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When I went to school, corporal punishment was still a thing; California banned it in 1986. Did we miss it, really? No, we didn’t. Last September, new discipline guidelines for California schools were announced that limited suspensions. Do we miss the old policy, really? No, we don’t.

This week, I decided to look back at what EdSource wrote about the changes six months ago, and I re-read the letters in response. Oh my.  They were furiously apocalyptic. I will quote only one mild one: “This is Absolutely Absurd — no discipline, no accountability.” Were these letter writers right? Have we gotten rid of “discipline” or “accountability”? Have things gotten worse in our schools since the policy changed? Not really.

I can only see the view from where I teach in a Los Angeles public high school, but I think things have improved. Sure, there are still some difficult students who would be much better off in a nonpublic school, and there have been a few fights, but the police are gone, and there are barely any suspensions. The mood of the school seems positive. The reforms have worked. 

The culture of discipline and punishment we have lived with offers a choice that every school makes, just as cities like Los Angeles have had to decide whether to make sweeping criminal justice reforms. Schools that buck the trend and continue to dole out punishment for minor “infractions” end up producing the very thing they wanted to attack: more bad behavior. The happiest schools are those where they know when to turn a blind eye.

This is why I believe the absolute worst job in education today is being responsible for “discipline.” There are ways to do this job without being overzealous, without resorting to harassing students (or teachers), but this job changes people for the worse. After a time, when every nail they see needs to be hammered, they become consumed by it. I see this in other administrators and teachers too.

What would I prefer to see? I believe that schools need to apply “least restrictive environment” (LRE), a concept important in special education, which I teach, to school discipline. I know many teachers who would be very uncomfortable adopting this approach, but, if least restrictive environment is central to the mental health of special ed students, who are generally our most challenged, why cannot it be applied to all students?  This approach should be formalized in state law and discussed in district-sponsored workshops and professional development sessions. 

When state Sen. Anthony Portantino wants to require mental health training for teachers and staff (Senate Bill 387), he is addressing the problem from the wrong end. It serves no point to drum into teachers that the pandemic has led to student depression and disaffection because teachers know this already. The individualized solution — spotting the distressed student and making referrals to our new wellness specialists and psychiatric social workers — doesn’t address what’s wrong at school. A better goal would be to identify and implement the least restrictive environment approach at a whole-school level and allow students to indulge in their natural urge to laugh and have fun. Lunchtime music and events in the central quad of my school are but one example. 

Why else would we do this? First, the relationship between teachers and students has changed over the years, just as society has changed, and we need to accept this, not fight against it, nor blame parents. Authoritarian and hierarchical teaching styles and discipline simply don’t work anymore. I am always surprised when conservatives insist that they do. They should visit a classroom. Respect and civility still matter, but teachers and students need to earn it from each other, by working collaboratively on shared goals. This minimizes conflict and the need for discipline.

Second, if we want to build on this collaboration, then project-based learning and diverse electives and sports are the best way to meet academic goals, not the single-minded pursuit of English and math, and we need a different grading system to match. I am always delighted when my wobbly ninth graders discover how much they love music or art or dance or wrestling. It steadies them.

Third, discipline problems arise because certain students don’t think school offers them what they need. The unrelenting drive to send all students to college causes a lot of unwelcome stress. This becomes a discipline problem closely related to absenteeism because many of my students want to leave school right now. They want to work with their families in construction or house cleaning or day care, partly because they can’t afford not to and partly because they do not want to go to college. We should be providing them with classes that will make them effective in their chosen careers, such as via career tech education. Our job is to present alternatives, not enforce our choice over theirs.

•••

Martin Blythe teaches special education English at Canoga Park High School in Los Angeles and is a member of EdSource’s Teachers Advisory Group

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  1. Leave teaching 2 months ago2 months ago

    I truly feel sorry for any students who are in your class because I know first hand what it was like to go through this hell that you promote. Stop ruining education! I saw this new age philosophy cause so much suffering to an amazing teacher who was already going through total hell. I saw what it did to my teachers who were amazing btw who became so miserable when that new age principal came and ruined our school culture.

