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Discipline: Is It Really as Serious a Problem as the Public Thinks?

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For 13 years the Gallup Organization has been asking people what they consider the foremost problem facing the nation's public schools. In all but one of those years the most common response has been "a lack of discipline."

Is the public right?

"Most definitely," says George Gallup, chairman of the polling firm that bears his name. "In fact, it's probably becoming more important because, although I can't cite figures, the breakdown of discipline in schools is becoming more prevalent."

"I think schools are taking a bum rap," counters Irwin Hyman, a discipline consultant and professor of educational psychology at Temple University. "People tend to believe that teachers have lost control over their students, that every school is as freewheeling as the one in 'Welcome Back Kotter.' Discipline is a problem in the classroom, but it's not as great a problem as it's made out to be."

Such is the debate over the issue of student misbehavior in the nation's public schools. Virtually everyone interested in the topic agrees that education in many schools is stifled to some degree by students whose actions are disruptive or perhaps even illegal. Beyond that, it is anyone's guess as to what the true scope and frequency of inappropriate classroom behavior is.

Ideas on Discipline Differ

According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week, for example, school principals and the general public have some very different ideas about the extent of discipline problems in schools. Sixty-six percent of the citizens polled said that they thought drug abuse among schoolchildren was a major problem, compared with only 12 percent of the principals. The two groups also differed sharply in their perceptions of the seriousness of other problems in the schools: alcohol abuse (49 percent vs. 13 percent), truancy or absenteeism (40 percent vs. 20 percent), weapons possession (25 percent vs. 4 percent), and fighting (31 percent vs. 2 percent).

"The absence of data reflecting the dimensions of this problem is a critical shortcoming few people talk about," says Junious Williams, former director of the now-defunct Pro6ject for Fair Administration of School Discipline at the University of Michigan's School of Education. "It's important because it indicates that school officials are basing their responses to misbehavior on philosophic leanings rather than on hard data. I'll admit that I'm as prone to that as anyone else."

Scott D. Thompson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, suggests that parents receive most of their information about school-related discipline problems from their children, who have "a natural tendency" to exaggerate and overstate its scope.

Supporters of the notion that there is a crisis in the nation's classrooms often point to the findings of the Violent Schools--Safe Schools study of 1978 to support their claims. The 350-page, Congressionally-mandated report focused only on the frequency of criminal acts in schools; it excluded routine discipline problems, pranks, and vandalism.

Violent Crimes

Among other things, the Safe Schools study revealed that nearly 282,000 students and 5,200 teachers were physically attacked while at junior or senior high schools during a typical one-month period. Last June, the U.S. Attorney General's Task Force on Violent Crime cited those statistics to support its contention that some "school officials seem either unable or unwilling to deal" with "an atmosphereminated by drugs, extortion, robbery, assault, rape, and other violent crimes."

Mr. Williams says that the public, when speaking of a discipline problem in schools, thinks of "the glaring reports of rape and assaults. But those types of behaviors represent a very small proportion of the discipline problems that school officials deal with on a day-to-day basis.

"The bulk of the problems that they encounter are attendance violations or non-violent conflicts," he adds. "But the public seems to think only about kids who batter other kids and teachers."

Mr. Williams says he does not argue with people who say there is a discipline problem in schools, but rather with their definition of the problem.

"They say it's a problem of more bad kids in the schools than there were when they were young," he explains. "I say it's a problem of adults not doing their job well enough. People talk about the prevalance of discipline problems, but they fail to recognize the absence of adequate structures to work with these children. For me, the critical issue is whether we can introduce methods within schools to reduce these problems."

According to Mr. Hyman, American teachers have been grappling with the problem of discipline and order in the classroom since the first days of the republic--and earlier.

"Just look at The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the kind of person Ichabod Crane was," he says. "It's a funny but true account of discipline problems in American schools during the colonial period. Few people know, for another thing, that in 1669 the children of London petitioned Parliament to protect them from being whipped in schools. They still lack that protection to this day."

The U.S. Supreme Court sanctioned the use of corporal punishment in schools on two separate occasions during the last decade. Still, many parents say that the Court's decision in 1975 to extend due process rights to students facing disciplinary hearings has bullied educators into allowing students to do as they please in classrooms.

'Time-Honored Values'

"There's a theory floating about among the public that teachers let kids get away with murder in the 60's and 70's," Mr. Hyman says. "That argument is a red herring. I've been an educator since 1957 and I know firsthand that teachers, for the most part, reflect conservative, time-honored values. A few schools adopted what could be called a disproportionate level of progressive, or liberal, attitudes toward discipline at that time, but I challenge anyone to show me that a majority of American high schools were like that."

According to Hayes Mizell, director of the Southeastern Public Education Program, it is more likely today that student behavior will be out of step with the expectations of school administrators than was the case 20 years ago. But the schools, he adds, have failed to adapt to those changes among students.

"Schools have remained a middle-class institution, but fewer children in public schools today come from the middle class," Mr. Mizell says. "It used to be that children with different culture orientations, those who didn't meet the schools' standards, could be pushed out more easily."

Furthermore, he says, today's schoolchildren have a sense of options that were not available to their parents.

"When I was young there was no such thing as 'youth market,' there was no one trying to tell me that, because of my buying power, I was important," Mr. Mizell explains. "Also, there's a sense of mobility among children that wasn't there before. Today runaways aren't unusual, but in my day it was scandalous. Kids know that they can choose to pick up

and leave if they don't like things."

And today, he adds, "there is a greater sense of control among children over their own bodies. They're more conscious of the choices open to them regarding sexuality, drinking, and drug use.

"All told," he concludes, "it adds up to a sense of power, choice, and sophistication among children that wasn't there before. But, when they walk into their schools, they're still expected to leave all that new-found knowledge at the door and do as they're told."

Answers to some of the questions about the scope of student misbehavior in the nation's schools and its underlying causes may be forthcoming in a new report, scheduled for release early next year, by the National Center for Education Statistics (nces).

The study, titled Discipline and Order in High Schools, will attempt to provide "an overview of the extent of discipline problems in high schools and the type of children most3prone to those kinds of behaviors," according to Thomas A. DiPrete, the University of Chicago sociologist who has overseen the project.

Several of Mr. DiPrete's colleagues at the University of Chicago released another study recently indicating that "problem behavior" among children may be more predictable at an earlier age than had been previously believed. (See related story on page 7.)

Students Rate Discipline

According to an nces study published earlier this year, most high-school students share some of the concerns of their parents, teachers, and school administrators about proper school behavior. The report, A Capsule Description of High School Students, found that less than half of all high-school graduates in 1980 rated their schools as "good" or "excellent" in terms of the effectiveness (47 percent) and fairness (39 percent) of discipline.

According to Mr. Hyman, resolu6tion of the public schools' "discipline problem" will only come about when students are convinced that the rules they must conform to are reanable and just.

"Clearly, schools have an important role in the socialization of children," he says. "Society needs lawd order. But schools fail to teach children to participate in making those laws. We only teach them to accept punishment and to punish others in return. What we have to do is teach children to participate in rulemaking, and to accept and follow those rules as well.

'Concept of Punishment'

"I think it's interesting," Mr. Hyman notes, "that the term 'discipline' has its roots in the Latin term disciplina which refers to learning and teaching, and that it's closely related to the word 'disciple.' But somehow we've managed to turn that meaning around to involve the concept of punishment.

"I think we should teach kids to question the things that they are taught, to seek out possible alternatives," he adds. "The high school should be a bastion of democracy, but all too often it's only a place where children learn that might makes right."

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