The Abolition of School Discipline
You don't quickly forget the sound of a child gagging as another child clutches him in a chokehold. As a middle-school teacher, I turned the corner in the hallway one day and found a child with his arms wrapped around the neck of a refugee student — a population that was frequently the target of bullying. The perpetrator had instigated several incidents before, and he was involved in several more thereafter.
At another school where I taught, we had fights at least weekly. On one occasion, as students spilled into my classroom, a boy asked me why we had so many. He said he was embarrassed to attend the school.
Such stories are not outliers. According to reporting by the Wall Street Journal, misbehavior, office referrals, and violence spiked this past year in schools and districts across the country. The Washington Post has found a similar pattern. Individual districts reported a marked rise in such behavior. In my own conversations, teachers said their behavior rosters were the only evidence they needed of worsening conduct; some told me their schools hit referral records by mid-year.
Theories regarding causes of this increase are legion: social media, months of online schooling, riots in the streets, larger societal trends of family and institutional breakdown, and plenty more. Assigning portions of blame would hardly be constructive, but it is crucial to focus on one clear driver of the problem — the trend away from punitive discipline in schools — because it is of recent vintage and within school officials' control.
Alternatives to standard, punitive discipline, while glittering ideals in the abstract, are a resounding failure in practice. It's a story that parallels the rise and fall of "broken windows" policing in society more generally — an analogue through which we can understand the causes and consequences of the abolition of school discipline.
BROKEN SCHOOL WINDOWS
In the 1980s, the Atlantic ran a famous essay titled "Broken Windows" by George Kelling and James Q. Wilson, which outlined a new form of policing. The article was based on a 1969 experiment by Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who parked two cars — one in an affluent neighborhood and one in a poor neighborhood — and observed what happened. Residents in the former neighborhood ignored the first car, while residents of the latter quickly vandalized the second one.
Not content with this simple experiment, Zimbardo did something unorthodox: He smashed the window of the car in the affluent neighborhood. Lo and behold, passersby soon vandalized this formerly untouched car. Zimbardo's conclusion was simple: Broken windows, untidy streets, and a general sense of disorder signal to everyone in the vicinity that this is the kind of place where no one cares enough to enforce the rules. Low-level disorder thus fosters further chaos and criminality.
As violent crime spiked in the 1980s, broken-windows policing — inspired by Zimbardo's experiment — became a popular response. Police spent as much energy shooing along loiterers, keeping an eye on bus stops, and listening for small quarrels between shop owners and customers as they did targeting violent criminals. Cities from New York to Los Angeles implemented the tactic.
The following decade witnessed dramatic drops in crime across the board: Aggravated assault and larceny fell 24% and 23%, respectively, while homicides, rapes, robberies, and burglaries each plummeted around 40%. In New York City, crime dropped at twice the rate of the national average. Though the claim is not without controversy, there is evidence that the broken-windows strategy contributed to these declines.
Growing in parallel to the broken-windows policing movement were "no excuses" schools, notably within the charter sector. A common turn of phrase in these schools was "sweat the small stuff." In How the Other Half Learns, Robert Pondiscio details an example of this approach in the Success Academy network of charter schools in New York City. Staff members have lists of small tasks like replacing lightbulbs and wiping up scuff marks. They send students home for mismatched socks. Class time is highly structured, routinized, and disciplined. Student rebellion manifests in a loosened tie, not cursing at a teacher.
The particulars of the no-excuses strategy differ by school, but the overall results have shown promise. According to a 2015 report from Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, charter schools in urban areas provided "significantly higher levels of annual growth in both math and reading compared to their [traditional public school] peers." As Pondiscio observed of the study, "the standouts among this group were KIPP, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, YES Prep, and other 'no excuses' pioneers."
Intentionally or not, the theory of education that undergirded these schools' approach to discipline borrowed from the philosophy behind broken-windows policing: Eliminating small instances of disorder — replacing every "broken window" — helps fend off more disruptive disorder. And, as with every sort of approach that "defines deviancy down," the alternative is a slow slide toward chaos: A child leaves litter in the hallway. It's not picked up. Soon a student throws something down the corridor, but no teacher bothers to address it. Students begin to wander hallways during class. Their noise grows louder. A student mocks a teacher. Before long, students are berating teachers — and worse.
Ignoring or explaining away bad behavior tells students that adults expect little better from them. The reverse — focusing on dress codes and minor disruptions to learning — conveys a message that the school is the kind of place that maintains excellence and will not tolerate misconduct.