  2. Ellen 2 months ago2 months ago

    Yes it does work. What is happening today is a joke with the b.s. restorative justice. More teachers and students are getting physically and verbally assaulted. Why do you think so many teachers are leaving?

  3. Rob Phillips 2 months ago2 months ago

    I so couldn't agree more regarding this.. all the old methods of discipline only create more problems with rebellion, anger, that then lead to depression, hopelessness, and create a repetitious cycle and destructive path. Though harsh discipline may seem to work in the immediate, the long term can really be destructive for the students. And also lead to lack of enthusiasm for school, learning etc. ... which obviously know where all this leads to. I … Read More

    I so couldn’t agree more regarding this.. all the old methods of discipline only create more problems with rebellion, anger, that then lead to depression, hopelessness, and create a repetitious cycle and destructive path. Though harsh discipline may seem to work in the immediate, the long term can really be destructive for the students. And also lead to lack of enthusiasm for school, learning etc. … which obviously know where all this leads to. I think more emphasis should be put on ADHD, Asperger’s and similar. I know how hard it is to focus and not get bored then frustrated with things such as schoolwork and mass overloads of repetition which though important to keep fresh, really unnecessary for the amount contained to do so.

    Replies

    • Martin Blythe 2 months ago2 months ago

      Thank you Rob. Exactly!

  4. Bob Smith 2 months ago2 months ago

    Strongly disagree with this. Students are too fragile these days. Do one thing and all of a sudden you are sexist, racist, too mean, too whatever. Let the kids figure it out on their own and let them hit rock bottom on their own (non special needs kids). You should learn at a young age the value of an education and simply have your own motivation to reach those goals. It really isn't that hard. … Read More

    Strongly disagree with this. Students are too fragile these days. Do one thing and all of a sudden you are sexist, racist, too mean, too whatever. Let the kids figure it out on their own and let them hit rock bottom on their own (non special needs kids). You should learn at a young age the value of an education and simply have your own motivation to reach those goals. It really isn’t that hard. The kids that care will always care and try, the kids that don’t eventually have to find their own way, and if getting in fights and not listening to rules and authority sends them out the door, so be it. Teachers have 30+ other students that need/want to learn, 1 student getting kicked out won’t make a difference but changes the whole mood and tone of the class when they get kicked out.

    Simply speaking of the talk back attitudes, high/drug abusing students. By all means help those that struggling with anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses but the don’t care attitude ones, let them go.

  5. C. Corigliano 2 months ago2 months ago

    Plato said most succinctly: You cannot discipline the mind without disciplining the body. Those making these changes should spend a few weeks teaching 6 periods a day in my school. Then ask them about the new rules. Just sayin’

  6. tm 2 months ago2 months ago

    Kids need structure. Letting them go willy nilly is not the answer; this is why the whole education system is buckling now. However, I do believe that enforcing college for all students is wrong.

    We do need to give them alternatives, ones that we as adults did not have. But what do you do with the students that do not want any of the alternatives? That part time job they had is no longer enough. What then?

    Replies

    • Martin Blythe 2 months ago2 months ago

      Hi tm, I worry that you are misreading what I wrote. Of course students need structure but that's different from "discipline." No one would recommend doing away with it, but we can definitely improve it in the ways I suggested in the article. I'm not sure what your last questions refer to but we (schools) can help students grow in the direction they want to go. That's our job, right? Sure, there are some students … Read More

      Hi tm, I worry that you are misreading what I wrote. Of course students need structure but that’s different from “discipline.” No one would recommend doing away with it, but we can definitely improve it in the ways I suggested in the article. I’m not sure what your last questions refer to but we (schools) can help students grow in the direction they want to go. That’s our job, right?

      Sure, there are some students who don’t want anything we offer – I’ve had a few but they were always respectful – and they may have to find their path after they leave school. We do what we can and we often succeed.

      • Todd Smith 2 months ago2 months ago

        I’m very curious, what school do you teach at or what district are you in? Your experience doesn’t seem to match the average teachers’ experience at the moment.

        • Martin Blythe 2 months ago2 months ago

          Hi Todd – it’s at the bottom of the article.

