Education Commentary

Oversimplifying the Discipline Problem

By Irwin A. Hyman & John D'Alessandro — April 11, 1984 9 min read

We oppose the President’s position on three grounds. First, the good old days were far from ideal. Second, the President has based his position and speeches on a report, prepared for the Cabinet Council on Human Resources, that erroneously concluded that school crime and disruption have increased dramatically in recent years. Finally, excessively punitive methods are currently used in many American schools, so now is not the time to start talking about a return to “old-fashioned” discipline.

Because very little school-crime data were systematically collected before 1960, researchers conducting a historical examination of the discipline problem must rely on anecdotal material. The researchers Joan and Graeme Newman, after an extensive review of available information, characterized 19th-century schools as “wild and unruly places.” In 1843, Horace Mann described contemporary schools as full of “idleness and disorder ... excepting in cases where the debasing motive of fear puts children in irons.” Violence toward students by teachers was pervasive. A favorite pedagogical adage of the early 1800’s was: “A boy has a back, when you hit it he understands.” Lest we believe that only the students suffered, another writer reports that colonial newspapers carried numerous advertisements offering rewards for “runaway teachers.” The point is that American schools have always suffered a “crisis of discipline.” In fact, our schools are less violent today than they were in the 19th century--at least for students.

In their rush to conclude that the school-discipline issue should be at the forefront of national education policy, authors of the Administration’s discipline report committed two serious errors.

First, they ignored the complexity of the school-discipline issue. For example, the 35-page report fails even to mention one of the few consistent findings regarding school crime: its strong correlation with neighborhood crime. School crime does not occur in a vacuum. Several studies have shown that the more crime, unemployment, and violence is found in a school’s neighborhood, the more likely its teachers and students are to be victims of violence. The report also neglects the relationship between school problems and school size. For example, one study indicates that violence against teachers increases from 200 to 300 percent when a secondary school enrolls more than 900 students.

Oversimplification about the discipline problem is dangerous because it may lead to simple solutions to complex problems. No single approach will solve all problems in all school districts. Applying good old-fashioned discipline in all contexts is like the March Hare’s attempt to fix the Mad Hatter’s watch with butter--it’s a simple remedy to a complex mechanism.

We also dispute the report’s interpretation of the data it examined (chiefly, the report relied on the National Institute of Education’s “Violent Schools, Safe Schools” study of 1977, and yearly polls conducted by the National Education Association). For example, the report adduces from the NEA teacher’s poll “proof” that violence against teachers increased 53 percent from 1977 to 1983. This conclusion, however, is not supported by other researchers. Oliver Moles, a discipline researcher at the NIE, analyzed the NEA polls along with data from the National Crime Surveys that are conducted yearly by the U.S. Justice Department. He concluded that the figures “contradict the notion of a progressive worsening of the school-crime problem. What increases there were came some time ago.” Why the difference in opinion between Mr. Moles and the report? Mainly because the questions in the NEA’s poll had changed, first in 1979, then again in 1980. Generally, the NEA at that time began asking teachers--in addition to whether they themselves had been victims of some type of violence--if they knew of any teachers who had been victims. This change served to give an apparent increase in the number of teachers who had experienced school violence.

Comparisons are further complicated by the vagueness of offense classification. For example, in an analysis of 40 reported assaults on teachers, we found that few met the legal criteria for assault and battery. The offenses ranged from the serious to the trivial (in one case, students threw candy at a teacher, and that was considered assault). Yet, all were labeled assaults. The lack of a uniform reporting system precludes clear and easy comparisons of offense rates over time.

Most school-discipline researchers believe that school-violence rates have actually stabilized or improved since the early 1970’s. However, they have also concluded that a significant problem still exists. We agree. But we strongly dispute the President’s proposed remedy--promoting punitive methods and supporting legal cases that would increase the authority of teachers and administrators at the expense of students’ rights.

Contrary to Mr. Reagan’s public pronouncement, good old-fashioned discipline is alive and well in American schools. Millions of children each year are suspended, expelled, and punished physically. Documented cases show that schoolchildren are being beaten, pushed, kicked, paddled, punched, and stomped. They have been forced to eat noxious substances, such as cigarettes and Tabasco sauce. Students have been stuck with pins, and they have been locked in closets, vaults, and boxes. One principal in Chicago used a pocketknife to drill a hole in a pupil’s fingernail.

