Learning by Discipline

What should schools do with students who behave badly?  Who assault other students?  Who treat teachers disrespectfully?

A new announcement about school discipline from Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder might drive some conservative pundits to distraction.  Discipline, the two leading officials of the Obama Administration announced yesterday, must be more sensitive to student background and more responsive to individual situations.  Blanket zero-tolerance policies, they proclaimed, lead to worse school discipline, not better.

Those zero-tolerance policies, however, grew out of a groundswell of popular conservative opinion throughout the 1980s and 1990s.  Conservative commentators and activists long complained that schools treated students too gingerly.  Good old-fashioned discipline, some conservative writers insisted, would help return schools to their proper role.  Instead of being places where polite students and teachers cower and wince at the domineering swagger of loud-mouthed punks, schools should be calm and orderly places where infractions of the rules are not tolerated.

Some studies have demonstrated the central importance of a reinvigorated school discipline to many conservative parents in the 1980s.  One Stanford study[1] of two new fundamentalist schools in the 1970s and 1980s found that leaders put bad discipline in public schools as one of their top reasons for opening their own school, right up there with “secular humanism,” “evolution teaching,” and the fact that “kids weren’t learning.”  In a fundamentalist school that opened in September 1974 with a grand total of eleven students, one teacher informed the Stanford researcher that most parents assumed that the fundamentalist school was “solving discipline problems the public schools could not.”

Another study, this one from Temple University in Philadelphia,[2] found that parents listed poor discipline as one of their top reasons for abandoning public schools in favor of private Christian ones.  Nearly 65% of switching parents listed “discipline” as a leading reason for changing schools.  By way of comparison, just over 68% of parents listed “secular humanism” as a primary reason for their switch.

It may come as no surprise that some conservative parents choose Christian schools out of fear of disorderly public schools.  Leading conservative religious writers throughout the 1980s insisted that public schools had utterly abandoned all attempt at imposing discipline.  Jerry Combee, for example, warned readers in a 1979 book,

Without Biblical discipline the public schools have grown into jungles where, of no surprise to Christian educators, the old Satanic nature ‘as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour’ (I Peter 5:8).  Students do well to stay alive, much less learn.

Similarly, in his 1983 book The Battle for The Public Schools, blockbuster fundamentalist author Tim LaHaye insisted that one of the vital reforms that could save education was a return of traditional discipline.  As LaHaye put it, “We must return discipline, authority, and respect to public schools”

In 1986, conservative Texas school watchdogs Mel and Norma Gabler asked readers, “Why has discipline become so bad that policemen must patrol the halls of many schools?”  The Gablers’ answer was simple:

We were taught that if you plant potatoes, you get potatoes.  If you plant rebellion and immorality in children’s minds by teaching them that only they can decide what is right and wrong, that parents are old-fashioned, and that the Judeo-Christian Bible is a book of fairy tales, then what can you expect?  Garbage in—garbage out!

These conservative critiques of the sorry nature of school discipline were not limited to conservatives of a primarily religious background.  After his turn as Education Secretary under Ronald Reagan, William J. Bennett lamented the sorry state of school discipline.  In his 1994 book Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, Bennett cited a fraudulent but evocative historical comparison:

In 1940, teachers identified talking out of turn; chewing gum; making noise; running in the halls; cutting in line; dress code infractions; and littering [as “top problems”].  When asked the same question in 1990, teachers identified drug abuse; alcohol abuse; pregnancy; suicide; rape; robbery; and assault.

Due at least in part to this widespread sense that American public schools had reached a nadir of weak discipline, many states and school districts imposed variants of “zero-tolerance” policies.  According to these policies, student infractions would be met with an escalating series of ever-harsher punishments, including out-of-school suspensions and reports to police.  Politicians could claim that they were taking action to ensure a no-nonsense disciplinary attitude in America’s schools.

Yesterday’s announcement by Arne Duncan and Eric Holder represents the Obama administration’s repudiation of that zero-tolerance approach.  Though “zero-tolerance” may sound good, Duncan told an assembled crowd at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, “Too many schools resort too quickly to exclusionary discipline, even for minor misbehavior.”  According to the Baltimore Sun, Duncan described a new federal approach that would de-emphasize suspensions and put more emphasis on creating nurturing in-school environments.  Attorney General Holder agreed.  Principals, not police, should be responsible for school discipline, Holder insisted.

Will conservatives care about this shift in school disciplinary policies?  If history is any guide, I’m guessing that conservatives will paint this new policy as yet another soft-headed, over-complicated liberal approach to a simple problem.  Folks such as Eric Holder and Arne Duncan may worry that zero-tolerance policies unfairly target racial minorities, but I’ll be surprised if conservative educational activists don’t complain that such social-science talk only obscures a far more obvious point.

If students misbehave in school, conservatives will likely insist, they should not be allowed to be in school.

[1] Peter Stephen Lewis, “Private Education and the Subcultures of Dissent: Alternative/Free Schools (1965-1975) and ChristianFundamentalistSchools (1965-1990),” PhD dissertation, StanfordUniversity, 1991.

[2] Martha E. MacCullough, “Factors Which Led Christian School Parents to LeavePublic   School,” Ed.D. dissertation, TempleUniversity, 1984.

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1 Comment

  1. Patrick

     /  January 9, 2014

    In a recent National Review article, “The Prohibition of Childhood,” Joshua Dunn had an interesting take on the genesis of zero-tolerance policies. He wrote, “The proximate cause…is not difficult to locate. Starting with Tinker v. Des Moines in 1969 and continuing through the mid 1970s, the Supreme Court vastly expanded the free-speech and due-process rights of students…The judicial expansion of student rights prompted schools to rely less on their judgment and discretion when establishing discipline policies. They moved toward more formal procedures and zero-tolerance policies, which create the comforting illusion that they are liberated from having to make any disciplinary decisions at all. And so disproportionate punishment of students has sometimes increased along with their legal entitlements. Students receive due process, but if the policy requires severe punishment, the schools impose it…” (see p.50 of this issue: https://www.nationalreview.com/sites/default/files/nrdpdf/20131028_0.pdf).

    In other words, zero-tolerance policies were essentially the creation of lawyers.

    Frankly, I think most conservatives would welcome the end of zero-tolerance policies, especially since they associate such policies with over-reactions to kids pretending to play with guns (i.e. http://www.foxnews.com/us/2013/06/11/gun-play-zero-tolerance-toward-young-schoolkids-could-backfire-says-expert/).


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