Thursday, October 15, 2009

Zero Tolerance


If you follow education news you no doubt have heard about the first grader who was suspended for 45 days for bringing a camping tool to school.  He was going to eat his lunch with it.  The school board has since reconsidered the zero tolerance policy which lead to this decision, but the event has stirred up the usual debate about "zero tolerance."

One of the short comings of a "zero tolerance" policy is that it limits a school's options for disciplining students.  It assumes there is a one size fits all approach to certain student behaviors and takes decision-making out of the hands of the living experience of teachers, administrators, and parents.  A zero tolerance approach all but explicitly states that the way to handle certain infractions is best decided by a group of adults sitting around a table removed from the actual realities on which they are passing judgment.  While I understand the message a zero tolerance policy is meant to send to students, it also communicates a lack of trust in the educational professionals dealing with realities on the ground and in real time.

"Zero tolerance" is to discipline codes what standardized teaching is to pedagogy.  There are actually philosophies of education and curricula that try to make education "teacher proof."  Regulation, overwrought supervision, holding teachers accountable to standards they didn't help create are all part of the same mechanistic mindset that tries to eliminate variables (specifically the very variable variable known as a human being) from the equation.  Both "zero tolerance" and "teacher proof" curricula assume IF X, THEN Y in every case, in all circumstances, no matter who is involved, or why.  Tolerance is reduced to zero by reducing to zero the input of those who would tolerate a first grader eating his lunch with a cool gadget, politely collect it from him when he was done, and return it to his parents with the instruction that the school has a policy about not bringing any kind of knife into school.  What they have realized in Delaware is that student discipline is not rocket science, it's much more complicated than that.

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