      • Todd Smith 2 months ago2 months ago

        Your experience doesn't seem to match the average teachers' experience at the moment. Have you considered that maybe your philosophy is not as effective as you might believe it to be? Beside your own classroom/school anecdotes, what evidence do you have to prove that this is working anywhere? If it is truly effective, maybe be specific about the reasons you think it isn't working in practice.... Or, please be specific about how you think this … Read More

        Your experience doesn’t seem to match the average teachers’ experience at the moment. Have you considered that maybe your philosophy is not as effective as you might believe it to be? Beside your own classroom/school anecdotes, what evidence do you have to prove that this is working anywhere? If it is truly effective, maybe be specific about the reasons you think it isn’t working in practice…. Or, please be specific about how you think this is working on the grand scale in any large sample size in the United States, or in the world for that matter.

        Last question, if your method is/has been proven to be successful, what is your explanation for it’s new arrival on the scene in the field of Education? It’s almost sounds like a conspiracy theory that someone has been withholding this valuable information or the establishment simply didn’t value these methods for some sinister reason. Could the majority of educators simply have been duped or brainwashed and only a small handful of enlightened ones have seen the way?

        • Martin Blythe 2 months ago2 months ago

          Todd, are you a teacher and, if so, in California? My commentary references the changes made last year to the discipline process here, which affects only California teachers. For further explanation, you could perhaps read the additional comments I’ve made below in response to others’ comments and questions.

  7. Whited Dana 2 months ago2 months ago

    Help me to understand how this works with credit requirements. I mean how can students choose not to have core content classes?

    Replies

    • Martin Blythe 2 months ago2 months ago

      Hi, how are you defining “core content”? As an LAUSD school, we have to fulfill A-G requirements (210 credits) where electives and performing arts are part of the university-mandated choices. So, for example, I have 9th grade students who are able – in our block schedule – to take Music, Art and Health at some point this year, alongside their English, Math, PE and Science classes.

  8. Kim 2 months ago2 months ago

    Follow their natural urges? Are you kidding me. The high school I work at relaxed what seems like every rule, and the outcome is awful! Most of my students show up late every day. My 1st period of 38 is usually 4-5 at the tardy bell. Students show up and walk out whenever the mood or “urge” hits them. As a CTE teacher it’s my job to get them ready to work. What a joke! … Read More

    Follow their natural urges? Are you kidding me. The high school I work at relaxed what seems like every rule, and the outcome is awful! Most of my students show up late every day. My 1st period of 38 is usually 4-5 at the tardy bell. Students show up and walk out whenever the mood or “urge” hits them.

    As a CTE teacher it’s my job to get them ready to work. What a joke! More than half of my working students have been fired! Late every day, calling in sick, no work ethic. Relaxing rules, no consequences and no work ethic will ruin these kids and make them unemployable!

    Replies

    • Martin Blythe 2 months ago2 months ago

      Hi Kim, I think you have misunderstood my points. I believe the changes you are seeing in your school and in society at large are causing this behavior. It's not the other way around where relaxing the rules and discipline causes it; indeed many schools and school districts are attempting to grapple with this relatively new reality. I truly don't want to give you advice but if I were in your shoes I would ask your … Read More

      Hi Kim, I think you have misunderstood my points. I believe the changes you are seeing in your school and in society at large are causing this behavior. It’s not the other way around where relaxing the rules and discipline causes it; indeed many schools and school districts are attempting to grapple with this relatively new reality.

      I truly don’t want to give you advice but if I were in your shoes I would ask your students what they are thinking about in terms of current jobs, jobs they have been fired from, what they have learned, what they feel they need, jobs they aspire to, courses and certificates they might consider, what their family expectations are and guest speakers they would like to hear from – and back off from the judgmental approach. My apologies if that sounds patronizing but I have to manage all these questions with Special Ed seniors and I can relate to your concerns.

  9. Tammy 2 months ago2 months ago

    I taught for 25 years in a public school in Michigan. I am retired and sub in a parochial school now. I do not agree with the least restrictive environment theory for discipline. Many students today have no boundaries and no expectations from their parents. It’s up to the school to provide these. Part of our mission statement is to help our students to become productive members of society. We want them to succeed in … Read More

    I taught for 25 years in a public school in Michigan. I am retired and sub in a parochial school now. I do not agree with the least restrictive environment theory for discipline. Many students today have no boundaries and no expectations from their parents. It’s up to the school to provide these.

