalkbeat, reporter Matt Barnum put forth a plausible explanation of that comporting with common sense and the desirability of teaching to high intellectual standards: “It could be that teachers who were less demanding were more popular because their instruction was less likely to promote learning — but more enjoyable for students. Maybe those teachers just popped in a video on many days; perhaps they never gave homework.”
Think about it: Was your toughest teacher back in your school days the one you liked the most? Or did you come to appreciate that strict teacher only in your adult years, when you were able to land jobs and promotions largely because of what he or she drilled into your head?
Blazar was not buying Barnum’s explanation, though. “I’m not sure that’s a likely explanation in large part because teachers’ emotional support for students… seems to be really predictive of how happy students are in class,” he told Chalkbeat. “Building an emotionally supportive classroom environment is something that educators and researchers have cared about for a long time.”
Well, sure, progressive education goes back at least a century, to the heyday of philosopher John Dewey, and indeed owes much to the writings of 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that children were best left largely to their own devices because they reside in a natural state of happiness. Modern progressives, such as popular raconteur Alfie Kohn, criticize systems of grading and testing, which they claim destroy kids’ natural zest for learning.
Thank goodness there is a competing philosophy — one that many parents and educators find validated in their everyday experiences. It holds that students are their happiest when they work to achieve their goals, and that many of them benefit from incentives made available to them along the way.
In their 2014 book Rewards, Herbert J. Walberg and Joseph L. Bast invite us to imagine the excitement of kids coming home after earning some small reward for achievement — perhaps a sticker to wear on a shirt: “It is a testament to the success of such systems that receiving rewards is often the first thing reported by elementary students, often with great pride and excitement, when they see a parent after school. By making achievement memorable, these small rewards make a big difference.”
Walberg and Bast explored tons of empirical research showing how the “expectation of rewards or ‘reinforcements’ for reaching goals increases effort and dedication to performing a task well.” That can occur at all levels, perhaps most importantly with parents rewarding children for good deeds and behavior before they even start school. The authors relate numerous examples of creative educators carrying that idea forward with older children. For instance, the high-achieving KIPP charter schools let middle-schoolers earn “KIPP dollars” (for effort, good behavior, and finishing homework) that can be spent for supplies or snacks at the school store.
Unfortunately, many public school teachers have learned in progressive-dominated schools of education that they should be sensitive to their students’ feelings rather than pushing them to excel on their exams and papers. A useful follow-up study might ask students if they are happiest when they are besieged by personnel assessing their every emotion, or, instead, when they succeed in reaching a high goal and receive a meaningful reward.
Robert Holland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.