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Students are supposed to read The Scarlet Letter, not wear it

Shaming students is keeping schools from teaching them

Photo of Andre Perry

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At the start of the 2018-19 school year, every student at Mingus Union High School in Cottonwood, Ariz. was issued a color-coded ID badge.* In the past, red badges denoted a student’s rank as an underclassman. Juniors and seniors wore gray badges. Beyond distinguishing between older and younger students, color coding provided a sense of progression, rank and seniority. However, last year the school decided to take a different direction in categorizing students. Mingus Union forced academically underperforming students to carry a red badge — a virtual scarlet letter — to set them apart from the rest of their peers.

The shaming of her daughter didn’t sit well with the mom of one such upperclassman, Jordan Pickett. She had missed a lot of school due to a medical ailment and her grades suffered as a result. “It didn’t seem right,” Pickett’s mother told the Today show. 

It isn’t right. Mingus Union reinforced an aspect of American culture that has educators believing they can teach students by punishing and shaming them. Shaming is the worst method of teaching, because it manipulates kids’ fear of alienation and stigma. It involves giving up on teaching students, and leaves them with only those lessons that can be learned from adult-sanctioned ridicule and mockery. Shaming students is the bullying that schools regularly endorse.

The use of negative reinforcement by marking and branding is more common in schools than you would think. Most of us know the archetypal image of a boy who has been punished, seated in a stool in a corner, wearing a cone hat with the word dunce on it or emblazoned with the letter “D.” That boy was made an example of, as the symbol of what not to be. Teachers shamed students with the dunce cap, which was used as late as the 1950s. Decades after the cap was phased out, everyone still knows what that image represents, showing just how entrenched the instinct to shame is in school.

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External shame, also referred to as stigma awareness, involves the fear of criticism and social rejection,” wrote Krystine I. Batcho in a Psychology Today article last year. Educators often leverage the fear of rejection and isolation to motivate students to change. Batcho explains that the fear of rejection is strong enough to lead to isolation, which is a powerful agent of behavioral control. Teachers know as much as anyone that social connectedness is essential to adolescents. Shaming is a manipulation of that importance in Mingus Union in an effort to improve students’ grades.

In the book “Hacking Classroom Culture,” authors Angela Stockman and Ellen Feig Gray show how ubiquitous shaming is. Feig Gray recounted how one of her teachers in high school history class shamed students in an attempt to garner greater involvement from the classroom. In front of the entire class, her teacher said, “Robert, we haven’t heard from you at all this semester. I think I’ll replace you with a potted plant!” In a practice that seemingly inverted the shaming principle, teacher Roni Dean-Burren reflected in a blog post how her practice of giving students extra credit for bringing school supplies ended up shaming others whose families couldn’t afford them. “I realized I’d made a grave mistake,” Dean-Burren wrote. “These students didn’t have supplies because they couldn’t afford them. And because they or their families couldn’t afford them, I’d caused their grade to suffer.”

As a former board member of a charter school in New Orleans, I witnessed students wearing “Not Yet” signs — meaning, they had not yet met expectations — taped on their backs for not following the school’s behavioral policy. I also saw one of those students being made to walk up and down stairs for going against the mandated flow of foot-traffic. Shaming is often paired with harsh disciplinary policy and corporal punishment. None of these are positive means for lifting students up academically or behaviorally.

Educators who incorporate shame in their practice should be ashamed of themselves. Shaming actually works very well, but it runs the great risk of alienating students, moving the problem underground, and away from the supports a student needs to thrive. Students can become so ashamed that they become silent and removed. Bad academic habits can fester and behavioral issues worsen in the absence of authentic teaching. Shaming something away isn’t teaching.  Authentic teaching establishes relationships that empower students with the values and norms we want students to demonstrate outside of school. Shaming isn’t empowering. We should call shaming what it really is: bullying.

Pickett’s mother, Jennifer Lansman, told the Phoenix News Times that other students sneer at the red badges, saying that the kids who wear them “must be stupid, or they’re failures.”

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What Mingus Union did was also remove the layer of privacy attached to grades. When most kids do badly on a test, no one knows but them, their teacher, and their parents. That allows a badly performing student to deal with the work of improving their grade, not pile on the stress of having classmates know about it. It’s no business of the other students what a classmate’s grades are.

The shaming policy may even have put Mingus Union afoul of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, commonly known as FERPA, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, both of which prohibit the release of personal information to the public. If students with disabilities score lower because of their disability, the red badge could have been seen as discriminating against them. The school may also have been in violation of the federal law by being “deliberately indifferent to discrimination (A.K.A. the school doesn’t care if its biased),” according the American Civil Liberties Union, which believes Mingus Union violated the ADA on both grounds. No wonder, then, that the ACLU got involved.

“The public display of student education records through the creation of ‘scarlet badges’ exemplifies the type of student privacy violation that spurred the passage of FERPA and must immediately cease,” wrote Kathleen Brody, legal director for the ACLU of Arizona, in a letter to the Mingus Union High School District superintendent on December 28. Last week, Mingus Union reversed its policy, saying in a statement that “all students will now have the same color student ID’s, which is red for the school’s colors,” according to reporting by KAFF News.

Lawyers shouldn’t be the ones to teach teachers that a culture of shaming is holding back their students. And Mingus Union is not alone in abdicating responsibility for actually teaching students; the concept takes many forms in many educational institutions, and we need to eradicate it wherever it exists. If there anything that needs to be singled out, it’s schools that bully students.

*Clarification: This story has been updated throughout to reflect that Mingus Union reversed its policy last week.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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