“Discipline” and Learning

April 2008

Dear friends,

A reporter for the NY Times just called me to discuss a story she’s writing about a suburban middle school in upstate New York. It’s a school that is transitioning from an all-white rural population to a more and more African American population. This is probably happening throughout the country as our major cities begin to “retake” the center city, and she claims some of the responses seem similar.

She describes the school as appearing, to her eyes, like any nice suburban school—of about 600 students, 2/3 white and 1/3 black.

The news? They’ve instituted draconian discipline rules, including the elimination of all extra-curricular activities for students who are failing any subject. Assigned seats in both classrooms and the lunchroom, with silent lunch for all if there is misbehavior. And an automatic detention for failing to wear one’s ID tag. And so on. She wanted my views about it.

It coincides with a similar discussion on my EdWeek website with Diane Ravitch. But the back and forth gave me an opportunity to think about my point of view. As I said to the reporter at the end—more or less: I can sympathize if this is a response to chaos—a measure to restore some law and order so that all concerned can begin to tackle the real issues. As a “solution” to improving the learning curve of kids, it won’t get them anywhere. The kids who are already overage may drop out sooner, and some borderline kids may become more dutiful and compliant—which might marginally improve test scores. But it runs counter to any effort to have a positive effect on engaging kids in the intellectual content of schooling.

And, it’s hard not to wonder about the relationship of this new concern and the new population. I have long become accustomed to hearing from friend and foe alike that “some” kids, “those” kids, etc. need “more structure”, “discipline”, “toughness”—that’s what they’re used to, etc. In many ways the schools I’ve been involved in have been efforts to demonstrate that a respectful and civil (versus military) environment can work for all kids.

Many of the measures the reporter described, of course, have a prison-like quality. But then we don’t pretend that the prison guards are there to be role-models to inmates, nor that the prison is designed in the interests of the prisoners. The trouble is that prison-like schools are not effective, even if prison-like prisons may be. Of the latter I’m not convinced either—but that’s another issue.

The kids who get to 6th, 7th and 8th grade after unsuccessful years in elementary school truly don’t “get it”. If it’s hard for my 16-year-old granddaughter to complete her trigonometry homework, with her math-educated father by her side, imagine how hard schools are for the kids who are probably the troublemakers in school. Being dutiful won’t solve it for them any more than dutifully practicing the piano did for me as a kid. Instead of getting better, I just got more frustrated and more convinced that I would never be able to do it well. The 10th time I played the passage was no better than the first, and often worse. And I, unlike many kids in school, wanted to be a pianist, freely chose to take those lessons, and liked my teacher. I even knew what it was like to be good at it—I just couldn’t figure out any way to get there. Imagine how it must feel if you didn’t choose to go to school, don’t get the point of it, and aren’t sure you trust the people trying to teach you.

So schools need to tackle two things. Getting the relationships right for kids to want to do well, to want to be like the successful students and their teachers, and then to figure out how to engage them in ways that might bring success. Any “law and order” appeal has to be built on their at least tacit acknowledgement that we’re on their side—we’re allies not guards..

I believe this is possible; but it’s not easy. A school with 600 middle schoolers packed together, 125-150 students a day for teachers to get to know, insufficient time for faculty to work together on solutions, inappropriate pressure for inappropriate goals, and all the nonschool burdens kids face in life, work against us. Some of these we, as educators, can do something about—tomorrow, so to speak; others will take much broader public policy changes. My last month’s column about Brian Stoffer at D.C.’s KIPP is relevant to this discussion.

The flurry of boot-camp mentality may be one effect of NCLB (as scores don’t go up, tempers do), and some may even see this as a positive response (“they care”). It’s also likely that the gentrification of our center cities will produce more and more of these stories in the suburbs. They don’t augur well for our future.


© 2008 Deborah Meier

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