Friday, November 28, 2008

Broken Window Theory and Schools

The idea of the broken window theory is getting a revisit in a number of circles as I mentioned a couple of days ago. However, Corey Bunje Bower applies the theory to the world of school in a couple of posts. In the first post, Bower posits the theory and looks at two different concepts, the "zero tolerance" policies relating to weapons and sexual harassment and the "low level" rules that tend to be violated on a daily basis in classrooms.
If you buy the theory, it leads one to believe that we should implement "zero tolerance" policies in our schools. But such policies have become a lightning rod for criticism. Why? Probably because they're zero tolerance for major infractions like bringing weapons to school and sexual harassment. Kids being suspended or expelled for bringing plastic knives or for kindergartners touching members of the opposite sex in ways they couldn't really comprehend was sexual has led to widespread disgruntlement with such policies.

While weapons and sexual harassment are huge problems and should be dealt with as such, they're far from the largest obstacles to learning on a day-to-day basis in most schools. That honor would go to minor issues like talking in class. I would argue that these are the true "broken windows" of schools.

And I think a lot of teachers know as such. A lot of the discussion amongst teachers in my school centered around relatively minor incidents that they believed served as tipping points in their classroom. For example: a teacher next door to me my first year had a student that was momentarily out of control and clearly crossed the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Just then the Asst. Principal stepped into the room and asked if the teacher needed anything. The teacher replied that they needed the AP to remove the student from the classroom for a few minutes. The AP declined to do so. And from that point forward, students knew they could get away with things that they had previously believed they couldn't.

Now, that's not really a true fit for broken windows theory, but I could tell a thousand other similar stories. The bottom line is that it was quite clear to me that students were more likely to act up when they perceived that such actions were acceptable b/c they seemed to be the norm in the classroom, hallway, cafeteria, etc. As such, it seems that a zero-tolerance policy of some sort is wholly merited. How else to prevent the chaos that reigns in too many (note: "too many" does not imply anywhere near a majority) schools today. But how to implement one?
But are the behavioral norms we expect of students rules or simply norms that we expect to be present in a classroom environment.

Bower thinks that misbehavior is not necessarily the "broken window" but I would suggest otherwise. Things like talking out of turn, disrupting the classroom through b behavior that is not acceptable or undermining the authority of the teacher through backtalk or foul language are rules. They may not be explicit in terms "thou shall not carry a weapon to school" but many of society's rules are not written into stone or in ink, but these norms of behavior do represent the "windows" of society, and if they are broken with no consequence, they will likely lead to further breaking and the breaking of more serious rules.

Bower followed up with a second post on the same subject, writing:
In other words, there are two different ways in which disorder can affect a school: In the case of rule-breaking, when students see other students chewing gum, carrying cell phones, or breaking other rules that might not really be enforced they come to believe that rules, in general, aren't really enforced or important and are more likely to break them. In the case of degradation of norms, when students see others running, shouting, pushing, etc. they're more likely to believe that chaos (or at least unruly behavior) is the norm and conform accordingly. Or at least that's how my experience would lead me to believe their research translates to schools.

So what are the implications? I'd guess the vast majority of teachers and administrators would agree, at least to some extent, with the previous paragraph. But knowing that disorder begets disorder and stopping disorder are two different things. I don't have all the answers, but I would say two things are most important:

1.) Don't make rules that can't or won't be enforced. If you're not actually going to suspend a kid every time you see them carrying a cell phone, then don't say you will. And in the case where the principal sets the rule this applies not just to you personally, but to the staff collectively. If all teachers aren't going to enforce the rule, then it's probably not a good rule to have. If kids see other kids playing on their cell phone in class, and those kids aren't suspended the next day then nobody's going to take that rule seriously. And once kids learn that not every rule has to be taken seriously, every other rule is in peril as well.