    Part of our mission statement is to help our students to become productive members of society. We want them to succeed in the workplace. Students need consequences because they aren’t getting them at home. They need to know that a dispute with a co-worker will get them fired from a job or being tardy may get them fired. I’ve subbed places where there is a less restrictive environment. Students are leaving the room all the time, being loud and disruptive for attention, and are disrespectful to other staff members and students. It’s complete chaos. There’s more drama than a soap opera, some are offended, and some are bullying their classmates.

    I personally feel physically ill and exhausted at the end of the day. I may not be subbing anymore. I don’t know what’s happened to the educational system in the last 5 years! Probably the lack of support from administrators and teachers being bombarded with extra work without compensation.

    Replies

    • Martin Blythe 2 months ago2 months ago

      Hi Tammy, I actually agree with some of what you wrote and I empathize. Sometimes I'm there too and I'm retiring this year. However, could it be argued that as a sub and - ahem - like me, of a certain age - you are having to manage in this new world I described and it's now all a bit alienating for you? I have learned to accept that sometimes we are all living in … Read More

      Hi Tammy, I actually agree with some of what you wrote and I empathize. Sometimes I’m there too and I’m retiring this year. However, could it be argued that as a sub and – ahem – like me, of a certain age – you are having to manage in this new world I described and it’s now all a bit alienating for you? I have learned to accept that sometimes we are all living in Alice in Wonderland territory. Where we differ though is that I believe individual students do have boundaries and you have to find those boundaries (subtly) and I do not blame the parents at all (because many are barely hanging on and they need our help).

      One of my classes (the last one of the day, with the unruliest students – and this is Special Ed!) does sometimes devolve into the soap opera dramas you describe. I do not see a least restrictive environment extending to allowing students to arrive late or just walk out – I have some of that too at day’s end – but it’s never without consequences. It’s the nature of the consequences we need to discuss. The students need to ask and show respect and respect will be shown to them. Punishing them usually doesn’t work – depends on the student. These are opportunities for encouraging students to try and be a bit more mature and this takes time and energy on the teacher’s part, but we can try to have fun with it too.

  10. Tony 2 months ago2 months ago

    A terribly white Ethnocentric view! Questions: 1. Demographics at your school? Your kids school? 2. How many times have SRO or Cops been called to classrooms at your school? 3. Survey Of ALL teachers and staff there abut discipline ? 4. What do the parents and families, not staff say about this at your school? 5. How are school "referrals" to the office tracked at your school? (Need to know this before we ask for the data because it says a … Read More

    A terribly white Ethnocentric view!

    Questions:
    1. Demographics at your school? Your kids school?
    2. How many times have SRO or Cops been called to classrooms at your school?
    3. Survey Of ALL teachers and staff there abut discipline ?
    4. What do the parents and families, not staff say about this at your school?
    5. How are school “referrals” to the office tracked at your school? (Need to know this before we ask for the data because it says a lot about how your school deals with discipline.)

    When the current mantras used in education is how and why teachers of color matter in schools where kids of color and immigrants attend. Part of the “why they matter” is this. For those of us raised in specific conditions and being a specific identity (color), we do not have the same guilt as progressives’ thought. Old school means our parents, grandparents, church elders etc., and that means true wisdom to us! So we know first hand that old school discipline is love, especially coming from people who look like me, or those I was raised with.

    Replies

    • Martin Blythe 2 months ago2 months ago

      Hi Tony, since you asked, my school has around 1500+ students and is more than 80% Latinx, with the rest being a mix of Black, White, Asian and Middle Eastern/South Asian (we have several recent immigrant groups - Afghani, Guatemalan, expecting Ukrainians...). Diversity and mutual respect is our strength. The police are almost never called these days; I can only recall one time in the past 6 months but I don't know for sure. Were … Read More

      Hi Tony, since you asked, my school has around 1500+ students and is more than 80% Latinx, with the rest being a mix of Black, White, Asian and Middle Eastern/South Asian (we have several recent immigrant groups – Afghani, Guatemalan, expecting Ukrainians…). Diversity and mutual respect is our strength. The police are almost never called these days; I can only recall one time in the past 6 months but I don’t know for sure. Were you assuming this was a “White” school?