The number of school suspensions and expulsions is a national disgrace. Frequent suspensions often lead to dropouts and “pushouts” (students who are subtly made to leave school). According to the U.S. Education Department, 72.8 percent of the students who began high school graduated in 1982, compared to 77.2 percent in 1972. In some inner-city schools, the situation is worse. In New Jersey, for example, some high schools lose almost half of their students by senior year--most of them dropouts or pushouts.

Even more disgraceful is the excessive use of suspensions against minorities. A 1982 survey of 56 schools found that 31 percent of black males had been suspended at least once in the past term--this is more than double the rate for whites. Yet the Administration would like to relax due-process rules to make suspensions and expulsions easier. A principal who expelled more than 10 percent of his school in his first week on the job is offered as a role model by the Administration’s discipline report.

In contrast to the report, we believe student misbehavior must be viewed as a complex problem. Consequently, prevention and appropriate action require thoughtful consideration. There are several causes of and solutions to school-discipline problems that a comprehensive policy should embrace:

The organization of contemporary society, the rapid pace of change, and the disruption of traditional child-rearing methods all contribute to school-discipline problems. Economic stress further undermines family stability. Abused children and the children of criminal offenders, alcoholics, or drug addicts are much more likely to perform poorly in school and to disrupt the educational process. Violence on television and high youth unemployment worsen the situation. We need more day care and early intervention for these “high-risk” children. We also need more community recreation and volunteer and work opportunities for teen-agers.

Ineffective teacher training causes many classroom disruptions that could either be avoided or handled adequately. In an investigation for the NIE, the staff at the National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives in the School has reviewed much of the literature on teacher training. We have identified more than 30 studies of effective discipline-training programs. Yet, most teachers have had no formal training in discipline at the preservice level. Training should be offered over an extended period to allow teachers to integrate new techniques into their own styles. In a four-year project matching teachers with school-discipline models in a school in Trenton, N.J., we have found that helping teachers learn about themselves and their classroom behavior effectively reduces discipline problems.

School boards should be aware that the savings associated with consolidating schools may be offset by subsequent increases in security budgets, because larger schools tend to have more discipline problems.

Because students frequently regard suspensions as a vacation, these should be replaced with in-school suspensions. Unsuitable curricula should be revised in accordance with the students’ needs. Students who have given up on school and on themselves are without a stake in the system and are more likely to disrupt it.

Physical factors among students--such as untreated learning disabilities--can result in severe behavioral disorders. The correlation between learning problems and delinquency is well-established and strong. Poor self-esteem and frustration with learning make the behavioral problems worse. The needs of these youths justify remedial and preventive services.

Unnecessary punitiveness--especially corporal punishment--contributes to a climate of violence and fear in our schools. All districts and educators must act to eradicate it from American education. Given the recent trend to compare our schools with those of the rest of the world, it is interesting to note that corporal punishment has been banned in all of continental Europe, Japan, and the entire Communist bloc. America is among the few countries that inflict pain for purported educational ends.

A major problem in dealing with school disruption in America is our tendency to turn reflexively to punishment as a solution. In fact, most Americans consider “punishment” and “discipline” as synonymous. Extensive research indicates that the most effective disciplinary techniques are rooted in democratic concepts of fair play, justice, and concern for individual rights.

When necessary, punishment should be used rationally. Rules should be clear, their enforcement fair and consistent, and the punishment commensurate with the offense. When perceived as unfair or excessive, punishment may temporarily suppress undesired behavior. In the long run, however, it will more often increase hostility and create more problems.

Are there any people so far removed from their own school days that they cannot relate to the need for fairness in the schools? Is there anyone who, as a student, didn’t want to be treated justly? We guarantee that, with very few exceptions, every stu-dent in America has the same feelings.

The reader should recall what motivated him or her to learn. What comes to mind is the image of a just and caring teacher who inspired industry and trust. The teacher who frequently resorted to intimidation and humiliation still engenders in us a surge of animosity.

We deplore the return to “good, old-fashioned discipline.” Society will suffer when it must deal with the poorly educated “pushouts” and dropouts of a punitive educational system. Meanwhile, individual children will suffer emotional, even physical scars. Encouraging discipline that encompasses the use of physical pain, humiliation, denigration, and the exclusion of large numbers of children from adequate schooling would be more toxin than tonic.

A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 1984 edition of Education Week as Oversimplifying the Discipline Problem