Lack of discipline in public schools is hampering teaching, depriving students of learning opportunities, and causing many teachers to leave the profession altogether, according to a survey released Tuesday. A third of teachers surveyed said they had “seriously considered quitting” the education field because of student-behavior problems, and 77% said that disruptive students significantly hindered their ability to teach.
The national survey of 725 public school teachers was conducted by the research organization Public Agenda for the legal-reform group Common Good. Deborah Wadsworth, a senior advisor to Public Agenda, discussed the findings at a May 11 panel on school discipline held at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Wadsworth was joined on the panel by Richard Arum, a sociology professor at New York University, and William Damon, an education professor at Stanford University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.
The current legal climate presents “systemic obstacles to common-sense discipline,” commented Damon. In today’s environment, he said, it is much easier to try to solve behavior problems by giving students medication than it is discipline them.
Damon recalled one instance in which a young student had stolen lunch money from his peers. When he was caught, the school refrained from calling his behavior “stealing” because it felt it did not have the moral authority to do so; instead, the boy was charged with “uncooperative behavior.”
When the word “discipline” is used, Damon said, many people think of corporal punishment, but discipline can take a wide variety of forms, including withholding privileges from students or requiring them to make amends for their misbehavior. Children will behave if parents and teachers enforce disciplinary rules from an early age, Damon contended.
Arum, himself a former public school teacher, said that current cultural mores leave young people “increasingly vulnerable to inadequate socialization.” He said that discipline should be part of a “socialization process” by which children internalize society’s rules and accept them as their own.
But the growth of the lawsuit culture and the increased involvement of courts in education have undermined the once widely held assumption that discipline benefits teacher and student alike, Arum charged. He said that much of the growth of lawsuits against schools can be traced to such court rulings as the 1975 Goss v. Lopez decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that public schools may not suspend a student without a hearing.
Arum argued that lawyers, not grass-roots students, are the major force behind the wave of “student rights” lawsuits. Only about 10% of such cases involve non-whites, he added, even though minorities are more likely to be victims of genuine mistreatment.
Although students at private schools have fewer legally actionable rights than their public school peers, 52% of the former say that discipline at their schools is fair, as opposed to 39% of public school students. In fact, Arum argues that this difference in student sentiment is one of the main factors responsible for private schools’ superior academic performance.
The widespread adoption of “zero tolerance” policies in public schools has fueled a backlash of student lawsuits in recent years, Arum added. Administrators’ overreactions to such minor breaches as bringing aspirin to school can undermine the legitimacy of school regulations in the eyes of students, parents, and the general public.
Although “zero tolerance” policies are supported by overwhelming majorities of parents and teachers—93% and 89%, respectively, according to the Public Agenda survey—Arum believes that these policies actually exacerbate the root problem, which is the lack of discretion granted to teachers and administrators. Teachers need more freedom to address disciplinary problems on a case-by-case basis without constant fear of being sued, he argued.
Wadsworth reported that while nearly all of the teachers in the survey agreed that discipline is necessary for the successful operation of a school, the figure is significantly lower among education professors.
Almost half of teachers surveyed said they had been “accused of unfairly disciplining a child,” Public Agenda reported, and 78% of respondents said that their students “are quick to remind them that they have rights or that their parents can sue.”
Nearly eight in ten teachers surveyed said that their schools have persistent offenders who should be sent to alternative schools, and 55% stated that discipline problems are worse because school districts back down from aggressive parents.
Public Agenda found overwhelming support among teachers for school-litigation reform, with 82% in favor of “limiting lawsuits to serious situations like expulsion” and the same percentage approving of “removing the possibility of monetary awards for parents who sue over discipline issues.” The study found that these two proposals were also favored by large majorities of parents—78% and 69%, respectively.
Sean Grindlay is the managing editor of Campus Report.