Can harsh school discipline end The Achievement Plateau?
We can hold students accountable without punishing them.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. It’s a record we’ve held since 2002, and we show no signs of giving up the lead. Our great nation jails 639 of every 100,000 citizens, up from around 500 per 100,000 a decade ago.
That’s important context to remember when you read pieces like this one, from the Fordham Institute, on why “lax school discipline” is a terrible, awful, no good approach that’s creating unsafe schools and driving teachers out of the profession.
The author, Jeremy S. Adams, has taught civics in California for almost a quarter century. On the importance of teaching civics, we are aligned. While I think he makes some valid points about school discipline, he’s missing the bigger picture: our schools need not mirror a criminal justice system whose default is retributive justice — making offenders suffer in jail. Let me explain with some notable quotes from his piece.
Many teachers feel that they are being held hostage to an ideological experiment that harms them and their ability to teach, that harms innocent students who are trying to learn, and that in the end harms the very people it is meant to help by not holding them accountable for their actions.
This is probably accurate. But that’s often because we put the cart before the horse in education. We implemented new “Common Core Standards” by first launching high stakes tests without providing teachers training and resources. We’ve done the same with restorative justice. We changed the outcome measures — demanding a reduction in suspensions —without first changing practice at the school and classroom level with extensive training, development, and additional staff.
It is only in the peculiar world of modern education that teachers are told to purposefully turn a blind eye to behaviors and actions that would be unacceptable in any other setting.
Inaccurate. While I’m sure some administrators “turn a blind eye,” they are the exception. We shouldn’t turn a blind eye to poor behavior. When police decline to arrest violent offenders and school administrators allow students to repeatedly escape with just a verbal admonition, the message is that wrongdoings aren’t wrong — they’re tolerable. And that is, I believe, a bad message to send to the student body or population at large. And this isn’t the focus of restorative justice. Instead of punishing students, it aims to hold them accountable without suspending them.
Only in schools are we now told to “get curious, not furious” and where we recast “standing down” in the face of student misconduct not as a dereliction of duty on the part of teachers, not as tolerating the intolerable, but as acts of heroic compassion and sophisticated understanding.
Accurate. We should get “curious, not furious” at most transgressions. Making students suffer won’t fix their behavior. That approach simply does not produce the intended outcome of less crime. Consider that Philadelphia has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country — and its murder rate continues to rise. Incarceration/harsh retributive justice is a deterrent to some extent, but clearly not enough to create a civil society. Being curious about why students are behaving a certain way can lead to mental health support, special education services, and other “root-cause” treatments they deserve.
The breakdown of order, the absence of discipline, and the extinction of any concept of “tough love” is a brutal everyday reality for modern American educators.
Tough love is not extinct. I worked with many “tough love” teachers over the last six years, and they did it by building strong relationships with students, showing them they care about them as humans, and by holding high academic expectations. Not by indiscriminately berating them and kicking them out of class.
Certainly, within school, when abhorrent student behavior is tolerated, accommodated, and given endless indulgence, it proliferates.
Mostly accurate. Like I said, hen rules aren’t enforced, we encourage more misbehavior. This was certainly true at the school I led. Once students knew they’d be held accountable, we saw fewer egregious behaviors. Again, though, retributive justice isn’t the only means of accountability.
But our schools are not and cannot be cure-alls. They cannot make up for students’ unstable home lives, the drug addiction of parents, insufficient medical care, poor nutrition, poverty, or neighborhoods where violence and profanity are ubiquitous and trust is fleeting.
Accurate: they can’t be “cure-alls.” But they can be a part of the “drug cocktail” that builds a better society.
Adams also fails to acknowledge the systemic racial biases that retributive discipline perpetuates. Students of color are punished/suspended at higher rates that white students, even when they display similar levels of misbehavior. This disproportionality continues into our adult criminal justice system, where Black Americans receive longer sentences for similar crimes.
Suspensions have their place. Just like prisons do. Physical violence shouldn’t be tolerated in a civil society. But when we better meet the needs of our students and citizens, we create fewer reasons for poor behavior and crime. Still, it’s difficult for parents, teachers, and community members to imagine a world in which suspensions become more rare. Most of us grew up in a school culture that favored suspensions. But we can’t suspend our way to safer schools—students learn almost nothing while they’re sitting at home.
At my school, our suspension rate declined because utilized more restorative options, like conferences, community service, and community circles. But it also declined because the district and city government put behavioral health clinics in every school. At-risk students had behavioral health workers to support them, and many exhibited fewer and less extreme behaviors. We need more solutions like this that keep students in school.
The way forward is ensuring that we do “hold students accountable” for poor behavior without conflating accountability with harsh, retributive justice. If we start treating poor behavior as a symptom, build empathy in offenders through restorative justice, we can create safer, more inclusive schools — and perhaps a safer, more inclusive society.
Thanks for reading. Have a great week.
I learned early in my teaching (19 years) and coaching (13) careers that it is my responsibility to create a positive environment for instruction. Not just for student learning, but for my own sanity. The better I am out of work, the better I enter work. The more fun I have, the more fun the students have.
And when things go sideways, there is no one coming to the rescue. If I have to outsource classroom management to the administration, I am outsourcing control of my classroom to someone else which emboldens students who are empowered by the social currency of defiance and disruption. I have to be the one who manages discipline and only use the referral as a last resort. This was brutally obvious when enforcing mask mandates.
When administrators are worried about how things look on paper and don't trust or support teachers, it creates animosity and undermines the learning environment in the classroom. Some students will only learn consequences in the classroom as they have witnessed empty threats their entire lives.
Why I don't like trainings -
I have rarely gone to a training and felt like I was being given "tools." I often feel like I was given more acronyms and work by people who were in the classroom for a few years then jumped at the chance to be education consultants who are well-versed in educational theory. People who have never taught in the age of Snapchat, tiktok, and more recently, a pandemic. People who don't know the character of the school and encourage systems or tactics that aren't always applicable. People who are selling programs that teachers know will be replaced in a year or two when something new and shiny comes along. Or the administration changes.
The best inservice I ever attended empowered me to be a better person through treating others better. It was by a fish thrower at Pike Place Market in Seattle. He broke down their strategy to reach customers and it was about valuing the interactions and the customers, not patronizing them. Reaching people is a life skill. There was an acronym involved (of course) but the ideas were universal and could be applied for relationships with anyone and everyone.
As I think I previously commented, 2021-2022 was maybe the best year of my career. I am not a hero for being a teacher, but I have accepted that my job as an educator is one of the most important jobs in the country. Lives hinge on the high school educational experience and that's a me responsibility. Not the principal's office. But sometimes there is no other choice. In those moments I hold my breath and hope the administration has my back.