After teaching in elementary, middle, and high school science classes, and directing the science teachers and curriculum for a 35,000 student district, I’ve concluded that our modern methods of managing student behavior are an abysmal failure. I’ve watched as teachers tried to coddle, affirm, and indulge their way to a great classroom—only to be met with disappointment, disrespect, and violence.
The behavioral practices and classroom management techniques we were forced to implement are responsible. Restorative justice, affirmation-based conversations, and soft promises have replaced the clear expectations and consequences that provided children with safety and consistency over the last two hundred years.
In my classrooms, I used traditional methods of discipline, which required students to follow a certain set of rules in order to participate in the classroom. This maintained a level of respect, ensured all in the room knew their role, their limits, and established that the values and expectations of their homes were being upheld. My classes never had fights, rarely had outbursts, and facilitated quiet learning. Of course, this wasn’t new or groundbreaking.
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In its various forms, traditional expectations prevented many tragedies that have become so commonplace in public schools today. There were few issues of in-classroom student-to-student violence, much less any threats toward a staff member. School property remained largely untouched—and a common moral foundation enforced by the home and school allowed students to find purpose and belonging in participating as respectful members of society.
As progressive ideologies were driven by a newer view of morality, teachers colleges began sending out new teachers with progressive ideas. Reprimanding a student academically or socially was now seen as barbaric and abusive. In many cases, bad or violent behavior from students was attributed to systemic racial discrimination.
The “School to Prison Pipeline” narrative gained substantial popularity in the 2010s, suggesting that suspending students for violent behavior made them more likely to drop out, get arrested, and spend their lives in prison. No longer was violent behavior the largest threat to students—but the school’s response to it.
This has resulted in horrifying policies that are driving teachers out of the classroom in record-numbers. While many suggest that COVID-19 and “low pay” are responsible for teachers leaving the profession, pre-COVID studies and surveys indicate this trend was already in full-swing, and that teachers no longer trust their administrations to handle the crisis of behavior issues.
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While directing the science curriculum for Indianapolis, I joined fellow administration staff at Crispus Attucks High School, waiting for their principal to join us for afternoon observations. She was late to the meeting because a teacher was handing her an immediate resignation—who couldn’t stand another second of the violence and chaos. George Washington High School initiated a policy of permanently locking bathrooms (unless chaperoned by a teacher or security officer) to prevent students from fighting in them.
In Crispus Attucks’ case, the principal began her presentation informing us that she had petitioned Indianapolis Public Schools to allow the expulsion of several violent students—none of her requests had been approved.
While in the classroom and hallways it’s easy to see the behavior crisis, administrations proclaim the success of these progressive policies by citing lower numbers of suspensions, expulsions, and behavior referrals. What principals and counselors fail to mention is that the criteria for referrals have changed as a result of progressive policy.
If a school refuses to expel a violent student, it does not have to record that negative action, therefore the number of expulsions continues to decline—while the violent student is sent back to class among the victims of his last fight. In fact, teachers are encouraged that a lack of behavioral standards is more “inclusive.”
We have yet to see convincing evidence of any school system’s general behavior improving after implementing progressive behavioral policies. We Are Teachers has a lengthy article proclaiming the success of these practices, full of infographics, charts, and utopian analogies—but the only practical example given is Oakland.
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Edutopia reported in 2015 that Oakland had implemented restorative justice practices, choosing small counseling sessions over traditional expectations and consequences, to great success. Just four years later, the Oakland Unified School police department reported responding to ~1,000 violent calls per semester.
To begin addressing this catastrophe, we must return to traditional authority, standards, and consequences in the classroom. Katharine Birbalsingh left public education in London to found a school dedicated to this classical model of character and expectations—and the proof is in the pudding.
While the Michaela Community School has the same inner-city location and students found across the UK and United States, the culture is remarkably different. High behavioral expectations are the norm, and the consequences for failing to meet those are consistent, specific, and carried out with the full support of the teachers, administration, and parents.
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Academics and behavior at the school are at excellent levels—and classroom disruptions are extraordinarily rare. She and her teachers wrote a book proclaiming its success, praising the methods and resulting environment.
It’s time we stopped ignoring what has always worked, for the shrill moral preening of those who claim that expectations are too harsh for children. Friendship circles and small-group counseling sessions are temporary, but character development through firm expectations lasts a lifetime.
Tony Kinnett is the executive director of the heterodox education publication Chalkboard Review, and the former STEM coordinator and head instructional coach for Indianapolis Public Schools. Follow him on Twitter @TheTonus.