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.


I was wondering if this would ever see the light of day. I'm wondering what you think of my current school's system. We use the SEED Note, where students track their own "skill strengths" and "improvement areas". Skill strengths lead to SEED money in the SEED store. 3 improvement areas in one class period leads to reflection and then a fourth leads to a referral. DC Prep uses basically the same system (with the Prep Note), but they do it more effectively than we do. Do you know about other school's that require students to track their own behavior and what success they are having?

So, I agree with you on the demerit/merit system to a certain point. I think a schoolwide system works well with the right amount of buy-in from teachers, students and parents. Thoughtful implementation of these systems is crucial and needs a strong leader at the helm to make it happen. I guess my question becomes what happens to veteran teachers? I am in my 5th year of teaching at a school that only is still in the process of implementing a system of behavior. In my first few years (with litte to no guidance from the school) I used color charts, phone calls home and classroom send-outs as my behavior system. At one point I tried individual color trackers and notes home and all sorts of craziness. The time and stress that these systems seemed to cause was not proportional to the benefit of them. Eventually those systems petered out. Now, in year 5, there is no color chart. Phone calls still happen but rarely about behavior. I shifted my own philosophy on discipline because I stayed long enough to evolve and move my system to the point where I address behavior within the classroom and students know from day one that they are expected to monitor and control their behavior. Now I focus on the reasons behind the behavior, bad feelings, manic feelings, etc... I wonder about my ability to do this if there had been a demerit system in place. Would I have moved to this form of discipline faster, slower, not at all? What are the parameters of students learning from their behaviors and analyzing them to determine reasons in a demerit/merit system? Is the intrinsic motivation to do well delayed by these external rewards and punishments? I am in elementary school, which is a whole other ball game. I think that middle school and high school require a different set of rules all together and I have been pushing for a middle school discipline system for as long as I have been teaching at the school. Many think that as students get older you can provide fewer structures, but I believe that the opposite is true. But again, what about teachers who have figured out ways to make their classrooms work? How do they continue to evolve in their understanding of student development if these systems are just handed to them? Thanks for the food for thought!

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. But at MATCH, 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 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 that we'll ever come to a consensus. 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.

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