Policies have consequences: Teacher edition

There’s a nifty thread on Hacker News regarding this post from a teacher dismayed at his district’s inability or unwillingness to enforce any sort of discipline on students (if I were him, I’d try to get the New York Times interested in the story). This comment from Maxharris caught my attention, in which the writer says, “My solution? Make attendance voluntary by abolishing truancy laws.”

I agree in theory, but in practice removing truancy laws probably won’t work out so well. Look, for example, at the chapter in Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational about prebinding commitments and universities. In one experiment, he (and his co-authors) took a group of similar classes and divided them in three: one was told that it could turn in papers whenever each member wanted; another group was told it could pick due dates at the beginning but had to stick with them; and the third group was given conventional due dates spaced over the course of the semester. The last group did the best, grade-wise; the second did reasonably well too, since most students picked conventional due dates; and the first did the worst.

The lesson: people are often bad at committing to things. Most of us know this intuitively and can remember times we’ve put things off to our own unhappiness.

I’ve observed similar prebinding effects when teaching freshman composition at the University of Arizona. I used to conduct many more experiments by ranging the number of mandatory drafts: sometimes I’d require as few as one and tell students they should go through at least three to four drafts, and sometimes I assign as many as five. The more drafts, the better papers tended to be, the higher the grades I hand out, and the fewer students I find bellyaching to me in office hours or via e-mail. Without those mandatory drafts, students (mostly, though not universally) got bad grades and then resented me for it. Solution: require more drafts.

If I were the teacher with the discipline problems, I probably would’ve tried to get the local newspaper to publish my post as an article, then shown up at a school board meeting, ideally with a reporter, and a detailed list of abuses. That might get me fired. But it also might actually get something to change. The solution to the specific problem mentioned isn’t with attendance policies; it’s with district administration. And sunshine is sometimes a very effective disinfectant, as teachers’ unions are discovering the hard way.

It’s also relatively easy to advocate no truancy laws on Hacker News (and don’t such laws only apply up to 16?); if you were actually a school principal or district superintendent who did, you would probably be fired or voted out of office if such a policy were implemented and you or your community had to face the consequences of it. You’d get (even more) dumb 15-year-olds deciding to drop out of school on their own volition because school is hard and video games are fun, or whatever, and they’d probably be more likely to have crime problems (since 15-year-olds don’t have job skills), and you’d get parents unhappy that they don’t have stronger laws at their disposal to try to force recalcitrant students into school. These kinds of unintended consequences can be the most pernicious kind.

I’ve noticed that, on a lot of tech-oriented Internet outlets (think Slashdot, Hacker News, and the like), a libertarian, let-students-choose ethos prevails—see, for example, this post on student laptops in class. I’m very sympathetic to this kind of ethos and try to incorporate it in my own assignments to the extent possible. The problem that I perceive is that relatively few of the posters like Maxharris fully understand the issue they’re dealing with, the law of unintended consequences, and how bad most people are at managing their time. To some extent, this is just how it goes: some people are going to fail at things, and that’s okay. But in things like school, it’s probably not a bad idea to make this harder than it could be otherwise.

This goes beyond classes and truancy; in my time teaching, I’m pretty sure I’ve had dozens of students who were convinced they were good enough writers not to need freshmen composition. Most of them did it; maybe one to six didn’t, and probably only one. That’s why such classes exist as they do: because most people aren’t great at judging their own skill level.

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