Civility: Key to Genuine School Reform

When they met last spring for the “Education Summit II,” the nation’s governors and several prominent corporate executives hoped to light a fire under American education. It needs it. The meeting’s co-chairmen, IBM chief executive Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. and Wisconsin Governor Tommy G. Thompson (R), started out under no illusions. Gerstner pointed out that everyone knows our educational system is broken, saying, “We are behind other countries…and in an increasingly global economy, I’m not liking our chances.”1

Educrats and teachers’ unions will take umbrage at such criticism. However, hard truths are truths nonetheless, as I have learned over a number of years as a public school administrator. Our education system still receives poor marks in the areas of high school completion, reading achievement, mathematics achievement at 12th grade, alcohol use and the gap in preschool participation between rich and poor. Reading achievement in the 12th grade is particularly bad. Worse, America fails miserably in its response to drug abuse and distribution on school grounds.2

Certainly, Maryland is no exception in this regard. Despite recent self-congratulation inspired by 1996’s one-point increase in the state’s average Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) score compared to last year,3 the fact remains that only 39.7 percent of Free State children score at the “satisfactory” level in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP).4 In Baltimore City, that figure plummets to a disgraceful 14.3 percent.5

Figure 1 illustrates the lack of correlation between taxpayer input and students’ output internationally. Furthermore, while urban school administrators continue to fret for more funds, in America only a fraction of every education dollar – typically about a third – actually makes it into the classroom. Money is therefore the wrong focus.6 The most pivotal reason for this country’s lackluster educational performance continues to revolve around the utter lack of civility that is all too evident in our schools, behavior that daily undercuts any attempt to address academic achievement. We can no longer assert the need to “set rigorous standards” and then ignore the very reason why this is unachievable. The number of classroom disruptions interfering with teaching, and the number of threats/injuries to teachers and students, grow exponentially.


Pervasive disrespectful, disruptive, violent behavior is the single most deleterious obstacle to learning. It is also the obstacle public school administrators and local boards of education most frequently fail to recognize, much less to address. Only when this is acknowledged – and followed up with strong policies for eradicating disorder from the classroom – can we talk seriously about raising student achievement throughout the country.

Many teachers say that they barely teach two-thirds of the course content that they once were able to do a few years ago because so much time is spent managing behavior in the classroom.7 Successful students, too, argue that their earned accomplishments come about in spite of the rampant disrespectful behavior by peers evidenced daily in classrooms, auditoriums, gymnasiums and corridors.8 Spending millions of taxpayer dollars as we do annually on curriculum design, classroom technology and so forth is pure folly when the way we operate schools is so seriously flawed.

The major impediment to national student achievement is institutional intransigence. School officials and local boards of education labor under a philosophy that has been espoused for 25 years and that results in schools’ tolerating disruptive, incorrigible behavior. Given what is still standard operating procedure in the nation’s schools, it continues to be no surprise that youngsters exit the average public high school lacking the most fundamental skills. At Maryland’s public universities and colleges, for instance, it is reported that 47 percent of freshmen for academic year 1994-95 needed remedial education.9 We are fast losing a generation of kids because of the timidity exhibited by too many school officials – officials lacking the fortitude to rid schools of the kind of poor behavior that steals dignity from school staff and other students.

Action Is Possible

There are methods by which public schools can control disruptive, incorrigible, violent behavior. Various state statutes and local school system policies (though frequently ill written or poorly enforced) provide the means to curb menacing behavior on school grounds, such as alcohol and drug activity, portable pagers and electronic devices, fighting, trespassing, verbal and physical assaults, and truancy.10 All the same, too many school policies on student discipline are written more to avoid legal entanglements than to send the clear message that disruptive, intractable behavior will not be tolerated.

There exist specific school laws concerning arrests, questioning on school premises, and search and seizures.11 One of the more relevant changes to Maryland law adopted by the General Assembly during the 1996 legislative session was the recently enacted Senate Bill 221, broadening the latitude of school administrators in the area of suspension and conducting searches of students on school grounds.

