By Amber M. Northern and Michael J. Petrilli
How does self-discipline develop? Certainly it comes in part from institutions of civil society such as home, family, and church. But schools can make a difference too, and over the years Catholic schools—the largest provider of private education in the United States—have been particularly committed to the development of sound character, including the acquisition of self-discipline.
How well has that worked? Given the widespread interest and importance of improving student behavior and reducing the need for harsh forms of external discipline, it would benefit all sectors of the education community to know whether children in Catholic schools actually exhibit more self-discipline than their peers—and if so, what other public and private schools might have to learn from them about how these positive behaviors can be fostered.
To that end, a new Fordham Institute study, Self-Discipline and Catholic Schools: Evidence from Two National Cohorts, asks two questions:
- Are children in Catholic elementary schools more self-disciplined than similar students in other schools, as measured by their likelihood of arguing and fighting and the ability to control their temper, among other things?
- Is the relationship between Catholic school attendance and self-discipline stronger for certain types of students?
To lead the study, we recruited Michael Gottfried, Associate Professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB). Dr. Gottfried has conducted several studies of young children’s socio-emotional development, social-behavioral skills, and overall school readiness. Jacob Kirksey, a doctoral student at UCSB, helped to analyze the data and co-wrote the report.
Gottfried and Kirksey analyzed two waves of nationally representative data on elementary school students that were collected as part of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten (ECLS-K). The first, ECLS-K: 1999, contains data on a nationally representative cohort of children who entered kindergarten in 1998–99. (Our study includes data from kindergarten, first, third, and fifth grades.) The second, ECLS-K: 2011, contains data on children who entered kindergarten in the 2010–11 school year. (Our study includes data from kindergarten through second grade.)
Each of these cohorts comprises 15,000 to 17,000 kindergarteners who attended public schools and 1,000 to 2,000 who attended non-public schools, of whom close to half (41 percent to 49 percent) attended Catholic schools. For both cohorts, teachers rated the frequency with which children engaged in certain behaviors, thus making possible the authors’ analysis.
To account for the many readily observable differences between Catholic school students and their peers in other private or public schools, Gottfried and Kirksey compared children who attended Catholic schools to a subset of students who attended other schools but who closely resembled the Catholic school students in other respects. However, because families who send their children to Catholic schools make a conscious choice to do so, they likely differ from other families in unobservable ways. So, in addition to comparing children who attend Catholic schools to children who attend public schools, the authors also compared them to children in other private schools, both religious and secular. Because these families also chose to opt out of the public school system, we consider them the most plausible comparison group.
The analysis revealed three key findings.
First, students in Catholic schools are less likely to act out or be disruptive than those in other private or public schools.
Children in Catholic school exhibited fewer “externalizing behaviors”—that is, they demonstrated more self-discipline—than matched peers in other private schools. According to their teachers, Catholic school children argued, fought, got angry, acted impulsively, and disturbed ongoing activities less frequently. In the first cohort, the size of this difference increased over time, from -0.06 standard deviations in kindergarten, to -0.27 and -0.29 standard deviations in first and third grades, to -0.34 standard deviations in fifth grade. A similar pattern emerged when comparing children who attend Catholic school to those in public schools, though the differences are generally smaller and do not increase over time.
The second cohort reveals a similar pattern, with children in Catholic schools exhibiting fewer externalizing behaviors than those in other private or public schools. However, the difference between Catholic schools and other private schools disappeared between kindergarten and second grade.
Second, students in Catholic schools exhibit more self-control than those in other private schools or public schools.
Teachers at every grade level reported that students in the first cohort (1998–99) who attended Catholic schools exhibited greater self-control than those in other private schools. Specifically, they were more likely to control their temper, respect others’ property, accept their fellow students’ ideas, and handle peer pressure. Like the difference in “externalizing behavior,” this difference is smallest in kindergarten (0.10 standard deviations), though in this case there is no clear trend between kindergarten and fifth grade.
In a similar vein, Catholic school students who entered kindergarten in 2010–11 exhibited more self-control than students in other private schools. Moreover, for this cohort, the difference between these groups grows steadily over time, from 0.15 standard deviations in kindergarten to 0.26 standard deviations in second grade.