      My point being that these kinds of policies work if fostered in the right way and that hard line policies don’t work. I noticed some of the letter writers imply that I’m arguing against any form of discipline, which is not the case. It’s all in how it’s handled. Yes we do “referrals” and yes I expect many teachers at my school would disagree with me.

      Finally, I appreciate your point about love – yes that’s absolutely right – but I infer from your comments that we should use tough love and yes, we do that too, but we do it in context and it’s not all we do. As I said, respect must be earned by both students and teachers and staff. There is no reason on earth why public high schools in California with many students of color cannot treat all their students with mutual respect. It’s the least we can do for them.

      • mike welch 2 months ago2 months ago

        Wow! Would you be willing to share any other articles or sources that you have authored? Or perhaps other liked minded writers, teachers, or administrators? I have a ton of questions. And I'd like to share my experiences in the 16yrs it took me to come to your same conclusion. I haven't been able to articulate my thoughts as well as your points here. I'm currently facing official write ups and reprimands with pretty serious … Read More

        Wow! Would you be willing to share any other articles or sources that you have authored? Or perhaps other liked minded writers, teachers, or administrators? I have a ton of questions. And I’d like to share my experiences in the 16yrs it took me to come to your same conclusion. I haven’t been able to articulate my thoughts as well as your points here. I’m currently facing official write ups and reprimands with pretty serious accusations. Thanks in advance for any consideration and time!
        Mike; Shreveport, Louisiana
        Mpwelch13@gmail.com

  11. Donna Thayer 2 months ago2 months ago

    As a recently retired school administrator, I disagree with the notion that loosening disciplinary measures leads to a calmer, more upbeat school environment. Schools, as with all institutions, need structure. I began my career as a vice principal after teaching for 19 years in large comprehensive high schools. I always believed in fairness and consistency when establishing my classroom management. I carried these traits into my role as an administrator in a very … Read More

    As a recently retired school administrator, I disagree with the notion that loosening disciplinary measures leads to a calmer, more upbeat school environment. Schools, as with all institutions, need structure. I began my career as a vice principal after teaching for 19 years in large comprehensive high schools. I always believed in fairness and consistency when establishing my classroom management. I carried these traits into my role as an administrator in a very complex school district in Stockton. Far from “harassing” students, I believed my role was to maintain safety and order for all students. To that end, Education Code set the standard for any suspensions – and, yes, expulsions – I did.

    Sexual assault, violent attacks, drug sales – these types of offenses must be dealt with swiftly. Dress code violations, tardiness, and minor classroom disruptions can be dealt with through other means.

    I consider myself quite liberal and absolutely loved working with students. Yet, I will always believe a school cannot run well unless discipline polices are implemented.

  12. Kathleen J Leal 2 months ago2 months ago

    Once again qualitative data over quantitative data. The author’s lived experience of discipline getting better is great but how do you square that with another’s lived experience that says otherwise?

  13. Robert 2 months ago2 months ago

    Yeah, just 20 miles from there, our entire district is experiencing the opposite. Went through days and days of restorative justice training, and behavior is only getting worse. I have never seen worse behavior in my 17 years of public education. Old school ways actually worked (yes it did!). T his new way of thinking for sure not working, and just about all of my colleagues around the district and surrounding districts here in Southern CA, … Read More

    Yeah, just 20 miles from there, our entire district is experiencing the opposite. Went through days and days of restorative justice training, and behavior is only getting worse. I have never seen worse behavior in my 17 years of public education. Old school ways actually worked (yes it did!). T

    his new way of thinking for sure not working, and just about all of my colleagues around the district and surrounding districts here in Southern CA, I have talked with, agree. Not sure how this article was chosen to be published, but his bubble does not speak for the rest of us. Behavior is out of control with these new ways.

