I think virtually everybody is familiar with the "broken windows" theory of crime prevention made famous by Rudy Giuliani -- the notion that small amounts of disorder (e.g. broken windows) can, over time, foster more crime and that the way to prevent large amounts of crime is to crack down on small things before they snowball.
Well, now some researchers have conducted a series of experiments to test out this theory (hat tip: Ideas Blog). The experiments were small-scale. For example, they left an envelope with a 5 euro bill in it sticking out of a mailbox. People were twice as likely to steal the money if mailbox was covered in graffiti or surrounded by trash (abstract). Both the full paper and the article summarizing it are behind a subscription wall, but The Economist has a good synopsis of the findings here.
None of the experiments involve schools, but they do involve people breaking rules and not following directions -- something that happens an awful lot in some schools. The broken windows theory has received a lot of criticism, but I think a lot of this may be due to the way that policies were enacted rather than the underlying truth of the theory. I'd welcome hearing from somebody who disagrees, but it's hard for me to see the general theory as anything but intuitively true.
If you buy the theory, it leads one to believe that we should implement "zero tolerance" policies in our schools. But such policies have become a lightning rod for criticism. Why? Probably because they're zero tolerance for major infractions like bringing weapons to school and sexual harassment. Kids being suspended or expelled for bringing plastic knives or for kindergartners touching members of the opposite sex in ways they couldn't really comprehend was sexual has led to widespread disgruntlement with such policies.
While weapons and sexual harassment are huge problems and should be dealt with as such, they're far from the largest obstacles to learning on a day-to-day basis in most schools. That honor would go to minor issues like talking in class. I would argue that these are the true "broken windows" of schools.
And I think a lot of teachers know as such. A lot of the discussion amongst teachers in my school centered around relatively minor incidents that they believed served as tipping points in their classroom. For example: a teacher next door to me my first year had a student that was momentarily out of control and clearly crossed the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Just then the Asst. Principal stepped into the room and asked if the teacher needed anything. The teacher replied that they needed the AP to remove the student from the classroom for a few minutes. The AP declined to do so. And from that point forward, students knew they could get away with things that they had previously believed they couldn't.
Now, that's not really a true fit for broken windows theory, but I could tell a thousand other similar stories. The bottom line is that it was quite clear to me that students were more likely to act up when they perceived that such actions were acceptable b/c they seemed to be the norm in the classroom, hallway, cafeteria, etc. As such, it seems that a zero-tolerance policy of some sort is wholly merited. How else to prevent the chaos that reigns in too many (note: "too many" does not imply anywhere near a majority) schools today. But how to implement one?
In other words, can a school implement a zero-tolerance policy in a way that is neither draconian nor militaristic? The closest I've seen to such policies (though I'm not sure they're 100% non-draconian/militaristic) is in the so-called paternalistic schools that David Whitman profiles. The schools go to great lengths to ensure that not a single infraction goes unnoticed, no matter how small. I'm not sure that all schools confronted by discipline problems should (or can) mirror these policies, but I think the theory behind them is sound.