Sunday, February 6, 2011

Schools, Discipline, and Letting Kids Down

The older I get and the more exposure I have to schooling and educational policy in the United States, the more I wonder if we like children.

I was recently reminded of this when I saw yet another example of a very young child given what seems to be a rather severe penalty because of an over-literal interpretation of a “zero tolerance” policy in a local school ( The details of this case—first grade boy suspended because he pointed his finger as though it was a gun—are the sort that get people either laughing at the disconnect between the action and the severity of the response or outraged at the same thing. After all, a child’s finger, on even the most liberal interpretations of zero tolerance, is not a gun. But that critique, I think, misses a deeper point: zero tolerance policies, even when not abused, renege on the promise that schools are in the business of education for democratic life.

Mindless forms of “classroom management” have triumphed over efforts to help children become better people (for examples of pedagogy that takes the formation of democratic citizens seriously, see Deborah Meier’s The Power of Their Ideas or Vivian Paley’s You Can’t Say, You Can’t Play). Perhaps it is because of the increasing focus on maximizing time on task in order to increase test scores, but I am not sure that is the reason: the policy of treating children like trainable animals predates the regime of testing so often supposed to be its cause.

There are two reasons we should reject the emphasis on behavioral strategies for controlling behavior and “classroom management”: they are demeaning to both the children against whom they are used and to the teachers forced to use them, and they diminish the likelihood that our public schools will form democratic citizens. When they work, even when they are applied rationally, zero tolerance policies shape behavior by fear, not by consideration of what sort of people they should be, or what sort of choices they should make. Further, such policies send the message that the school and the adults in it do not think the child who breaks a rule counts for very much. They also send a message to all children that the adults in the school consider the children to be disposable—every child is a potential miscreant.

Children will at times behave badly. They will break rules, even really serious, important ones. Such events can be seen as opportunities to exclude, to punish, or to educate. Only the last honors our claim to be educators trying to prepare children to be citizens in a democratic society.

One final irony: this incident took place in Oklahoma where—I could not make this up—there is a serious on-going effort in the state legislature to make actual guns legal on school, college, and university campuses.

1 comment:

Amy Shuffelton said...

In the fall, one of my students commented on a similar case on our class blog. You can see what she, and a handful of her fellow pre-service teachers (as well as one visitor to our page) thought about disciplinary reactions to toy guns at

What I find really disturbing is that "zero tolerance" policies, with yes, the implicit notion that children are potential miscreants, are found in particular kinds of schools. Schools serving the poor, serving children of color, most often. Less frequently in schools serving well-off White kids. Some children are treated as disposable for the sake of others.

The punch line is a harder punch in Oklahoma, but the principle -- persecute children for playing gun, let adults carry real guns -- is, sadly, widely spread.