  14. marco lopez romo 2 months ago2 months ago

    I'm glad my kid won't be going to this dude's school or classroom. Sorry but this author is illusional. I don't want my kid in a classroom where staff turns blind eye to "minor" infractions, and I am Latino. It disrupts learning for students trying to learn. The very concepts the author supports will actually hinder minority students who want to learn. Do you think affluent families sending their kids to elite schools or private … Read More

    I’m glad my kid won’t be going to this dude’s school or classroom. Sorry but this author is illusional. I don’t want my kid in a classroom where staff turns blind eye to “minor” infractions, and I am Latino. It disrupts learning for students trying to learn. The very concepts the author supports will actually hinder minority students who want to learn. Do you think affluent families sending their kids to elite schools or private schools will tolerate this nonsense? Nope. One reason white and Asian students dominate STEM.

  15. Christina 2 months ago2 months ago

    I'm glad that the author is seeing positive effects at his or her school, but 80 miles away from LA at my little rural school we are experiencing the exact opposite. The more chances given, the fewer disciplines that are given out, the more we see the bad behavior escalate. After years of never having an incident of a student assaulting a staff member, our security guard has been assaulted twice this year by students. … Read More

    I’m glad that the author is seeing positive effects at his or her school, but 80 miles away from LA at my little rural school we are experiencing the exact opposite. The more chances given, the fewer disciplines that are given out, the more we see the bad behavior escalate. After years of never having an incident of a student assaulting a staff member, our security guard has been assaulted twice this year by students. Oh, and no consequences for the students for that either. This is a growing problem in our schools and our society at large, and it’s not making people safer!

    Replies

    • marco lopez romo 2 months ago2 months ago

      Great comment!

  16. Dawn 2 months ago2 months ago

    Martin, please comment on the recent article in Mission Local about Everett middle school. What suggestions would you have for that situation including the attacks on teachers? Thank you.

    Replies

    • Martin Blythe 2 months ago2 months ago

      Hi Dawn, even allowing for media over-dramatization, the school clearly has a whole cluster of problems that need to be addressed before some sort of LRE can be implemented.

  17. Chris Stampolis 2 months ago2 months ago

    Mr. Blythe, I read your opinion column. Thank you for taking time to write it. The most effective way for children of color to continue to surpass white underachievement is to push whites farther into third place academically (behind Latino-heritage and Asian-heritage students); we need to call out racism and its obstacles when it is offered. While I do not call you a racist, I call your ideas racist. You suggest … Read More

    Mr. Blythe,

    I read your opinion column. Thank you for taking time to write it. The most effective way for children of color to continue to surpass white underachievement is to push whites farther into third place academically (behind Latino-heritage and Asian-heritage students); we need to call out racism and its obstacles when it is offered. While I do not call you a racist, I call your ideas racist.

    You suggest that some Canoga Park kids should avoid “single-minded study of English and math” instead to work with their families in “construction or house cleaning or day care, ”

    Mr. Blythe, day care workers need state certification. Construction workers need math proficiency. House cleaning professionals need mathematics skills for purchasing proficiency, as well as effective language skills for profitable scheduling and effective marketing.

    California already offers the California High School Proficiency Exam (CHPSE). Kids who want “out” can leave High School early by means of passage of the CHSPE. As white male college enrollment continues to drop, let’s steer white monolingual English-speaking boys in particular towards CHSPE passage, so they more quickly can remove their obstructive and disruptive presence from the public school system.

    In the interim I sincerely encourage you to learn sufficient Spanish or Chinese or Vietnamese to speak with the parents of kids who “don’t think school offers them what they need.” If parents and kids jointly want to choose a less-academic path, there are plenty of options for those families that already exist. Perhaps there are growing opportunities for white boys to provide day care services in Canoga Park. However, I will encourage Latina girls to continue to crush it academically and to widen their academic domination of California State University’s systemwide enrollment and graduation. Then those college-degree holding Latinas can hire a few white boys now and then to help with care for their kids or some floor washing in a few years.

    Chris Stampolis
    Santa Clara, CA

    Replies

    • Albert Gutierrez 2 months ago2 months ago

      What an incredibly racist comment—push ‘white people” into third place?? Are you kidding me??