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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School Climate & Safety Opinion

Should Classroom Discipline Be Based in ‘Restorative Justice’?

The controversial approach may be more appealing in theory than it is in practice
By Rick Hess — December 04, 2023 9 min read
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In “Straight Talk with Rick and Jal,” Harvard University’s Jal Mehta and I examine some of the reforms and enthusiasms that permeate education. In a field full of buzzwords and jargon, our goal is simple: Tell the truth, in plain English, about what’s being proposed and what it might mean for students, teachers, and parents. We may be wrong and will frequently disagree, but we’ll try to be candid and ensure that you don’t need a Ph.D. in eduspeak to understand us.

Today’s topic is restorative justice.


Jal: As with many of the things we discuss here, restorative justice is an idea that is admirable in theory but difficult to pull off in practice, in particular because it is so misaligned with much of how we do everything else in schools.

The central notion is that our approach to discipline is frequently misguided. One student breaks the rules, or in some way harms another student, and we punish the offender, often by sending them to the principal’s office or, in more serious cases, by suspending them from school. The result is that the offending student has very little opportunity to reflect on why what they did was wrong, and they miss more school, which creates additional academic problems. Some schools become discipline mills, where the same students are suspended over and over, with little chance of escaping this downward spiral. Relatedly, as has been covered extensively in the media over the past few years, the rates at which students of color are disciplined and suspended are significantly higher than those for white students, even if we control for other variables that are likely to affect the process.

Restorative justice posits a different approach. The idea here is that when an offense has been committed, students and an adult will come together to talk about the issue. Using a structured protocol, the offender will generally get to hear about what sort of harm they caused and offer some amends, and then the community gets to decide together how to move forward. The idea is to create a space of healing by repairing the harm, as well as to try to end the endless cycle of discipline and punishment.

The challenge is that the ethos of such a circle is so different from what prevails in most schools most of the time. My colleague Sarah Fine’s dissertation found that in the school she studied, students were bewildered by the efforts to do restorative justice because it was such a departure from the adult-centered “do as you’re told” ethos that characterized the rest of the school day. Adults similarly struggled to make these shifts, as they were required to share power and invest in deep relationships. Thus, I think that restorative justice is essentially an approach toward discipline for the school system we want to have, not the one we actually live in.

Discipline is often an issue that divides conservatives and liberals. What do you think, Rick?

Rick: It’s an important question. I think you’ve aptly captured the disjuncture between the good intentions of the restorative-justice advocates and the disappointing results their efforts have yielded. Where we disagree, I think, is how we interpret why that is. As I see it, the big problem is that restorative justice is aggressively, naively Rousseauian and ignores much of what we know about human behavior.

One kid insults, bullies, threatens, or assaults another. The solution? Get them together to reflect with an intensely concerned facilitator. To quote Tom Hanks’s 13-year-old character from “Big”: “I don’t get it.” It’s a nice sentiment. But, as a kid who spent plenty of time getting beat up and as an educator who’s seen a lot of approaches to discipline, I suspect it’s the kind of idea that usually works better in an earnest workshop than with real students.

Look, kids are still developing. They’re wired to test boundaries. That’s what they do. As a result, they benefit from norms, expectations, and predictability even more than grown-ups do. The core impulse behind restorative justice strikes me as willfully naïve.

I certainly don’t deny that restorative programs may work well in some settings, with highly trained staff, supportive families, and invested students. But, more broadly, I’m reminded of many other well-meaning social reforms that presume things will work swell if those uptight traditionalists would just back off. The results consistently disappoint. Efforts to curtail policing and border enforcement, for instance, haven’t yielded the hoped-for benefits. Instead, they’ve fueled explosions in crime and illegal immigration. It’s quite the stretch to imagine that reducing consequences for misbehavior wouldn’t lead to more misbehavior.

Worse, intentionally or no, my experience is that many programs billed as “restorative” ultimately seem to hold that traditional notions of “good behavior” reflect an outdated, oppressive construct. While some enthusiasts insist that theirs is just a better way to teach those traditional norms, vocal voices in the restorative-justice community tend to unapologetically blame misbehavior more on “problematic” societal structures than on bad choices, suggesting that they don’t ultimately accept the notion of personal agency—or that wrongdoers should be held personally responsible for their misbehavior.

