School discipline gets a failing grade

By Joan Goodman

The School District of Philadelphia’s new superintendent, William H. Hite Jr., suggested Monday that “zero tolerance” discipline policies aren’t working to make our schools safe. “We can't arrest or suspend our way to safer schools,” Hite said.

He’s right.

Last year, a study of 1 million public school students in Texas showed that 60 percent had been suspended or expelled at some point between seventh and 12th grade, and that one student in seven had experienced these punishments 11 or more times. We lack similar data from other states, but the zero tolerance policies that are behind these startling numbers have been widely adopted by schools nationwide, including here in Philadelphia.

Joan Goodman

That the majority of students are suspended or expelled at least once during their middle and high school years is evidence that suspension and expulsion are not  effective ways to discipline students. Instead, suspension and expulsion have become rites of passage, or even badges of honor, for many of our nation’s teenagers.

Tragically, the Texas study also showed that minority students are more likely than others to receive these punishments, and that students who are suspended or expelled are more likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system.

Schools need discipline, of course. And when students are unruly or even violent, who can blame teachers and administrators for punishing them, using the methods that are spelled out in the school’s code of conduct.

But for school discipline to work, students who are punished must feel remorse and shame, not merely inconvenienced, or perhaps even pleased. That is, they must feel that they have done something wrong, something that will disappoint the people they respect—whether peers, teachers, or family. And before they can feel that breaking school rules is wrong, students have to buy into the school’s culture, its sense of purpose or mission.

That’s exactly what’s missing at so many American schools, especially urban public schools. It’s not just that students don’t buy into the schools sense of purpose, it’s that there isn’t much sense of purpose to buy into.

Instead, there are two separate, oppositional cultures—the teachers versus the students. You can often feel it when you walk through an urban classroom. The kids are disenchanted and angry, bored and frustrated. They slouch into class; dawdle, chat and flirt with one another; fall asleep; “forget” their homework, pencils, and papers. The teachers variously ignore, scold, plead with and discipline them, trying to maintain an uneasy truce so that teaching and learning can take place. Nobody is happy, and half the kids are dropping out.

The students feel that the deck is stacked against them, that the rules are unfair and applied inequitably, that they and their own culture are not respected. The teachers feel disrespected, too, by students whose behavior is insulting and sometimes downright threatening. In this atmosphere, breaking the rules and acting out in class are ways for students to assert themselves; for many it’s a way to gain self-esteem and status with their peers..

To break this cycle, we need urban schools where students and teachers alike share a vision, and the values and purpose that go with it.

That’s easy to say and hard to do. But, in fact, some schools are doing it.

Here in Philadelphia, for example, at the Science Leadership Academy, principal Chris Lehmann and his staff have created an urban public high school (NOT a charter school) where kids and teachers work together to set the rules, to design the curriculum through collaborative, inquiry-based learning, and to create a shared vision of what the school can become.

When kids have a role in setting the rules, and better yet in enforcing them, they’re more likely to feel that the rules are fair—and to be ashamed and remorseful when they break them. When kids help to steer their own learning, they’re more likely to believe that the curriculum is relevant to their own lives. And when kids help to shape the school’s vision and share responsibility for school activities, they’re more likely to feel that they’re part of a community of like-minded people.

Instead, most of the time, we have top-down rules coupled with a tightly controlled curriculum, all of it focused not on building community or making students into citizens, but on scoring well on a high-stakes standardized test. No wonder students feel alienated, and no wonder they drop out.

Joan Goodman is a Professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.