Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Factory-model discipline leaves many troubled students behind

Julia Steiny / Providence (RI) Journal
July 20, 2008

A bit over a year ago, I shadowed an 8th-grader in her urban middle school, from the early morning rush into homeroom to the end of her last class. We were only a few minutes into the first class when she poked me and pointed to a boy who was up, moving about, chatting up other kids.

She whispered, “He’s in a group home and he’ll never last. He’ll get kicked out before the bell.” The boy wore a T-shirt with a big skull and cross-bones, as if he himself were rat poison and the shirt his product warning.

The students were supposed to be writing answers to questions about a short story, so the teacher nudged the restless boy back to his work. He would settle momentarily, only to be up again as soon as the teacher’s back was turned. He energized another shirker who had been sitting stone still and staring forward. When I asked why the stone-still boy wasn’t doing his work, the teacher sighed and said he was taking it easy on the kid because the boy had just suffered a very low blow in his life.

Eventually the two boys caused enough disruption that the group-home boy was sent to the principal’s office. “See?” said my eighth-grade sidekick, pleased to be right.

So every time this troubled boy came to school, he was quickly packed off to the vice principal’s office to be disciplined for being disruptive. Granted, he can’t be allowed to disrupt the class. But traditional secondary schools have very limited, punitive tools for dealing with wrongdoing. A good portion of any vice principal’s job is to enforce the school’s code of conduct. The code holds rule-breakers accountable for misbehavior by prescribing negative conditioning — suspension, detention, having privileges taken away — to discourage the offender from repeating the bad behavior.

In general, students who start getting punished, keep getting punished. Punishment does nothing to reengage the kids with the school’s community. If anything, it further turns the kid off from school.

Fran Gallo, the superintendent in Central Falls, just replaced the high school’s code of conduct. She gave me a copy of the old one as a specimen of these common, but ineffective documents.

Central Falls’ middle school had already switched to kinder, gentler, more supportive strategies, because its objective is to keep the kids in school where they can be taught how to behave properly, while learning English and science. As a result of these strategies, both discipline and test scores are much improved. The high school will now follow suit.

Like most school codes, the old Central Falls document describes the offenses broadly, then prescribes consequences for first, second and third offenses with mathematical precision. It’s all laid out in an easy-to-use grid.

The group-home boy’s disruption would be categorized under “insubordination/disrespect,” 1 of the 39 infractions you’ll find on the Information Works! Web pages: ( ). For a first offense, the boy would get one or two hours of in-school detention. His second offense would trigger a call to the home, a day of “alternative learning” — a form of detention — and 15 days of revoked privileges, such as watching or participating in sports, or going to clubs or afterschool activities. The third offense would be a one- to three-day suspension out of school, 30 days of suspended privileges and sundry other unpleasantries.

This is die-press discipline, appropriate to a factory-model school. Circumstances, relationships and feelings don’t matter in schools modeled after the efficient manufacturing techniques at the turn of the last century. Most American public secondary schools are organized as factory-model schools. So if the kid is not cooperating with the demands of learning on the educational assembly line, automatic consequences result. It’s just mechanical. If you do X, the discipline die press will automatically clamp down on you with Y. If you do it again, you’ll get Z.

If you don’t turn in your homework so many times, you go to detention. If you skip detention, you get two detentions. If you skip enough detention, you’ll be suspended. InformationWorks! 2008 reports that Rhode Island middle-school kids were suspended for skipping detention 1,133 times, 4,013 times at the high schools. It doesn’t say how many days of school the kids missed.

At one Providence middle school the rate of suspensions is 200.2 per 100 kids, meaning that on average every 1 of the 1,163 kids in that school is suspended twice. (In fact, only 330 students were actually involved in any suspension.)

Die-press discipline is easy on the adults because no one has to bother to dig into what’s going on with the kid. And it relieves the school from facing the fact that some misbehavior is a result of tedious classes. Die-press discipline is considered to be fair because it applies to everyone equally, and everyone knows what the rules are ahead of time.

These codes of conduct go home with a letter that must be signed by the parents confirming that they read the rules and are warned of the consequences. Our adversarial, litigious society has taught parents to come in screaming about their rights when they feel their kid is singled out for punishment.

Actually, a sharp rap on the wrists does straighten out those students who have strong home support and a desire to be back in the good graces of a community they believe cares for them. But even these students resent their punishers and can start to resent school in the bargain. Punishment will produce some compliance, but always at a cost.

As for the “bad” kids, like our group-home boy, traditional school discipline techniques teach that the community, the school, doesn’t like him. If you do things our way, then maybe we’ll be nice to you. If not, we’re within our rights to be mean as snakes.

This is not discipline. This is retribution. It’s certainly not good teaching.

Julia Steiny, a former member of the Providence School Board, consults for government agencies and schools; she is co-director of Information Works!, Rhode Island’s school-accountability project.

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