However, the salutary effect of such policies and statutes is contingent on the degree to which school officials employ them consistently. The lack of consistency is often due, in part, to weak and inept school officials too concerned with image. They fear criticism by state officials and others if suspension rates appear too high; they fear the sight of police cruisers responding on the school grounds; they rationalize that it is far better to deny that problems exist and to continue band-aid approaches, if the behavior is dealt with at all. It does not occur to them that a proactive approach would, in the long run, reduce instructional interference, enhance student achievement on a wider scale, and provide a better service to the citizenry.

A nurturingly aggressive advance on menacing behavior would in all likelihood see an eventual diminution of suspensions and the accompanying anxiety that many officials feel when dealing with uncooperative parents or guardians. Such an advance would provide a safe and secure environment that the majority of students and staff would find conducive to academic and extracurricular achievement.

Substantive teaching and learning occur only in an atmosphere that contributes to study and concentration in a consistent fashion. Students for whom the abdication of personal responsibility has brought no social opprobrium or disciplinary action need to be restrained. While the nation should not give up on these students, neither should they remain in schools to poison the atmosphere for those who want to learn, want to succeed.

There are some successful schools dotting the nation’s landscape. But they mostly operate differently from public schools. The Hyde School in Maine and several schools in Dayton, Ohio operate school programs where values and character are the first, most important lessons in the curriculum. Most public schools, however, appear to have lost their sense of mission.

Many obstinate school officials will say otherwise. Nevertheless, the educational results achieved remain a clear indictment of the continuing practices of catering to the lowest denominator and of offering limp to zero support to teaching staff. Some educators over the years have thought it humane to tolerate disruption in the attempt to work with the disrespectful student. This perspective is foolhardy, resulting in the inept handling of issues of disruption and violence in an attempt to placate many different constituencies. So scores of conscientious students of all ethnicities, socio-economic levels and backgrounds are cheated out of learning.

Schools have defined deviancy down and, like much of today’s society, accept ill behavior that would have been considered inappropriate in a previous, more ordered and civilized society. Nowhere is this more blatant than in our current public schools which, sadly, reveal the statistics shown in table 1.

It is clear that too many of America’s public school teachers must perform under combat conditions. Certainly there are other forces at work that contribute to our national educational malaise, not the least of which are the continuing deterioration of the family, poverty, loss of family and societal values, and the negative impact of the television, motion picture and music industries. However, none is more responsible, more prominent than a failed system of education that continues to make excuses for disruptive behavior that is continually allowed to exist in schools.

What Next?

American education will improve with attention given it by corporate leaders and public authorities, particularly the state and local legislators who fund and authorize public school programs. Officials should insist on clear, tough and consistent disciplinary procedures if student behavior – and academic achievement – are to improve. Four principles must characterize specific actions:

First, disruptive and violent behavior receives zero tolerance. Second, discipline is even-handed, regardless of ethnicity, gender and socio-economic background. Violations of school system policies – whether committed by elementary school-age youngsters who physically assault teachers and administrators or high school students who fight, disrupt classes, discharge pepper spray or fire handguns – should result in swift, firm and serious consequences, uniformly applied, that send a consistent message that uncivilized behavior will not be tolerated. To concerns that such a regimen might have a racially disproportionate impact, one can do no better than to quote Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers (no conservative, he): “We don’t base parking tickets on the race of the driver, and we can’t use it to decide questions of school discipline.”17 Third, substantive discipline is a kindness that contributes to personal growth and freedom. Fourth, there is a return to the appropriate mission of schools, refocusing efforts on teaching youngsters to read, to compute, to write, to speak and to think critically.

Additional steps must also be taken. For example, we should encourage parental involvement via use of “parent contracts,” acknowledging their full responsibility for their children. We must hold parents accountable for their disruptive students by requiring that they accompany their children to classes. We need to invite students to be part of the solution to troubled schools by eliciting their input. One of the principle benefits of these actions is that they would not cost taxpayers anything.

