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Waging a War on Incivility

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While Congress wrangles over President Clinton's proposed voluntary national testing plan in reading and mathematics, a far greater issue for K-12 education--pervasive school disruption--cries out for equal time in the national debate. The problems of abysmally poor school culture and its accompanying bad behavior daily undercut any attempt to address academic achievement. Many parents, corporate executives, educators, legislators, and students realize this. They express exasperation with an education system that seems incapable of educating all of those it serves.

The lack of civility in our schools--urban, suburban, and rural alike--continues to be the most pivotal reason for the country's lackluster educational performance. How can we assert the need to "set rigorous standards" when we ignore the main reason such standards are unachievable? The number of classroom disruptions that interfere with teaching and the number of threats and injuries to teachers and students grow exponentially. Like a common thief, they are stealing the learning potential of our students.

That pervasive disrespectful behavior is such a powerful obstacle to learning is frequently unacknowledged and unaddressed by public school administrators and local boards of education. Yet teachers complain that they often are able to teach only two-thirds of course content because of the inordinate time spent managing behavior in the classroom. Successful students in many schools feel that their hard-earned accomplishments come in spite of the rampant bad behavior of peers, evidenced daily in classrooms, auditoriums, gymnasiums, and school corridors.

Educators have to focus on returning self-discipline and civility to every schoolhouse if solid teaching and high academic achievement are to become standard fare.

Student disruption is a product of school culture, that philosophical foundation of norms and beliefs, both academic and social, that informs every aspect of a school's daily operation. An appropriate school culture is at the heart of every successful school, and there are many dotting the educational landscape. But these schools differ from the many because their school climate is based firmly on a high regard for achievement. Successful schools emphasize goals, expectations, and the "4 R's", including respect, and they are perceived by those who attend and work in them as places of learning, warmth, caring, and accomplishment. The culture of success in these schools is infectious, and teachers project it. Students know that they can and are expected to achieve mastery of instructional objectives.

When the policies governing behavior are weak or inconsistently enforced, the mission of schooling becomes amorphous, and sensible expectations are eroded. The culture in these schools is ruled by a kind of silent chaos, and a laundry list of behavior problems emerges--the "dissing" of peers and adults, pushing, fighting, alcohol and drug activity, lateness to class, inappropriate sexual displays, truancy, indifference to class participation, disregard for proper dress, vulgar language--often with no corrective behavior or consequences. It is as though such schools are waiting until youngsters are at the edge of the cliff to act. The wake-up call, for too many officials, is a tragedy that might have been averted.

Though many educators still find it hard to acknowledge the degree to which a poor school culture and repeated bad behavior--in and out of the classroom--impede the process of teaching and learning, those who do are finding the following suggestions--along with a healthy dose of intestinal fortitude--helpful in attacking the problem:

  • Insist on clear and consistent disciplinary procedures that revolve around four principles that support instruction and enhance success for every child: "zero tolerance" of disruptive behavior; evenhandedness in discipline, without regard to race, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic background; recognition that discipline is a kindness, contributing to personal growth and freedom; and refocusing the mission of schools on teaching youngsters to read, to compute, to write, to speak, and to think critically.
  • Review local and state statutes and school system policies that provide the means to curb menacing behavior on school grounds, such as alcohol and drug activity, use of portable pagers and other electronic devices, fighting, trespassing, verbal and physical assaults, and truancy. Strictly enforce these policies, as their salutary effect on school climate is contingent on the degree to which school officials employ them consistently.
  • Encourage parental involvement via use of "parent contracts" acknowledging their full responsibility for their children. Foster substantive collaborative efforts among staff members, parents, and students that could provide parent training and enhance their active involvement.
  • Invite students to be part of the solution to troubled schools by eliciting their input. Acquaint students and staff with conflict-resolution and peer-counseling programs that enhance the school's culture by cultivating a climate of respect for the rights of each individual.
  • Implement a comprehensive K-12 identification program that targets students needing academic and behavioral assistance, including alternative education programs based on reliable educational and psychological research.
  • Establish community-service activities for students on suspension, where they could, by helping others, develop and demonstrate an understanding of such traits as compassion, respect, humility, and responsibility.
  • Implement ongoing, comprehensive staff-development programs that center around academic excellence and include principles that promote quality in teaching and learning, assessment techniques, classroom management, discipline, and interpersonal skills.
  • Provide "timeout" rooms staffed by paraprofessionals and community-agency staff members to work temporarily with disruptive students.
  • Develop cooperative efforts with community agencies such as family and social services, health departments, and the police to better meet the needs of students and families.
  • Establish "transitional schools" for habitually disruptive students, where they would receive instruction, therapy, and counseling, holding these youngsters' families responsible for a portion of the cost of such placement (or requiring that they volunteer time to the schools, if their finances are strained), to defray the costs to taxpayers.
  • Establish after-school "auxiliary centers," with supervised open classrooms and gymnasiums for those students wishing additional academic assistance or participation in cultural and extracurricular activities.
  • Make character education a part of the school curriculum. Surely, the inculcation of such personal traits as honesty, courtesy, and responsibility is an educational goal that crosses every racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic divide.
  • Cooperating with local police agencies, consider the use of testing methods such as the Breathalyzer to curb rampant alcohol and drug use on school grounds. Civil liberties concerns on this practice stand in opposition to the argument that, in the same way that public policy prohibits use of alcohol or drugs on public school grounds, the schools, acting in loco parentis, must take all means to assure a safe and orderly environment. Schools that have ventured into this area cite support from both parents and students.
  • Employ retired military personnel, a superb resource of talent for the schools. Relax certification requirements for these individuals, many of whom have interests in administrative internships, working with errant youths, assisting in truancy programs, managing after-school detentions and Saturday school programs, coordinating student activities, tutoring, and other programs that help foster stability and achievement.

School systems with recurring patterns of disruption and violence of course should provide first-rate security in school buildings and on school grounds. And all schools and school systems should keep accurate data on the incidence of disruptive behavior, including assaults, drug and weapons possession, theft, arson, and vandalism. Legislative actions, such as a recently passed measure in Delaware aimed at helping schools and police work together to recognize and solve serious disciplinary problems, boost teacher and staff morale, while increasing parent and community satisfaction.

Many of these actions would cost taxpayers nothing. Others might require the close scrutiny of system budgets, with officials redlining extraneous programs that do not directly affect instruction and student achievement. The savings gained from cutting these nonessential programs, when combined with support from community-business partnerships and foundation grants, could be used to pay for timeout rooms, transitional schools, school-within-school programs, reading and literacy initiatives, and afternoon auxiliary centers, all of which would directly--and dramatically--impact student achievement.

America's schools and their communities must wage a war on incivility. Taking an aggressive stance on menacing behavior will provide a more nurturing environment for the vast majority of students, and will restore a school culture in which the sense of decorum combines with substantive, achievable standards to give hope for long-term payoffs: less interference in instruction, lower dropout rates, reduced reliance on costly social programs, and a better-educated workforce. America's parents, schoolchildren, and their teachers richly deserve our national and local attention to this matter.


C. Stephen Wallis is an administrator at a public high school in the Washington-Baltimore area and the co-founder of the proposed Business Preparatory Institute, a charter high school for urban youths that would be located in Washington. He is a co-author of Making America Safe, published last year by the Heritage Foundation.

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