(submitted for doctoral study, Summer 2008)
As the American experiment in democratic governance was unfolding, so began a public discussion on the role of discipline in the public schools. While around the clock access to media and world events in the twenty-first century may give the impression of a worsening tide of disruption and violence in American schools, Noah Webster in 1790 published a pamphlet “On the Education of Youth in America” where he noted that “the rod is often necessary in school; especially after children have been accustomed to disobedience and a licentious behaviors at home” (Altenbaugh, 2003). Clearly, as far back as the 18th century, issues of the discipline of students in the American public education system have caused concern for educators and social observers alike.
Early remediation for inappropriate behaviors mirrored child-rearing practices of the day and included physical punishments such as the ferule and the switch (or heavy gad). By today’s standards, these practices border on child abuse, if not outright assault, but in the environment of Puritan-influenced America, sparing the rod risked spoiling the child, which was more unacceptable in colonial society than harsh discipline. Interestingly, such punishments did not seem to discourage adolescent shenanigans, as noted in well-documented incidents of mischief including locking the teacher out of the building, throwing bullets into the pot-bellied stove and similar acts (Altenbaugh, 2003). Although childhood mischief appears to stand the test of time, the scope of the issue has been impacted by a number of factors, including the growth of the nation’s population. The U.S. Census of 1800 reveals that there were just over 5 million people living in this country. In 2006, we welcomed person # 300,000,000 as our newest citizen – a baby born in October that year – but are the issues really that much different today than they were in the colonial school houses of early America?
Concern by social reformers in both centuries has focused to a great extent on the issue of children in urban environments. In 2007, the University of Michigan listed disadvantages that urban children face in schools ranging from segregated neighborhoods, inadequate textbooks and ill-prepared teachers. This varies only in its moral overtone from the concerns that social reformers cited in the 1800s as they disparaged urban environments as being ‘detrimental to the moral development of children’ (Altenbaugh, 2003). The Gallup organization’s annual poll on public attitudes toward education has documented a lack of discipline as a major concern for most of the past 40 years (Rose and Gallup, 2007). Bullets in stoves and locking teachers out of the school house has morphed into weapons on school campuses, general violence and disrespect among children in schools across America. In fact, current research suggests that almost one-half of all classroom time is spent in non-instructional activities (Cotton, 2000) with the inference that regaining control over unruly students takes up a significant amount of class time. While expanding populations and access to media on a constant schedule certainly play a role in the discipline dilemma, there are varying hypotheses as to the root cause of the decline.
Kay Hymovitz (2000) highlights legislation and governmental actions as major contributors to the discipline decline in public schools in her essay, “Who Killed School Discipline?” . Hymovitz contends that these have “hacked away at the power of educators to maintain a safe and civil school environment” by allowing too many kids and their parents to hide behind psychological diagnoses, and learning ability evaluations designed to protect the most seriously impacted, but which, according to Hymovitz, often protects students who are simply disciplinary problems, more so than students with a disability. She also notes that legislation has created school environments where violent felons are required to be allowed to attend school with everyone else while tools once available (e.g. permanent expulsion) are no longer legally viable options for the worst student offenders. She cites the explosion in the number of students classified with a learning disability or emotional disturbance as proof of the misuse of the IDEA Act of 1975, which was initially intended to open the schools to disabled students, much as the civil rights and Title IX legislation opened doors for African Americans and women. Aside from the ludicrous nature of a system that seems to protect disruption, Lippman (NCES, 1996) and colleagues reported that regardless of the reason – fear due to violence or a low commitment to academics as evidenced by a lack of discipline – learning is negatively impacted when the environment is distracting. Although there is no one road map out of this downward spiral, there are pockets of hope – some springing up in unexpected places.
Cotton (2001) addresses the issue of discipline in its School Improvement Research Series (SIRS) and lists key elements found in safe, orderly and well-managed schools. These include:
- Commitment by all to established/maintain appropriate student behavior as an essential part of learning
- High behavioral expectations
- Clear and broad-based rules
- Warm school climate
- Visible and supportive principal
- Delegation of discipline and authority to teachers
- Close community ties
Punishment, according to Cotton (2001), can be used effectively in the journey toward order and discipline if the punishment for each misdeed is appropriate to the offense; if it is perceived by the student to be punishment (e.g. staying at home for a 3 day suspension is rarely viewed as punishment by a student), and if the punishment is delivered accompanied with supportive services to address the core issues. Some of these services include counseling, parent involvement, home-based support for remediation and contingency contracts.
In summary, restoring order in a school that is out of control requires a cultural sea change for everyone involved. It requires administrators and boards to empower and support teachers to address student behavior when it happens; it requires that teachers engage in learning the letter of the law, not just the spirit so that rules are enforced and discipline can be meted out in a consistent and timely manner. It requires that parents and communities recognize learning as the central school activity and work to support measures that will help to create an environment that fosters learning for all. Lastly, society must recognize that as times change and cultures evolve, issues of discipline, like the students coming to the public schools, are becoming increasingly diverse and complex, rendering the simplistic fixes of past decades incapable of serving the best interest of all parties. The best interest of society is served by ensuring that children are educated; facilitating their education requires providing environments that foster learning and learning environments thrive when planted among order and discipline. Modern society may spare the rod to the disdain of Noah Webster and others of his era, but in the end the goals of both remain similar: to create and support an educated population, providing them with the tools necessary to support and sustain the nation.
Altenbaugh, R. (2003). The American People and their Education: A Social History. Prentice Hall : New Jersey.
Cotton, K. (2001). Schoolwide and Classroom Discipline: School Improvement Research Series, Close Up #9. Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory : Portland, OR. Retrieved from http://www.nwrel.org/scpd/sirs/5/cu9.html.
Cotton, K. (2000). The Schooling Practices that Matter Most. Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory: Portland, OR.
Hymovitz, K.S. (2000). Who Killed School Discipline? City Journal, Spring 2000. Retrieved from http://www.city-journal.org/html/10_2_who_killed_school_dis.html.
Rose, L. and Gallup, A., (2007). The 39th Annual Phi Delta Kappa / Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward The Public Schools. Phi Delta Kappan, September 2007, p. 44.
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (1996) Urban Schools: The Challenge of Location and Poverty. NCES 96-184 by Laura Lippman, Shelley Burns, and Edith McArthur with contributions from Robert Burton, Thomas M. Smith, and Phil Kaufman. Washington, DC.