The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is an education-oriented think tank that is usually on the conservative side of the spectrum. They favor the charter school movement and oppose the more radical aspects of the Common Core.
Their recent report “Discipline Reform Through the Eyes of Teachers” is unusual because it asks actual teachers, not administrators about trends in education. Such a study is long overdue.
A Personal Anecdote
I hope that readers will excuse a personal anecdote from my teaching days. One of my seventh-grade students repeatedly disrupted the class with behavior that can only be described as bizarre. I took my problems to the assistant principal who shrugged his shoulders and said, “There is nothing we can do. His mother thinks that the school system discriminates against her son.”
That evening, I thought, “There are twenty-five children in that class. Twenty-four of them learned nothing because of the actions of one. Mom speaks for the one causing the problem. Who speaks for these twenty-four students?”
The Erosion of Discipline
Every good educator knows that teaching is a balancing act. Most teachers try to make learning as pleasant and painless as possible. However, students still misbehave. When this misconduct is disruptive, the teacher must lay aside instruction to diagnose and address the problem.
Until about 1970, correction was usually accomplished with a glaring look, a sharp word or a paddle. When the paddle disappeared, the look and the word lost much of their effect. Disciplinary assignments, like writing, “I will not disturb the class” one hundred times or copying a page from a textbook also lost favor for a variety of reasons.
Many teachers just gave up on correction. Unless the misbehavior became unbearable, it was far easier and more productive to try to “teach through” minor transgressions by ignoring them. Not surprisingly, the amount of learning decreased, and the intensity of misbehavior increased.
Eventually, the teacher’s only real option was to send misbehaving students out of the classroom to the principal’s office where they might suffer expulsion or suspension. Administrators dislike this exclusion option and see teachers who sent out too many students as ineffective.
The School to Prison Pipeline
Thus, exclusion is discouraged. A chaotic chorus among officials says exclusion is bad. Exclusion removes children from classrooms. Exclusion means that the misbehaving child does not learn. Teachers are imposing their values system on students by punishing them for behavior that is acceptable in their own homes. The chorus finds a refrain in the slogan, “School to Prison Pipeline.”
An article in Education Week spells out the steps on this path to doom:
1. An increased prison population costs us all.
2. There is a link between dropping out of high school and going to prison.
3. Minority men get the short end of the stick in this regard.
4. Expectations influence student achievement and behavior.
5. The current way of dealing with “problem” students is not.
In other words, the shortcomings of school discipline, especially exclusion, is turning minority students into criminals.
Not to be outdone, the National Education Association – the largest teachers’ union in the nation – undercut their members by agreeing,
“School-to-Prison Pipeline means the policies and practices that are directly and indirectly pushing students of color out of school and on a pathway to prison, including, but not limited to: harsh school discipline policies that overuse suspension and expulsion, increased policing and surveillance that create prison-like environments in schools, overreliance on referrals to law enforcement and the juvenile justice system, and an alienating and punitive high-stakes testing-driven academic environment.”
Teachers React to a Common Fault
With everyone weighing in on the erosion of classroom discipline, it is interesting to see what teachers think about discipline in schools.
The Fordham Institute study came to several conclusions. The first is that teachers in high-poverty schools,1 “are more than twice as likely to say that verbal disrespect is a daily occurrence in their classrooms. Similarly, they are more than six times as likely to say that physical fighting is a daily or weekly occurrence and more than three times as likely to report being personally assaulted by a student.”
Within those environments, teachers have little preference for any particular system of discipline. Their principal concern is consistent enforcement. Sixty-six percent of teachers believe that their schools inconsistently enforce their own rules.
Over two-thirds of teachers agreed with the statement, “Most students suffered because of a few persistent troublemakers.” Over 80% saw out-of-school suspensions as important in maintaining an environment in which other students can learn. Almost two-thirds of the teachers in high poverty schools believed that there were students in their classrooms who should not have been there because of their repeated misbehaviors.
One common perception is that African-American teachers view suspensions as more detrimental to African-American students than do their white counterparts. The study shows this to be false. Among teachers in high poverty schools, 46% of white teachers thought that there were too few out-of-school suspensions as opposed to 50% of African-American teachers.
Only Simple, Effective, and Consistent Solutions Will Work
Indeed, teachers know far more about their classrooms than the bureaucrats in education departments. They believe that schools do not need elaborate discipline plans. Instead, they need systems of discipline that can be quickly implemented and consistently enforced.
Many students need more intensive psychological care than their classroom teachers or school counselors can provide. Such children cannot control their behavior in certain circumstances. The place for those children is not in a regular classroom, but in a facility in which they can learn while their psychological needs are met.
However, society cannot afford to sacrifice the educations of whole classrooms of children because of a couple of children who cannot (or will not) control their behavior.
The Fordham Institute study shows that schools must include teachers when it is time to craft new policies. We must prevent one chronically misbehaving student from holding the other twenty-four students’ educations as hostages.