Thursday, July 21, 2011

Zero Tolerance and the Failure to Educate

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 an absurd 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 for the same reason. After all, a child’s finger, on even the most liberal interpretations of zero tolerance, is not a gun. But that response misses a deeper point: zero tolerance policies 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. And we know there are more positive and more effective – more educational – ways to respond to bad behavior in schools (see, for example 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 animals predates the regime of testing so often supposed to be its cause. Behavioral control has been the approach of “classroom management” for all of my professional life, and I started teaching high school in 1968.

One district where I was employed adopted Lee Canter’s “Assertive Discipline” program in the 1970’s; the catch-phrase of this program was “deal with the behavior, not the child.” I heard this from many teachers, always expressed with pride. The idea always puzzled me, however, because I has become a teacher because I wanted to deal with children, and in line with that commitment, I have always believed that a child’s behavior is a part of who the child is, and to treat those two things as separable is to fail to understand our role in democracy as much as it is to violate the integrity of the person the child is.

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 make clear to all children that the adults in the school consider the children to be disposable.

Zero tolerance policies explicitly state for all to see that we consider our rules more important than our children, and our children see this. Even the children who obey the rules understand where they stand in a regime of zero-tolerance. This will certainly increase the alienation children and young adults feel toward schools.

Children will sometimes behave badly. They will break rules, even really serious, important rules. Such events can be seen as opportunities to banish the miscreants, or as an opportunity to educate. Only the last honors our claim to be educators trying to prepare children to be citizens in a democratic society.

One of my former colleagues wisely suggested that the way to be more effective in classrooms is to “be the child,” to try to understand what need the child is meeting my misbehavior and then to help the child meet that need in more positive ways. This is not at all to suggest that classrooms should be places of permissiveness or places where there are no rules that matter. It is to suggest that our job is to help children understand and internalize the norms of democratic life the rules are meant to enact, and that they best learn democracy by living it. However, when we replace citizen formation with zero tolerance policies we do not prepare them for democratic life, but for what some now refer to as the school-to-prison-pipeline (

I do not understand why so many educators think the proper response to children who are alienated from the school’s social contract (I am making a large assumption here, I know) is to exacerbate and formalize that alienation with the official proclamation that they really do not belong. I do not understand how a culture that valued its young could make zero tolerance a policy.

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 on school, college, and university campuses legal.


Craig A. Cunningham said...

Great post, John. I very much agree with you that zero tolerance policies are I'll-conceived. And yes, they ARE preparing students for the school-to-prison pipeline, not democracy. But I wonder if you could say a bit more about specifically which aspects of democratic citizenship that this undermines.

khalid rawat said...

That is the worst possible interpretation of a child's act and the worst possible way to respond.This shows that childhood education(from 6 till 11) is not properly conceived or understood. Childhood is all about freedom and interaction with physical objects, learning through senses, and morality revolves around the ideas of what is necessary and what is unnecessary, and here they can exercise their zero tolerance policy. But to do this executors should have the perfect idea of what should not be tolerated . This requires a lot of understanding. In this case may be the type of punishment was right, but the reason to execute that punishment was absolutely wrong .

khalid rawat said...

A child symbolizes almost everything that enters his or her consciousness, so if child experiences a gun , he is sure to symbolize it . What do they actually want to do when the punish that child for symbolizing a gun? Did they want to stop this child from the possibility of repeating this action at a later stage with a real gun? Why then they show guns to the children on TV, in games, in the hands of police and army officers?
This is quite incomprehensible, either there should be no instances in the where children see the guns or they should be prepared to tolerate a child , in the age of imitation, symbolizing a gun. I just want to analyse the motive behind the punishment , and the way people decide about what is tolerable and what is intolerable.