Despite its success, broken-windows policing gradually became associated with controversial tactics like stop and frisk and zero-tolerance arrests. Some observers blamed the strategy for over-incarceration, which has a disparate impact on racial minorities. These critiques prompted one of the authors of the original Atlantic article, along with the commissioner of the New York Police Department who oversaw the shift to broken-windows policing in the city, to publish an essay distancing themselves from these strategies, claiming their thesis had been misapplied.
As broken-windows policing slid into excess, many of the no-excuses charter schools drew similar scrutiny. Must students be silent at lunch? Is a suspension needed for every small infraction? Perhaps sending students home for dress-code violations is a bit harsh. Perhaps a student vomiting from stress before standardized testing should be cause for reconsideration.
A FAILED RESPONSE
On the policing front, tensions came to a head in the late spring of 2020, when Minneapolis police officers arrested George Floyd for allegedly purchasing cigarettes with a counterfeit bill. Floyd resisted, prompting one of the officers to pin Floyd to the ground until he died.
As videos of the incident spread online, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets nationwide to call for defunding, or even abolishing, police departments. Over 20 major cities answered the call, slashing as much as a third of their policing budgets and reallocating funding to social services. The issue became a flashpoint in the year's elections, with Democratic Party candidates and activists advocating reductions in the resources devoted to police departments. Republican candidates, most notably President Donald Trump, stood firmly against the proposals.
While the country reckoned with police brutality after Floyd's murder, successful systems of charter schools dropped their no-excuses approach to schooling. KIPP retired its revered slogan "work hard, be nice" because it suggests students should only be "submissive" and "supports the illusion of meritocracy." Uncommon Schools removed its classroom posture rules and committed to implementing alternatives to standard consequences. Many districts decided not to have school-resource officers on duty in their buildings. These were the educational analogues to the movement to defund the police.
Such policies have had government backing in the past. During the 2012-2013 school year, for instance, Philadelphia school districts moved away from issuing suspensions for low-level disruptions and non-violent behavior. These reforms led to lower academic achievement, increased truancy, and rising levels of violence. Similar scenarios played out in New York City, Chicago, and several school systems in California.
Behavior in schools last enflamed the national debate in 2014, when President Barack Obama issued a "Dear Colleague" letter threatening schools with legal penalties if they disproportionately issued suspensions to white and black students. In response, many districts embraced a soft-on-consequences approach to discipline called "Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports," which the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty found contributed to decreases in academic achievement.
In many schools, disciplinary reforms have taken the form of "restorative justice," which focuses on mediation and restitution as opposed to punishment. The theory envisions schools as places where students are supported emotionally through various therapeutic and community-building prophylactics. Interpersonal squabbles result in community circles where students are asked deeply personal questions about their mental health and any trauma they've experienced. Classroom disruptions garner a chat with the school counselor. In Dallas public schools, misbehaving students kicked out of the classroom are sent to "reset centers" full of stress balls and bean bags.
Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the rigorous evidence we have on restorative justice finds that it doesn't achieve its promised goals. The RAND Corporation ran two studies on the theory, the first of which found that it decreased suspension rates — a trend that was already occurring in the district studied. At the same time, academics worsened while arrest rates remained the same. The second study found that restorative-justice techniques had negligible effects but still placed a heavy burden on teachers.
I watched this sequence play out in the school where I taught. When my district moved to replace traditional disciplinary practices with restorative justice, suspension rates certainly dropped, but not because behavior improved; rather, administrators didn't assign suspensions for behavior that would otherwise have earned one. Some teachers simply forewent office referrals because they garnered no response. Meanwhile, classrooms became more difficult to manage.
Proponents of restorative justice reject punitive discipline because they worry that it pushes kids into the school-to-prison pipeline. But if restorative justice degrades academic performance while failing to reduce misbehavior — or, in some cases, fostering it — this proposed solution to the school-to-prison pipeline might actually worsen matters.
Critics of punitive discipline miss its purpose. Perhaps a suspension does little to reform the behavior of an individual student — suspend him once or a hundred times, and he'll likely act out again (though there is some evidence that suspensions increase individual achievement). But the purpose of a suspension isn't necessarily the reformation of the one, but the protection of the 30 other children in that student's class and the hundreds of others in the building. Suspensions may not always influence the individual student, but they certainly prevent community spread.
I've seen how a return to punitive justice can improve a school environment. When a school where I taught brought in an interim principal, he pushed for an aggressive focus on clear hallways and timely class attendance. Though fights in the lunchroom, tanking reading scores, and chaotic classrooms called for attention, he sweated the small stuff.
