A school communication app gamifies the classroom
Parents says the popular app ClassDojo raises fears about teacher bias
- Animation by Gogi Kamushadze
Moises Valencia is a single father. His overalls and bright yellow safety vest are splattered with what looks like paint. Between working two jobs, he often struggles with making it to parent teacher conferences and events at his son’s school in Jefferson County, Kentucky. He can’t afford to miss a shift, but he really wants to be more involved in his son’s education.
“Some of the teachers used to ask why I didn’t care about my children in the past. I was never able to make meetings and it hurt me to think I was a bad parent,” he said. “But I care a lot, which is why I work so much.”
When Valencia learned about ClassDojo, a classroom performance monitoring app, he thought it could be a great way to keep up with his son without missing work.
“At first it really seemed like a good idea,” he said. “But almost immediately I was getting notifications that called my son defiant and out of control. It didn’t seem like my Javi.”
ClassDojo is an education app that aims to involve parents in their children’s education and to reinforce good behavior. Teachers use it to map a child’s progress, to award points for various skills and achievements — and to deduct them for poor conduct like disrespect and working off task. Many classrooms that use it display a public board showcasing each student’s successes and mistakes. The app is often used by schools as a way to measure their academic achievements.
When Sam Chaudhary and Liam Don founded ClassDojo in 2011, it was a clearly innovative tool. Both men have high-school teaching experience. Chaudhary studied economics and taught high school economics. Don taught robotics. For thousands of families around the world, it’s a game-changer that lets them better understand their kids’ performance at school.
However, some parents and educators point to concerns about the pervasive use of the app. According to the company, ClassDojo is actively used by at least one child in about 95% of elementary-middle public schools in the U.S., and is also used in 180 countries worldwide. Another is that the app is compulsory for teachers. They cannot opt out once the school or district signs on to use the app. While parents can withdraw consent for their children to be monitored on the app, this can have negative consequences, such as being singled out in classrooms by teachers.
ClassDojo says the app is actively used in about 95% of elementary-middle public schools in the U.S. — more than 85,000 institutions.
The evolution of technology is substantial and its integration in every facet of the classroom seems inevitable regardless of the country
ClassDojo, which makes $2.2 million in estimated annual revenue, is just one player in the expanding field of educational behavior management, a burgeoning market. Elsewhere, the edtech market has experienced growth of more than 25% in the past four years. Some experts suggest that it will be worth $252 billion this year.
Impero monitors students’ computer screens in the UK. Brain wave tracking headbands monitor children with AI in China. Google education groups are used in India. Obami is deployed as a social learning platform in South African classrooms. There are varying approaches to behavior management, each with their own pros and cons. The evolution of technology is substantial and its integration in every facet of the classroom seems inevitable regardless of the country.
With this global rollout of edtech comes a number of concerns.
Another aspect of ClassDojo to have drawn criticism is its strong element of public shaming. Dr. Brigitte Vittrup, Texas Woman’s University Professor of Child Development, wrote in an article that “the public display can be humiliating for children.” She added that such charts, “whether publicly displayed or not — usually do not change students’ behavior in the long run. At times, it can actually get worse.”
ClassDojo did not respond to requests for comment from Coda Story.
Another, even darker theory is now being advanced about ClassDojo by a growing number of parents and education advocates — that it perpetuates racism in the American education system.
School disciplinary policies already disproportionately impact black children. In New York, black girls are more than 50 times more likely to be expelled than their white classmates. Meanwhile, a 2015 study from the UpJohn Institute revealed that white teachers were 30% less likely to believe in the academic potential of their black students.
What’s so bad about ClassDojo?
Over its years of existence, ClassDojo has come under fire from a range of educators and experts. Earlier this year, Carleton University childhood studies professor Julie Garlen wrote an in-depth critique of the ways in which the app reduces complex classroom dynamics to a crude mathematical competition.
Brittany Selah Lee-Bey is an etymology/linguistics expert and reading specialist at Washington Latin Public Charter School. In Lee-Bey’s observation, ClassDojo “removes nuances of the classroom that enable teachers to correct bias. Its popularity seems to overshadow its shortcomings.” She acknowledges that edtech tools are great in theory, but worries they allow teachers hide their racial bias behind the guise of mathematical objectivity.
Dr. Shanara Reid-Brinkley, co-director of forensics and assistant professor at California State University, Fullerton is a critical race theory expert who has written extensively about black radical argumentation, public policy, identity politics, and feminism. “Apps do not address the root cause of inequity. These sorts of mechanisms allow teachers to be blind to their own bias,” she said, in an interview.
