Merits of Demerits 2: Jorge's Thoughts

Jorge Miranda was principal of MATCH. Last year he moved with Molly to SF. Now he is director of high schools for KIPP national, so gets to see an array of schools across the USA. He wrote a thoughtful comment on the blog. So I'm reposting it here with his permission. He writes:

This post definitely caught my attention (even though I’m currently on vacation and probably shouldn’t be reading your blog posts, MG). When introducing the demerit system to the MATCH Corps I always made a point to explain that the demerit system was the worse form of behavior management except for all the others (my apologies to Churchill for the liberal paraphrasing).

I don’t think any of us were ever 100% satisfied with the demerit system – thus we tended to tweak it every year.

We often dreamed of having a system where students would internalize their behavior and choices (a la Kolhberg/6 levels) without the need of external reminders/consequences such as demerits. Contrary to what critics may think, many of us in No Excuses schools remain hopeful that our systems of behavior management one day don’t have to be “forced upon” students. Often, we’re influenced by our own education backgrounds or other high performing schools we see (whether private, suburban, magnet, etc) across the country.

We say to ourselves, “if students can manage their own behavior and we don’t have to be so structured or hand-holding or just plain strict, all the better for students in the long run.” If you show me a classroom with urgency, rigorous academics and students focused on learning I’m satisfied. If the school can do it without requiring a school-wide discipline system more power to you.

But I haven’t seen many successful examples of the latter.

First, as MG notes, schools that get it wrong often undermine one of their greatest assets: all teachers on the same page. One of the things I most appreciated about MATCH was that I didn’t have to make up my own rules. I sucked at it as a teacher in a traditional public school (my first 2 years out of college). But at MATCH, as a teacher, I knew that the rules and consequences I enforced were consistent from my class to any other.

Second, schools become so focused on creating a discipline system that is not punitive or “demoralizing,” that they accept more misbehavior than they should. They rationalize that the ultimate goal of ("mindfulness in kids," MG guess) is worth the muddiness in getting there.

The result: students talking when they shouldn’t be, or inconsistent enforcement of rules. Or a vicious cycle of :

1) misbehavior 2) warning or prompting from teacher 3) temporary improvement/desist (emphasis on temporary) 4) repeated misbehavior…and the cycle continues.

Which of course just wastes time and reduces student learning second by second.

I don’t think we’ll ever come to a consensus over what behavior system is best. However, I think we can agree that certain outputs should never be acceptable – regardless of what system you use.

For example, whether your cup of tea is demerits or automatic detentions or teacher-by-teacher prompts and checks in or reflection sheets, you should never see a pattern of:

- Students talking when they’re not supposed to - Teachers talking over students - Wasted time when it comes to transitions or getting students’ attention - Ignored misbehavior like students tuned out, heads down, etc. - A chronic continuation of any misbehavior after teacher intervenes - Talking back/disrespect/outright ignoring the teacher in the classroom

This list is not meant to be universal. But whatever the final list is – if you can create a school culture where these negative behaviors aren’t happening, and it’s true almost universally from class to class (with any anomalies being actively dealt with by the school leader), then I honestly don’t care what your system is. And we likely have a lot to learn from your particular system. Because the outcome – school culture and student learning – is what matters.

And like with so many things, it all comes down to the execution.

Bilingual education is ideal in theory. 2 languages? Who doesn’t want that for their kids? It’s when it’s done poorly and ineffectively that we have to worry.

Same is true for demerits or any system of misbehavior. There’s always room to get it wrong (and lack of consistency in actually following through on the system is the most common culprit). And if the results are any of the non-negotiable classroom behaviors described above, then something needs to be changed. Either the system you have needs to be better executed or you need a new system.

My bias is towards a system that is

1) school wide, 2) demonstrates clear behavioral expectations, 3) communicates clear consequences, and 4) is vigorously enforced.

And there should be plenty of room for reflection and relationship-building so that any “lessons learned” by students can be internalized and have a long-term impact on their growth and mindset.