It may have seemed like there were more serious problems to address, but within weeks, the culture of the school began to change for the better. When teachers could begin classes in a timely fashion, their classrooms developed smoother routines. When the hallways outside classrooms were quiet, students were able to focus inside their classrooms. The changes sent the message that school was no longer a place for play, but for learning. Students who usually spent hours wandering the hallways attended class, rubbed shoulders with their more academically minded peers, and developed relationships with teachers.
An important aspect of our principal's strategy was implementing punitive consequences for absenteeism. When the bell for class rang, administrators and monitors patrolled every hallway and sent every tardy student to our building's theater. There, the students checked in. If they had been tardy fewer than three times, they were sent back to class with a monitor. If they had amassed more than three tardies, they spent an hour spread out across our school's theater. The punishment wasn't significant; students merely spent an hour sitting silently in a room. Nonetheless, it formed a pillar on which the school's cultural change stood. We had taken away what drew students to ditch classes: a chance to roam the halls while chatting and laughing with friends. If that was no longer an option — and if any attempt brought not entertainment, but boredom — class quickly became the preferred alternative.
In her essay "The Crisis in Education," Hannah Arendt predicted that if we remove adult authority from schools, we don't get some utopian sharing of power among students and teachers; instead, the strongest students take charge and force a far more destructive environment onto their classmates. Schools become less an educational Eden and more Lord of the Flies. Much as we cannot destroy energy but only change its form, we cannot remove authority from a school building; we can only change who wields it and to what end.
As any experienced teacher will acknowledge, kids often act out simply because they are kids. Children are naturally rebellious; they like to test boundaries as they develop their own sense of self and learn how that self clashes with the impositions of the society around them. Even in a perfect system, Johnny will push Timmy. Sometimes, Johnny might need emotional support; oftentimes, he just needs a time out.
On a similar note, efforts to defund the police have had less than ideal results. When the smoke from the violence of 2020 finally cleared, provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that America had experienced a 30% increase in its murder rate — the highest year-over-year increase since at least 1905. At the same time, violent crime overall ticked up 5%, driven in large part by a 12% rise in aggravated assaults. Harvard professor Roland Fryer released a study indicating that decreases in police activity lead to marked increases in violent crime. Matters seemed to reach a climax in December 2021, when San Francisco mayor London Breed gave a speech rejecting the anti-policing rhetoric that had swept the nation:
It's time the reign of criminals who are destroying our city come[s] to an end. And it comes to an end when we take the steps to be more aggressive with law enforcement: more aggressive with the changes in our policies and less tolerant of all the bullshit that has destroyed our city.
As cities across the country discovered during the pandemic, "order" and "authority" are not dirty words. On the streets, they keep Americans safe from threats to their persons and property. In the classroom, they protect students from emotional and physical harm. They facilitate learning by allowing pupils to focus without distraction, discuss lessons and ask questions without having to shout over a cacophony of voices, and grow and play together without a descent into chaos. They inculcate virtuous habits. They are a means by which we secure the right of our students to access an education.
GUIDANCE FOR POLICYMAKERS
None of this amounts to a simple policy agenda, for several reasons.
First, American education is localized, and authority is widely dispersed. State laws, bureaucracies, local districts, and building administrators create behavior codes based on input from teachers and members of communities. Who is responsible for what varies state by state and even district by district.
Second, we know which strategies are generally effective, but a well-run school cannot rely on pre-packaged behavioral kits. Successful no-excuses schools have approaches to discipline that extend far beyond punitive consequences. They don't have any fancy buzzwords to describe their methods, and scaling them up would not be a simple matter of emulating every detail; individual school districts would have to tailor their approaches to their student populations.
Finally, countless interconnected factors influence a school's culture. Focusing on disciplinary reform in isolation may not do much to improve behavior, but if schools refine their instructional practices, develop quality curricula, and focus on less sexy affairs like cafeteria flow and tardy policies in addition to discipline reform, student behavior will be more likely to improve.
Of course, that doesn't mean policymakers have no role to play on the school-discipline front. In fact, since government policies are partly responsible for the soft-on-discipline behavior codes that have contributed to deteriorating conditions in schools, policymakers have a duty to address their mistakes.
At the federal level, President Obama's Dear Colleague letter threatened districts with legal action if their discipline rates showed disparities between different racial demographics. The guidance forced administrations into leniency regardless of local needs or preferences. In schools where I worked, we might have had a few students rack up more than a hundred office referrals over any given year, thus skewing the data and limiting administrators' ability to assign consequences to other students of the same race. If we removed the outlier students, our numbers became far more equitable. But federal directives cannot take such particularities into account.
