Student Misbehavior Impedes Learning, Drives Out Teachers

Published July 1, 2004

Student discipline problems seriously obstruct teaching and learning in America’s public schools, according to a new report from the opinion research organization Public Agenda, which recently surveyed 725 middle and high school teachers and 600 parents of teens.

The survey’s findings point to a rising problem of distracting and disrespectful student behavior that interferes with the classroom environment and compels many teachers to leave the profession.

“Rowdiness, disrespect, bullying, talking out, lateness, and loutishness–these misbehaviors are poisoning the learning atmosphere of our public schools,” said Public Agenda President Ruth A. Wooden. “At a time when the achievement stakes for students have never been higher, the fact is that in school after school, a minority of students who routinely challenge legitimate school rules and authority are preventing the majority of students from learning and teachers from teaching.”

Threats of legal action by students and parents compound the problem by making it difficult for teachers and administrators to crack down on misbehavior. To restore order in the classroom, respondents to the Public Agenda survey support stricter enforcement of rules of conduct, transferring problem students to alternative schools, reforming special education, and placing limits on lawsuits over disciplinary actions.

The survey findings are detailed in the May 2004 report, “Teaching Interrupted: Do Discipline Policies in Today’s Public Schools Foster the Common Good?” Key findings include:

Good Behavior Is Essential
A large majority of teachers (97 percent) and parents (78 percent) believe effective discipline and good student behavior are essential to a successful school. A similar large majority (93 percent of teachers and 88 percent of parents) believe the mission of schools extends beyond academics to teaching students to follow rules so they can become productive citizens.

Just a Few Cause Most Problems
A large majority (85 percent of teachers and 73 percent of parents) believe just a few perpetual offenders are harming the experience of the whole student body. Seventy-seven percent of teachers say dealing with disruptive students detracts from effective teaching. Roughly half of respondents (52 percent of teachers and 43 percent of parents) report there is an armed police officer on their campuses.

Parents Are Part of the Problem
Most respondents (82 percent of teachers and 74 percent of parents) believe the failure of parents to discipline their children is a prime cause of the problem. Half of the teachers surveyed (52 percent) say today’s teachers are softer on discipline because they can’t rely on parents or the school administration to back them up.

Teachers Leave When Offenders Stay
A third of teachers (34 percent) say they know colleagues who have left because of student misbehavior and difficulties in maintaining discipline. A third (34 percent) also had considered leaving themselves. Three-quarters of teachers (78 percent) say persistent student offenders who should be removed from school are allowed to stay.

A Litigious Culture
Teachers are further frustrated by today’s litigious culture. A majority of teachers (78 percent) say students remind them the students have rights and their parents can lodge a lawsuit. Half of the teachers (49 percent) say they have been accused by parents of unfairly disciplining their child. Just over half (55 percent) say discipline is undermined when school districts back down from aggressive parents.

Proposed Reforms
Respondents supported several reforms, including alternative placements, stricter enforcement of rules, special education reform, and limits on lawsuits. A large majority of respondents (91 percent of teachers and 88 percent of parents) think by strictly enforcing small rules, schools set a tone of civility that averts larger problems. A similar large percentage (93 percent of teachers and 89 percent of parents) support “zero tolerance” policies so students know they face expulsion for serious offenses. Eighty-seven percent of teachers and 75 percent of parents think alternative schools for persistent offenders would help.

More teachers than parents see litigiousness as a problem. Eighty-two percent of teachers and 78 percent of parents would limit lawsuits to major disciplinary actions such as expulsion. A similar gap in support exists over eliminating monetary rewards for parents who sue regarding disciplinary actions, a proposal supported by 82 percent of teachers but only 69 percent of parents.

“The present legal environment undermines order in schools by enabling students and parents to threaten a lawsuit over virtually anything,” commented Philip K. Howard, chairman of Common Good. “The legal system must strike a better balance between the claimed rights of individuals and the legitimate interests of society as a whole.”

Three-quarters of teachers (76 percent) think special education students are disciplined too lightly and the majority (94 percent) would like schools to discipline such students the same as their nondisabled peers unless the disability caused the misbehavior.

The Public Agenda report was based on a mail-in survey of teachers, a telephone survey of parents, and focus groups. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. It was underwritten by Common Good, a bipartisan coalition committed to legal reform.

Krista Kafer is senior policy analyst for education at The Heritage Foundation. Her email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The May 2004 Public Agenda report, “Teaching Interrupted: Do Discipline Policies in Today’s Public Schools Foster the Common Good?” is available online at