Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

Why Is School Discipline Considered a Trivial Issue?

By Jean Johnson — June 23, 2004 7 min read
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We are supposed to be raising academic standards. Isn't finding effective ways to help children develop maturity and self-control worthy of analysis at the highest level?

Once again, new research has captured the anguish of teachers and parents over lack of discipline, cooperation, and respect in America’s classrooms. The news in Public Agenda’s recently released study “Teaching Interrupted” is hardly a surprise. Surveys have picked up public concerns about student behavior for years. Unless you believe that parents, teachers, and students nationwide routinely lie on survey after survey, the problem is nearly indisputable.

In this latest study, nearly seven in 10 middle and high school teachers say their own schools have serious problems with students who disrupt classes. Even more say their schools have persistent troublemakers who should be removed from regular schooling. Parents worry that the education of the majority suffers because of a misbehaving few. Surveys of high school students provide the dispiriting details. Large majorities say they often hear cursing in the hallways at their schools. More than a third say there’s a serious fight at least once a month. Barely one in five says most classmates treat teachers with respect.

Topping it off, teachers face litigation-tinged attitudes of contempt and second-guessing. Nearly eight in 10 say students are quick to remind them that they have rights and their parents can sue. Nearly half say that a parent has accused them of unfairly disciplining a child.

Yet it is here, in this unsettling milieu, that we expect teachers to teach to high standards and youngsters to obtain world-class academic skills. It is here that we expect students to absorb the habits of citizenship, cooperation, and empathy needed for a democratic, fair-minded, compassionate society. Would we expect a business to thrive in these circumstances? Could most of us do our jobs in the midst of distractions like these?

To be fair, schools have addressed outright dangers like drugs and guns. After Columbine and similar tragedies, school leaders quickly crafted policies to minimize the most devastating dangers to children. More than eight in 10 middle and high school teachers report that their schools have no-nonsense policies to deal with drugs and guns. In what some may see as a Pyrrhic victory, more than half of teachers say there is an armed police officer in their schools.

Getting far less attention and, I believe, taking a genuine toll on American education, are more mundane matters. In the new research, teachers complain about student lateness, cheating, insolence, and bullying. “It just amazes me,” said one New Jersey teacher we interviewed. “The gum chewing ... the yawning aloud or putting their feet up on the desk. [It’s] like they didn’t know that was inappropriate.” A Florida teacher said many of her students are well-behaved, but that a few repeatedly cause trouble: “It’s a low number ... but the effect is disproportionate. You can have one kid blow up a whole class.” Another teacher pointed to “students that just terrorize other students, and we can’t get rid of them, and they know this.” Another admitted: “Instruction becomes—I don’t want to say the minimal piece, but often it does become that.”

And there’s the rub. For teachers, discipline problems are not a minor irritation. They have consequences. An astonishing 97 percent of teachers—as high a number as I have ever seen in polling—say good student discipline is a prerequisite for a successful school. Nearly eight in 10 say they could teach more effectively if they didn’t have to spend so much time dealing with disruptive students. More than four in 10 say they spend more time keeping order in the classroom than teaching.

Given these numbers, I have often wondered why education’s top echelons don’t invest more time and energy understanding why discipline problems arise, which policies work best, and what schools, teachers, parents, and others need to do to improve the situation. Leaders in academia, business, government, and foundations have invested money and formed task forces to address other important topics. In fact, it’s easy to lose track of the dozens of reports, evaluations, and symposia devoted to standards, teacher quality, testing, school choice, school leadership, bilingual education, special education, reading instruction, and school finance. Yet discipline seems to be the ugly duckling of high-level education debate.

I am not sure why the problem doesn’t rise higher on the national education agenda, but the comments I get when I present Public Agenda research to leadership groups offer some clues.

Some top educators seem concerned that “more discipline” means a lurch backward to soul-crushing schools where children cower before adults and silence is the rule. But that’s not what teachers and parents have in mind. Both say that sparking a child’s curiosity and engendering a love of learning are absolutely essential elements of good schooling. For teachers and parents, better discipline simply means a little more order, fewer disruptions, more student cooperation and student effort, and perhaps a little more courtesy all round. It doesn’t seem too much to ask.

Others worry that the focus on repeat school troublemakers means that Americans are ready to abandon these youngsters as lost causes. This is an important concern, but it’s not the message we get from opinion research. Most Americans believe that nearly all youngsters can be helped, even if they have veered seriously off course as teenagers. Three-quarters say that given enough adult attention, just about all kids can learn and succeed in school. Only a handful believe most troubled teenagers “are beyond the point where they can be helped.”

It’s odd that student discipline isn’t considered a vital, intellectually challenging subject. Isn’t the fact that teachers say they are losing significant teaching time a major problem?

Some complain that teachers and parents aren’t shouldering their share of the blame. Shifting blame is a common human phenomenon, and teachers and parents are as capable of it as anyone else. But our research suggests a more subtle picture. Most teachers admit newer colleagues aren’t prepared to handle rambunctious classrooms; over half say teachers are sometimes soft on discipline for fear they won’t get support. Parents are also surprisingly willing to acknowledge limitations. Just a third say they have succeeded in teaching their own children self-control and self-discipline. Just half claim success teaching their children to do their best in school.

Another concern is that teachers and parents, for all their complaints, aren’t willing to follow through with tough choices. It’s not an unreasonable concern. Americans complain about the federal deficit, for example, but reject most realistic solutions. But on this issue, healthy majorities of parents and teachers are open to a wide range of ideas. Enforcing small rules to alter school climate—the so-called “broken windows” approach—gets a thumbs-up, as do special schools and programs for troubled kids, holding parents more accountable, improving teacher preparation, and reducing incentives for parents to sue. And these are just “for instances.” The real message is that teachers and parents are open to all sorts of approaches.

There are of course some who don’t consider student discipline a significant issue in its own right. Most professors of education (61 percent) say that teachers who encounter discipline problems are just failing to make lessons sufficiently engaging. Not surprisingly, given their analysis, the professors give the issue a lower priority. While more than eight in 10 say it is absolutely essential for teachers to be lifelong learners, barely four in 10 place handling discipline in the classroom in the “absolutely essential” category.

To me, it’s odd that student discipline isn’t considered a vital, intellectually challenging subject. Isn’t the fact that teachers say they are losing significant teaching time a major problem? We are supposed to be raising academic standards. Isn’t finding effective ways to help children develop maturity and self-control worthy of analysis at the highest level? Most parents would certainly like some tips. Isn’t finding better ways to help youngsters who don’t thrive in traditional settings an intellectual priority of the first order?

The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews, who wrote an article about the “Teaching Interrupted” report, had the good grace to admit that he himself couldn’t handle the discipline problems teachers often face. I wonder how many top researchers, policymakers, and opinion leaders in education could. But all are capable of taking the issue more seriously. They could invest more significant research, analysis, and deliberation on the problem. It’s not a trivial issue. It is hurting our children and our schools.

Jean Johnson is a senior vice president and the director of programs at the nonprofit research group Public Agenda, in New York City.

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