A vital part of education for citizenship is an enlightened process for developing school rules and teaching students about them. School rules are, after all, a form of law that applies to students. There is no reason why the quality of instruction about school rules should lag behind the quality of education about the legal system in general, for which there now exist excellent materials and methods.1
In reality, however, instruction about school rules often violates the norms of good teaching. Rules are frequently communicated to students in a manner that would be unacceptable if applied to other subjects. Imagine a social studies teacher who taught the Constitution by simply giving a copy to students, asking them and their parents to sign a form acknowledging that they had read the document, and then testing the students on their constitutional knowledge and understanding!
This would obviously be considered poor teaching. Yet little attention is given to the way in which school rules are taught. Sometimes, they are not even taught at all. When they are taught, rules are often distributed the first week of school, with requests for students and parents to sign and return a form acknowledging that they have read them. Students are then held responsible for obeying the rules or suffering the consequences. Another frequent approach is for principals or teachers to distribute the rules at the first assembly or homeroom and simply tell students how important it is for the rules to be read and obeyed.
The way most schools develop and teach their rules has three major defects: First, it violates what we know about good teaching; second, it provokes students to subvert or ignore school rules; and third, it undermines self-discipline and citizenship education. This article, which is based on questionnaires and interviews with more than one hundred elementary and secondary principals and teachers,2 describes the predicament arising from most student codes of conduct. It suggests a collaborative, educational model for school rules that is more likely to result in students' willing compliance and positive attitudes, but does not relinquish the authority and responsibility of principals or teachers.
Destructive Rule-Making: The Authoritarian Approach
Most school codes of conduct share five problems.
1. They are negative, restrictive and unexplained. Usually rules are framed as "thou shalt nots," and contain little or nothing about student rights. There is often a single sentence about the purpose of the rules (e.g., "to provide an orderly and safe environment") followed by long lists of prohibitions and penalties. One small town high school code of conduct, for example, includes eight pages of "violations of school rules" (ranging from "physical violence" to "swearing") followed by a list of minimum to maximum "penalties/consequences" for each violation.
While the penalties and procedures for enforcing the rules are often clear, many of the prohibitions are unexplained and seem arbitrary. The reasons for some rules are obvious (e.g., those prohibiting guns, drugs, assault, and theft), but there are many rules for which the reasons are not clear. Some examples from my survey include:
Some rules can be so vague that reasonable students and administrators interpret them very differently. Examples include: no "inappropriate clothing," no clothing that "detracts from the general instructional atmosphere," no "profane" language, no "trading of items," no "display of self-defacing behavior," no "fooling around" on buses, no "sexual innuendos or leering," no "inappropriate behavior," and no "possession or display of any item that could be used to harm another."4 These vague prohibitions invite conflicting interpretations, and they risk being viewed with cynicism.
2. They are authoritarian. Restrictive rules handed down in a dictatorial manner that are not clearly related to safety or education are often viewed by students as arbitrary and illegitimate. Citizens who live under dictatorships tend to feel that it is moral to disregard or subvert laws that arbitrarily restrict their freedom and are imposed upon them without their participation. Students often feel the same way. Many disobey autocratic rules without guilt and encourage others to do so.
3. There is non-participation by students in the development of school rules. Although a few student representatives may be given an opportunity to comment on proposed codes of conduct, the vast majority of students are not invited to participate in the development or revision of school rules, and therefore have no sense of ownership. (This is equally true of most teachers and parents, who can also feel disenfranchised.) This lack of participation can lead to misinformation and misunderstanding about the rights and responsibilities of students and teachers. As a result, students and parents sometimes assert rights they don't have, and misinformed teachers may fail to take appropriate disciplinary action because of unfounded fears of being sued for violating student rights.
4. School rules are usually written and distributed in a formal and legalistic rather than educational manner. Many principals appear unconscious of their role as the leading "law teachers" of their schools, and seem unaware of the educational implications of the way they develop, interpret, and apply school rules. They tend to think of school rules as administrative or legal documents, not as educational materials. As a result, codes of conduct are sometimes written in "legalese" and there is usually no process for assessing whether students understand the rules.
The purpose of having students and parents pledge that they have received the rules is "to put them on notice" so "they can't plead ignorance" when students are punished for rule violations. Unlike the excellent law-related materials that have been developed to teach about our civil and criminal justice system, the rules and laws that govern students in our schools are rarely developed as educational documents, taught as part of the curriculum, or evaluated for their completeness, clarity, or effectiveness.
