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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Tolerating misbehavior undercuts learning

A six-year-old boy shot and nearly killed his first-grade teacher at a Newport News, Virginia school last week. The teacher was “providing class instruction when the child displayed a firearm, pointed it at her and fired one round,” Chief Steve Drew said at a news conference. “There was no physical struggle or fight.”

The mother, who'd bought the gun legally, could be charged for not keeping the gun stored properly, a misdemeanor. The boy, far too young to be held criminally liable, is being assessed.

Schools must be safe, orderly places, writes teacher Daniel Buck in a National Affairs essay adapted from his book, What Is Wrong with Our Schools? Disciplinary reforms, such as "restorative justice," are making it harder for teachers to teach and students to learn, he argues.

In a RAND study, researchers found restorative policies decreased suspension rates, but "academics worsened while arrest rates remained the same," he writes. A second study "found that restorative-justice techniques had negligible effects but still placed a heavy burden on teachers."

Buck saw it happen in a school where he taught: Suspensions fell, but not because students were behaving. Teachers were overwhelmed.

An interim principal, facing "fights in the lunchroom, tanking reading scores, and chaotic classrooms," focused on getting students out of the hallways and into their classes, Buck writes. Quickly the school culture changed.

When teachers could begin classes in a timely fashion, their classrooms developed smoother routines. When the hallways outside classrooms were quiet, students were able to focus inside their classrooms. . . . Students who usually spent hours wandering the hallways attended class, rubbed shoulders with their more academically minded peers, and developed relationships with teachers.
. . . When the bell for class rang, administrators and monitors patrolled every hallway and sent every tardy student to our building's theater. There, the students checked in. If they had been tardy fewer than three times, they were sent back to class with a monitor. If they had amassed more than three tardies, they spent an hour spread out across our school's theater. . . . We had taken away what drew students to ditch classes: a chance to roam the halls while chatting and laughing with friends.

Students who show up in class on time, do the work and learn something are more likely to avoid the "school-to-prison pipeline" than those allowed to go through school without developing academic skills or work habits, Buck suggests. Even if punitive discipline doesn't help the offender get back on track, it helps his classmates stay on track.

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