Education Opinion

Tough Love: Can Discipline Be Leveraged to Help Students Learn?

By Ilana Garon — January 07, 2014 3 min read
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In a smart little article that appeared in the Washington Post three days ago, Natalie Wexler, the blog editor of Greater Greater Education (which focuses on education issues in Washington, D.C.), proposes three over-arching solutions to issues in D.C. schools, which could be broadly applied to most struggling school districts: (1) Better teacher preparation, (2) Discipline that allows students to learn, and (3) Making sure students analyze and absorb information. While--like one of the top commenters on the article itself, who also comments on my blog--I’d recommend a 4th item, namely more early-intervention strategies to close the “word gap” that creates a compounded effect of low literacy skills that continually impede academic performance, I generally thought these were all good suggestions. The suggestion I wanted to talk about, however, is the second one.

I’ve written in this blog (controversially) about the need for more discipline in schools. Particularly in the high school in which I teach, where two or three “ringleaders” can sometimes cause disruptions that get the entire class of thirty-four students off track, discipline is a chronic problem. Students regularly curse in classrooms and in the hallways, and engage in generally disrespectful behavior--particularly towards their teachers. Such behavior towards students can result in suspensions for fighting or for bullying, whereas towards teachers, there is seemingly no recourse: A “ladder of referral” requires so many phone calls home to parents, meetings with guidance counselors, write-ups, and conferences that by the time any consequences take place they tend to seem divorced from the incident that precipitated them. Suspension, once the student’s infractions have gone up the ladder of referral, seems to be the only “scary” enough punishment to serve as a disincentive to further misbehavior--and as Wexler points out in her article, while this can be useful for removing disruptive students so that others can learn, there is still the problem of educating these youngsters when they are removed (sometimes consistently) from class.

A few years ago, detention existed in our school: During the last period of the day, one of the security aides would come around the classes to collect one by one the students who had earned detention, a process the kids amusingly referred to as “getting on the bus.” These students would then stay after school to help with tasks like cleaning desks, putting away books in the book closet, or sometimes merely sitting in a classroom doing their homework. They hated detention, which upped its efficacy as a deterrent (at least in my view) because they actually were concerned about receiving it. Since detention required you to stay after school, it which meant they had to go to class, and then give up their social plans.

However, detention was expensive to staff, all schools lost their budgets for security aides, and it was difficult to force students to stay after school; as a result, it fell to the wayside. Now, only the “ladder of referrals” and suspensions exist at all. Ideally, I’d want to reinstate detention; Wexler also suggests smaller classes for students with discipline problems, and tutoring and counseling services to address their needs--both great initiatives to implement that would nip at least some problem behaviors in the bud.

One of the frustrating things about the lack of productive discipline options is that the students themselves see a lack of accountability. More often than not, students who transfer to Catholic schools will say things like, “Catholic school will keep me focused--you can’t get away with anything,” or “Miss, they have to show up on time and wear dress code--you get punished if you don’t, and they actually enforce it!” While certainly an overly draconian approach would not be positive for school children, if even the students believe there is a lack of discipline, to me that speaks to a problem.

I’m curious what other forms of productive discipline could be available to schools (particularly at the high school level), and I wonder if readers might weigh in with suggestions in the comments section below. Ideally, such disciplinary initiatives would not serve only to remove disruptive students, but also serve as deterrents for bad behavior, nip problematic actions in the bud, and perhaps improve the chronic low-level misbehaviors that--at least in my experience--plague inner-city classrooms. Looking forward to the comments.

The opinions expressed in View From the Bronx: An Urban Teacher’s Perspective are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.