5. School rules lack standards or procedures. While student handbooks often include procedures for hearings before students are suspended or expelled, they rarely include procedures that allow students to challenge or question the fairness of specific rules or their implementation.5 There are also usually no agreed-upon standards or procedures for judging whether rules are unnecessary, discriminatory, irrelevant, ambiguous, or inconsistent in the way in which they are written or enforced.
The issue of fairness comes up at every grade level. Whether in the second grade or the twelfth, when a student says about a rule (or its application), "It's not fair," there are two typical responses by teachers: "Life's not fair" or "But that's the rule." These responses tend to teach students a counterproductive lesson.
Interviews with teachers indicate that such responses usually reflect their own frustration, alienation, or sense of powerlessness. Teachers feel frustrated because they sometimes have to enforce rules they didn't participate in making, don't understand, or don't agree with, but feel powerless to change. The destructive lessons that are taught by the enforcement of unfair rules may seriously undermine respect for rules and laws during students' formative years.
The Negative Consequences
The five characteristics of most student codes of conduct outlined above lead to several negative consequences.
1. Distortion of the Role of Educators. As a result of rules that focus on prohibitions and punishments, teachers and administrators tend to be viewed and to behave more as disciplinarians than as educators, and therefore spend a disproportionate amount of time policing rather than teaching. When students are perceived as disrespectful, disobedient, or disorderly, schools often respond by making tougher rules and enforcing them with stiffer penalties. This often leads to a self-defeating cycle of escalating rules, penalties, and defiance.
2. Promotion of Antagonism. If students don't willingly submit to school rules, they must be enforced. The problem with coercion as a means of control, writes William Muir, is that "it depends on intimidation" and "partners to a coercive relationship...are almost invariably antagonistic to one another."6 Even if coercion succeeds and students submit, there is often an educational defeat since many students become defiant, inattentive, or insubordinate. Alienated students tend to be disrespectful of authority and negative about schooling.
3. The Undermining of Rules and Authority. Extensive research on social psychology and procedural justice shows that when people do not have an opportunity to present their views in advance about rules that will affect them, they are less likely to comply with rules and procedures. They tend to be dissatisfied with organizational decisions, more often engage in "clever" disobedience, and have poorer performance and less positive attitudes towards those in authority.7
4. The Undermining of Responsibility and Self-Discipline. Schools claim to prepare students to become active, responsible citizens. However, schools undermine this goal when they issue codes of conduct with only token student participation; when school handbooks include pages of prohibitions, punishments, and responsibilities, and almost nothing about students' rights; when elementary teachers post classroom rules on the first day of school (because they "don't want to take time away from teaching"); and when high school students' participation in decision-making is restricted to carefully controlled student governments that deal with trivial issues.
Traditional codes of conduct that rely on control and punishment to teach responsibility are usually ineffective and counterproductive. Jane Nelsen and other writers on school discipline point out that a system that depends on external control doesn't teach self-control. It "makes the teacher responsible, not the students. It is the teacher's responsibility to catch the students...being bad and punish them."8 Punishment, writes Nelsen, "will usually stop misbehavior for a while," but it is not effective when the teacher isn't around, and it has no positive long-range effect. Instead, it reinforces dependency, eliminates student initiative, and encourages passive or grudging compliance with rules.
Despite these negative consequences, many parents and educators believe that the only answer to misbehavior and the way to "regain controquot; of the schools is to punish, suspend, and then expel the troublemakers so that those who want to learn can do so. In some situations, where schools have tried everything else but failed, extreme penalties are needed. But in most schools, collaborative approaches that could lead to voluntary compliance with codes of conduct have not failed-they simply have not been tried.9
An Alternative: Collaborative Rule-Making
Here are the characteristics of an alternative approach that is more likely to result in willing compliance with school rules and to protect safety and order.
1. There is participation. All citizens of the school community-students, parents, and staff-should be encouraged to participate in the development of school and classroom rules. Research in social psychology indicates that people tend to voluntarily follow rules developed using fair, participatory procedures. Procedures are considered fair when those affected have an opportunity to express their views about rules and decisions before they are made, and the decision-maker considers those views.
