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The Real Learning Barrier

September 19, 2003

Opponents of the school accountability movement complain about the time that standardized testing takes away from instruction. But a new nationwide survey shows that teachers are far more vexed by the time and effort they spend trying to tame unruly classrooms than they are by tests. How can they hope to meet improvement goals when some students' behavior makes it hard for everyone else to learn?

Even more interesting, the survey by the nonprofit Public Agenda found that students were almost as bothered as their teachers by rude classmates. And more than 40% of both groups said teachers spent less time teaching than trying to quell disruptive behavior ranging from threats of violence to rudeness and classroom clowning.

School reform can't take root in an out-of-control classroom. Yet policymakers and administrators have all but ignored that old classroom basic, discipline. Administrators blame teachers, according to the survey, saying that kids act up because the lessons aren't interesting enough. That's a weak excuse for inaction. Everyone wants students to feel engaged, but a boring lecture is no excuse for disruptive behavior. In the adult world, everyone sits through meetings he or she would rather skip.

Even college professors report increasing behavior problems, with students showing up late and carrying on cellphone conversations during lectures. The University of Arizona has started showing classroom behavior videos to its freshmen. Employers report that the boorish behavior has extended into the workplace.

Research shows that orderly, well-disciplined schools prevent unruly behavior rather than just react to it. They have principals who walk the campus regularly, rather than holing up in an office. They train teachers in classroom management. They set clear rules and ask students for ideas about what these should be. They treat students and parents warmly.

Principals and top officials at these well-run schools give teachers the authority to discipline kids and support them when they do it, the studies find. They don't give in to complaining or threatening parents without good reason.

New York City schools this fall are making a fresh attempt at restoring classroom discipline. A new discipline code in the district is both flexible and clear. The district has set up learning centers, in partnership with community groups, for chronically ill- behaved students. The idea is to keep them from wrecking things for the kids who want to learn, while addressing whatever is causing the bad behavior. Time will tell whether this works, but at least officials at high levels are no longer just placing blame.

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