Driving across town recently, I counted no fewer than a dozen cars sporting those annoying bumper stickers. No, not “Got tofu?” The ones that say, “My child is an honor student at such-and-such school.” Based on their bumpers, it seems most of the children in town are on the honor roll. Either I live in a place where high achievers breed like mosquitoes in a swamp, or those stickers are not difficult to come by.
The truth is, the bumper sticker that ought to be slapped on the back of a minivan or two is: “My child was sent to the principal’s office.” I’m not holding my breath.
It turns out that the vast majority of American public school students — 80 percent — never visit the principal’s office for what is known in the trade as “office discipline referral” or ODR. (Educators love acronyms).
That little gem of a finding was included in a study recently released by researchers from the Universities of Oregon and Connecticut in the April edition of the Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions.
Is it possible that only 20 percent of the nation’s students enrolled in elementary, middle and high schools ever exhibit behaviors that could be deemed inappropriate for the classroom? That despite the obvious truth in the adage, “Kids will be kids,” the overwhelming majority of them never need admonishing by the school’s supreme leader? Odd, because survey after survey indicates that teachers believe discipline problems among America’s public school students are pervasive, serious and compromise student learning.
Back in 2004, a report by the nonpartisan, nonprofit opinion research organization Public Agenda titled "Teaching Interrupted: Do Discipline Policies in Today's Public Schools Foster the Common Good?" found that “teachers too often must operate in a culture of challenge and second guessing that is affecting their ability to teach and maintain order.”
The report showed:
Nearly 8 in 10 teachers (78 percent) said students are quick to remind them that they have rights or that their parents can sue. Nearly half of teachers surveyed (49 percent) reported they have been accused of unfairly disciplining a student.
More than half of teachers (55 percent) said that districts backing down from assertive parents causes discipline problems in the nation's schools.
So it’s possible more than 20 percent of students do deserve a visit with the principal, but their teachers are reluctant to send them hoofing down the hall. Better to issue a warning, take a deep breath and attempt to “manage” the classroom rather than take control of it. It’s a strategy of appeasement, and by all accounts, it’s not working.
Meanwhile, in the central Texas town of Temple, a trip to the principal’s office now could include a date with an old fashioned wooden paddle. This “old school” practice was reinstituted by a unanimous vote of the city’s school board at the behest of (shocker) parents who believe their children need a stronger disciplinary code.
Media reports indicate there has been only one actual paddling episode, yet behavior in the high school is measurably improved. Proving that children don’t always need to be paddled; they just need to believe it’s possible.
Much of the educational literature on school discipline is filled with jargon and psychobabble about outcomes and interventions and tying consequences to the undesirable behaviors in question. School discipline — when it is meted out — generally includes in-school or out-of-school suspension, which means if you’re bad, you get to skip class.
Gosh. I wonder why kids act out?
I’m not necessarily suggesting that all schools bring back the paddle. Other consequences can be equally effective. (For example, misbehavior at my daughter’s Catholic school can result in devotionals prayed in the chapel with the principal on Saturday morning).
The point is, schools with excellent discipline have better academic track records. They also are likely to have a well-worn path between the classrooms and the principal’s office.
Or at least, they should.