There are a variety of collaborative models for encouraging student participation. Most are found in elementary classrooms. In a Washington, D.C., school, for example, all students participate during their first week in a structured process of rule-making that uses small group discussion, emphasizes responsibility and cooperation, identifies positive as well as negative consequences of student behavior, and culminates in a formal ceremony in which the teacher and each student sign their "Classroom Constitution."10
To consider other examples, Ruth Charney's book titled Teaching Children to Care describes the ways a "difficult" fifth grade class collaboratively constructs a "class charter," and sixth graders develop a "contract of binding rules."11 And, in a Massachusetts elementary school, a principal uses "community meetings" that focus on the rights and responsibilities of members of the school community not only to establish rules at the beginning of the year, but also to develop the capacity to collaboratively solve school problems throughout the year.12
Large secondary schools use different approaches. In a New York high school, five students elected from each grade level draft a proposed school code of conduct with a Law and Government teacher, and then submit it to the school's Student Legislature. Legislators then discuss the draft with each homeroom before revising it and submitting it to the principal for his approval. An Illinois high school is planning to have students in Civics classes develop the code of conduct (after surveying all students and staff); design a school-wide process with their teacher and principal to have their proposal discussed, modified, and approved; and then have seniors teach the code to incoming ninth graders.
Participation is not only important for students; it is equally important for two other critical constituencies-teachers and parents. Since both groups can play a central role in explaining and supporting (or criticizing and subverting) school rules, administrators should encourage them to participate in rule-making.
In one elementary school, for example, the principal and school council send a questionnaire with the proposed handbook to all parents and teachers, explain its purposes, and request their comments on "readability, omissions, deletions, corrections, additions," and whether they feel the rules are "positive and educational." Whatever process is used to seek participation, it should go far beyond a general invitation by the principal at an end-of-the-year faculty meeting or in a parent newsletter to share suggestions about school rules.
2. Rules are balanced, reasoned, and positive. Rather than being filled with prohibitions and punishments, codes of conduct should balance rights and responsibilities and emphasize how they promote civic values. They should begin with an explanation of the participatory process used to develop the code, how it promotes the school's educational mission, and how it protects students' rights. In a Rochester, New York, high school, the code of conduct includes these student rights:
Codes can next discuss student responsibilities, and explain why most individual rights are not absolute and must be limited to protect safety and order. When reasons for prohibitions are not obvious, they should be justified in relation to specific educational goals.14 The Rochester code spells out student responsibilities, such as arriving at class on time, respecting the rights of others, applying their abilities to improve their education and the school community, and observing rules of conduct (which explain when and why student freedom must be restricted to achieve certain missions of the school). In addition, the code clearly prohibits the use of tobacco, illegal drugs, or alcohol; cheating; fighting; stealing; and, dangerous weapons.
3. Rules are educational. Codes of student conduct should be conceived and written as educational materials. Research on classroom management has found that effective educators "teach behavioral rules...in much the same way as they teach instructional content."15 Teachers and administrators should agree on instructional objectives, and teachers should develop lesson plans that include varied methods (such as simulations and small group discussions) that involve participation by all students. This instruction should be integrated into the regular school curriculum and especially into Social Studies or Civics courses. Homework might involve discussion of important rules with parents. There also should be strategies to assess student knowledge and understanding of the rules, and plans for individualized instruction, re-teaching, and re-testing when appropriate.
4. Rules should be fair. When a student says a rule is unfair, he or she may mean "I don't like it" or "It punishes me for doing something I want to do." Fairness is sometimes seen as a subjective judgment about what a student or teacher likes or prefers. Are there less subjective criteria for assessing whether a rule is fair or unfair? If students, teachers, and administrators could agree on such criteria, this could change the nature of the discussion about whether a school rule is fair. I believe that such agreement can be achieved and that there are good teaching materials available to help.
The Center for Civic Education, for example, has developed interesting, interactive, age-appropriate curriculum units for students from kindergarten to high school to help them understand and analyze what makes a rule good or bad.16 Among the suggested criteria for judging good rules are that they:
Other criteria for good rules might be that they are clear, don't contradict each other, are known to the people they affect, can be complied with, and have reasonable educational consequences when broken.
There also should be an established procedure for students to question, challenge, or propose a rule. If the school community could agree on a set of standards for assessing school rules, then students who claim that a rule is unfair could be asked to explain how it violates one of the agreed-upon criteria. If students make an argument that a classroom or school rule violates the criteria (e.g., that it is irrelevant, ambiguous,
unclear, or conflicts with constitutional values), then the teacher or principal should respond to the students and clarify, modify, justify, or repeal the rule.
