One of the biggest problems I see in education reform and education policy in general is ahistoricity: policies are often enacted with little attention to the historical context of what’s been tried before. Additionally (and more relevant to this post), when new policies are enacted, previous policies are dismissed with a level of vitriol that makes it seem as if they were cooked up by evil masterminds bent on ruining kids’ lives.

Take what’s happening in the national conversation on school discipline right now: we are seeing a mass convergence of federal, state, and local governing bodies moving away from zero-tolerance, heavy-suspension policies and toward restorative practices. While I certainly support this movement and am thankful to be working in an environment wherein current policies align with my personal beliefs and experiences, I also have to chuckle a bit at the way in which we are now discussing the zero-tolerance movement.

The Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994 (from which zero-tolerance policies sprung) was passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority and had broad public support. People thought we were finally getting on the right track! Yes, we have now witnessed two decades of the deleterious effects of this legislation, but at the time, these policies were favored by those who claimed the moral high ground much in the way that supporters of restorative practices are doing now. (Joe Louis Clark expelled half his school and was a hero who got a movie made about him!)

Copious research now shows us why suspension-heavy policies are bad for kids. But it’s unfortunately also possible that in 20 years we’ll have an equal amount of research that shows the negative effects of restorative practices on schools. I certainly hope this is not the case, and I don’t think it will be, but it would be foolish to not at least acknowledge the possibility. You won’t hear many supporters saying this, of course, and I don’t blame them for that. They are trying to lead a movement that they genuinely believe will help kids.

But it’s also important to understand that every educational movement of all time was meant to help kids. Acting as though your movement is the first to have a true ideological purity is dangerous, and not just because it makes you seem arrogant: it sets you up to believe that your movement will succeed because it is “truly” what’s in the best interest of kids. If you believe that your side is the only one who “really cares,” you’re likely to pay less attention to the details that can sink your initiative, believing the righteousness of your intentions will win the day.

I’m sure this post reads as either cynical, nihilistic, or both, but I express these concerns because I have a nagging fear that if advocates are not careful and thoughtful, restorative discipline practices–which I believe in wholeheartedly–may wind up on the ash heap of once-promising initiatives.

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2 thoughts on “Getting caught in an ahistorical trap on school discipline

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