Why Highly Punitive School Discipline Schemes in Low-Income Schools Are So Inappropriate

The following was cross-posted at @the chalk face.

On Sunday I posted my review of Kathleen Nolan's book, Police in the Hallways. Originally, I had intended for the post to be much longer, but as I reread it, I realized much of what I'd included was less about the book and more a discussion about factors that motivate students' oppositional behavior. Therefore, to ensure the book review remained a book review, I cut much of it out. So I'd like to use this post as an opportunity to share those thoughts, most of which were inspired by Nolan's book, which, again, I highly recommend.

Why Highly Punitive School Discipline Schemes in Low-Income Schools Are So Inappropriate

In Police in the Hallways, Kathleen Nolan describes how a "culture of control" gets along with a poorly performing large urban high school. Her study implies that the punitive measures accompanying NCLB, zero tolerance policies, and a heavy police presence are creating some very unsettling consequences in already struggling schools. Nolan provides clear examples for how this happens: security agents occasionally instigate incidents that turn into arrests, school-based staff experience a loss of moral authority, and minor infractions of DOE rules often lead to youth being introduced to the criminal justice system (incidents that are dealt with internally in a majority of schools). I explain this better in my review.

It's imperative that educators operating under a system designed to produce a "culture of control" understand the motivators students may have for oppositional behavior. This understanding allows them to react more appropriately. But this context is even more important for policymakers. Below are some insights from Police in the Hallways, and some from my own experiences in schools, that help shed light on how it feels for many children to attend school.

Let's start with the classroom. In low-income urban schools, the classroom can often offer many legitimate reasons for opposition. Consider a basic oppositional behavior like disrupting instruction. Students entering high school unprepared for grade-level work and knowledge of few to no legitimate legal job prospects afterward may have good reasons for acting out in class. As Nolan points out, mocking a teacher or her instruction may be intended to distract everyone involved from confronting the reality that that student is woefully unprepared to engage in the content being presented (or the form in which it's being presented - e.g. many teacher-centered/conversation or lecture-based courses fail miserably to meet many students' instructional needs). Alternatively, disruptions can also satisfy a need to make a mockery of a system students understand as a farce. Asking students to consider the nuances of Frankenstein and the author's comment on 19th-century industrial England might reasonably seem absurd to students who don't intend on going to college and aren't clearly shown its relevance to their lives.

And while I'll acknowledge that this same absurdity may be perceived in other types of schools where less oppositional behavior occurs, I think students in low-income urban schools often understandably have less trust in the system and experience less reinforcement for acting otherwise from family and peers. Teachers with culturally irrelevant, low-interest, poorly designed lessons are much more heavily punished for that in schools where many students have a long history of negative relationships with schooling.

But oppositional classroom behavior might also stem from other motivators. It might represent anger or frustration toward a teacher students feel doesn't share their background, and who the students might rightly believe doesn't understand them or their educational needs. (I think a few of these videos capture this dynamic nicely, especially Jeylan Erman's. You don't make a lot of connections with your students by telling them you gave up $80,000 on Wall Street at age 23 to come teach them.) Lastly, when students are unable to access institutionally appropriate means of success, they may search to reclaim a piece of their humanity by claiming success as the funniest or "baddest" in front of their peers. Despite what it may seem, my experience suggests that every student would jump at academic success if they felt it were really available to them, but, when they don't, they'll find other ways to feel like they have worth.

I find that teachers who experience these kinds of oppositional behaviors often interpret them as malicious, or personal attacks. However, their underlying purpose may be very different. Teachers (especially new teachers, whom you often find in challenging schools) often do not understand that their attempt to impose the kind of instruction they received in school (which may or may not have been effective when they were students) is often perceived to be a waste of time, and oppressive. After all, what is more oppressive than forcing a student to sit through hours of talking they may not understand or see any connection to? It's no wonder so many students compare the classroom to a prison cell.

When authority figures (teachers, principals, security agents, or police) react with consequences to such behaviors without seeking to assess their underlying cause, they may exacerbate the problem. It's not as if students don't have legitimate reasons to be upset, it's that they don't know how to express their concerns or act with self-advocacy. Moreover, when students feel they have a legitimate grievance, and their only means of conveying that grievance is met with punishment, they may feel righteous in pushing their cause further. And since most don't know how to do this effectively, to say nothing of the reality that many of them may not even understand what they're upset about, their reaction is often to act with even more opposition, which serves to generate more anger and distrust among the two sides. A vicious cycle of punishment and opposition ensues, which might have been stymied from the beginning by an adult who sought to find an understanding of where the behaviors were coming from.

Another very insidious problem that tends to arise out of relationships cultivated like this is widespread assumption of negative intent. When a large number of negative interactions have accumulated between students and staff, adults begin (often unconsciously) assuming that any student behavior that looks even mildly questionable is indicative of a student acting outside of school rules. This can lead to adults approaching students, some of whom have no negative intent, with derogatory tones or statements which serve to degrade trust, respect, and a sense of community.

