When it Comes to School Discipline, Let Parents Choose

Peter Greene, the author of the aptly named “Curmudgucation” blog, had a post the other day lambasting a classroom management system which, assuming he’s representing it accurately, rates kindergarteners’ behavior on a spectrum from “Democracy” and “Cooperation/Compliance” down to “Bullying” and “Bossing” and—the lowest level—”Anarchy.” The post was vintage Greene, who works in mockery and derision the way Matisse worked in oils.

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In the midst of his takedown, however, came an observation that stopped me in my tracks: “Here’s the thing to remember about discipline systems at school—every one of them codifies somebody’s value system, sets in rules and regulations judgments like ‘being compliant is good’ or ‘a good student is one who questions authority,’” Greene wrote. “When a system codifies love of compliance (and can’t distinguish between compliance and cooperation) and negative labeling of any sort of age-appropriate behavior (five year olds running! zounds!!), my eyebrows go up.”

Mine too, but not for the same reasons as Greene, one of the blogosphere’s staunchest defenders of traditional public schools. A thirty-five-year veteran teacher, he’s also a deeply informed and tireless critic of reform. So it’s no small irony that in shaking his fist at the education idiocy du jour he accidentally made one of the strongest pro-school choice arguments I’ve ever read.

Greene is precisely right: A school’s approach to student discipline and classroom management is a profound reflection of somebody’s value system. And establishing any value system as a default is a surefire recipe for conflict, even chaos, possibly anarchy. When we seek to establish, valorize, or impose one set of beliefs about student discipline as the “right” one, we are functionally communicating that all others are “wrong.” Greene’s recognition of the values-laden nature of discipline systems all but begs for choice: Parents should be able to weigh, as one factor among many, schools whose philosophy about behavior management, classroom culture, and approach to student discipline most closely mirror their own beliefs and practices.

What’s true for parents is equally true for teachers. An assistant principal at my old school once described my classroom management style as “authoritarian.” She did not intend it as a compliment, but I wasn’t insulted. My South Bronx elementary school could be a chaotic place. I saw nothing wrong (I still don’t) with a classroom culture where adults are firmly in charge and held accountable for creating a safe, orderly, and respectful environment in which learning can happen. But that’s my preference as a teacher and a parent. Your mileage may vary.

And it does. Shortly before last year’s school year ended, I spent a day with Steven Wilson and several of his colleagues at Ascend Public Charter Schools in Brooklyn. I requested the visit after reading Ginia Bellafante’s column in the New York Times, which lauded Ascend’s rejection of “no excuses” culture and discipline in favor of a program called the Responsive Classroom. She quoted an Ascend staffer who worried about the “unforgiving disciplinary codes” in many urban charter schools.

“The most visible change at Ascend is the presence of a school culture that has become intensely therapeutic; teachers are instructed to be warm and present rather than distant and controlling,” Bellafante wrote. Even this fairly benign observation in a piece lauding Ascend’s transformation shows the difficulty of getting this right, and how deeply fraught is the issue of student discipline. Some (including me) might bridle at the idea of an “intensely therapeutic” school culture, thinking it an inappropriate expansion of the school’s mission, even a usurpation of parental prerogative. One man’s “distant and controlling” is another man’s “focused and intentional.”

Ascend’s staff and students are clearly bought in to their approach to discipline. It “works” for them because of that commitment, and it’s central to their beliefs about what a school should be. But it doesn’t follow that their approach should be imposed universally because it “works.” Indeed, we likely won’t even agree on how to measure “works.” Is it reduced suspension rates, higher test scores, parent and student satisfaction, or something else? Let me be clear. My visit to Ascend was impressive. This old authoritarian teacher sees the value, even the wisdom, of Ascend’s approach. I might like to try it someday. But would I set it as the default mode for all schools? Not on your life.

Shortly after Bellafante’s column appeared, I sat in a South Bronx coffee shop interviewing a parent, a New York City taxi driver and immigrant from Ghana who was drawn to his children’s charter school precisely because of its strict approach to discipline, which mirrored his own approach to parenting. I can conceive of no reason why he should be denied that prerogative, nor why the teacher quoted in Bellafante’s column should not be able to seek out a school like Ascend that is aligned with her values.

Not surprisingly, when I pointed out to Greene that he was accidentally making a good case for choice, he disagreed. “I think there are far too many values at play to make every one available in a choice school,” he responded, “particularly when those have to be cross-checked against academics, sports, activities, and all the other things folks want for their children.” In a way, he’s right, but affluent parents shopping for private schools for their kids might shrug. No school is expected to align completely with a family’s preferences, priorities, and values. But one extreme or the other—the perception that a school’s culture is too strict and prescriptive, or too permissive and lenient—might very well be a deal-breaker for some parents. Teachers, too.

Differentiation is the soul of choice. When we narrow our focus to “student outcomes” (read: test scores), we overlook the myriad reasons that schools appeal—or not—to parents. School culture, including discipline, is a big part of it, particularly for those who value school safety above all else. Indeed, if test scores are the only thing that matters, there’s little point in arguing for choice at all. Our energies are better spent improving the performance of a single flavor of school.

About the last thing I want to do is spend the next several years arguing about whose approach to discipline is “right.” The salient question ought to be, “Which is right for you?” Given the deeply held, values-driven nature of school culture and discipline, it seems increasingly untenable to suggest that there is or ought to be a default mode—Peter Greene’s, mine, or yours—and that any ideas at variance with it need to be banned or forced to defend their existence. My advice to school choice advocates is to take Peter Greene’s excellent if unintended advice and spend more time arguing for choice based on school culture and values, and less on test scores.

–Robert Pondiscio

Robert Pondiscio is a Senior Fellow and the Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

This first appeared on Flypaper.

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