Editor’s Note: The following is adapted from the new paperback edition of Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation.

Teachers’ authority in the classroom is undermined by policies of ‘restorative justice’, a non-punitive approach to discipline in which problems are supposed to be dealt with ‘inside the school’, not by suspensions. These policies, like so many others in our education system, are well intentioned. They are meant to address the problem that so many minority students end up in a “school-to-jail pipeline” after a series of “minor breaches of school rules”.

But the predictable if unintended consequence of these well-meaning policies is that disruptive students get away with previously unacceptable behavior. Outbursts of vulgarity and violence from students have become things teachers and other students have to endure. Two-thirds of teachers in poor school districts say they have disruptive students who shouldn’t be in class. More than three quarters believe that the interests of well-behaved students are sacrificed to indulge bad behavior.

New York City English teacher J. Bryan McGeever paints a vivid and disturbing picture of what relaxed discipline policies have done to learning environments in New York City schools. He writing“Students who make outrageous mistakes often stay in their regular classrooms. Do you remember when cursing a teacher was very important? Well, it’s only Tuesday. He continues, “We know the brutal fights in cafeterias, the spitting in the face of an administrator with no consequences, the ‘wake-and-bake’ teenagers addicted to marijuana who can barely hold their heads up.”

Although suspension rates are down, he argues, it’s not because students are behaving better. It is not because the intimate conversations in class have made difficult students see the error of their ways or because they have mastered their more rowdy inclinations. No, it’s because teachers are forced to put up with whatever students brazenly and blatantly (sometimes literally) throw at them. It is only in the particular world of modern education that teachers are asked to deliberately overlook behaviors and actions that would be unacceptable in any other context. Only in schools are we now being told to “get curious, not mad” and redefining “withdraw” in the face of student misconduct not as a dereliction of duty on the part of teachers, not as tolerance for the intolerable, but as acts of heroic compassion and sophisticated understanding.

The breakdown of order, the absence of discipline, and the extinction of any concept of “tough love” is a brutal daily reality for modern American educators. Yes, suspensions are down, but students aren’t stupid. They know what they can do. They know that they can come to upper class or tell a teacher to “unscrew” or copulate on the stairs and that the sanction will be derisory or even non-existent.

Many teachers feel they are held hostage to an ideological experience that harms them and their ability to teach, harms innocent students trying to learn, and ultimately harms the very people it is supposed to help by not holding them accountable for their actions. If they are not held accountable by the school, why should they think they will be held accountable by society when they act antisocially or violently? Certainly, in school, when heinous student behavior is endlessly tolerated, accommodated, and indulged, it proliferates. Teachers are often afraid to voice their doubts and apprehensions about “restorative” practices because these practices are intended to help racial minorities. But the fact is that they do not remedy the shortcomings of education. Hear what American teachers have to say. And watch a lot of them walk off the pitch rather than tolerate what’s going on there.

In 2019, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute worked with the RAND Corporation to survey teachers in grades 3-12 on the topic of school discipline, intentionally oversampling African-American teachers and teachers from high-poverty schools. . Among its main findings:

  • Teachers in schools where poverty is common “report higher rates of verbal disrespect, physical fights, and aggression,” which makes the learning environment harder to navigate.
  • Most teachers find disciplinary policies to be “inconsistent or inadequate” and say that “the recent drop in suspensions is at least partly due to a higher tolerance for misbehavior or increased under-reporting.”
  • Most teachers see the value in new disciplinary approaches, but believe that suspensions should always be an option.
  • Most teachers believe that “the majority of students suffer because of a few chronically disruptive peers.”

We read that “Despite the likely costs to students who misbehave — and their belief that discipline is racist — many African-American teachers say suspensions, expulsions, and other forms of ‘exclusionary discipline’ should be used more often.” In fact, black teachers are more likely than white teachers to say that suspensions are used too sparingly.

Some of the quotes from teachers in the Fordham study are heartbreaking to read, though not surprising to practitioners in the classroom today:

“Over the course of my career, the disrespect for adults on campus has grown.”

“The students were horrible to me. I cried in my car some days.

“There are very few consequences for student misbehavior. Students have learned this and know they can do anything.

The teachers that students come back to thank later in life are usually the ones who set high expectations for their students, who challenge them, who hold them accountable. As Mark Edmundson writes in his excellent book, Teacher: The one who made the difference“The two greatest masters we know in the West, Socrates and Jesus, were not without kindness, certainly, but both had a cutting edge. Jesus asked people to do the impossible. He wanted them to give up all their possessions and follow him, to completely change their lives. Socrates asked one nagging question after another about why his contemporaries behaved the way they did. In short, “the great teachers who matter most” don’t always come in an “all-benevolent mode.”

All well-meaning reformers seem to assume that schools can solve the myriad problems of civil society that our laws and institutions have otherwise failed to solve or improve. But our schools are not and cannot be a panacea. They cannot make up for the unstable home life of students, drug addiction of parents, inadequate medical care, poor diet, poverty, or neighborhoods where violence and profanity are rampant and trust fleeting.

As Nick Hanauer, venture capitalist and founder of public policy group Civic Ventures, wrote, “Long ago, I was captivated by an alluring and intuitive idea, to which many of my wealthy friends still subscribe: that poverty and rising inequality are largely the consequences of America’s failing education system. Fix that, I believed, and we could heal much of what afflicts America.

Hanauer, like so many others, had fallen prey to what I call the “magic bullet illusion in education” – the idea that an illusory panacea exists and that modern educators have only to discover it and implement it. There is nothing less magical and more illusory than believing that lax discipline policies lead to better student behavior.

I know heroism in the classroom is possible, that a single teacher can be a transcendent figure for a child – a guide to a path of knowledge rather than ignorance, achievement rather than aimlessness, human commitment rather than human negligence. But it is both wrong and arrogant to believe that faculties and school services can supplant families and neighborhoods. Classrooms are places of impermanence, of transition from one class, from one level to another. The family, whether united or broken, whether you like it or not, is eternal. Inevitably, parents are the primary teachers of their children, and the culture in which children are raised is formative. School is just one part of a young person’s education and journey to maturity.