This school year, students nationwide have been filmed swearing at teachers, flipping over desks, and committing physical violence. Poor behavior in schools is not new, but educators’ testimony and data confirm that student behavior has deteriorated since the Covid pandemic. A 2022 EdWeek article reported that 44 percent of school-district leaders said they received more threats of violence from students now than in fall 2019, and that “two out of three teachers, principals, and district leaders” noted more misbehavior from students compared with 2019. Though bad behavior has many causes, wrongheaded policies have worsened the problem.
Misbehavior appears to be associated with pandemic-era school closures and their length. The EdWeek article reported that “districts in which nearly all learning was remote or hybrid in 2020-21” saw “51 percent of principals and district leaders report rising rates of student threats of violence,” while the proportion was lower for schools that had more in-person instruction. Though correlation does not equal causation, social isolation and sudden increases in screen time seem to have combined with background mental-health problems and broader social pathologies to aggravate behavioral issues that predated the pandemic.
Indeed, poor student behavior before the pandemic may have been an under-discussed driver of prolonged school closures. In March 2020, teachers suddenly found themselves freed from the exhausting, frustrating, and occasionally frightening need to manage students’ behavior. While many teachers will admit that Zoom school was awful, it had one major benefit: a new behavior-management tool—the mute button.
Yet the behaviors that many teachers and administrators were relieved to avoid are now significantly worse. In Newport News, Virginia, a teacher who was shot by a six-year-old student is suing the district and the school board because administrators had been told the child had brought a gun to school before but did not intervene. In Salem, Oregon, teachers are suing the Salem-Keizer district and the Oregon Department of Education for failing to “take action to protect employees from students known to have violence issues.” They have documented more than 1,000 incidents where teachers were harmed. An eighth-grader at a Portland middle school, where schools were effectively closed for 18 months, recently testified to the school board: “Over a third of my classes are taught by subs instead of full-time teachers and many of the classes watch movies all day or do nothing that looks like learning.”
Jen M., a math teacher at a large public high school in Portland, Oregon, whose name has been changed for this story, is leaving teaching this June because of student misbehavior. After more than 20 years teaching at-risk kids, she has become scared of some of her students. “They are apathetic about learning and their behavior can quickly escalate in response to what used to be mild classroom behavior interventions,” she says. “If I ask them to stop being disruptive, they blow up with profane language personally directed at me. They cannot emotionally regulate.” Even worse, Jen said, the administration doesn’t support her with long-term interventions, even though “10 to 15 percent of [students] are unreachable, which is new since the pandemic. The next day, the kids are back in the classroom without any real consequence. It’s so unfair to the ones who want to learn.”
A handful of kids can indeed make it impossible for anyone to learn. Teachers report spending about 144 minutes per week on behavior management, amounting to about three weeks of the school year. Unruly classrooms may be driving parents to choose private schools that were, on average, remote for far less time. Some tools available to private schools for behavior management, such as expulsion, are harder to employ in public schools.
To understand how we got here, consider some recent trends in student-discipline policies. “Zero tolerance” discipline policies were implemented nationally in the 1980s, reaching their peak after the Columbine school shootings in 1999. These meant mandatory suspensions and expulsions for behavior issues, particularly if threats of violence were involved. By 2014, the federal government was telling school districts to remediate these policies, on grounds that they were racially discriminatory, and teachers’ union president Randi Weingarten apologized in 2015 for having backed them. The result: “restorative-justice” policies that focus on communication between victims and perpetrators and minimizing “exclusions” from school, such as suspensions or expulsions.
This transformation has its own problems. This April, a group of middle school principals in Portland Public Schools, which has embraced restorative-justice discipline policies, collaboratively penned a letter to the district begging for help with behavior issues. Apparently, the 12 restorative-justice coordinators added to middle schools last year have not done the trick. Are more such coordinators going to help the school climate when extreme behaviors are becoming normalized instead of dealt with? A student in Portland, for example, has filed a claim that another student held a box cutter to her throat during school hours. Perhaps these policies produce some benefits, but little rigorous evidence exists to suggest that they can do what proponents claim. Several RAND Corporation studies indicate that their benefits may be overhyped—in one study, instituting restorative-justice policies correlated with worse academic outcomes for black students—and they are expensive to implement, costing cash-strapped districts in urban areas millions of dollars per year. Los Angeles Unified School District budgets $10 million annually for such staff and training.
As districts have ping-ponged between the extremes of zero tolerance and restorative justice, behavior issues have persistently worsened. Some unions in Nevada and other states want to reverse bills that limit how staff can respond to violent students. On the other hand, returning to zero-tolerance policies would be a mistake, as such measures lack nuance, can be applied inconsistently, and too often fail to distinguish between dangerous behaviors and harmless actions. In one case, an elementary schooler bringing a two-inch Lego gun to school was suspended.
Districts must work to restore order in classrooms rather than focusing solely on post-behavior interventions. We suggest six reforms that can be made locally to address some of the underlying causes of classroom chaos.
Dispense with “mastery” grading and other lax grading policies. In the wake of the pandemic, when students needed some leeway, many districts instituted “mastery” grading; some districts had made this change before the pandemic, under the umbrella of more “equitable” grading. Mastery grading means that students can submit an assignment however many times they want—and retake tests—until they get the grade they desire. They start out with a 50 as the baseline lowest score, which in this grading system equals a C. Students with an 80 to 100 earn an A (or a 4, in the new mastery system, in which grades range from 1 to 4), 60 to 80 is a B, and so forth. Many teachers have spoken up about the negative message this sends, and how this incredibly low bar-setting is wreaking havoc in classrooms.
Return to tracking. Students bored by a slow rate of learning are more likely to act out. Conversely, students who can’t keep up with a faster rate will get confused or frustrated, and are also likelier to act out. Frequent disruptions interfere further with learning, perpetuating the cycle of misbehavior.
Ban cell phones in middle and high schools. Data and anecdotes show that phones distract teenagers. Researchers have also documented robust links between time spent on phones and teen behavior. Parents should put aside their irrational desires to be in constant contact with their children and support cell phone bans at schools.
Provide more support in classrooms for students with severe emotional dysregulation. Schools once had behavior rooms or centers where kids with severe behavior issues went for some or all of the day. Now, advocates and parents want to keep them in classrooms. But support is disjointed, and staff are often inadequately trained, and not physically and emotionally strong enough to handle student outbursts. The older model had drawbacks, but districts should devote more funds to getting better-trained aides in classrooms. The money that districts will pay out in lawsuits to injured teachers and aides also makes the current arrangement an unwise financial choice.
Add more vocational programs and create more schools with a vocational focus. Some students simply cannot function in a traditional classroom that requires them to sit at a desk all day. No amount of redirection or post hoc disciplinary sessions will fix this incapacity. A classroom in which these students can move around and learn skills would be enormously beneficial. Research has shown that students in vocational programs have higher incomes and employment rates than matched peers in regular schools—but not necessarily greater education outcomes. But why make “educational attainment” the sole measurement of success?
Use incentive programs to attract males into teaching, particularly at the elementary level. More than three-quarters of elementary teachers are women. Many kids who struggle in school come from fatherless households. Motivating males to become teachers could make an enormous difference in the lives and behaviors of children who lack positive male role models.
We are deeply concerned that administrators have either become inured to conditions inside public schools, or that they only have enough time and energy to put out fires, leaving them with few resources to develop and sustain environments where teachers can teach and students can learn. Every time student behavior worsens further, we lower the expectation bar to meet them there. It is time we tried raising the bar instead. Returning some accountability to students must be part of the solution for schools to regain control of learning environments.