TROTTER: The Death Of Discipline In Our Nation’s Schools

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Shane Trotter Contributor
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There is a curious insanity running rampant in public education today. Students are getting candy when they arrive at detention; teachers are giving character awards to students who have repeatedly cursed them out in hopes of “reaching them;” and administrators are asking teachers to make new tests for students who get caught cheating so they don’t fall behind.

A friend of mine who is the head soccer coach at his high school recently had an assistant principal (AP) try to convince him to take back a kid who he’d kicked off the team. The AP was adamant that this young man had resolved to turn over a new leaf and that the soccer coach could make a huge impact if he’d allow the student to play this year. Unconvinced, my friend explained that he would already have to cut many good kids and that this young man’s negative influence had been devastating to the team’s culture the previous year.

“To even consider it, he’d have to come talk to me,” my friend expressed. “Where is he right now?”

“Oh… he is in ISS (in-school suspension),” the AP responded.

“Really?… What for?”

“Well, err… he was caught on campus with drugs yesterday… But he says they weren’t his…”

And so it goes.

This is the approach that dominates education and youth development culture today. Somehow everyone has become convinced that discipline is a curse word, accountability is mean, and standards, rather than an ideal to rally around, are a means of disenfranchisement. In typical progressive fashion, schools have decided to dismiss the methods of culture building that have proven most successful throughout history — notably, to clarify and enforce standards — and opt instead for what sounds nicest to a cadre of enabling parents and woke apologists. Everybody is a “good kid” who just needs someone to understand them or to believe in them. There is always an extenuating circumstance that somehow excuses dysfunctional behavior and demands further accommodation.

As usual, a kernel of truth lies at the center of this madness. You’d be amazed at what many students deal with outside of school. Even at the “good schools,” many students come from homes with abusive or drug-addicted parents, neglect, and a complete void of morally or intellectually nourishing inputs. As the progressive ideology suggests, students who deal with these issues will not care what their teachers say until they see that their teachers care. They will not be receptive to leadership unless they respect those who aim to lead them. But placating and excusing these students won’t earn their respect. They need to see that their teachers believe in them and that teachers bring a sense of conviction to their work — not that they are pushovers.

What well-intentioned educators do not understand is that their compassion is actually a veiled cruelty. When schools lower their behavioral expectations and give infinite lifelines, they remove the natural feedback that might prompt students to change. Students learn to see themselves as victims, to believe they should be accomodated, and to expect less of themselves. And by allowing self-destructive and dysfunctional behaviors to persist, schools make it more likely that these students will grow up to become unadmirable adults who will have to live with the constant flow of contempt that their behaviors invite.

But lax standards don’t only harm those they aim to support. When schools devalue discipline, it destroys the campus culture for all the other teachers and students as well. As expectations wither, even the “good students” adapt their behavior toward a lower mean. Talking back to adults or giving rude body language becomes normal. Socially productive norms such as making eye contact while talking and saying “yes ma’am” or “sir” become rare. Over time, teacher morale diminishes as teachers learn to expect that they will not be supported in their efforts to correct disruptive behaviors. Beaten down teachers feel less motivated and have less patience and energy to pour into the rest of their students. They teach less, put out fires more, and gradually lower the bar for all of their students.

The late educator, Joe Clark, understood how crucial discipline was for creating a great culture. Depicted by Morgan Freeman in the 1989 film “Lean on Me,” Clark became famous after transforming New Jersey’s Eastside High School from a drug-ridden, free-for-all into a competitive school that helped give students the tools to get out of poverty. Clark initiated this turnaround with a drastic step. He compiled a list of 300 students who were wreaking havoc at Eastside High and he expelled them. In the film, Clark explains his reasoning in an impassioned speech to his staff:

I want the names of every hoodlum, drug dealer and miscreant who’s done nothing but take this place apart on my desk by noon today. This is an institution of learning, ladies and gentlemen. If you can’t control it, how can you teach? Discipline is not the enemy of enthusiasm.

Indeed, discipline is not the enemy of enthusiasm, it is the portal to it. To gain access to the endless beauty and passion that comes from a musical instrument, a deep relationship, or a fascination with history, one must first invest far beyond those initial pangs of discomfort. This is not likely in an environment that permits rampant disrespect or in places with policies like that of The Colony High School, outside of Dallas, Texas, where they have removed penalties for late work because “they are grading students on their mastery, not their behavior.”

Educators are often driven by a desire to “save them all.” The gravest of sins would be to “give up on a kid.” But, unfortunately, this approach “saves” even fewer. Despite all the pep-talks, undisciplined students will continue their self-destructive behaviors as long as they are allowed to. Grade inflation may pass them through, but their uncorrected behaviors sabotage their lives all the same. By contrast, when expectations are clear and students experience consistent accountability, they are forced to recognize the real consequences of their behavior. They are given thousands of nudges to adjust before it is too late.

Clark may have decided not to save those 300 kids, but they would not have been saved anyway in the old regime. By taking that drastic step, he drew a hard line so that future students would be far less likely to slip into a cycle of self-destruction. This ensured that far more students would be saved over the course of his tenure.

And as crazy as it sounds, expelling those 300 students may have been the best thing he could have done for them. As one of the 300 expelled students, Thomas McEntyre, explained:

He kicked me out and in his — in the process of kicking me out, he said, you can always come back to me and talk to me. I’m going to still check on you. And you’re not going to allow the excuses that around you — no dad in the house — you not going to allow that to deter you from your success. You have the ability. You’re gifted. And although at a young age, I was very upset at him for kicking me out, later on I realized that, wow, don’t let these excuses pull you down. You don’t have a dad. That’s fine. And that’s what made him like a father figure.