Max Eden of the American Enterprise Institute reports that after this letter was issued, teachers widely agreed that student behavior worsened; many of them reported feeling unsafe in their schools. Even in progressive strongholds like Madison, Wisconsin, teachers didn't support leniency in response to misbehavior, but their opinions held no sway over a federal mandate.
Thankfully, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded the Obama-era guidance during the Trump administration. Even so, many states have local mandates enforcing similar standards. In 2021, the California legislature passed SB 607, which prohibits suspensions for defiance or disruption. On the surface, this bill seems fair: Is it really just to suspend a student for talking out of turn? Missing from this framing is the reality that when small disruptions become constant and widespread, they become far more noxious.
In a short report for AEI, Eden makes a compelling case for a policy that would encourage stricter behavioral codes: transparency. He points out that in anonymous polls, teachers support tough-on-behavior policies, but few of them speak out publicly for fear of reprisal. Fortunately, a handful of districts allow annual behavior audits that include anonymous surveys, which give us a window into teachers' views.
Some of the stories reported in these surveys are chilling. Teachers say things like "[w]e were told that referrals would not require suspension 'unless there was blood'" and "[s]tudents are throwing rocks at teachers. When they are sent down to the office, they [return] moments later." One teacher wrote, "[m]y life and the lives of my students were threatened this year and the child was in school the very next day."
As conservatives across the country push for curricular and instructional transparency, they might consider advocating behavioral transparency as well. Such policies would bring to light these incidents and increase pressure on districts to reconsider progressive approaches to discipline.
Of course, there's plenty of activist pressure in the other direction, and the media are generally sympathetic to restorative justice in schools. When North Carolina took steps to permit stricter discipline measures, the Associated Press ran the headline, "Senate Votes Against Policies to Soften Racial Disparities in School Discipline." Bad press from major media outlets and activist organizations tends to discourage school-board members from making difficult decisions. But if more districts implemented and published responses to anonymous teacher surveys, they would paint in vivid detail the reality of student misbehavior in many schools. As Eden puts it:
Faced only with the occasional admonishing letter from the SPLC or the ACLU, school boards are unlikely to rethink their policies. But faced with the constant, real concerns of teachers and students who don't feel safe in their classrooms, school board members would be far more likely to recalibrate their approach.
Finally, while school choice is not a panacea for educational woes, it would provide a necessary escape route for many families in unsafe schools. Eva Moskowitz, the founder and CEO of Success Academy, has said that in her experience, "[s]afety is the No. 1 reason parents want out of the district schools." It's all well and good to advocate restorative justice — until it's your child coming home with bruises or cuts from an altercation.
So long as administrators, professors, advocates, and district-level consultants push for restorative justice, disorder in schools will continue to worsen. To change minds and prompt districts to set clear behavioral expectations and consequences, policymakers should push for more behavioral transparency and repeal regulations that make it more difficult for teachers and administrators to hold students accountable for their actions.
States and localities across the country are still grappling with the fallout from police and school-discipline reform. As rates of violent crime and misbehavior in schools remain elevated, police departments are struggling to retain and recruit officers, while schools in many districts are facing severe teacher shortages.
Investigations into the causes of teacher exoduses in prior years, including a poll from the Policy Exchange, found that over 70% of teachers identified student behavior as a major cause. Data on the current teacher flight are harder to come by, but a poll from the National Education Association found that 90% of teachers say burnout is a serious concern; 76% identify student behavior as a driver of it. Local reporting in states like California confirms that many teachers are citing student behavior as a major reason behind their decision to quit the profession.
Conservatives nationwide are winning school-board seats and governor's mansions by combating critical race theory and gender ideology in the classroom; restoring order to schools could prove to be a similarly popular message. Any mayor, school-board member, or governor who promised safety in schools could attract an influx of parents to the voting booth. When their children are on the ballot, people vote.
Most of my own students didn't fear violence, but they dreaded constant disruption. Few were going to get punched in the face, but many would lose their temper after yet another paper airplane, another interruption, another cruel comment. They wanted to learn, and their inability to do so frustrated them most. Over the years, I had many students thank me for creating a silent work space amid a chaotic school day.
It's easy to sloganeer against suspensions and expulsions when you've never had 30 sets of eyes begging you to do something when you know you are powerless to respond to an outburst. "It just grinds you down," reads the title of the Policy Exchange report. For teachers, it means extra paperwork and emails, nagging questions over whether a response was effective, and looming anxiety about what sort of chaos the next day will bring.
Kicking a student out of school may seem unkind, but no child has a right to interfere with another child's education. When we abolish discipline, we're not abolishing consequences; we're merely asking other students and staff to bear them. How society ought to manage disruptive children is an unendingly complex and ethically fraught question, but we owe it to future generations to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to learn.