Barriers and How to Overcome Them
Some educators fear that allowing significant student participation may lead to a loss of control. However, writers on classroom discipline point out that teachers who involve students in collaborative rule-making will find that their fears about loss of control are unfounded, and that the rules students propose usually "are the same as, or stricter than, the rules teachers try to force on them."17 Moreover, students "respect the rules that they themselves make much more than the same rules imposed by adults."18 Research shows that, if there is honest collaboration in rule-making, those affected are likely to react favorably to the rules and decisions of authorities even if they disagree with them.19
Another frequent concern is that student participation is inefficient and time-consuming. Participation does take more time, but this is an investment with a triple dividend. Collaborative rule-making can lead to better rules, enhance self-discipline, and teach important citizenship skills.20
1. Improvement of Rules. Broad participation and comment by students, teachers, and parents in school rule-making is likely to alert administrators to proposed rules that are confusing, irrelevant, contradictory, inadequate, or unenforceable-before they are printed in the handbook. This will improve the quality and clarity of school rules and procedures and make them less likely to be challenged or subverted.
2. Increase in Self-Discipline. Psychologists have found that, if children obey rules not because they believe they are reasonable but simply to avoid punishment, they are less likely to internalize such rules and less likely to follow them without such a threat.21 In contrast, research on effective schools has found that "student participation in developing and reviewing school discipline programs creates a sense of ownership," and this leads to a climate in which students "want to achieve self-discipline."22 Furthermore, research on well-disciplined schools indicates that teacher-student collaboration in problem-solving and rule-making is "more effective in reducing behavior problems than punishment."23 Thus, unlike punitive disciplinary systems, collaborative rule-making promotes mutual respect, cooperation, self-discipline, and personal responsibility.
3. Education in Citizenship Skills. Most schools teach Civics without giving students an opportunity to acquire and practice citizenship skills. However, collaboration in making school and classroom rules gives students that opportunity. Such collaboration teaches students to consider the views of others, to work together to solve common problems, to take responsibility for their decisions, and to understand the importance of rules and laws. Furthermore, students who participate in their school governance process are more likely to be active citizens after they graduate.24
Collaborative rule-making develops the citizenship competencies called for in recent state and national standards. For example, the National Standards for Civics and Government urges schools not only to provide knowledge about government, but also to develop "those skills required for competent participation." According to the National Standards, "participatory skills are developed by providing students with opportunities to practice these skills," which students can attain by taking part in the "governance of their classrooms and schools by working in groups to reach agreement about school rules."25 Clearly, the National Standards support collaborative rule-making and suggest that it should become a part of every school's curriculum.
Students, of course, will not always agree with the final results of their collaboration with teachers and administrators. However, most students are less likely to feel betrayed by such disagreement if they understand why the principal has the legal responsibility and authority for making most school rules and approving classroom rules. Moreover, when students' views are rejected, they will learn why and-through that
exchange-will learn that "the system" is responsive and that their concerns are considered. They also may learn about the complexities of democracy-that responsible authorities consider multiple perspectives and conflicting values, and that even a majority cannot override constitutional principles or the rights of the minority.
After twelve years in a system that seems to reward non-questioning non-participation in the rule-making process, it is not surprising that many students become cynical, passive, non-voting citizens. Conversely, in a system that encourages their participation and responds to their views, students are more likely to become the effective citizens and responsible supporters of our constitutional democracy that our schools were intended to promote.
In the perennial debate about citizenship education, school rules, and student discipline, we are often presented in alarmist terms with a choice between a firm, benevolent dictatorship needed to insure order, and an out-of-control permissiveness that leads to confusion and violence. We should reject these equally inappropriate choices and find a better alternative, a middle ground between authoritarian administration and permissiveness that can teach effective and responsible citizenship skills. Collaborative rule-making is, I submit, the better educational alternative.
1. See, for example, Foundations of Democracy: Authority, Privacy, Responsibility and Justice (Calabasas, CA: Center for Civic Education, 1993); Civil Justice and Criminal Justice, Third Edition (New York: Scholastic/Constitutional Rights Foundation, 1988); Edward McMahon, Lee Arbetman, and Edward O'Brien, Street Law, fifth edition (St. Paul: West Publishing Company, 1994).
2. The questionnaires were completed at a Massachusetts Principals Institute on March 16, 1995, by 58 elementary, 21 middle/junior high, and 22 high school principals. All principals responded "yes" to the question, "Does your school teach its students about school rules?" However, when asked to describe the "methods" used to teach the rules, less than 5 percent indicated that the rules were taught as educational materials or as part of the curriculum. Although almost 60 percent responded "yes" to the question, "Do you assess whether students understand the rules?", the most frequent methods of assessment were "observation," "frequency of violation," and "discussion at time of violation." These responses were corroborated in interviews with more than 30 teachers and administrators in Ohio, Florida, Massachusetts, and New York, between October 1995 and March 1996.