One example of this comes from my own school. Some teachers always give students passes when they leave class, and others don't. I'm often tempted to approach students without passes with a negative attitude. "Why are you out of class? Where are you going? Why don't you have a pass?" I'll escort the student back to class, refusing to believe their teacher let them go to their locker in the first ten minutes of class without a pass. In most cases, I'm correct in assuming the student is ditching class. But I've encountered enough students whose teachers were at fault for their behavior to learn that if I'm not careful, I may develop a negative relationship with a student who doesn't deserve it. Interestingly, students also often feel it is unfair for teachers to assume negative intent even when the teacher is correct in doing so, which, in turn, damages the relationship. I guess nobody likes to be thought of as doing the wrong thing, even when they are doing the wrong thing. In any case, there are better ways to deal with these situations.

I've found that trust, respect, and community are VITALLY important in low-income schools. But they can be exceptionally difficult to maintain. As I intimated above, there are students who act with negative intent, and when confronted about it, will deny it like their life depended on it. New teachers, for example, may be tricked into interpreting their adamant refusal of guilt as a sign of innocence, only to discover later that the student was, in fact, doing something they shouldn't have been. The next time that teacher approaches a student who denies her guilt adamantly, there's a good chance they'll be influenced by their previous encounter, which may cause them to treat an innocent student unjustly, which may, in turn, lead to that student acting negatively even though they didn't intend to in the first place. Trust, community, and justice erode quickly. It is important, therefore, for adults to assume positive intent as long as possible, regardless of past experiences. If students are to grow, they must be continually given opportunities to do the right thing. Adults demonstrating a disbelief in their ability to do so will only discourage them. This is partly where the harm comes in policing public schools. It demonstrates institutional assumption of negative intent, and destroys trust, community, and respect.

Surely our discipline policies in these schools could be more effective were they to include greater consideration of basic human psychology. But what about other ways our current system provides motivation for oppositional behavior?

I often wonder how many of the people arguing over the policies critiqued in Nolan's book have actually seen, much less been in, a low-income urban school in a community like the South Bronx. Many of these schools appear institutional (negative connotations strongly implied). Surrounded by gates, they’re made of brick and their shapes are often square. The Taft building, for instance, a former comprehensive HS in the South Bronx, looks very much like a military barracks, surrounded by gates and barbed wire. On the inside, the buildings' walls are painted with dull, emotionless yellows, browns, and grays. If the buildings could speak, they probably wouldn’t. The humanity that exists in those buildings is forged by hardworking, compassionate people burdened by further institutional appendages such as a uniformed police presence.

It should be no surprise that students in these schools should be motivated to rebel. Their very environment screams oppression. All of which makes increased punishment for rebellion seem particularly unjust. We put people in systems that encourage rebellion, and then stomp down harder on them for doing so than we would students in more humane schools.

And then there's the way students are grouped.

Kathleen Nolan points out, as have many observers of education policy (particularly in cities like NYC), the effects of some of the policies in NCLB, RTTT, and districts in which choice plays a prominent role include an unsettling sorting of students. Charter schools, school vouchers, in-district schools of choice, and policies like those of the NYC DOE (in which parents and students are forced to navigate an astounding array of options in selecting a high school) often lead to the least motivated, least skilled, and most marginalized students being grouped in the same schools. As I noted in posts here and here, this often provides nearly irresistible opportunities for students to act in ways that don't support their learning. And students are aware of this. They often appropriate negative community assumptions about their school, and will say things such as: "This is a ghetto school; nobody comes here to learn," or "How can I learn here when nobody takes it seriously?"

Introducing choice into school systems without consideration of the negative ramifications has also led to numerous schools being forced to spend less time thinking about excellent instruction and curriculum, and more time considering how to best market themselves to the students they want to attract. This past spring, teachers and administration at my school spent a good many meetings attempting to figure out what we had to offer students. How should we market the school now that the district is offering "schools of choice?" We're concerned that our reputation, students' perceptions about the campus, and other schools' offerings of AP or extracurriculars is causing us to receive the majority of the district's reluctant, unmotivated learners - which I don't think would bother any of us if it didn't unfairly impact instruction, test scores, and, in turn, our prospects for future existence.

Although nobody designed it to be, this is also oppressive.

When we react to oppositional behavior, we must consider how many things, from instruction to building appearance to federal and state policies, act in ways that disproportionately provide motivation for low-income students to act in an in oppositional manner. Few people comply with persistently blatant and obscene mistreatment who haven't had the humanity beaten out of them, which means we should probably be more worried about the students who don't react negatively to these circumstances than those who do.

I don't write any of this to suggest that all disciplinary problems could be solved if teachers and administrators just understood where students were coming from. That's far from true. But I think it would eliminate a number of them. Furthermore, while I'm proud to have enough faith in humanity to believe that nobody sat down and asked what policies would be best for oppressing poor kids, that has often been an unintended result of following unquestioned assumptions about how to solicit compliance from students from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. God forbid we find ourselves creating schools that, in teaching students to become used to the language and routines of incarceration, are actually schooling them for prison rather than a meaningful life.

I'll leave this post wanting for suggestions for how school-based staff should behave in light of these realities (some of my links above have them, though). I'll save my thoughts on those for a later post. In the meantime, anyone with thoughts of their own should feel encouraged to comment. I'd love to hear them.


  1. Reading this makes me wish I had had someone like you as a teacher when I was going to school. Now that I'm a parent, my hope is that the teachers/school administration in charge of my son's education have the same thoughts and understanding you do. Thank you.


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