The Merits of the Demerit System

Email exchange a year ago with a former MATCH Corps fellow. He now works in another charter school far south of Massachusetts, and he gave me permission to share. He wrote:

I think MATCH's demerit system comes up short on Rafe's 1-6 scale of teaching kids appropriate ways to behave....

I don't have the answer for a perfect behavior system. At our school, they use "take a break" and buddy classroom. If the teacher is good enough (and "A", who I work with, is), the students behave appropriately, and no students are ever sent out of class.

I will agree that it takes an extraordinary teacher to accomplish this without demerits or a similar tool (although she frequently threatens to give kids "silent lunch", she very rarely actually does it.)

I wrote back:

Disagree. Why set up a system that requires an amazing teacher with enormous gravitas to pull it off?

Right now a few of your former MATCH Corps colleagues are rookie teachers in schools around the country without a school-wide system. And they (and other rookie teachers in those schools) are struggling. They're frustrated and wish desperately for a straightforward schoolwide accountability system.

(Note: nothing about a straightforward list of consequences prohibits positive stuff -- massive teacher relationship-building with kids and parents. Indeed, while time-consuming, we contend the relationship building both improves the consequences and makes many teachers feel more comfortable giving them).

Then he wrote:

But to push back on you: if a demerit-free system can be done effectively (and it can by the best teachers), and when done effectively it improves over demerits because it doesn't demoralize kids and doesn't take away from instructional time, why not train teachers to work in an environment where demerits aren't necessary?

(Sidenote: I know that demerits, in theory, are supposed to be clear and logical and therefore not demoralizing. But from what I have seen in practice, this is rarely the case).

There have to be tons of video clips that show teachers operating effectively in demerit-less systems. I'm not saying that there should be no system at all--as I said, our school uses Take a Break and Buddy classroom (though not sure these would translate to high school). I just question whether the drawbacks that demerits bring with them are worth the benefit.

I think MATCH has proven that demerits are one way to maintain a tight culture. But I think they are not a panacea for behavioral management. Our school manages to maintain a tight culture (and you'd have to see for yourself to analyze the how, but I think tighter than MATCH high school) without demerits.

A few days later he wrote:

I have to put my tail between my legs a little bit. The middle school introduced a demerit system on this very day.

Yep. So it goes.

Having a schoolwide system with straightforward, simple, light consequences (demerits), combined with massive teacher relationship-building, combined hopefully with reasonably tight-and-legit lessons -- that's not SUPPOSED to be a panacea.

Does anyone claim it is? That's a straw man. Of course it's easily knocked down.

A schoolwide approach to small potatoes consequences for minor infractions is just supposed to be better than the alternative.

Which is: every teacher for himself, where some teachers thrive off unusually strong presence, and others flounder.

That, in turn, means that kids experience:

a) massive variation in consequences from period to period, and

b) newer or less assertive/confident teachers often experience significant levels of disruption, which reduces learning.