Richard Arum is a smart guy, but he’s dead wrong on the history of student legal rights

Note [4/9/2012]: In publishing Arum’s column The Atlantic omitted the relationship between this column and Arum’s book Judging School Discipline. In an example of the interesting silos in education research, the 2003 book was never reviewed by history of education journals. To put it bluntly, yikes. I’ll leave this entry intact and write another one once I have the chance to read the full study. 

Richard Arum is a very smart sociologist and the coauthor of Academically Adrift, which argued that only two-thirds of college students in their sample showed significant non-curricular learning gains in college as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment.1 But at the end of last week, his column in The Atlantic argued that the expansion of student legal rights in the latter 20th century is responsible for the presumed loss of teachers’ moral authority in public schools. I expect his argument to be repeated ad nauseam in the next week or two, with all of the fallacies intact. That is a shame, because I like most of Arum’s work. But his column this month is wrong as history and wrong on the broader question of what shapes teachers’ moral authority.

First, let me summarize his argument, as best I can, in terms of specific propositions:

  1. Advocates of greater due process protections for students in the 1970s thought this would improve school quality more generally.
  2. The 1975 Goss v. Lopez decision “extend[ed] rudimentary due process rights to public school students who faced even minor day-to-day discipline.”
  3. As a direct result of Goss and another decision issued in the same year, educators quickly and permanently stepped away from wanting authority over student discipline.
  4. Simultaneously with #3, schools “initially pulled back from strictly enforcing rules” and then substituted inane administrative regimes such as zero-tolerance for reasonable on-the-ground discretion.
  5. #3 and #4 has directly “produced a system of school discipline that is incapable of fostering the positive authority relationships necessary” for reasonable order in schools.

Before I test these claims against my understanding of recent education history, I should state that I agree with Arum (and Deborah Meier) that children in schools should be in the hands of teachers who are great at teaching as well as judgment about growing up, and that teachers and other adults in schools need to have considerable authority, including about setting expectations for appropriate behavior by children.

However, having said that, I think Arum is wrong both about his factual claims and the narrow view that what drives school environments is largely the result of a pair of 36-year-old Supreme Court decisions.

Let me go through the claims one-by-one. [4/9/2012 note: I have put asterisks on the issues I expect to revisit.]

  1. Arum’s claim***: Advocates of greater due process protections for students in the 1970s thought this would improve school quality more generally. My perspective as an historian: The advocates in the case argued that suspension from school violated individual children’s rights to access to schooling. Yes, they argued that giving students some due-process protections in discipline would make schools more humane and would push administrators to learn better methods of school and classroom management. I know of no evidence that the lawyers in the Goss case thought they would be improving teaching or across-the-board student achievement except by reducing the time some children spent out of school and untaught because they were suspended. Certainly, the Supreme Court recognized no such broader argument about the benefits of due process.
  2. Arum’s claim: The 1975 Goss v. Lopez decision “extend[ed] rudimentary due process rights to public school students who faced even minor day-to-day discipline.” My perspective as an historian: This is the claim that is most bewildering to me, because it is factually wrong. I have read Goss a few times in the past and reread it tonight to double check my memory that the case addressed out-of-school suspensions, not “minor day-to-day discipline,” and further that the majority gave considerable discretion to administrators on how to hold a pre-suspension conference with students accused of violating school rules (see pp. 579-583 of the decision for the general reasoning of the court, especially on practical flexibility). There is also nothing in the decision that prohibits a broad range of classroom and school management techniques that fall short of out-of-school suspension. The best research-supported classroom and school behavior management techniques are fully in compliance with Goss v. Lopez.
  3. Arum’s claim***: As a direct result of Goss and another decision, educators quickly and permanently stepped away from wanting authority over student discipline. The evidence Arum cited is the presence of some union contracts in the 1970s that reduce teachers’ authority for student behavior outside classrooms. My perspective as an historian: Arum’s reasoning is a classic post-hoc fallacy:2 because union organizing in suburbs expanded in the 1970s, of course there were new contracts that had a number of stipulations, including restrictions on teachers’ responsibilities outside classrooms. A parallel provision gave teachers a duty-free lunch, something no one would argue is connected with Goss. The cause of the clauses’ appearance was union organizing, not Goss. To go from a union contract provision to a broad claim about teacher culture is at variance with my understanding of teacher union history: Al Shanker, AFT president at the time of Goss and for the following two decades, regularly argued that principals should back up teachers’ authority within the classroom. It is also deeply problematic to assume that the immediate response of principals and teachers as “street-level bureaucrats” in the 1970s (if that were the case) would somehow be maintained for more than three decades, through more than one complete turnover of working educators.
  4. Arum’s claim***: Simultaneously with #3, schools “initially pulled back from strictly enforcing rules” and then substituted inane administrative regimes such as zero-tolerance for reasonable on-the-ground discretion. My perspective as an historian: In response to court orders, school administrators respond in different ways, sometimes by overreaction and sometimes by defiance — that is why we still have school-prayer cases in federal court (I mean the ones where school districts shamelessly sponsor official prayers in clear defiance of precedent) and why there were continued federal court cases on discipline after Goss. So, yes, some administrators practiced defensive education, but that was not universal, nor is it an excuse for bad policy. The skip over several decades to zero-tolerance ignores the fact that such rigid disciplinary regimes have come as much from pressures outside schools, including state legislatures. Good principals (and bad ones, too) know they use their professional discretion every day in responding to troubling student behavior.
  5. Arum’s claim: #3 and #4 has directly “produced a system of school discipline that is incapable of fostering the positive authority relationships necessary” for reasonable order in schools. My perspective as an historian: Well, at least we can now stop blaming student misbehavior on television, lax parenting, rock music, videogames, rap music, the Internet, the 1960s counterculture, the decline of spanking, busing for desegregation, Frank Zappa, lack of training for teachers, gangs, and feminism. The problem of creating a healthy authority for educators is real, but Arum tries to pin the problem on a pair of 1975 Supreme Court decisions, and this makes very little sense to me as an educational historian. School culture is a much more complicated beast.