Also, we should establish community service for those students on suspension, where students would demonstrate an understanding of compassion, respect, humility and responsibility by helping others or working to improve the community. This might include supervised mentoring of younger peers in need of academic assistance. It is not to be confused with the current Maryland community service requirements for graduation, a social-engineering program that wastes taxpayer dollars and resources on transportation and the provision of substitute teachers.

Schools need to provide “time-out rooms,” staffed by a paraprofessional and community agency staff to work with the disruptive student who needs to be removed immediately, if temporarily, from the classroom setting. Only then can there be a return of order that will allow the continuation of teaching and student academic achievement. The disrupter would receive counseling and be required to complete a written apology and behavior contract before being given the opportunity to return to class.

We must require the establishment of “transitional schools” for habitually disruptive students. Due process would be exacted at all times, but one’s record would dictate mandatory placement. No longer would faint-hearted school officials or uncooperative parents be allowed to return the repeated disrupter to the regular classroom. Those students placed in these transitional schools would remain in these settings receiving instruction, therapy and counseling until a substantive change in behavior had been demonstrated. Additionally, their families would bear a responsible portion of the cost of such placement (or be expected to volunteer considerable time to the schools, if finances were strained), to defray the costs to taxpayers. Relatedly, we need to establish “afternoon auxiliary centers,” with supervised open classrooms and gymnasiums after the regular school day for those students wishing additional academic assistance or participation in cultural and extracurricular activities.

This country must insist that school officials review – and rewrite, if necessary – student discipline codes with a view to including the input of parents, teachers, students, local police and health departments. Expensive? Possibly, but close scrutiny of school system budgets regularly reveals a host of extraneous programs that do not directly impact instruction and student achievement. These should be redlined. Combined with various community/business partnerships and foundation grants, savings gained from cutting these nonessential programs could then be used to provide funding for time-out rooms, transitional schools, school-within-school programs, literacy initiatives, and afternoon auxiliary programs that would directly and dramatically impact student achievement in meaningful ways.

It is encouraging to see that state officials intend to make “character education” a part of the school curriculum.18 However, care must be taken to see that the program sticks to basics, ensuring that students know what is expected of them at all times and in all circumstances – on and off school grounds. School systems must avoid the vacuous and politically motivated “values clarification” puffery espoused by teachers’ unions and feckless school officials looking for self-aggrandizement. Educators and parents, along with students, community members and public officials, must recognize the need to counter pervasive disrespectful, disruptive and violent behavior by integrating traditional values into students’ experiences. Surely, such traits as honesty, courtesy and responsibility transcend race, ethnicity and socio-economic status.

It would be useful if the state adopted the use of breathalyzer tests to stop rampant alcohol and drug use on school grounds. Cooperative efforts with local law enforcement would make a positive dent on a problem that claims too many young lives. In fact, this is current practice in several public and private schools throughout the country. They counter civil-liberties concerns with the argument that, just as public policy prohibits use of alcohol or drugs on public school grounds, the schools, acting in loco parentis, must do all they can to provide a safe and orderly environment. Practicing schools cite support from both parents and the student body.

When hiring new staff, schools should give preference to retired military personnel, who offer a superb resource of talent. Many have baccalaureate degrees and substantial training and expertise in scientific, technical and other areas. State and local legislators could encourage or require school systems to be flexible in their certification requirements and encourage these people to become involved in education. Many have an interest in administrative internships, working with errant youth, assisting with truancy and after-school detentions, coordinating student activities, providing one-on-one instruction in classes, and tutoring or other programs fostering stability and achievement.19

Maryland should require school systems with recurring disruption and violence to provide adequate security personnel in schools and on school grounds immediately. Interlopers trespass on school grounds regularly. Having adequate security in school buildings and on school grounds is a must if students, teaching staff, administrators and communities are to perform and succeed. We must recognize that combining resources and paring school budgets of non-essentials is a must in order to realize this necessity.

