As parents send their children off for another school year, there is going to be a lot of talk about such issues as standards, testing, teacher quality, and the No Child Left Behind Act. Important issues, to be sure. But what we often neglect to examine at back-to-school time are the underlying conditions in classrooms and hallways that are hampering efforts to raise student achievement. Beneath the surface, too many students are losing critical opportunities for learning - and too many teachers are leaving the profession - because of an unruly, disrespectful, and sometimes violent atmosphere in American schools.
For years, Public Agenda has been asking teachers, parents, students, and school leaders about what works and what doesn't in American education. Consistently, we hear that lack of discipline in schools is a real barrier to learning.
Our 2004 survey on school discipline confirmed again that parents and teachers want an orderly environment for their children and students. Virtually all public middle and high school teachers and parents say good discipline and behavior are prerequisites for a successful school.
However, 4 in 10 teachers have told us that in their schools, teachers spend more time trying to keep order in the classroom than actually teaching. That equates to thousands of hours of lost instruction time. More than 1 in 3 teachers said colleagues in their school had left because student discipline was such a challenge, and the same number personally considered leaving for the same reason. Many in the focus groups complained about being more in the "crowd control" business than in teaching.
Education policy leaders worry about the challenges of implementing higher standards and often bemoan the rate at which teachers leave the profession. Yet very few focus on order and student behavior - areas that time and again teachers identify as serious impediments.
To be fair, most teachers and parents believe their schools are responding well to serious criminal offenses involving drugs or weapons. But it is the bad behavior lower down on the continuum that is so pernicious, so corrosive. Rowdiness, disrespect, bullying, talking out, lateness, and loutishness - these misbehaviors are poisoning the learning atmosphere in many public schools. One New Jersey teacher we talked to described it this way: "The gum chewing ... the yawning aloud or putting their feet up on the desk ... like they didn't know that was inappropriate."
What teachers and others find so frustrating is that so much undisciplined, unruly behavior is, well, just tolerated. Most of the teachers and parents we surveyed said that while real discipline problems are caused by just a few kids, most students end up paying the price.
Even when they want to, teachers said it is very difficult to control a student whose bad behavior persists. Most teachers we surveyed said outright that there are some students who are so badly behaved that they should be removed from the school. "We have students that just terrorize other students, and yet we can't get rid of them. And they know this," one teacher told us.
Why are we reluctant to talk about improved behavioral standards as a necessary precondition for improved academic standards - especially when the solutions that teachers and parents themselves identify are for the most part sensible and not impossible to implement?
In our survey, both parents and teachers said strictly enforcing the little rules in classrooms and hallways can create the right tone and stave off bigger problems. Our survey found that 61 percent of teachers and 63 percent of parents strongly support this.
The parents and teachers said they want schools to deal firmly - but sensibly - with persistent troublemakers: 70 percent of teachers and 68 percent of parents strongly support making sure kids know they'll be suspended or expelled for serious violations. More than half of teachers - 57 percent - and 43 percent of parents back alternative schools for chronic offenders.
Nearly 8 in 10 teachers said that students are quick to remind them that they have rights, and that their parents could sue over discipline issues. While legal remedies weren't the most preferred solutions to discipline problems, 42 percent of teachers and 46 percent of parents strongly supported limiting lawsuits to the most serious situations and 50 percent of teachers and 43 percent of parents strongly approved of removing monetary awards for parents who sue over discipline issues.
More than 3 in 4 teachers we surveyed acknowledged that "if it weren't for discipline problems, I could be teaching a lot more effectively." And more than 4 in 10 parents believe their children would be learning a lot more if teachers weren't so busy struggling for control.
That is a sad testimonial. It is time that the conditions in which our children learn - or don't - are given the consideration they're due.
• Ruth A. Wooden is president of Public Agenda, a nonpartisan, nonprofit opinion research and public engagement organization. Public Agenda's full 2004 report, 'Teaching Interrupted: Do Discipline Policies in Today's Public Schools Foster the Common Good?' is available at www.publicagenda.org.