In Jefferson County, Kentucky, where the parents interviewed in this story live, several school administrators admitted that they didn’t know the racial breakdown of ClassDojo point allocations, but would like to.
One elementary school teacher’s aide in the district was concerned that the lead teacher could have used the app towards the end of the day when he or she was tired, during which student behavior could be rated quickly and often negatively. The aide also noted that negative assessments were particularly common for black boys in class.
In an anonymized screen shot from the app shared with Coda Story by a Jefferson County Public School parent, we see that one boy received four negative marks from one teacher in the span of two minutes. The parent reached out to the teacher and was told that the child was “aggressively defiant.” Further inquiry revealed that the child had been “laughing too loud” at a video being shown in class, even though most of the children were also laughing.
The parent contacted the school’s counselor and assistant principal, but received no follow-up. The teacher’s behavior could be attributed to stress or fatigue, but after speaking with a white neighbor whose child was also in the class and hadn’t received any negative marks that day, the parent in question began to suspect a pattern of bias.
Systematic racism can be found in areas of education, like zero tolerance policies that disproportionality impact black students, electronic monitoring using sensors and identification cards, and school exclusions. Apps such as ClassDojo normalize the fear that they may be called out for insubordination at any time. Systematic racism permeates every facet of education — police interactions with black youth, zero tolerance policies that disproportionately impact black students, electronic monitoring, and even walking while black. As discussed in Jason P. Nance’s Emory Law Journal article on racial inequity, the over-reliance of this sort of surveillance tech disproportionately punishes students of color. Some parents and teachers also believe, quite reasonably, that ClassDojo increases stress for students.
Lack of transparency
The app’s lack of transparency, and the difficulty of challenging evaluations only exacerbates these fears.
For parents like Valencia, the impersonality of the app fuels fears that their kids are facing discrimination. “The white teachers seemed to mark him as misbehaving or not following directions daily, but they couldn’t give me specifics,” he says of his son’s experience with ClassDojo. “And it was worse because all the other kids saw him being marked down on the projector, which made him want to give up on trying at all.”
As the data continued to brand his son as a problem student, Valencia began to suspect bias.
Jeanette is a college student. She beams at the mention of her seven-year-old niece. But she fears her niece’s teacher may be misusing ClassDojo.
“A boy called her the n-word and she reacted by walking out of the classroom to cry,” Jeanette said. As a result, her niece had points deducted on the app. “It’s not the worst thing in the world — she shouldn’t have left the class because it’s a safety issue.”
Jeanette and Valencia have a common thread in their stories. Their children are left feeling helpless in classrooms that replace holistic discipline with a numbers-based approach that removes nuance.
Resistance to ClassDojo
While ClassDojo released an official statement about a New York Times article that drew attention to how the company could use student data, the parents and teachers interviewed for this article said they have been unsuccessful in getting answers about the app’s wider impact on young black and brown people.
For parents, the lack of information doesn’t help.
The edtech market has experienced growth of more than 25% in the past four years, and some experts suggest that it will be worth $252 billion this year
Gazerrya Martin, a single mother of two JCPS elementary school students, has contacted school board members about either discontinuing that app’s use or modifying the app. One of her main concerns is that the app focuses too narrowly on reactive discipline and ignores ways to empower and inspire children.
“Black children get treated differently. Not all teachers discriminate against black children, but the ones who do will often punish a child as a default and be less interested in helping them resolve an issue,” she said. This problem is a combination of the tech and the teachers.
“How can we know whether something is racist without the evidence?” asked Martin. “I want to see side-by-side behavior charts from ClassDojo — one from schools that are mostly black and one from schools that are mostly white. I don’t need to see the students’ names. I just want to see evidence that my children are not being treated worse than children just because of their skin color or zip code.”
ClassDojo’s current “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to race makes establishing this kind of firm knowledge impossible. Meanwhile, students and teachers have continued to call on local school board reps to make anonymized data public. The public display of behavior marks can stigmatize children. It also normalizes the idea that they have no consent when it comes to their privacy.
When Valencia’s son kept getting bad scores on the app, he tried a simpler method of getting answers. He texted a teacher through ClassDojo. “I asked them — what can I do to help him do better? They said he just needs to not be bad,” Valencia said. “And now Javi thinks he is bad, but he is not. He is really good.”
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