Teachers voice concern over school discipline reform

Discipline reform efforts are pushing schools to cut back on suspensions and expulsions and prodding them toward alternative discipline policies that often leave teachers to manage behavior issues on their own.

These top-down approaches to reduce out-of-school suspensions can be problematic, according to a July 2019 study by the Fordham Institute. And teachers—who are tasked with carrying out the discipline reforms—feel the policies are creating unsafe educational environments.

The study surveyed a national sample of over 1,200 white and African American teachers in grade 3-12 classrooms for their take on school discipline. On one hand, teachers said newer disciplinary approaches (such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports and restorative justice) are “somewhat” effective. On the other, “establishing specific consequences for misbehavior” through suspension was viewed as useful and appropriate. When broken down by race, more African American teachers than white teachers (50 percent to 46 percent) said that out-of-school suspensions were “used too little.”

There is also an inconsistency in enforcing school discipline, teachers said. And the student behavior problems that result “contributed to a disorderly or unsafe environment that made it difficult for many students to learn.”

“The school system’s discipline policies don’t support the classroom teacher. I have observed students with chronic behavior problems repeat poor behaviors with little consequence,” shared one teacher in an optional survey question about additional experiences or views on school discipline.

“A student threatened to KILL me. NOTHING was done. The matter was NEVER addressed,” shared another teacher. “I was concerned about some of the students in the room as well as myself. I was made to feel that I was the problem.”

Almost half of the teachers surveyed said they put up with misbehavior in the classroom due to “a lack of administrative support.” (The Center recently wrote about a suburban elementary school that critics claimed spiraled into chaos and violence because of this very reason.)

“The lack of support by administration is causing teachers to leave the classroom. Inconsistent discipline is causing students to have no respect for administrators, so if you have trouble managing your classroom you literally have no support,” shared a teacher.

As appealing as the goals of newer disciplinary policies may seem (such as, keeping students in the classroom so they don’t miss out on learning time), it’s important to analyze the track record of these reforms and the perspectives teachers have about them before deciding they are the end all be all to creating safe, productive learning environments. Because, well, they aren’t.