I wouldn't last a year -- no, make that a month -- teaching in an American public school, and I know why.
I would be okay on content. I was a good student when I was in school, and got the high scores that seem to correlate with effective presentation of subject matter. I confess I have even fantasized about abandoning journalism and getting a job as a teacher of U.S. history, my favorite subject when I was 16.
But I would be bad at it because I would not be able to keep order in the average classroom of 25 to 30 distracted, resentful and apathetic adolescents.
Having spent the past 22 years watching hundreds of real high school teachers struggle with such students, I have wondered why more attention hasn't being paid to the discipline problem. It is rarely the subject of the educational conferences and seminars I am invited to cover, or the books I am asked to review. When I did a research paper for an online university course in classroom management three years ago, one of the most depressing things I learned was that education schools don't teach much about how to keep order in class, and don't think their students would appreciate it if they did.
So I was eager to read a major report on discipline in our schools being released today by the New York-based public policy research organization, Public Agenda, one of the most interesting and useful chroniclers of opinion inside American classrooms.
It is both an intriguing and a disturbing document. The vast majority of teachers surveyed say they are often treading water in a sea of adolescent misbehavior and parental mistrust. The report, entitled "Teaching Interrupted: Do Discipline Policies in Today's Public Schools Foster the Common Good," can be found at publicagenda.org/research/pdfs/teaching_interrupted.pdf. Common Good, a legal reform coalition that seems to span the political spectrum, having both Newt Gingrich and George McGovern on its board of directors, sponsored the study.
Here is the report's most unsettling summary of its findings: "Teachers operate in a culture of challenge and second-guessing -- one that has an impact on their ability to teach and maintain order. Nearly half of teachers (49 percent) complain that they have been accused of unfairly disciplining a student. More than half (55 percent) say that districts backing down from assertive parents causes discipline problems. Nearly 8 in 10 teachers (78 percent) say that there are persistent troublemakers in their school who should have been removed from regular classrooms."
This obviously affects learning in the classroom. One teacher told the researchers: "Instruction becomes -- I don't want to say the minimal piece, but often it does become that. . . . . They're not focused on getting an education." But there is also a wider dread that poisons life all over the school. "We have students that just terrorize other students," another teacher said, "and yet we can't get rid of them, and they know this."
I don't think discipline is the most important problem in American education. Poverty is. Children from low-income families are severely handicapped by the survival culture of their neighborhoods and their parents' strain making a living. It is often hard for such children to understand the importance of their lessons and to focus on learning. The difficulty of following proper classroom decorum is just one of their many handicaps.
But I also think, unlike many problems in schools, discipline can be improved significantly with just a few adjustments in the way schools are organized, and the way teachers are trained. We have several examples of schools that have triumphed over the problem, even in the worst circumstances. The KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) public charter and contract schools, for instance, use consistent rewards and punishments to turn low-income middle schoolers -- usually the most troublesome of American students -- into successful learners in 24 cities and towns.
As "Teaching Interrupted" makes clear, the number of disruptive students in any classroom is usually small, but if a teacher doesn't deal with them quickly and firmly, he is toast. So what is the best way to handle these unhappy, lesson-killing rebels?
The survey says which approaches are most popular with teachers and parents. This is fine as far as it goes, but it occurred to me, as I read their suggestions, that if teachers and parents are having such trouble making classrooms orderly, they may not be the best sources on what will work and what won't.
Their favorite solutions to the discipline problem, as revealed in the survey, are enforcing the little rules so that bigger problems won't occur, no mercy for students whose offenses merit suspension or expulsion, and alternative schools for chronic offenders. If we take the KIPP schools as a measure of what works in practice, the strict attention to small problems makes the most sense. All new fifth graders in KIPP's 31 schools spend three weeks in the summer learning how to raise their hands for attention, how to sit and observe the teacher, how to come to order quickly when that is requested and why failure to complete one's homework each and every night will cost them rewards, such as points toward the big year-end trip, and even lead to their parents being called to the school.
KIPP educators, however, rarely suspend or expel a student. They think they have better ways to change behavior by keeping children in their school. I would love to believe that regular public schools could just adopt that philosophy and all would be well, but the teachers in those schools know better. At least in the short term, they need a way to get their most troublesome kids out of their classes.
After all, the current system, which tells teachers they are just going to have to put up with it, jeopardizes their careers. I have told the chilling story of Darlene Hamilton [July 23, 2002, column], who found herself escorted off the campus of Walter Johnson High School in Montgomery County by security officers because one emotionally disturbed student said Hamilton pushed, poked and scratched her. When Hamilton was cleared and the police charged the student with making a false report, the judge decided there was not enough evidence to find the student guilty.
The book "Guilty Until Proven Innocent," reviewed in this column [Oct. 28, 2003], tells many similar horror stories. The "Teaching Interrupted" report shows they are not isolated cases. Not only do half of the teachers surveyed say they have been accused of unfairly disciplining a students, but a third say the problem of keeping their classroom orderly has become so frustrating that they have considered some other line of work. Given the severity of the threat, transferring disruptive students to alternative schools may be necessary, at least until we develop a way to change school cultures, starting with the youngest students.
Public Agenda compiled the report from the responses of 725 public middle and high school teachers reached by mail and 600 public school parents reached by telephone. The margin of error for both the teacher and parent surveys is plus or minus 4 percentage points. There is, as you would expect, a gap between teacher and parent responses on some questions. Asked if they thought a school needed good discipline and behavior in order to flourish, both groups said yes, but that view was stronger among teachers, 97 percent, than parents, 78 percent.
The report raises several questions worthy of further research. Ninety-four percent of teachers, for instance, see a problem in lax punishment of misbehaving special education students, who are often protected by individual education plans and a wrong-headed view that their disabilities make them less responsible for their acts.
Readers like me who think that more interesting ways of teaching might reduce the mischief will also be troubled to read that only 26 percent of teachers and 32 percent of parents agreed with this statement: "When students misbehave, it usually means the teacher has failed to make lessons engaging."
On a more encouraging note, 72 percent of the teachers surveyed said they could "virtually always" or "most of the time" count on their principal "to firmly support teachers on matters of student discipline and behavior."
Everybody shares the blame for poor discipline, the report says. Some parents -- fortunately not the majority -- either don't care or don't pay attention. One teacher said, "The student will mouth off or not do homework, and I'll contact the parent in writing or on the phone, and I'm lucky if I get a response."
And teachers need better training. Public Agenda notes that the university education schools have not made this a priority. Education professors have told me they cannot teach classroom management effectively until the prospective teacher is in a classroom with the problem in front of her, his big feet on his desk, loudly chewing gum. Some education schools have significantly increased the amount of time their students spend as practice teachers, but most count on them learning the important techniques ofclassroom management on the job. And young teachers all know, once they start their first full-time assignment, that the advice and help from their principal or designated mentor teacher is often laughably inadequate.
We all remember those of our teachers who knew how to squelch bullies and comedians. Some principals have this knack and try to teach it to their new hires. What is necessary is a few rule changes to back them up, more attention to discipline in teacher training courses, and maybe the long-awaited acknowledgement from the foundations and the school districts and the think tanks that until they pay more attention to this, much of the time we insist our children spend in school is going to be wasted.