Third, regardless of demographics, students in Catholic schools exhibit more self-discipline than students in other private schools.
Prior research suggests that Catholic schools do a particularly good job of boosting the achievement of low-income and minority students. Consequently, Gottfried and Kirksey tested for differences in the relationship between Catholic school attendance and externalizing behaviors and/or self-control based on individual characteristics, including race, gender, socioeconomic status, and family immigrant status, as well as initial behavior (as rated by kindergarten teachers).
Interestingly, there were no systematic differences between any of these groups. Students in Catholic schools, regardless of their personal characteristics or backgrounds, exhibit more self-discipline than students in other private or public schools. Thus, there is at least some evidence that attending Catholic school may benefit all sorts of children, at least when it comes to reducing the frequency of externalizing behaviors and fostering greater self-control.
Note that these findings are not causal. Despite the authors’ efforts to construct a plausible control group, there may be unobservable differences between Catholic and other private school students, so their estimates of the “effect” of Catholic school attendance may be biased. Still, the findings suggest three key takeaways.
1. Schools that value and focus on self-discipline will likely do a better job of fostering it in children.
Since Catholic school doctrine emphasizes the development of self-discipline, it seems likely that Catholic schools devote more time and attention to fostering it. And their apparent success in doing so suggests that schools that focus on self-discipline are capable of inculcating, developing, and strengthening it over time—in the same way that other schools might focus on athletic skills to win track meets or football games. If other schools took self-discipline as seriously as Catholic schools do, they would likely have to spend less time, energy, and political capital on penalizing students for negative behaviors.
2. Assuming that these results reflect a “Catholic Schools Effect,” other schools might consider both explicit and implicit methods to replicate it.
In general, we know little about how schools, including Catholic ones, can foster self-discipline. But it seems likely that both direct and indirect methods play some role in Catholic schools’ success—and that at least some of these methods are transferrable to other contexts. For example, an explicit focus on self-discipline might be reflected in a school’s curricula, whether formal or informal. Similarly, a school’s discipline policy could enumerate any number of approaches whereby teachers and students could forestall bad behavior. Alternatively, higher levels of self-discipline may be fostered implicitly—for example, through educators’ daily interactions with students in the classroom or via well-chosen and well-managed extracurricular activities with mentors or other adults who model self-discipline.
With a bit of effort, more non-Catholic schools could adopt such practices and be intentional about their implementation. Indeed, some “no excuses” charter schools are already doing so.
3. Don’t underestimate the power of religion to positively influence a child’s behavior. But in the absence of it, schools can adopt courses or programs that might foster self-discipline.
The most obvious feature that Catholic schools and similar faith-based schools have in common is their focus on religion—including such specifically Judeo-Christian values as humility, obedience, kindness, tolerance, self-sacrifice, and perseverance. It is difficult to pin down how or why these values may influence a child’s behavior when encountered in this context. Perhaps students are more likely to internalize such values when they know they are loved not only by their teachers but by their Creator, or when they perceive that misbehavior may have eternal consequences. Maybe it’s something else entirely. Regardless, one thing is certain: Religion can mold hearts and minds in ways that suspensions, restorative justice, and Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) can’t begin to match.
That doesn’t mean that such secular approaches—and schools—don’t have their place. Of course they do. And so do character education, ethics classes, and civics, all of which can contribute to the development of self-discipline. School leaders should choose the options that best suit their kids and culture.
That said, these results suggest that Catholic schools in particular are doing something meaningful in the realm of self-discipline. So it’s deeply unfair that the politics of education continue to prevent many parents from accessing them, and it’s a tragedy for the nation that many of these valuable educational institutions continue to close.
To the extent that school choice programs can widen access to great schools—Catholic or otherwise—that boost academic performance and self-discipline, they deserve our eternal support.
It seems likely that the Trump administration will soon revise or rescind an Obama-era directive intended to address racial disparities in school disciplinary actions. The "Dear Colleague" letter in question, issued by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice in 2014, has been the subject of much debate. It stated that school districts could be investigated and found guilty of violating students' civil rights when doling out punishments, even if the discipline policies were race-neutral and implemented in even-handed ways (in other words, even if there was no evidence of discriminatory treatment of students).