2.) Take action against low levels of disorder. That means somebody talking out of turn in class, yelling in the hallway, refusing to do assignments, etc. Maybe rules against such aren't codified, but when something small like this occurs it's important that the student is both made aware that it's unacceptable and that the behvaior[sic] is nipped in the bud to whatever degree possible.
I think we can intuitively understand proposition 1. If a rule can't be or won't be enforced in consistent manner, why then have the rule? Some rules have been created as the result of a one-time or rarely occuring incident. However, if a rule, say against cell phones, is to be created, it must be enforced. Kids have a pretty good B.S. detector and they will quickly learn if a rule is B.S. because it won't be enforced.

But the interesting thing is that Bowers second proposition, dealing with "low level" disorder actually can happen and does happen in elementary school. For example at my daughter's school there are four levels of behavioral status, green (for good), yellow (minor infractions like talking during class or failing to remain in their seats at designated time), blue (repeated failures and/or more serious offenses like yelling at the teacher or other students), and red (you can get to red immediately for physical misbehavior (and a trip to the principal) or climb to red by multiple failures of low level disorder). This scale is designed to create and enforce normative behaviors in elementary school kids. Too many violations means a loss of privileges and group rewards or events like field trips or shows, etc.

But the problem is not that kids in middle or high school don't know these rules, but that they test the rules as they get older, and upon seeing that the norms won't be enforced for them, they continue to break them.

So for older kids the problem is not one of lack of knowledge of the rules and norms, but the failure of the adults in schools to enforce them with appropriate, escalating punishments. I don't know if it is a function of "let kids be kids" or a desire to avoid "infringing their individuality," but the lack of punishment is the problem.

So if the Broken Windows theory is to be fully applied in education, we have to look first at the nature of the rules we have in place and decide first if the rules are necessary. Second we have to decide how to enforce the rules, what punishments will be meted out for violations and actually follow through. The rules must be clear and the punishments swift and evenly enforced. That is how the broken windows theory in education will work, but do achieve that requires commitment not just from the students but the teachers and administrators as well.


Corey Bunje Bower said...

Thanks for the mention. Just to clear things up, I *do* believe that misbehavior is the broken window -- including both the breaking of explicit rules and acting in a generally unruly or disrespectful manner.

And the problem with enforcing these rules/norms isn't devising a system -- it's implementing it. The system you describe sounds well-designed to prevent rule-breaking from spreading -- assuming that the consequences result in a change in behavior. The biggest dilemma is what to do when a student is told to stop doing something and doesn't -- regardless of what punishments are meted out.

Lastly, it's important to realize that formal punishment isn't always necessary to prevent the spread of misbehavior. For example, a kid says something out of line and the teacher pulls them into the hallway and calmly tells them that the behavior is unacceptable before allowing them to return to their seat. Such non-punitive interventions are oftentimes more effective.

Matt Johnston said...


You comments are well taken. But my only concern is not only the efficacy of non-punitive actions, but the immediateness and the demonstrative effect on other students.

To effectuate a broken windows theory of discipline in schools, the corrective action must create two different, but related objectives:

1. It must immediately discipline the infringer.
2. It must signal to other students that such a behavior is unacceptable and will be sanctioned.

I suppose the best analogy I can come up with is from my role as a soccer referee. A player who commits a foul gets a call against them. The punishment is that the other team gets a free kick and your team loses possession. At most ages, players know that pushing, kicking or tripping an opponent is not permissible.

There are some infractions that receive a yellow card (a caution). Referees are taught to try and maximize the effectiveness of a yellow card. First, by making clear exactly what behavior is not tolerated (i.e. reckless tackles, vocal dissent directed at the refereee, etc.) and making not only the infringer aware that their conduct is not tolerated, but also that every other player, coach, fan is congnizant of the improper behavior as well. In short, the referee is getting more out of the yellow card than simply the discipline of the infringing player.

Discipline in the classroom is achieved first through a clear understanding of what constitutes improper behavior, i.e. everything not permitted under the rules. Second, corrective action, either through non-punitive or punitive action must be swift, certain, and public. Everyone must know that such behavior is not tolerated and why, as well as the knowledge that if anyone else violates the rule, you will be punished as well.

By "certain" I don't necessarily mean "right" or even in scale to the offense. By certain, I mean to say that the teacher acts immediately, making the decision to take corrective action without equivocation or fear that their action will be undermined later by administration.