No discipline, no learning

There are many reasons why schools are persistently failing, but when students find out there are no consequences for their behavior, teachers cannot possibly teach their subject matter (“An Education Horror Show,” The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 8).  The latest example is Providence, where only 5 percent of eight-graders on average scored proficient in math between the 2015 and 2017 school years.  That compares with 21.3 percent in Newark, where students have similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

In fact, the longer that students remain in Providence schools, the lower their performance drops, according to a 93-page report by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy.  Why that is so will be the source of heated debates in the months ahead.  But I submit that the lack of discipline is the No. 1 factor.  Students in Providence schools terrorize teachers in ways that are shocking.  For example, one teacher was choked by a student in front of the entire class and yet that student was not expelled.

I attribute the situation to the student-rights revolution of the 1960s that effectively undermined the concept of in loco parentis.  When I started teaching in 1964, teachers were authority figures.  Students who misbehaved were subject to suspensions and expulsion, depending on the severity of their behavior.  But once the U.S. Supreme Court held in Goss v. Lopez in 1975 that students had the right to due process, the authority of teachers was severely crippled.  It was further weakened in 1976 when the high court decided in Wood v. Strickland that if teachers knowingly violated students’ due-process rights, they could be held personally liable for financial damages.

I’m not saying that factors outside of school have not contributed to the present situation.  But without order, teachers cannot possibly teach their subject matter.  I see little hope for things changing in this regard because reformers persist in blaming racism for the failure of students to learn.

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4 Replies to “No discipline, no learning”

  1. Respect. In large part, past the first early years of elementary school when teachers are Queens and Kings in their young students’ eyes, respect for what they do goes into hiding by Middle School/Jr High. In a society that now worships technology and the vast amounts of money even a moderately good idea can generate – often by school drop-outs – what’s a person with a regular job like a teacher, to do?


  2. dkhatt: Good point. I’d add that a tiny bit of fear and embarrassment also is needed. Students need to learn that their actions have consequences. I remember being ordered to stay after school ended as punishment for not following instructions. The threat of a call to my mother for misbehavior served as a further deterrent.


  3. My daughter taught middle school in several working-class neighborhood public schools before giving up and going to law school. At her invitation, I sat in and observed her classes for an entire day on several occasions. This was perhaps 15 years ago, so what I saw might not be relevant today.

    My main takeaway was that minor but endemic student misbehavior significantly interfered with instruction. Doubt that my daughter’s approach was particularly to blame. In at least one school where she taught, the principal strongly praised her ability to control the misbehavior (and rewarded her by reassigning several chronically misbehaving students to her class from teachers the principal believed were less effective at controlling misbehavior). It also seemed like there was at least as much misbehavior going on in the other classrooms in the schools.

    My impression — buttressed by my daughter’s analyses — is that there are at least two main school-based factors contributing to the minor but endemic misbehavior.

    First, many teachers — particularly teachers who have affirmatively chosen to teach in working-class or poverty schools — believe that their students suffer so many deprivations in their home lives that the students cannot fairly be expected to behave reasonably in school. In other words, these teachers have very low expectations regarding their students’ ability to behave and therefore tolerate minor misbehavior. In my daughter’s opinion, the teachers who thought this way were liberal feel-sorry-for-the-poor-kids types, not redneck minorities-are-losers types. For these teachers, the very thought of imposing discipline to deter minor misbehavior would itself be viewed as racist or classist. Some of these teachers did, in fact, complain to my daughter that she was insufficiently sensitive to the needs of her students when my daughter disciplined students for engaging in minor misbehavior. Of course, if the school administrators share this attitude — that is, that it is racist/classist to discipline the minority/working-class/poor students for minor misbehavior — then there will be little, if any, discipline in the school.

    Second, elected officials — state, local, and school board — have become increasingly afraid of public criticism (of lawsuits also, but I think public criticism is the more important factor) by parents and/or the media if teachers/administrators discipline students. Elected officials do not want to see news stories about how Teacher X or Principal Y unfairly disciplined Student A — particularly if Student A is minority or poor (of course, if Student A is upper-middle-class with an attorney parent, A will be less sympathetic but A’s parents will be much better positioned to get the story into the newspaper, so the elected officials will be nervous in that situation also). The elected officials’ fear of public criticism causes the elected officials to adopt policies/laws that tilt the balance in favor of students’ rights and against teachers’/administrators’ authority to impose discipline. The elected officials’ fear of public criticism also causes school principals/teachers to consistently err on the side of no-discipline in their day-to-day running of schools/classes.

    As you note, the SCt has recognized students’ rights. However, the impact of those SCt and lower court decisions would be much less if elected officials at the state, local and school board levels enacted laws/policies that strongly supported administrators/teachers when they imposed discipline. Unfortunately, those elected officials have usually gone the other way.


  4. Labor Lawyer: I think the broken windows theory of crime applies to the classroom as well. When students overlook minor misbehavior, they unwittingly send the message that more egregious behavior will be tolerated. That’s certainly the case when race is involved because few teachers want to be accused of racism. The reason that charter schools post impressive results is that they can push out disruptive students. Traditional public schools are the schools of last resort. No wonder so many teacher quit. They didn’t sign up to be police officers.


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