Yet the latest federal discipline data, released earlier this month, show that African American students continue to be disciplined at higher rates than white students. While U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos held roundtable meetings with lawmakers in April to hear debates about the guidance from both sides, there is no timeline for the administration's final decision.
But school discipline reform did not begin with President Obama, and it won't end with President Trump. Momentum for change has been gaining steam for years, which legislatures and school boards have increasingly codified into laws and practices at state and local levels.
If the Trump administration makes its move to revise or rescind, local education leaders will regain discretion over how to balance discipline with safety and order in the classroom. Regardless of what happens at the federal level, school discipline brings into play a number of important but often competing goals for school districts: eliminating discrimination, protecting the learning time of both disruptive students and their well-behaved peers, upholding high expectations for students, empathizing with traumatized students, and defending the authority of teachers.
With those competing values in mind, here are seven suggestions for superintendents and district-level administrators to consider for their discipline policies:
DO worry about racial discrimination and implicit bias when determining punishments for students who misbehave. Advocates for fair school discipline are right to be alarmed by the dramatic racial disparities. Schools nationwide suspended 2.7 million students in 2015–16—100,000 fewer students than 2013–14. But African American male students represented a quarter of all students who received an out-of-school suspension in 2015–16, despite making up only 8 percent of enrollment. Multiple studies have found that educator bias explains some of these disparities.
Furthermore, it is clearly against the law—and has been for half a century—for districts to treat students differently based on their race. Any differential treatment will remain illegal, even if the Trump administration does rescind federal guidance.
DON'T assume that racial bias alone explains disparities in discipline rates. The same studies that find evidence of racial bias in disciplinary actions also find that such bias only explains some of the disparities. Differences in student behavior are also a major factor. That's not because of the race of the students, but because, tragically, different racial groups face different kinds and degrees of trauma, abuse, and deprivation, many of them associated with poverty.
Students themselves even report such differences. On federal surveys, twice as many African American students report getting into fights at school as white students. It would be miraculous if children's vastly different life experiences didn't result in behavioral differences in school.
DO show empathy for kids whose misbehavior is due to difficult life circumstances. Educators need to understand the truly tough circumstances that some children face outside of school and do their best to help them cope. Identifying appropriate mental-health supports is particularly important. Addressing the underlying causes of student misbehavior can go a long way toward nipping it in the bud.
DON'T engage in the soft bigotry of low expectations. It's just as important for empathy not to turn into excuses for behavior that is out of line or compromises students' academic potential. All students need to learn how to control their impulses and behave in acceptable ways, as well as cultivate an attitude that reflects motivation and engagement.
DO find ways to address misbehavior that lead to positive changes and protect opportunities to learn. Long suspensions reduce learning time for those being punished and may not improve their behavior. It's worth trying in-school suspension for nonviolent offenses, with supports for students so they can behave better and continue learning the valuable skills and knowledge that schools exist to teach them.
DON'T just send disruptive kids back to their classrooms. Those who break rules can't be our exclusive concern; their classmates also have the right to learn. We must protect their learning environment to stay on track and close achievement gaps. Research also shows what common sense indicates: One or two disruptive students can erode the learning of an entire classroom. It should alarm us that in 2015–16, 43 percent of educators reported classroom misbehavior that affects their ability to teach students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
DO address "suspension factories." A 2013 report by researchers at The Civil Rights Project at UCLA found that thousands of public schools suspend more than a quarter of their students every year. And that is still the case for too many schools today—a sign that they are careening out of control on disciplinary measures. While it's bad to ignore schools with such high rates of suspensions, it's arguably worse to respond by simply commanding that they get their numbers down without providing massive amounts of support.
School discipline presents enormous challenges for education leaders. Getting it right takes balance, judgment, and wisdom. There's not much of that in Washington these days, but thankfully it still exists in abundance across our nation's schools. Let's make our decisions wisely.
As first appeared in Education Week as “7 Suggestions for Better School Discipline”on May 29, 2018.
