Listing reasons why public schools can seem ineffective these days can be overwhelming: not enough money, too much testing, crowded classrooms, Common Core curriculum, bad teachers, uninvolved parents, overreliance on technology, distractions of social media.
So why not focus on the one thing that will yield the most immediate results while spending very little money?
A lack of discipline and minimal consequences for misbehavior in our public schools have the biggest negative effect on classroom performance. Interestingly, discipline is defined as “training to act in accordance with rules” but also as “to punish in order to control.” If we had more of the former, we wouldn’t need so much of the latter, and the latter, when needed, would be much more effective.
Modern social scientists warn against using the word “rules” at schools, preferring instead “expectations.” Unfortunately, teacher expectations are perceived by today’s students to be mere suggestions, and that perception begins in their homes.
Rules need to be rules, but they need not be long or many. Few and simple will suffice, but they must be clearly stated and uniformly enforced by all, and the consequences for violation must be immediate, fair, consistent and significant. All punishment should fit the offense, but all offenders should be duly punished – but not corporally – by school administrators and parents.
We should start with common sense rules for classrooms, where misbehavior is most disruptive to the most students and most detrimental to the learning process. All kids in all classrooms have a right to an education, and no kid in any classroom should be allowed to deprive others of a safe and productive learning environment. Yet it happens every day, in practically every classroom, in every school.
Established rules could vary from school to school, but not from classroom to classroom, and enforcement cannot vary from teacher to teacher or from day to day. Some teachers never enforce rules with which they do not agree, and some teachers enforce rules one day but not the next, or for some kids but not all. Those teachers are their own worst enemies.
Equally imperative is that principals support their teachers by respectfully standing up to overly irate parents who rush to judgment having heard only one side of a story.
When a few essential rules of behavior are stringently enforced, adherence to all other expectations will rather quickly infiltrate a school’s culture, creating one of civility rather than chaos.
That premise seems so simple. Why is that not being done?
Sadly enough, teachers and principals are reluctant to incur the wrath of today’s adolescents and teenagers when they encounter resistance to getting their way. Overcoming a teenager’s defiance in order to enforce rules is an unenviable task, and not many want to take it on.
That is also why far too many parents don’t effectively parent their kids. It is simply easier to be their friends.
More teachers – young and old – are leaving the profession because of the escalating frequency and severity of abuse from students than are leaving because of their persistently dismal paychecks. They accepted their jobs expecting low pay, but not abuse.
There are laws protecting the rights of special needs children in schools. There are policies and procedures to protect the rights of incorrigible repeat offenders of school rules and societal norms. But there is nothing for the majority of students who wait respectfully, day in and day out, at the expense of their own educations for everyone else’s rights to be honored. The parents of those kids should be outraged.
If more effort and energy were spent earlier on establishing discipline in all classrooms, less money could be spent on too-late attempts at rehabilitation or on ineffective “alternative settings” where habitual offenders are entertained rather than educated.
Improved discipline in schools – published rules and stated consequences, to which everyone conforms – will require the support of teachers, principals, parents, superintendents, school boards and community, civic and faith-based leaders. I can’t think of a single reason why anyone would balk at carrying his or her share of that load.
Bill Massey of Raleigh is a retired teacher and principal.