We have unwittingly transformed K-12 schools from places where educators are expected to shape character, set boundaries, and foster respect to ones where they are hesitant and unsure of their authority.
The greatest effect has been what former San Diego superintendent and California Secretary of Education Alan Bersin has termed "the anaconda in the chandelier"--the looming fear that a misstep could lead to lawsuits or grave professional consequences. The survey firm Public Agenda has reported that 47 percent of superintendents would operate differently if "free from the constant threat of litigation" and that 85 percent of teachers indicate that "most students suffer because of a few persistent troublemakers."
Fully 77 percent of teachers report that "if it weren’t for discipline problems, I could be teaching a lot more effectively."
The most effective schools have always been unapologetic about setting norms and disciplining misbehavior. Journalist David Whitman, in his acclaimed 2008 book Sweating the Small Stuff, argues that the key to the success of high-performing charter schools like the KIPP Academies is their willingness to tell students exactly how they are expected to behave, with rewards for compliance and penalties for breaking the rules. Whitman shows how teachers ceaselessly monitor conduct and character to ensure that students act respectfully, develop self‐discipline, work hard and take responsibility for their actions.
Thanks to more than a generation of court rulings, lawsuits and learned timidity, most schools shy from such muscular norms. The result is that educators have less authority, schools less discipline, and students less opportunity to learn. Ironically, this all matters most in schools serving at-risk students, who start with fewer advantages and are most likely to be stuck in chaotic school environments.
Scholars Scott Carrell and Mark Hoekstra have documented the ill-effects of lax discipline, reporting that adding a single disruptive student to a class has a statistically significant negative effect on their peers’ reading and math achievement.
It is too easy, of course, to blame the current state of affairs on the judicial process. Nations wind up with the schools they desire and deserve. In an era of confessional television and helicopter parents lobbying college professors for paper extensions, it is little wonder that schools have been buffeted by an insistence that they understand rather than discipline. Putting educators in a position to educate is not just a matter of law, it is also a question of character.
Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at AEI.