Last month, Dan Porterfield presided over his final commencement as President of Franklin & Marshall College before leaving the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, school he had led since 2011 to become the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute. Under Porterfield, F&M partnered with several high-profile charter and Catholic school networks and programs, including KIPP, Cristo Rey, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, and the Posse Scholars program, to attract low-income students of color to F&M and other selective colleges, and to keep them persisting. Those efforts were the centerpiece of “No Excuses Kids Go to College,” a cover story Robert Pondiscio wrote for Education Next in 2013. Pondiscio conducted an “exit interview” with Porterfield last month on the lessons learned from F&M’s work, as well as Porterfield’s plan to continue those efforts at Aspen.
Robert Pondiscio: The issue of improving college access and graduation rates for “first generation” college-goers from disadvantaged subgroups is strongly associated with you and the work you've done at F&M. What motivated you to make this your issue? And what have you learned from your experience?
Dan Porterfield: What motivated me was the recognition that there are great, well prepared, and highly motivated students across the whole American mosaic, and a growing number of schools, scholarship programs, access programs, and community organizations that are cultivating that talent for success at rigorous colleges. I came to feel that the top colleges could compete together rather than against each other to develop promising practices for recruiting more top students from low-income backgrounds. That's the big thing, that colleges can and should work together to provide greater service to our country rather then competing against each other for what is, I think, the fool’s gold of rankings and metrics of prestige that really don't widen the circle of opportunity in our country.
Pondiscio: It was an unpleasant surprise and humbling to many of us in K–12 and so-called “no excuses” charter schools to learn how challenging it is to keep “first-gen” college students persisting through college and to graduation. Were you as surprised as the rest of us in K–12?
Porterfield: No. Years of working at Georgetown as a professor and senior vice president, living on campus and working with students, gave me a great feeling for the range of experiences that first-generation college-goers have. I anticipated when I started at Franklin & Marshall that, by partnering with top performing public schools and programs, we would be able to build pipelines of strong students. It was incumbent upon us to work with those students, both individually and as a group, to ensure that we could unlock the resources of the college and help those students develop their own pathways to their own success. I also had a lot of confidence that schools that have the resources to meet both financial aid for students and help students develop “college knowledge” early could enable them to thrive.
Pondiscio: So as you leave higher education, what are your takeaway lessons for ed reform, college-prep charter schools, and K–12 education at large?
Porterfield: Society needs to adapt in making sure that more students have access to a high quality college-prep curriculum. But our high school and pre-college partners have seen that just giving most of their students a strong college-prep curriculum isn't enough. They need colleges to meet their full financial need. They need the colleges to see them and hear them and treat them as assets to the school. And they need their colleges to be able to grease the gears and be flexible enough to respond to different needs of some first-generation college-goers. The reality is lower-income students often end up in schools that don't have enough resources to meet some of their needs. Or they end up in schools where there's not a critical mass of such students, and first-generation students don't necessarily know how to advocate for themselves in such settings. Colleges have to invest in the needs of all students and make sure they have strategies for responding to the particular needs of lower-income students who need all three things: strong pre-college education, a great bridge, and then commitment at the college level.
Pondiscio: Let me put you on the spot a little bit. In K–12 ed reform, the idea that everyone seemed to agree with twenty years ago was that college is for everyone. Where do you stand on that?
Porterfield: Our young people will grow up to live and work in a science- and tech-driven global knowledge economy, where one’s ability to work with concepts and to change the way one works as technology changes will be critical. That’s point one. Point two is that our country is in the midst of demographic change that is extremely important, including the graying of the country as the boomers retire. In the context of all that change and the nature of an interdependent global economy, we need to invest in the talent of younger Americans to be able to live and work and provide for their families and a growing percentage of the population that’s retiring. So I think it's important to invest in talent. That may not be defined by going to a residential liberal arts college, but everybody’s going to have to learn continuously in their adult lives in the world we're entering. Everybody's going to have to have the intellectual agility to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of good or bad knowledge. In order to be an active citizen in a democracy, everyone’s going to need to be willing to learn the issues and to think about what's in the best interest of communities large and small and the nation as a whole. If we're not investing in the education of the young from pre-K through the end of high school, then we're essentially limiting their capacity to be lifelong learners, lifelong innovators, lifelong contributors to political discourse, and lifelong providers for the older generation.
Pondiscio: You are now going to the Aspen Institute, and I'm sure you are not done with these issues. What will that perch allow you to do to advance this agenda that was either beyond the scope of your work or your resources at Franklin & Marshall?
