Back in 2020, I re-printed a quote from a great economist and political philosopher, Thomas Sowell, on the challenges presented by chaos in the classroom:

Again and again, those interviewed who were working in the field of education pointed out that only a fraction—perhaps no more than one-tenth of students—need to be hard-core troublemakers in order for good education to become impossible.

Thomas Sowell in Education: Assumptions Versus History : Collected Papers (Hoover Institution Press Publication), published May 1, 2017. Kindle ed. location 714.

Mr. Sowell suggested that if one-out-of-ten students in a school are “hard-core troublemakers,” “good education” can become impossible. That is, a small group of perennially misbehaving students can be enough to make it impossible for teachers to do their jobs effectively and impossible for the majority of students to feel safe in their own schools. In the 2020 post, I applied Mr. Sowell’s conclusions, which were the result of his careful study of education in the United States, to criminality in society at large. I recently came across an article in the New York Post about New York City schools specifically that made me think of Mr. Sowell’s quote in its original context.

Photograph of a brick wall in Brooklyn Heights, New York City.
Discipline is part of the foundation of a good learning environment. I took this photo of a brick wall in Brooklyn Heights.

On June 4, 2022, the Post published an article titled Teachers, parents want real discipline as NYC student suspensions fall. The introductory paragraph, authored by Ms. Mary Kay Linge and Ms. Kathianne Boniello, provided an overview of the issues:

A progressive push to soften school discipline has caused student suspensions to plummet — and made city classrooms more chaotic and dangerous than ever, parents and teachers charge.

As the article notes, statistics from the New York City Department of Education establish clearly and beyond doubt that there was a dramatic decrease in student suspensions from 2017 to 2021. The debate, of course, is whether the trade-offs of New York CIty’s lenient treatment of student offenders – that is, the negative effect that this leniency may have on educators and well-behaved students – is worthwhile. The fact that I am citing to the wisdom of Mr. Sowell should reveal which side of the divide I am on.

One of the teachers quoted in the article is Ms. Kathy Perez. The Post notes that Ms. Perez, a reading specialist at a school in Queens, won a $125,000 settlement from New York City after she was injured by out-of-control teenage students in her classroom. Ms. Perez offered the following wise quote about the centrality of discipline to a classroom being amenable to learning:

Everyone is so concerned with the rights of the two or three upstarts in the room, that the other 30 kids — their rights to get an education … to be able to sit in an environment that’s not intimidating, that’s not scary, that’s not filled with noise, don’t matter.

Ms. Perez’s math made me think of Mr. Sowell’s book. She uses as an example a classroom with 30 students and with two-to-three of those students being “upstarts,” or in Mr. Sowell’s parlance, “hard-core troublemakers.” Ms. Perez states that even a statistically small number of hard-core troublemakers, about two-to-three in of a classroom of 30 in this case, can deprive the majority of the classroom of a good education and a safe learning environment. Ms. Perez asserts that New York City has erroneously prioritized the rights and interests of the worst-behaving students over the rights and interests of the students who are not breaking the rules and intimidating their teachers and peers. The idea here is the same as the idea in Mr. Sowell’s book, maintaining a constructive learning environment requires putting the interests and equities of well-behaved students first. The focus must not be on coddling the hard-core troublemakers, but instead on acting decisively to correct their malignant behavior and, when necessary to ensure the rights and interests of the other students if those corrective measures fail, removing them from the classroom.

None of this is to say that New York City should neglect the hard-core troublemakers in its student body. In many cases, there may be a small window to ameliorate their behavioral issues before their misbehavior (or worse) in the school hallways turns into serious criminality. However, any such measures must start from the premise that the school has an irrevocable obligation to create an environment that is safe for learning and ordered toward that purpose. The interests of the students who are there to learn, or, at a minimum, are not causing problems for others, must always come first. (As I argued in my 2020 piece, the same principle applies to society at large – the interests of law-abiding citizens must come before those of recidivist criminals.) To prioritize the interests and equities of the hard-core troublemakers over the rest of the student-body is contrary to a school’s mission to ensure the safety of the students entrusted to it and to provide them with a good education.

Mr. Sowell’s ten-percent idea, in conjunction with Ms. Perez’s testifying to how coddling a small number of dangerous students can go terribly wrong, provides a sound starting point for thinking about discipline in schools.