REMEMBER the ominous paddle kept on a shelf or on a hook? It may be slowly slipping into the refuse bin, which is where that form of classroom discipline belongs. Last week the Supreme Court, by letting stand a lower court ruling, opened the way for federal lawsuits aimed at corporal punishment in the schools. The appeals court had ruled that excessive punishment by school authorities violated an individual's right to due process of law. In the case at issue, paddling had left scars on a third-grade girl.
At present, 11 states outlaw corporal punishment in schools. Another half dozen are considering such laws. But the practice of physical discipline - usually paddling, but sometimes forced exercise and other methods - is still widespread. Sadly, corporal punishment sometimes hitches a ride on the back-to-basics, get-tough-about-schooling bandwagon.
But let's get tough about corporal punishment for a minute. Are children who feel the sting of the paddle more likely to get down to their books? Or will they feel even deeper resentment of an institution they already don't like? What are children being taught when they're hit - that hitting has a legitimate place in resolving differences?
Certainly there are times when a teacher or administrator has to physically restrain a student. And anti-corporal punishment laws recognize this. When a child disrupts a classroom, he or she may have to be removed. Often the most painful punishment for a youngster is social isolation. The goal, of course, is a learning environment so engaging that disruptive behavior rarely arises.
Individual schools, principals, teachers, carry the primary responsibility of working toward that goal. When the work is done well, students realize they have a stake in their school. Then they don't want to see it disrupted by unruly behavior. Corporal punishment becomes truly outmoded. According to educational reformers, this can and does happen, even at tough, inner-city schools.
No job is more demanding, or more important, than teaching. Educators need access to every tool that furthers learning. The paddle is not such a tool.