As McEntyre’s account demonstrates, holding students accountable to high expectations and caring about them are not mutually exclusive ends. Students need to internalize a sense that their teachers are there for them, that they believe in their ability to grow and achieve, but that the expectations will not be compromised. To do so would only cheapen their endeavors and diminish the culture at large. Great teachers set the bar high but make it clear that they believe their students can rise to the occasion and that they will be better for doing so.

Despite the insanity that has taken hold of our schools, my intuition is that the vast majority of administrators perceive the same problem and solutions that I do. But there is a more insidious reason for their reluctance to enforce discipline. The politics of race. States and school districts across America have become convinced that they have to be “equitable in their discipline” and they are terrified to appear anything but. Even in the notoriously conservative Texas, where I live, this is the prevailing directive that drives our descent into anarchy. The Texas Education Agency has made clear that equity in student outcomes is among its top objectives. They require schools to collect and report data each year in regard to “the incidence, duration, and type of disciplinary actions…” applied to students of each race.

This appears to be driven by federal policy. In January 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to school officials across the country stating that: “Federal law prohibits school districts from discriminating in the administration of student discipline based on certain personal characteristics.” With this, the U.S. government insinuated that any statistical discrepancies between groups should be interpreted as evidence of discrimination. Something as objective as tardiness — when your physical body is in the classroom — is now conflated to demonstrate discrimination.

In his insightful book, “Charter Schools and Their Enemies,” Stanford economist Thomas Sowell explains the faulty reasoning that drives these objectives:

…the prevailing preconception and policy in many public schools is that statistical disparities in the disciplining of students from different racial, ethnic, or other social backgrounds must be due to biased treatment of those students, rather than to any possible differences in student behavior. The illogic of this was pointed out… in a landmark study titled No Excuses by Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom. They cited data showing that black students “are two-and-half times as likely to be disciplined as whites and five times as likely as Asian.” But as they also pointed out,… whites were disciplined at a rate twice that of Asians. Was that racism against whites? If not, then why was it automatically racism when blacks were disciplined two and a half times as often as whites.

The Thernstroms also showed that the differing rates of school discipline were highly correlated with differing proportions of children raised in single-parent homes in these three groups. But the rate of disciplining of black students was not correlated with whether their teachers were predominantly white or included a substantial proportion of teachers who were black.

Sowell goes on to explain the obvious implications of state policies that aim to reduce statistical disparities in the rates of student punishments:

Since one cannot increase the rate of punishment for groups with low levels of disruptions and violence, the only viable alternative for reducing statistical disparities is to reduce the rate of punishment of students in groups with higher levels of disruptions and violence. Moreover, students themselves become quite aware when there is little or nothing that teachers can do to them when they misbehave.

Progressive policies are assumed to demonstrate a certain degree of sensitivity to injustice, but few initiatives could be more disrespectful or debilitating to those they seek to help. How insulting to be told that the solution to unequal outcomes between groups is for schools to enforce their standards unequally. How debilitating to the development of minority students to be kept from the same feedback that would be offered to another student and to be placed in an environment where they internalize that they will be able to do whatever they please with impunity. How disruptive will this be to their futures and the future relationships of citizens in our society? Do we really believe this is the best way to help anyone?

The results of these policies, as teachers around the country will attest, have been disastrous. I’ve watched as the same students are permitted to walk the halls all day and as others repeatedly instigate brutal fights only to be returned to class the next day. Such lawlessness breeds a flippant culture where the majority comes to believe that they should be able to do whatever they please. In the wake of a smartphone revolution and widespread social discontent, students are internalizing a sense that nothing is sacred and no virtues are worth aspiring towards. This makes it possible for a TikTok challenge to inspire vandalism and teacher assaults all across the country. At my school and thousands of others, we had to restrict what bathrooms were available after students began tearing sinks and water fountains off the wall.

My friend Jeremy Adams, the former California teacher of the year and author of “Hollowed Out,” details the modern school anarchy well in a recent Newsweek article:

Schools have become juvenocracies in which dysfunction is broadly tolerated under the chic banner of empathy and understanding. We can rhapsodize all day about what American schools are supposed to do until we run out of superlatives, but the brutal truth is something that would have been obvious to Americans living fifty years ago: Schools need to play a large role in producing better human beings. And they are just not doing so.

Amidst the vandalism and endless spigot of foul language, standing in front of students who brazenly take out their phones and start playing video games in the middle of class, walking amongst the trash that is left strewn in stairwells after lunch, phoning security to accompany 17-year-olds to the bathroom because they can’t be trusted, is the American teacher who knows deep down they have lost the basic quest for decency on school campuses.

The solutions are obvious if we only have the courage to stand for them. Social discord cannot heal without mutual expectations of civil conduct. Dysfunctional behavior is unlikely to improve without a broader internalization of shared values and mutual expectations of personal responsibility. Schools must lead the way in reestablishing the behavioral norms that make individual and collective success possible. Nothing drastic — just the obvious stuff: eye contact; acknowledging people with a smile; holding doors; picking up after yourself; restraining foul language; staying off your phone while in class; and a basic understanding that grades must be earned and are not negotiable. Schools must draw the line and take the hard stand so that common sense may become common again. If we really want to “save” the next generation, this is where it will start.

Shane Trotter is the author of the recently released Setting the Bar: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Era of Distraction, Dependency, and Entitlement. He is a writer, educator, and Strength and Conditioning Coach in Texas.