Well, that’s my initial take. Aren’t you glad you asked? Looking forward to your response. Because I’m counting on you to alleviate some of my qualms.

Jal: I think you are going way up the ladder of inference. Just because we put kids in a circle to discuss misbehavior doesn’t mean that we’ve bought into a world with no rules or consequences.

I do think it is interesting to note that the more affluent the school is, the more students are treated with respect for their capabilities and intentions. For example, a recent comparative study showed that in a more affluent school, students were assumed to have “indelible moral worth,” and “taking a break” was framed as an opportunity to regain focus. Conversely, in the working-class school, moral worth was “contingent”: Good behavior led to tickets and prizes, whereas bad behavior resulted in fines and the shredding of tickets. Yet again, we see how behaviorism reigns in higher poverty environments, whereas we treat more affluent students as capable actors who can reflect on their behaviors and redirect themselves over time. What is promising about restorative justice is that it extends a more respectful way of thinking and behaving to all students, including the higher poverty and students of color who traditionally have not been afforded such respect.

At the same time, restorative justice asks more of teachers and other adults than traditional modes of discipline. Everyone knows how to send a kid to the principal’s office; not everyone knows how to run a restorative circle. The result is the kind of thing we almost always see in the first wave of studies of a reform: a conflicting blizzard of results, with some studies showing significant benefits and others suggesting negative unintended consequences. The implication, as is almost always the case, is that we should go slow, that people doing complex things need opportunities to learn and reflect in the company of others who already know how to do these things, and that moving too fast without building underlying skills will lead to poor quality, which in turn will spark backlash.

In the long run, though, restorative justice may be here to stay. David Cohen and I wrote a paper about “why reforms sometimes succeed,“ in which we identified a few features of reforms that have been sustained and institutionalized: They solve a problem that teachers have rather than a problem reformers wished teachers thought they have, they are aligned with prevailing local values, they have a political constituency that support them, and teachers either already know how to enact the reforms or are provided guidance so they can do so. Restorative justice checks many of these boxes: Teachers want to run a classroom in ways that doesn’t involve constantly sending out or suspending kids, it is consistent with prevailing values in many districts, and there is political support for restorative justice. The missing piece is the guidance, infrastructure, or professional learning, which is why we see such uneven results. It’s also not likely to be popular in deeply red political communities, but that’s OK; if restorative justice spread in the places where it was aligned with its values, that would still be progress.

Rick: Well, that’s all reasonable. I’ve always thought that the Mehta-Cohen take is a smart one and that it’s sensibly applied here. It sounds to me like you’re talking about a calibrated response that acknowledges the humanity of students, addresses practical challenges for teachers, and eschews over-the-top discipline in favor of something more focused and purposeful.

I’m certainly on board with that. And I’ll add that I heartily endorse getting students to reflect on their behavior, take ownership of their actions, and communicate constructively. I don’t want any readers to think that I’m taking issue with any of that. My skepticism of restorative justice doesn’t mean I’m opposed to helping students communicate or to minimizing disruptive punishments. If that’s what we’re talking about, as ways to humanize schools and bolster safety, then I’m on board.

But, again, that’s not what I’ve often encountered under the gauzy label of “restorative justice.” Indeed, the biggest hurdle to making these practices work isn’t just the implementation and training issues that you flag but the fact that—in my experience—the more prominent proponents don’t actually seem all that interested in traditional norms, boundaries, or notions of personal responsibility. Instead, piled under mounds of eduspeak is a presumption that traditional norms are suspect, boundaries are outdated, and personal responsibility is a matter of “blaming the victim.”

When that’s the case, I expect that implementation will inevitably be a mess. And I think that’s pretty much what we’ve seen. We could quarrel about how to interpret the (very) mixed evidence, but we’ve certainly seen plenty of data suggesting that students and teachers not infrequently report that schools that adopt “restorative” practices feel less safe and more chaotic.

So, where do we wind up? Well, we’re on the same page to the extent that we think some restorative-justice practices, diligently applied, may be useful—as long as it’s in the service of setting boundaries, establishing norms, keeping schools safe and orderly, and establishing caring cultures. To the extent, however, that “restorative justice” serves as shorthand for more ideological efforts to replace reality-grounded notions of agency and order with Rousseauian fever dreams, then I don’t think all the guidance or professional learning in the world will suffice.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.


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