Porterfield: Aspen has two excellent programs that I've worked with. The Education and Society Program led by Ross Weiner, and the College Excellence program led by Josh Wyner. Both Josh and Ross are superb at gathering collaborators from a variety of sectors to work together, frame a problem well, and then try to have collective impact. The Aspen method, embodied by Josh and Ross and many others working at Aspen, is I think very promising for a nonprofit organization to be developing for this era. How do we frame problems and then solve problems and reach defined goals to collective action? And that's what I hope Aspen continues to do and becomes known for doing very well in education and in many other areas.
On this week’s podcast, Tim Daly, a founding partner of EdNavigator, joins Mike Petrilli and Alyssa Schwenk to discuss how we can better serve high-achieving, low-income students. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines the effects of “whole-child” versus academic-skill curricula in boosting literacy and math abilities for preschoolers.
Amber’s Research Minute
Jade M. Jenkins et al., “Boosting School Readiness: Should Preschool Teachers Target Skills or the Whole Child?” Economics of Education Review (May 2018).
The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) recently added to their trove of teacher preparation evaluations with the 2018 Teacher Prep Review. This year’s study examines 567 traditional graduate, 129 alternative route, and eighteen residency programs across the U.S. (no undergraduate programs were examined). The difference between these programs rests largely on their approach to clinical training: traditional graduate programs require candidates to spend a semester or more student teaching in the classroom of an experienced educator; residencies place candidates in a mentor teacher’s classroom for up to a year; and alternative routes generally lack of student teaching, putting candidates in charge of their own classrooms almost immediately, what NCTQ refers to as an internship.
The report focuses on three key aspects of preparation programs: practice teaching, teacher knowledge, and admissions. To determine quality, reviewers examined whether programs aligned their requirements and instruction with scientific research in each of the three areas. Grades were assigned based on materials like course catalogs, syllabi, and observation forms. Each program was given the opportunity to review NCTQ’s findings and submit additional information.
The first area, practice teaching, evaluates whether programs provide candidates with adequate practice before licensure. NCTQ asserts that in order to offer high quality clinical experiences, programs must do two things.
First, they must actively identify and advocate for the assignment of mentor teachers who are effective instructors and have strong mentorship skills. Only 8 percent of traditional programs communicated these qualities to partner districts, while 50 percent of residency programs did so. Although about a quarter of alternative route programs also did this, very few actually arranged for candidates to spend time teaching alongside mentors.
Second, programs must require candidates’ supervisors to provide frequent observations and written feedback. Research shows that at least five observations during student teaching placement can make candidates more effective when they get their own classrooms. Residency programs stood out in this area: 72 percent conducted five or more observations. By comparison, only 43 percent of traditional graduate programs and 23 percent of alternative route programs did the same.
Within the practice section, NCTQ also evaluated programs based on their attention to classroom management—a notoriously difficult skill for novice teachers to master. To earn a grade of A or B, programs had to provide candidates with feedback on all, or nearly all, of the five classroom management strategies identified by the Institute for Education Science. Seventy-two percent of residencies and alternative route programs earned an A or B, compared to 49 percent of traditional graduate programs.
The second area, teacher knowledge, differentiates between subjects within elementary and secondary programs. In elementary mathematics, only 1 percent of traditional graduate programs earned an A for adequately covering critical math content, while twenty-three of twenty-eight alternative programs earned an A (including both residencies and alternative routes). Results for elementary reading were more mixed: 23 percent of graduate programs earned an A for teaching candidates the five key components of early reading instruction, while no alternative program earned an A.
In secondary programs, 76 percent of traditional graduate programs earned an A for ensuring candidates knew the science content they would be required to teach, while 42 percent of alternative routes earned that grade. In secondary social studies, 44 percent of traditional graduate programs earned an A compared to 25 percent of alternative programs. The report also investigated whether secondary programs required candidates to take a subject-specific methods course to prepare them to teach content. Seventy-seven percent of traditional graduate programs earned an A, compared to 42 percent of alternative routes.