3. These and the following examples are taken from an examination of 28 student handbooks/codes of conduct (from 6 elementary, 8 middle/junior high, 11 senior high, and 3 district-wide codes) from Florida, Ohio, Massachusetts, and New York.
4. Similarly, an Alabama Code of Student Conduct listed as a punishable offense: "Possession of any item which may be conceivably used as a weapon on school grounds." A state court held that the rule was unconstitutionally vague and ambiguous. Dothan City Board of Education v. V.M.H., 660 So.2d 1328 (Ala. Civ. App. 1995).
5. The American notion that government officials must act fairly in making important decisions affecting citizens is reflected in the constitutional requirement of due process of law. That is why the Supreme Court requires due process before students are suspended or expelled from public schools. But I believe fair procedures not only should apply before punishment; fairness also should characterize the way government officials - especially school administrators - develop, interpret and apply school rules.
6. William K. Muir, "Teacher's Regulation of the Classroom," in David Kirp and Donald Jensen, School Days, Rule Days (Philadelphia: Falmer Press, 1986), 110-114.
7. Allan Lind and Tom Tyler, The Social Psychology of Procedural Justice (New York: Plenum Press, 1988),79, 179, 187.
8. Jane Nelsen, Lynn Lott, and H. Stephen Glenn, Positive Discipline in the Classroom (Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1993), 99. A central feature of Positive Discipline is regular class meetings throughout the year to teach cooperative problem solving.
9. A project sponsored by the federal Departments of Justice and Education indicated that the way to make schools safe is not by focusing on removing dangerous students but "by establishing a schooling process that increases students' voluntary compliance with behavioral norms." Charles R. Tremper, "School Crime and Student Rights: 'Surprises' from a Federal Initiative," in The Urban Review 19,4 (1987): 235.
10. Ellen Bein and Susan Stern, "Democracy as Discipline," ERIC ED 375 339, March 2, 1994.
11. Ruth Sidney Charney, Teaching Children to Care: Management in the Responsive Classroom (Greenfield, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children, 1993), 58-63.
12. Ethel Sadowsky, "Democracy in Elementary Schooquot; in Ralph Mosher, Robert Kenny, Jr., and Andrew Garrod, Preparing for Citizenship (Westport: Prager, 1994), Chapter 7.
13. John Marshall High School, 1995-96 Student Code of Conduct (Draft), Rochester, New York.
14. In one junior high "Code of Cooperation," a clear reason is given for each rule followed by the "corrective action" that will be taken in case of violation. In addition, the handbook requires students to be included "when making decisions and rules which will affect them." 1995-96 Handbook, Dover-Sherborn Regional Junior High School, Dover, MA, 4, 24-25.
15. Kathleen Cotton, "Schoolwide and Classroom Discipline," in School Improvement Research Series V (Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, Portland, May, 1991). ERIC ED 347 614, 6.
16. Authority: Lessons on Evaluating Rules, Levels I-IV (1979-1995), Law in a Free Society Series, Center for Civic Education, Calabasas, CA.
17. Nelsen, Lott, and Glenn, 25.
18. C. Kamil and L. Joseph, Young Children Continue to Reinvent Arithmetic, 2nd Grade (New York: Teachers College Press, 1989, p. 52).
19. Lind and Tyler, 11, 26, 207.
20. Researchers have found that the time invested in participatory procedures is among "the least costly methods for improving organizational attitudes, cohesion and compliance." Ibid., 201.
21. Ervin Staub, Positive Social Behavior and Morality, Vol. II Socialization and Development, (New York: Academic Press, 1979), 92-99.
22. Cotton, 3.
23. Ibid. In addition, "children who have had time to reflect on and debate about rules are more likely to remember the rules and understand their importance, thus preventing problems from occurring." Kathryn Castle and Karen Rogers, "Rule Creating in a Constructivist Classroom Community," Childhood Education, Vol. 70, No. 2, Winter 1993-94,78.
24.Preparing for Citizenship provides a detailed rationale for teaching citizenship skills and extensive descriptions of controversial experiments in democratic governance (in public schools in Brookline, MA, and Hanover, NH) influenced by John Dewey and Lawrence Kohlberg. Mosher, Kenny, and Garrod, op. cit.
25. National Standards for Civics and Government (Calabasas, CA: Center for Civic Education, 1994), 5-6,19.
David Schimmel is Professor of Education in the Department of Educational Policy, Research and Administration at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.