After the senate’s confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education last Tuesday, many public school students were understandably up in arms. A number of students in New York City public schools staged a walkout, and the hashtag “#ProudProductOfPublicSchools” trended all over the country. The protests and hashtag served as a demonstration of students’ belief in the power of public schools to effectively prepare them to for future careers and opportunities. However, when thinking about the flaws in educational systems—both in America and in the rest of the world—the issue of discipline is a problem that is often overlooked. DeVos is a well-known advocate of private schools and non-traditional public schools, but she has little to no experience in the realm of public education. Advocates of these programs seem to believe that the more resources are funneled towards a self-selected group of students, the better academic performance will be. However, in both public and private schools, the way we discipline students is most flawed when it fails to consider the individual circumstances and backgrounds of its students. Before deciding what type of school a child should attend, it is important to consider how schools deal with student behavior to create higher performance standards both inside and outside the classroom.
It was after I began working with different tutoring organizations that I began to notice the current disciplinary system. Students who misbehaved often struggled with lower self-esteem, academic trouble, or family complications. When they acted improperly, teachers reprimanded them through force and humiliation rather than seeking out the root of the problem. As a result, the misbehaving students continued to misbehave—not because they failed to understand the punishment, but because the causes of their behavior had gone unaddressed.
Routine disciplinary actions like detentions or suspensions are not intended to be empowering, and only continue the cycle of “crime and punishment” for students throughout their educational careers. However, particularly in public schools with lower funding, it is difficult to ensure that a student’s basic needs are attended to before considering the best form of punishment. DeVos seems to think that the solution is to invest more money into private schools, but putting students into more specialized schools doesn’t change their background. Disciplinary issues will arise no matter what school a student attends.
Schools tend to become authoritarian: If a teacher finds themselves without the resources to effectively help each student, it seems more efficient to simply maintain order through basic disciplinary actions. According to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education on the 2011–12 school year, of more than 49 million students in public schools, 7.7 million served either an in-school suspension, an out-of-school suspension, or were expelled. Larger public schools in segregated areas, like Ridgeland High School in Jackson, MS, tend to punish students for seemingly minor offenses: High school student Rockmon Allen recalled receiving a detention or in-school suspension for talking out of turn, questioning the teacher, or arriving tardy to class. Instead of working toward a better standard of behavior, students like Allen missed out on educational opportunities and advancement in the time they spent in detention or pulled out of class for an in-school suspension. All the while, the root of Allen’s behavior was never directly addressed or discussed, and the number of minor offenses became a major issue. For poorer public schools, where the quantity and quality of resources are insufficient to begin with, directing funds towards private schools will only exacerbate the problem.
Poor performance, of course, is not just an issue that affects public schools. The disciplinary system across American educational institutions has always been more focused on removing insufficient performers from the classroom instead of creating a welcoming environment to address the issues. This is reflected in the fact that the charter schools DeVos supported in Michigan now boast some of the state’s lowest test scores: Having more resources and choices does not necessarily create better students. A self-selected group of students will not naturally outperform those in public schools unless the attention given to each child is sufficient. This is why programs targeting disability and differing performance levels are so important: The best way to improve American schooling is to acknowledge the varying abilities and backgrounds of the students. DeVos’s demonstrated lack of knowledge concerning the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act caused an uproar because it suggests that students in America might not all be given equal opportunities in the classroom. The relevance of this policy is apparent—in the same way, disciplinary reform should reflect the individual needs of students.
Every school in America should strive to create a more understanding environment for the students it is teaching. Teachers cannot change where a student comes from, their strengths as a learner, or their personality. However, they can change the relationship that each student has with their educational experience by ensuring that obstacles are addressed before reverting to punishment. Considering the background of each individual child will result in a more positive schooling experience for all and lead struggling scholars down a path for success.
Ashvini Kartik-Narayan is a first-year in the College.