The final area, admissions, is pretty straightforward: NCTQ evaluated programs based on their selectivity. An A grade was given to programs that required a 3.0 minimum GPA and either the submission of a graduate admissions test like the GRE or a rigorous audition. Eight percent of traditional graduate programs and 24 percent of alternative routes earned an A for screening their elementary and secondary candidates for academic caliber. An additional 7 percent of traditional programs earned an A+ because they maintained a level of racial diversity that was the same or greater than the institution itself (this “bonus” didn’t apply for alternative programs).
Based on the grades assigned in each of the three areas, NCTQ ranked all of the programs it studied. Six of the top ten elementary programs were alternative routes, as were six of the top ten secondary programs—results that should enhance the position of alternative route advocates. As with previous teacher prep reports, NCTQ found that most top-ranked traditional graduate programs were not located in elite and expensive schools. For programs interested in raising their grades, NCTQ also offers recommendations, including the importance of prescreening applicants for core content knowledge and focusing on better preparing teachers in the area of classroom management.
SOURCE: “2018 Teacher Prep Review,” National Council on Teacher Quality (April 2018).
As states continue to implement the Common Core and similar state standards, a frequent barrier that districts and teachers face is the lack of high-quality curriculum and instructional materials aligned to these new rigorous standards. A promising solution is open-source curricula, such as New York State’s EngageNY, which enable educators to freely use and adapt materials in their classrooms. A recent report from New America examines the ways that many states are starting to embrace and develop such resources.
Researchers Lindsey Tepe and Teresa Mooney analyzed state policies, legislation, and curriculum documents from all fifty states and Washington, D.C., to gain a broad understanding of the landscape of open educational resources (OER). They define OER as materials that are published using an open content license, meaning they are freely available to use, modify, and distribute; they can be as small as a document or single lesson plan or as comprehensive as a full curriculum. Tepe and Mooney focus on what OER were available in each state, how they were used, and how they were shared with stakeholders across the states. And they conducted interviews with educations leaders in fourteen states who were found to have been conducting innovative work with OER, and compiled the findings from the interviews and document analyses, highlighting trends and promising practices.
The report finds that states are engaging in four main actions around OER. First, many are incorporating the resources into their curriculum review processes, giving them the same level of scrutiny as licensed products. Other states that don’t have the means to provide curriculum guidance are directing districts to external reviewers or tools, such as rubrics, that allow districts to conduct their own curriculum reviews. Second, eleven states and Washington, D.C., are developing some type of OER. Some states, such as New York and Texas, developed full open-source curricula. Many others are using OER to bridge gaps in resources exposed by curriculum review processes, or incorporating OER into their professional development through both digital professional development, such as California’s Collaboration in Common, and in-person trainings focused on developing educators’ understanding of OER and how to leverage them to improve instruction. Finally, some states are working to make these resources widely accessible online through state websites and online portals, though these efforts are still in development in many places.
Tepe and Mooney also examined the mechanisms states are using to further their OER efforts. They find that states are primarily focused on fostering collaboration, building communication strategies, securing necessary funding, and developing policies that promote the use of these resources. But states are generally still in the early phases of integrating OER into curriculum use and development. For instance, most current communication strategies are focused on introducing OER to districts, such as Virginia’s use of thirty-minute presentations, rather than in-depth development work. Importantly, though, states are engaging teachers throughout these processes, frequently recruiting educators to review and develop OER and deploying them as “OER ambassadors” in their home districts, increasing awareness of these open-source materials and training teachers to adapt them to fit local needs.
This report is limited mainly by the scope of OER processes reviewed, providing just a general overview of the work happening in a handful of states. Because of this approach, readers are unable to gain a full understanding of the extent to which OER are actually impacting teaching and learning in states. And the overall tone of the report is positive, giving the impression that education is in the midst of an open-source revolution, even though OER are still in their infancy, with only a handful of states embracing them.
Open-source educational resources have the potential to provide educators with easy, free access to high-quality materials, increasing their capacity to improve instruction and personalization. There is still a lot of work to be done to give all educators access to high-quality OER, but this report profiles the promising practices emerging around the country, and can serve as an introduction for state educational leaders looking to develop similar resources.
SOURCE: Lindsey Tepe and Teresa Mooney, “Navigating the new curriculum landscape: How states are using and sharing open educational resources,” (New America 2018).