School discipline: pay me now or pay me (more) later
Virtually everybody today has an opinion aboutwhat we need to do to improve public education in this country, and at the same time, a corresponding reason for why it can’t be improved under present circumstances. You can’t go a single day without hearing about how the economy is affecting funding to schools; or how classroom sizes are too large to allow for quality learning; or how we aren’t focusing enough on STEM; how teachers are overworked and underpaid; or that our students should be in school for longer days, even a longer year.
These are all commonly debated topics on why education isn’t working, yet aren’t the primary reason our system is failing. A recent article published in the NY Times got somewhat close to the issue, but didn’t go far enough. “School Discipline Study Raises Fresh Questions” discussed the impact of student suspensions and expulsions in Texas middle and high schools. The data shared in the article was troubling; one in seven students was suspended or expelled roughly 11 times in their upper-school career. However, what the study didn’t discuss was the overall problem of classroom order and discipline. Suspensions and expulsions are on the extreme end of discipline. What else is going on in the classrooms before it gets to that point?
I can tell you. Classroom discipline and behavior is literally robbing our education system of productive time, energy, money, and results. When repeated studies show teachers lose, on average, 30/40/50% or more of what should be teaching time to managing student discipline and behavior, it’s no wonder Johnny can’t read. To put this in perspective, even a “modest” loss of only 30% of classroom time is the equivalent of 60 full days out of our average 180 day school year. If we only consider the financial impact of loss of productive teaching time, it represents $100B or more of educational funding that goes out the window each year nationwide. It’s consistently within the top three reasons for why teachers leave the profession, regardless of what they are paid, and it hurts the learning environment for everyone in it.
In spite of this massive impact on all aspects of the system, this issue receives precious little attention. It is responsible for everything from the “ordinary” level of disruption and noise in the classroom; to issues of ethics, integrity, cheating and plagiarism; to the extreme end of the continuum of bullying, harassment and school-based violence. Our usual response is to deal with it once it’s a problem when it’s harder to fix and more costly. It may cost a school district $500 or more to suspend a student, but one suspension frequently leads to more, so clearly there’s no “fix” in that. And, in spite of the billions that are being spent on anti-bullying policies, procedures and legislation, bullying remains an epidemic in our schools today.
The typical solution proposed to fix this problem is for teachers to receive better training in classroom management. Yet, that only addresses half the equation. What’s missing is the focus on the students’ part in it: when too many students enter the school system today ill-equipped with the social skills and character development they need to participate effectively in the classroom environment, we have to address this lack in order to improve discipline overall.
In the face of this evidence, why aren’t more schools adopting broad-based social skills education? Administrators generally cite lack of time and lack of money. Many also argue that this type of education shouldn’t be in the schools, that it belongs in the home. While I am the first to agree, the reality is that students’ inadequate social skills has become the problem of the schools. We can no longer assume that students have any “lowest common denominator” of social skills abilities and learning, and the resulting impacts on schools is huge.
The good news is that investing in social skills learning pays off quickly and measurably. A recent study by the University of Chicago, examining the results of 213 school-based studies, showed that students who participated in social skills education improved in grades and standardized test scores by 11 percentile points as compared to non-participating students. Further, other benefits from these programs included less student stress, fewer conduct problems such as bullying, and reduced suspensions and expulsions. When you consider that students’ time-on-task increases as much as 40% after integrating social skills education in core curriculum, the time it takes to teach these programs is recouped in the gains of productive teaching time.
For the past 40 years, we’ve decreased classroom sizes, spent more money on education, and spent more time on academic curriculum for virtually no positive gain. We have to create better environments for learning. Even a few disruptive and unruly students will ruin the educational experience for everyone. Solving student discipline and behavior issues can be done within current budget and time constraints. However, if we don’t address it whatever else we do will continue to under-perform or outright fail and that means more waste of time, energy, money…and our children’s future.