Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Discipline: The "Dirty Little Secret?"

I often say that I spent two years trying to teach in the Bronx. Why trying? Because discipline problems in my school were so severe that it was sometimes hard to believe I was teaching much at all. I have no evidence on exactly how typical my school was, but it was abundantly clear that discipline issues were, far and away, the biggest problem.

I spent most of the day in a training session on how to use international datasets rather than attending sessions, so I was planning to go to sleep and not bore anybody with the details, but I just happened to notice Diane Ravitch's latest post right before turning out the lights.

Ravitch basically writes that discipline problems are a major problem in the United States b/c kids don't respect adults and that other countries don't have the same problem (she, of course, says this more eloquently). This immediately stirred a number of thoughts:

1. Based on my experiences, I couldn't agree more. Discipline is a major hurdle for a number of schools. It is much more important than standards or curriculum in these schools, but seems to be researched far less frequently. Is discipline not viewed as a serious problem by academics b/c it's limited to only some schools, b/c it's seen as more of an issue for the popular press, or something else?

2. Based on my research, I cannot uphold her claims. I've found zero evidence that the U.S. is an outlier in terms of discipline problems. There are, however, at least two major problems with my research so far: 1.) The international data on discipline is far from conclusive and 2.) I just found out today that the TIMSS international assessment does not use a nationally representative sample of teachers and, therefore, saying x% of teachers say that behavior is a major problem is not a valid statistic (I have to look at how many students have teachers who said this instead).

3. I wonder how widespread this problem is and how different it is from previous generations. The first question is somewhat easily answered while I'm not sure that it's possible to obtain an answer to the second. The U.S. did stand out in one way from other countries in my research: there was a stronger relationship between problems a principal reported in a school and the SES of the students (schools with poorer students reported both more frequent and more severe problems) than in any other country. I know discipline was the major issue in my school. I know discipline is the major issue in other schools where friends have taught. But I'm unsure how much of an issue discipline is across the country. Do adults always think that kids are less respectful than they should be, or do we have a real problem across the country?

p.s. I stole "dirty little secret" from a commenter on the Ravitch blog entry. I've used similar terminology in the past, but am too tired to think of exactly what it was. I may have more to say on this topic tomorrow.

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