What can an historian of education say about discipline and Goss in a broader context?

  1. Teachers have never had universal respect or moral authority. Repeated assertions of a decline in respect for teachers are rooted in a myth of some time in the past when teachers were generally respected, paid decently, and in unquestioned control of classes. But there was never a pre-Goss Golden Age of respect for teachers. In the nineteenth century, rural teachers were occasionally run off by older teenagers midway through school sessions, and such teachers regularly had to cope with micromanagement by school committees. In growing urban school systems in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the mostly female teachers were ruled arbitrarily by mostly male principals. Popular culture reflects that lack of respect: From Ichabod Crane to the economics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off played by Ben Stein, hapless teachers have repeatedly been the butt of jokes in story and movie. The consistent threat to teacher authority is the schizophrenic attitude of Americans towards their schools. The greatest immediate threat to teacher authority is the recent attack on teachers’ autonomy and working conditions. Compared against these, minimal due process requirements for suspensions pale in significance.
  2. The peak of student disruptions in schools came before Goss, not after the expansion of due process rights for students***. The most visible disruptions in school in the U.S. came in the late 1960s and early 1970s, associated mostly clearly with the process of desegregation and with the Vietnam War. It is important to understand that the behavior of adults is a key factor shaping violence and disruption in schools, but not necessarily in the way Arum asserts: Political scientist Jennifer Hochschild argued in her 1984 book that desegregation had the least disruption and violence (and the most concrete success) when it was conducted quickly and involved children at all ages. More generally, schools were not noticeably more disorderly after Goss than before, and in troubled neighborhoods schools are far more safe for children than the surrounding neighborhood.
  3. Out-of-school suspensions are not supported by research as a primary tool of discipline. Sometimes a school has to separate a student from a classroom to enable an environment where learning is possible, but separation from the classroom should not be the suspension of education for a child and should not be the first-line response to most troubling behavior. Here is my thought process when I hear of out-of-school suspensions, especially in elementary school: Congratulations! A student just acted up because he or she was frustrated by something in school. By suspending the child, you have just persuaded him or her that his tactics worked, and he can get out of an uncomfortable situation by acting out. What do you think the child is going to do the next time he or she is frustrated by academic work? Fortunately, there are plenty of alternatives, including a broad framework known as Positive Behavior Support, with plenty of supporting research. The minor requirements of Goss are no impediment to successful classroom management.
  4. Expecting adherence to due process is consistent with professionalism and moral authority. We expect teachers to know a host of legal matters, including privacy rights, the legal requirements to educate children with disabilities, the first amendment rights of children, curriculum standards, and many other details of being a teacher. Somehow, with all these expectations, adding minimal due process for suspending a student is a violation of the professional authority of teachers and principals?
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Notes

  1. There is plenty of quibbling about Academically Adrift, but it’s the type of hard work that should generate healthy discussion about a topic. []
  2. More properly, <em>post hoc ergo propter hoc</em> or “after this, therefore because of this.” []

One response to “Richard Arum is a smart guy, but he’s dead wrong on the history of student legal rights”

  1. Glen S. McGhee

    The broader context should include the earlier social institution, apprenticeship, whose moral dimensions were enormous by today’s stubby standards. It was, to put it bluntly, an extension of parental rights to the master, and the extension of the child’s duties to the apprentice.

    But too little attention is paid to the development of moral sanctions and the child’s moral environment (Lloyd de Mause counters this with his work on the history of childhood). Obedience and submission, central to both apprenticeship and education, also occupy the central role in Slavery.