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Derby Schools Learn ‘Choice Theory’

by Jodie Mozdzer Gil | Aug 16, 2010 8:18 pm

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Posted to: Derby, Education

Photo: Jodie MozdzerYou’re a teacher and it’s time to call on a student to answer questions from last night’s homework assignment.

You know Johnny didn’t do his homework. Do you call on him anyway, to make an example of him or try to motivate him to do his homework next time?

Not if you employ the William Glasser “Choice Theory,” a philosophy now being embraced by Derby Public Schools under Superintendent Stephen Tracy.

The theory rejects the notion that you can control other people’s actions with punishments. It focuses, instead, on the personal choices students have to follow directions, do their work and, ultimately, learn something.

“It’s teaching, not punishing,” said Kim Olver, an instructor for the William Glasser Institute.

Olver will spend four days this week teaching about a dozen employees in the school district about the method.

It’s the second such training session to be held since Tracy took over the district in 2008.

“Does punishment work? Sure, when the punisher’s there,” Olver said to the group Monday on the first day of the workshop. “But it’s not very effective for teaching.”

“We’re trying to help kids be at a point where they can make decisions when the adults are not around,” Olver said.

Redefining Resources

Derby schools need this philosophy, Tracy said.

The school district’s budget is stagnant, while costs continue to increase.

Student performance in the district is ranked among the lowest in the state, according to ConnCan, a state-wide educational think-tank that issues report cards for all the state’s schools each year.

Last year ConnCan gave the district high school an ‘F’ for overall student performance. The middle and elementary school levels each got a ‘C-’ minus for overall performance.

Click this link to view the report card. Sign-in is required to see the full analysis.

“This is a big deal for our city,” Tracy told the group before the workshop began Monday. “We’re faced with the challenge of helping the students do dramatically better without a dramatic increase in our budget.”

To do that, Tracy said, “We need to redefine what we mean as resources.”

“If you broaden the definition to include the intellectual capacities of our children, particularly those kids that are not engaged, then in reality we have a huge resource in front of us that we tend to see as a problem instead of an opportunity,” Tracy said.

The superintendent said the training costs are an investment.

“If we can greatly increase the number of kids who see school as a positive, not punitive, place to be, that’s worth a lot of money,” Tracy said. “And there’s a tremendous cost to not paying attention to these issues.”

That “hidden cost” includes the amount of time administrators deal with discipline issues instead of learning issues.

Turning The Titanic

Tracy is shooting for a systemic change: He’s hoping to get all the teachers and staff in the district to embrace the philosophy so that students are consistently seeing it in action.

That’s why he started the summer training session last year. All new hires are invited to attend the workshop. About 30 people, including all the principals in the district, have already completed the training, Tracy said.

The group of about a dozen participants this week included paraprofessionals, classroom teachers, a new gym teacher and school counselors. Even the district’s school business manager came for the first day of the workshop.

The theory is a major shift from the common way that schools operate, Olver admitted. As a result, it will take time to get more than half the district employees on board. Olver estimated a five-year turning point.

“It’s a little like trying to turn the Titanic, if you’re going to do it right,” Olver said. “And what I mean by that is you’re not cramming Choice Theory down their throats, because that’s not practicing Choice Theory.”

Click here to visit Tracy’s online message board relating to the philosophy.

The Theory

Photo: Jodie MozdzerThe Choice Theory was developed by Glasser — who is now in his 80s.

The theory assumes that the only behavior that a person can control is their own. Behavior is influenced by one of five basic needs: survival, belonging, power, freedom and fun.

So in that first example, with Johnny and the homework: What would the Choice Theory suggest the teacher do?

According to Tracy, that teacher would sit down with Johnny after class and try to find out the reason he didn’t do his homework. Which of his basic needs influencing his behavior wasn’t being met?


The Choice Theory assumes that all people have choices for how to act — even in the most dire situations.

Olver outlined a couple of examples:

  • If a phone rings, why do you pick it up? It’s not instinct, Olver said, or else people would compulsively pick up other people’s cell phones.
  • Why do people stop at red lights? They fear getting tickets, or getting into an accident. But there are reasons, and times, when people run red lights.
  • If a person held a gun to your head and demanded your wallet, wouldn’t you immediately hand it over? Olver said that in every group of 10 people she asks that question to, at least one says no. “Even with the most immediate threat, not everyone will do the same thing,” Olver said. “You can’t make anyone do anything you want. You can crank up the pressure. But the question is, are they learning? And what are they learning about relationships?”

Olver said the only exceptions are for safety reasons.

The school might suspend a student, for example, if he or she posed a harm to other students. The punishment is not meant to teach the student something, as much as it is to keep the school a safer place for the other students.

Does It Work?

Tracy believes if students — especially those whose needs aren’t being met at home — start to feel like their needs are met at school, they will become more motivated to learn and to behave well.

Olver said results at other “Choice Theory” schools supports that notion.

Only about 20 schools in the country are identified as “Glasser Quality Schools,” meaning they employ the Choice Method in the way the Glasser Institute intends.

None of the schools on the list are in Connecticut. The schools include public, private, urban and rural, Olver said.

“The ones that use (the Choice Theory) are real examples,” Olver said. “Their SAT scores have gone up, their drop-out rates have gone down.”

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posted by: Eugene Driscoll on August 18, 2010  8:16am

DerbyGuy—Thank you for bringing that to our attention. You are correct. We misstated the information. It’s been corrected in the text. Thanks again for pointing it out.

posted by: Watchman on August 21, 2010  9:03pm

On the positive side, a Freshman class of under 80, means smaller student classes, which should help increase the low grades, attained last year.

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