Archive for September 28, 2006

Zero Tolerance

Writes Malcolm Gladwell:

“A Tennesse study found that after zero-tolerance programs were adopted by the state’s public schools the frequency of targeted offenses soared: the firm and unambigous punishments weren’t deterring bad behavoir at all.”

In a school obviously not. Being expelled or other severe measures are hardly punishments at all, in fact the number of high school drop-outs that have gone on to great things or equivenalcy degrees isn’t that bad either. Zero Tolerance, “ Zero tolerance protects
law-abiding students and staff members by allowing
for the swift and easy removal of dangerous students,
Ewing says. And it acts as a deterrent to bad
behavior by demonstrating swift and serious consequences
for defying school rules.” The later line rings of rational crime a little, but what works (or doesn’t take your own view) for criminals might not work for school becuase the incentive to stay in school is hardly that great while the incentive to stay out of prison is arguably greater.

But Malcom’s gist, which is that, “You let the principal or the teacher decide what to do about cheating because you know that every case of cheating is different.” is also false. First as a school teacher most cheating is actually the same. Students copy each other and use remarkably similar methods (one class used laughing and giggling to signal answers for a test), secondly Malcom is using a pragmatist’s arguement that context outweighs principle, this isn’t necessarily the case. While exceptions certianly exist, circumstances can easily have deep similarities that do confine them categories and principles.

Lastly, Malcom’s arguement suffers from the idea of tolerating bad behavoir mitigates it, this might be true, I certianly subscribe to this idea in my classroom, but it also misses that you have to target what good behavoir is and reward it. So often with punishment we forget that often students live in a world of no rewards. The rewards for good grades can range from ice cream to toys, but many students don’t get a reward from their parents or even encouragement from their friends (in fact they come close to be mocking for “breaking the curve”). Zero Tolerance has the flaw that it effectively rewards bad behavoir by removing students from a place they don’t want to be in the first place, but it also misses that school should be more than meaningless grades, routine work, and punishment, a situation that sounds remarkably like prison, it needs to include a system that makes acheiving goals in learning more rewarding than the dubious prospect of your parents buying you that video game.. etc.

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September 28, 2006 at 4:19 pm Leave a comment


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