With discussions of racial injustice dominating headlines, some of America’s most successful elementary and secondary schools are caving to progressive pressure and renouncing what sets them apart: high behavioral standards. 

As America’s largest and arguably most successful charter school system, KIPP serves more than 100,000 students at 242 schools. In July, however, it renounced its revered slogan: “work hard, be nice.” The justification? It fosters “inequitable discipline practices” and places too much value on being “compliant and submissive.” Uncommon Schools followed this lead in August, posting an open letter detailing its intention to loosen behavioral norms.

KIPP led a once-bipartisan movement to reshape American education. Uncommon perfected the craft and published bestselling books detailing its behavioral and academic methods—few teachers remain unaware of Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion. KIPP and Uncommon are among America’s most influential schools; their apparent turn against themselves signals a loss not just for their students but also for the thousands of schools inspired by their example.

In How the Other Half Learns, scholar Robert Pondiscio describes how he spent a year observing one of these no-excuses charter schools. He relates stories of children sent home for wrong-colored socks and children walking down the hall in absolute silence. It’s hard to argue with the results: 99 percent of students score proficient in math, compared with 33 percent nationwide. The figures are similar for reading, history, and science.

While the United States has seen a historic drop in test scores, especially among the lowest-performing students, Uncommon and KIPP routinely boast academic success. Theirs is the path to racial justice that progressives claim to seek. Now, however, ideological pressure has apparently led them to renounce proven methods of achieving it.

Cognitive studies confirm the necessity of strict discipline. Students cannot learn if they do not pay attention. Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, has written extensively about psychology and learning, focusing on the working memory and the space of active thinking, which can process only a few things at a time. A student cannot focus on both a lecture and a side conversation.

In his book Why Don’t Children Like School?, Willingham connects working memory to learning. Ideas and events make their way into long-term memory through our working memory. It’s why we remember significant events like our wedding day but forget what we ate for lunch. Educators understand that attention is necessary for learning. Charter schools simply have the audacity to enforce it when others don’t.

In taking a progressive turn, Uncommon Schools retired both its acronym SLANT (Sit up, Listen, Ask questions, Nod, Track the speaker) and the requirement for silence in the halls of its schools. The consequences of these decisions are easily demonstrated. At the school where I teach, vulgarity and violence are an hourly phenomenon. When I pause to ask a comprehension or analysis question, those who had their eyes on the book can answer, while those busy sneaking a text or unwrapping candy cannot. Similarly, my best-designed lessons flounder whenever a student screams “fuck you” down the halls. SLANT makes attention a classroom requirement and silence in the halls protects a class from unnecessary distractions.

Uncommon also made a commitment to implement alternatives to student suspension. It’s true that studies into the effect of punitive discipline have found that suspensions make no impact on the success of the suspended student—suspend him once or 20 times, and his grades won’t improve. Suspensions don’t just affect the student in question, however. Condemning misbehavior and taking action to eliminate it affects many other students and the surrounding school culture.

“Restorative justice” has become the preferred alternative to punitive suspensions. Under this theory, a student’s misbehavior stems not from adolescent immaturity but rather from trauma, miseducation in the home, or cultural conflict. As such, a punishment will only lead to further rebellion, and it will teach the student nothing. Instead, the school should foster a discussion with the student, change the culture, or meet some other unsupplied need. The theory has some credibility. An influential book, Teaching with Poverty in Mind, details how long-term poverty alters a brain’s chemistry, neuropathways, and behavior. We can hardly fault a ten-year-old for maladaptations they learned through childhood trauma. This explanation for misbehavior, though, does not justify a systemic reconsideration of our response to it.

Despite its explanatory value, restorative justice offers little in practical application. My graduate program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison—a leading school of education—stressed restorative circles, one component of the theory. We spent hours sitting, passing around a “talking piece”—usually a children’s toy—discussing the stress in our lives or daily examples of oppression. We spent our capstone class making Black Lives Matter bracelets and discussing what the movement meant to us, all in the name of restorative justice.

Studies into the effects of restorative justice are not encouraging. Education media celebrated a comprehensive review from the RAND Corporation because it linked restorative justice to a reduction in disciplinary disparities. Buried in the report are a few telling statistics: schools that adopted restorative justice experienced an uptick in bullying and classroom disruptions. In my school, we sent students for a discussion with a counselor or gave them a “walk break” for behavior that formerly would have garnered a punitive consequence. Suspensions fell—but not because behavior improved.

The consequences that follow are profound. In his autobiography, theologian and author C. S. Lewis said that the isolation and harassment he experienced in grade school were worse than his time spent in the trenches during World War I. Suicide rates are already on the rise among school-aged children. This should trouble the conscience of anyone suggesting that we implement a behavioral system that worsens bullying in schools.

High behavioral standards don’t mean that a student should receive a detention for a crooked tie or forgo having fun. Even Ignatius Loyola—the first to systematize Catholic education, with its reputation for corporal punishment and unsmiling nuns—encouraged games and friendly competition and urged his school leaders to govern with love. But high behavioral standards do mean that students who cuss out a teacher or use a racial slur should not be able return to class that day, as they commonly can do in public schools.

Some schools maintain their commitment to appropriate discipline. Katharine Birbalsingh of Michaela Schools and Eva Moskowitz of Success Academy remain staunch advocates of high standards, even as advocates, journalists, and education ideologues condemn them and their practices. But millions of disadvantaged schoolchildren are consigned to academic mediocrity, emotional abuse, and physical threat in the name of “equity” and restorative justice. It is tragic that KIPP and Uncommon, two excellent charter networks that have provided a life-saving education to underserved students, seem to be submitting to this program of despair.

Photo by Chris Hondros/Newsmakers


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