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Q&A: Discipline Codes Must Foster Balance of Order, Autonomy

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SCHOOL DISCIPLINE: Order and Autonomy, by Ellen Jane Hollingsworth, Henry S. Lufler Jr., and William H. Clune 3d, will be published early this year by Praeger Publishers.

Following a three-year study of discipline problems in schools, the authors wrote SCHOOL DISCIPLINE as a guide to administrators and teachers in developing successful discipline policies.

Ms. Hollingsworth is the author of several books, including Dimensions of American Cities: Toward the Integration of History and Social Science, and is a former project associate of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Mr. Clune, professor of law at the University of Wisconsin Law School, teaches education law, among other subjects.

Mr. Lufler, who is assistant dean of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin, directed much of the research upon which SCHOOL DISCIPLINE is based.

Last month, Mr. Lufler spoke with Staff Writer Cindy Currence about his research and the book's recommendations for ameliorating school-discipline problems.

Q:You contend in your book that school administrators must examine their particular discipline problems and develop a system that provides an appropriate balance between "order and autonomy." Could you explain what that means?

A:What we are saying in the book is that schools have the opportunity to consider, although most schools do not consider, how much order they want in the school and how much student autonomy. By order, I mean the regime of formal rules, the extent to which punishments are used, and so forth. By autonomy, I mean the opportunity for students not only to choose their own courses but to be relatively free of minor school rules.

Administrators have a choice of how much of those two items they wish to have within the school. I suppose a free school, in the classic sense, would be one in which there is the greatest amount of autonomy. Most public schools tilt in one direction or the other, usually based on the personality and the philosophy of the principal.

Q:What can administrators and teachers do to find a balance that meets the needs of their school?

A:The first step would be to have the sorts of discussions that would elevate this issue to one of public awareness. Right now, schools function without those discussions, generally speaking, so long as they are "getting by" with the system that they have. Discipline and the rule structure is not something that is an item for discussion at the start of each school year. The school also ought to discuss the general enforcement of its school rules: "What are we going to do when certain types of misbehavior occur?" "What is going to be the response?" ''How do we have a response to certain basic problems that fits what the courts tell us we can do, and that fits what common sense tells us we ought to be doing?"

Q:Having a discussion about discipline seems like a simple enough first step, yet your research suggests that few schools include that in developing a discipline program. Why is that?

A:Both teachers and administrators have different, often unstated, ideas about discipline. Part of the difficulty that schools have in confronting the issue is that there are some rather sharply held differences among school personnel with regard to how much discipline is necessary, either in the classroom or in the corridors or in the general running of the school. And because these differences are basic philosophical differences, as well as pedagogic differences, schools seldom discuss discipline from the perspective of, "How much order do we need in this school?"

I think school officials don't like to discuss issues that are going to be divisive within the school--and sitting down at the teachers' meeting and talking about what the rules ought to be and how they ought to be enforced can be very divisive.

Q:Aside from those philosophical differences, are there other factors that make an examination of school discipline problematic?

A:Yes, that kind of discussion also comes up against a number of other sociological norms that are in the school. For example, the idea that teachers ought to be given almost total latitude in their classroom. When you start talking about how teachers should respond to certain misbehaviors in the classroom, you're beginning to get inside their classrooms, telling them what they can and can't do.

And there is a great deal of resistance in general to discussions of discipline in the school. To focus on the subject may make a principal look like he or she does not know how to discipline within the school, so there is a premium placed on not having those kinds of discussions.

Q:After studying various discipline systems, which did you and your co-authors find to be the most effective?

A:From our perspective, we see the most effective school-discipline systems as those where discussion has taken place about the rules that are needed, presumably involving not only school personnel, but also students and their parents, and the school board, and then following that, development of a generally agreed upon school regime or school-rule structure that can be applied evenly across the system. From our point of view, that school-disciplinary regime ought to be just the number of rules that maintain the order necessary for the school to function. It is undesirable to have a lot of unnecessary school rules.

Q:Why is it so important to have that across-the-board agreement about what the rules are and how they are going to be enforced?

A:I guess an analogy outside of the schools would be a society in which there is no agreement on what the laws ought to be and therefore wildly different enforcement patterns of different laws depending on which police department you are working with and so forth. For that society to turn to economic-productivity questions, or whatever its long-range goals are, while it is in chaos, would be very difficult.

