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EDUCATION | ON LEARNING / RICHARD LEE COLVIN

Student Conduct Growing Worse, New Study Finds

October 21, 1998|RICHARD LEE COLVIN

Playing hooky. Showing up late for class. Mouthing off to the teacher. Breaking the rules. Smoking in the boys' room--or the girls' room.

All relatively minor disturbances, at least in comparison with the incidents of school violence that grab the headlines.

But a new study from the Educational Testing Service finds that such misbehavior is on the rise in public schools nationally. Moreover, the report, titled "Order in the Classroom," documents for the first time what experience tells us is obvious: Such disruptions damage learning.

The problems caused by disruptive students are widespread. One in five principals is battling with students who verbally abuse their teachers--up from 13% in 1990. Two-thirds of the principals reported that tardiness was a problem in 1997, up from 50% of the schools in 1990.

Forty percent of California junior high and high school students polled last year by The Times reported that their classes are disrupted in such ways every day. An additional 18% put the frequency at three to four times a week

The new report analyzes data collected from 14,000 high school seniors from all 50 states. The students also had been interviewed as eighth-graders and 10th-graders and each year had taken tests in reading, math, science and social studies. The data made it possible to see the connection between misbehavior and test scores.

Not surprisingly, those who reported taking drugs or being suspended from school had lower scores in all subjects. But so did students who reported that they had committed even minor offenses--such as cutting class or talking back to a teacher.

The key point is this: "The consequence of student disorder is not merely more disorder; disorder also erodes the learning environment for all students."

Discipline, then, should not be a side issue for educators. It's just as important as working on the quality of instruction. In fact, the report concludes, one is not possible without the other.

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Minor offenses are important for another reason. Those who reported skipping school or other problems as 10th-graders were more likely to report more serious misdeeds--such as taking drugs--as seniors.

Such problems are not inevitable, however. Schools that strictly enforced rules requiring hall passes at all times and prohibited students from leaving campus during the day reported fewer problems.

Another way to cut down on misbehavior is less obvious--making classes more interesting. Good teaching, the report said, "will capture students' attention and their respect."

More serious offenses, such as fighting or taking drugs, can be cut with firmness--suspending or expelling violators.

Interestingly, the researchers found that the increasingly popular practice of requiring students to wear school uniforms seems to have no effect on student discipline.

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California schools vary little from the rest of the nation when it comes to crime and violence at school, according to the study. About the same percentage of the state's eighth-graders--one in 10--say they feel unsafe at school. Six percent of them say drug use is a problem at their school, also virtually the same as the national average.

California's junior high school students report more racial or cultural conflicts than their peers nationwide. Sixteen percent of the state's eighth-graders say such tensions are moderate to serious; nationally, the figure is only 4%.

Given that our classrooms are the most diverse in the country, that's probably not surprising.

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The report came out last week at the same time the White House convened a national meeting on school violence--a reaction to last year's string of school shootings that left 16 dead and dozens injured.

Sitting beside First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton during that conference was Marleen Wong, director of mental health services for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

According to government data, school crime is down and violence is far more likely to occur in communities than on campuses. Nonetheless, many children are afraid at school.

Wong said schools must be on the lookout for bullying and work to reduce tensions between different groups. Schools need to "teach students how to build better relationships" to help them feel more comfortable.

"If you have to attend to survival issues, you aren't able to attend to learning as much," she said.

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