Legislators should also require that every high school employ reading specialists to work with the scores of students who, though 14-20 years of age, are at a third- or fourth-grade reading level. If these students are forced to build their skills, they will be less frustrated and less inclined to behave negatively; further, their improved understanding of material will bolster their self-concept. This morale boost will have been gained from personal achievement, unlike the current ersatz self-esteem measures, which are nothing more than nebulous feel-good exercises that undermine real education.

Education is the biggest draw on the state and local public purse. Legislatures should cut off state funds to local school districts that tolerate disruptive behavior, which is why the state should not be criticized for demanding higher standards from the Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) establishment. In return for $254 million in extra state aid over five years, the city on November 12 agreed to share school-board and BCPS-management selection with the state.20 This a welcome development because it makes the city more accountable to the state, which provides about two-thirds of the BCPS annual budget. This said, there is no particular reason to suppose that student output will improve dramatically, if at all. The $254 million will mean about seven percent extra BCPS expenditure per year. Yet, from 1990 through 1996, BCPS spending increased by 14.6 percent in real terms – with no corresponding scholastic improvement.21 Legislators should examine school staffing, departing from the rigid formulas that assign staff according to the number of students; rather, community-specific “at-risk” needs should dictate the number of staff to work with our youngsters.

Many states have so-called “academic standards.” However, what this country desperately needs is a renewed self-respect and a sense of integrity gained from decisive action against the breakdown of civilized behavior in many schools. When this is acknowledged, we will enjoy better, stronger and more substantive academic standards. There is a continuing active role for legislators, parents, employer and communities in this effort to work with schools and, in the process, move our children to world-class standards. It must be recognized, however, that disrespectful behavior and disruption steals learning and smothers instruction, and in the process, pilfers the honor, potential and future from all students.

Public schools continue to forsake the individual rights of far too many conscientious students and teachers who deserve an environment conducive to teaching and learning, devoid of disruption and chaos. A palpable interest by local and state officials can return civility and compassion to the schoolhouse. It would also offer more hope and more accountability, producing long-term payoffs, including reduced interference in instruction, reduced drop-out rates, less reliance on costly social programs and a better-educated work force. America’s parents, school children and their teachers richly deserve the attention and support our state executives, legislatures, corporations and local officials have the opportunity to give.

Mr. Wallis, recognized nationally on issues of student discipline and school disruption, is a Baltimore/Washington area public high school administrator. He is the author of an education policy paper for the Heritage Foundation.

End Notes

[Top] 1. Rene Sanchez, “Business Leaders Urge Governors to Make Higher School Standards a Priority,” Washington Post, March 27, 1996, p. A6.

[Top] 2. National Education Goals Panel, “1995 Education Progress Report.”

[Top] 3. John M. Biers, “SAT Scores Rise by Point Across State,” (Baltimore) Sun, August 23, 1996, p. 1B.

[Top] 4. Howard Libit, “School Test Scores Improve, but only 40% ‘Satisfactory,'” (Baltimore) Sun, Dec. 13, 1995, p. 1A.

[Top] 5. Libit, “School Test Scores Improve.”

[Top] 6. Douglas P. Munro, “How to Find Out Where the Money Goes in the Public Schools,” Heritage Foundation State Backgrounder, No. 955/s, August 10, 1993.

[Top] 7. Various Baltimore/Washington public school teachers, interviewed by the author on the effects of student disruption on instruction, Feb. 4, 1994, Columbia, Md.

[Top] 8. Various public high school students in the Washington metroplex, interviewed by the author on the effects of student disruption on instruction, May 16 and June 2, 1994, Great Falls, Va. and Columbia, Md.

[Top] 9. Marego Athans, “25% in Md. Public Colleges Ill-Prepared,” (Baltimore) Sun, September 25, 1996, p. 1A.

[Top] 1. Annotated Code of Maryland, Education Article,

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