But if there's agreement on the laws and how they are going to be enforced, and then there's an even application of those laws, that creates a situation in which it is possible for the society to turn to whatever else it is trying to maximize. And that analogy carries over into the schools. Once you have agreement on the rules and how they're going to be enforced, then the school can turn to the other important questions.

Q:What do you think is the most common mistake that administrators and teachers make in disciplining students?

A:The most common mistake made is the failure to have an even and fair enforcement of school rules. For example, we found teachers excusing the misbehavior of students whom they considered to be college-bound, while students they did not see as being college-bound were punished more frequently.

And, of course, those students perceived that unfairness; they perceived that they were subjected to punishments when other students were not. That created further resentment against the school and further misbehavior--we have some evidence in the book that teachers who were most unfair in the students' eyes tended to be the ones that were most subjected to vandalism of their own property.

Q:Is that what you mean when you talk about "slippage" in the system, that enforcements aren't applied in a fair way?

A:Yes. You have some teachers proceeding on the assumption that a great deal of discipline is needed both in the classroom and in the corridors, and you have some teachers who are operating on the assumption that you don't need that much. So some teachers enforce certain rules, other teachers do not enforce those same rules, and that leads to an uneven disciplinary regime where different amounts of order and autonomy are maximized by staff based on their personal feelings. As a consequence, the acts that students might commit, either in a classroom or outside the classroom within the school, are either punished or not, depending on the philosophy of the teacher who observes the event.

Q:Are you suggesting then that many school-discipline "problems" are internal?

A:While teachers often say that the discipline problems are the result of poor homes or unhappiness in the larger society, we attribute most discipline problems to in-school factors.

We found that there are some teachers who never have discipline problems in their classroom. And there are some teachers who provide for the principal the greatest number of office referrals and general discipline problems.

When we asked students who frequently broke school rules if they acted out in all of their classes, they said no."I break rules in three of my classes, but not in the other two." And we would ask them, "Well, why don't you break rules or cause trouble in the other two?" And they would tell us it was because of the strength and personality of the teacher in that classroom. In other words, there are some classes in which these troublemakers do not cause trouble, and it seems to be unrelated to the physical stature of the teacher or some of those other variables that you might think would be important.

So we conclude from that, and from some survey data which we develop in the book, that there are simply some teachers who have "magic" with students--that the students really respect that teacher and are getting a lot out of those classes.

Clearly, classes in which students are learning are not the classes where discipline problems take place.

Q:Could your finding that most discipline problems are internal be considered "positive"?

A:I think it's positive, because once you know where the problems are coming from you can then take steps to solve those problems. Schools have at their disposal the means to reduce the number of rules that are broken simply by making the discipline system itself more fair. Some of the misbehavior of students and some of the vandalism schools may experience are directly attributable to the perceived unfairness of the way the school-rule system operates.

Q:What did students say could be done to make them stop breaking rules?

A:There was, in the eyes of the students, a need to make the courses that they were being asked to take relevant to their own lives. And what was relevant for the troublemaker was not what was relevant for students who were going on to college.

Q:How have court rulings affected school discipline in the last decade?

A:Courts have increased the insecurity of teachers as they deal with the average discipline problems that take place within the school. And it's not so much the substance of the court decisions, which if you read them and analyze them, haven't limited teachers very much at all. But it is rather the feeling the teachers get as they read about court decisions in distant places and try to understand the impact of those court decisions.

School law is not something which is built adequately into teacher-preparation curricula at colleges of education. A regular updating of teachers in school law also is not something that takes place adequately. So teachers have a lot of misperceptions and misunderstanding about what the courts said with regard to their treatment of public-school pupils.

As we surveyed the teachers, we found a great deal of misunderstanding about what the courts have said, and an overwhelming pattern of overestimating the extent to which courts have told teachers what they can and can't do within the classroom. A few basic decisions in the area of school discipline, like suspension hearings before students are suspended from school, in teachers' minds have been viewed as permitting students to have lawyers when they are about to be suspended from school.

So there's this pattern of exaggeration. What that has done is cause a lot of teachers to get out of the business of disciplining students. To a certain extent, courts have become alibis, used by teachers who don't wish to discipline students.

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