- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Unruly behavior in middle and high schools is a serious and pervasive problem that drives out teachers and undermines students’ academic achievement, according to a study released yesterday.

The study, which is based on surveys of teachers and parents by the nonprofit research group Public Agenda, said schools have gotten better at responding to problems such as weapons and drugs, but everyday behavior problems that don’t draw as much public attention still take their toll.

“This may be one of the most serious impediments to successful academic outcomes there is,” Public Agenda President Ruth Wooden said.

The report, titled “Teaching Interrupted,” says behavior problems mean students have less time to learn, partly because the teacher uses class time to discipline a few troublemakers but also because the troublemakers create an atmosphere that is not focused on learning.

“If you have a child in your classroom who is difficult to work with and they are setting a tone, you can have anything from a five-minute distraction to the loss of half a class period,” Tina Dove, a six-year teacher on hiatus, told the Associated Press.

“If you try to deal with that child in a way that’s going to have the least impact on everyone else,” said Ms. Dove, who lives in Alexandria, “that can take up an amazingly large period of your class. Before you know what happened, you’re behind.”

According to the report, the problem’s persistence has caused 34 percent of teachers to seriously consider quitting. The same percentage reported that teachers in their schools actually had left because they were fed up with student behavior.

A vast majority — 82 percent of teachers and 74 percent of parents — blame parents’ failure “to teach their kids discipline,” although smaller majorities of parents and teachers also identified pervasive disrespect in society and school overcrowding as causes.

Disrespect in society was identified by 73 percent of teachers and 68 percent of parents as a cause of discipline problems; overcrowding was identified by 62 percent of teachers and 54 percent of parents as a contributor to the problem.

Most teachers — 58 percent — also blame parents who challenge school-discipline decisions, 55 percent blame school districts that back down in such cases because they are worried about lawsuits, and 52 percent blame teachers who ease up on discipline because they worry that parents and administrators won’t back them up.

“The insertion of litigation and lawyers into the process … makes the stakes a little higher, makes the bill a little higher and slows the process down,” said Julie Underwood, general counsel for the National School Boards Association.

Ms. Underwood also cited U.S. Supreme Court rulings that students have a right to due process that has to be balanced against discipline.

“I think that the issue of student discipline has been an issue in education since we had the first student and teacher,” she said.

The report also cites new teachers who often don’t enter schools with training on how to deal with discipline problems.

For example, it quotes one second-year teacher who said, “It is kind of a sink-or-swim program right now. You are just thrown in there [to] see if you can handle it.”

The report, which was based on a mail survey of 725 public middle- and high-school teachers and a phone survey of 600 parents of public-school students, also suggested potential solutions. The survey was taken in March and April and was preceded by six focus groups. It has a margin of error of four percentage points and was financed by the legal-reform group Common Good.

Most teachers said they think schools can prevent serious discipline problems by enforcing small rules and confronting routine misbehavior such as talking out of turn, horsing around, cheating, arriving late, showing disrespect, bullying and acting rowdy.

“What I find amazing — and I teach middle school, seventh- and eighth-graders — is this lack of morals,” a New Jersey teacher was quoted as saying in the report.

“There’s just a disrespect for classroom materials; they’ll write all over things, desks, rulers,” the unnamed teacher said. “I don’t even think they think it’s wrong, and it just amazes me.”

Among teachers, 85 percent said the biggest discipline problem comes from a few students, and 78 percent said that, for the good of all, these students should be removed from regular schools.

Also, the survey found, 42 percent of teachers and 46 percent of parents strongly supported limiting parents’ ability to sue and receive monetary awards in discipline cases.

Holding parents more accountable for their children’s behavior won the support of 69 percent of teachers.

National Education Association spokesman Michael Pons said increased parent-teacher communication, reduced class size and reduced school size also could help improve discipline, though he also pointed out that complaints about student behavior problems are nothing new.

“If you go back 2,000 years, you hear Roman philosophers say, ‘Kids today just don’t have the same respect,’” he said.

Given the longevity of the problem, not everyone expects a change. Bruce Smith, the editor of Phi Delta Kappa magazine, said the issue comes up every year in the publication’s annual survey.

“It has been among the top three problems for more than 30 years,” he said, “and I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that 30 years from now they’ll still be saying that.”

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