Blue Shirt Tuesday

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

On Pulling the Trigger and the Dilemma of Time-Inconsistent Maximization

Classroom management fails without a system of rules and consequences that are applied consistently. Students will learn from their mistakes and from the mistakes of others, see that their actions cause undesirable punishments, and will behave themselves. If the teacher bends the rules or fails to enforce the consequences, students will know that they can get away with misbehaving and will continually get worse until they do something so bad that the teacher has lost control of the classroom and the student ends up getting kicked out of school. Teachers failing to "pull the trigger" and enforce their consequences end up hurting themselve and their students.

Discipline will only work if students believe the rules will be enforced. This requires the rules to be enforced.

But what about the student who is caught playfully, but forcefully, shoving a friend in between classes? She just got her third detention the period before, and a fourth one will kick her out of the program. Failing the program will force her to repeat 8th grade. And there are only three days left of school.

There are three options, as I see it. The first is for the teacher to ignore it, act like he didn't see it, so that students don't think he's soft, just that he's blind. The second is to give her an automatic detention because a rule's a rule and too bad if she's the example that has to show everyone else the value of behaving. The third is to talk to her after class, give her one more chance, call her mom and expect her to be on her best behavior.

If, at the beginning of the school year, a social planner had to pick a decision for the teacher to make in every situation, it would be the second, because that would most effectively keep the classrooms as ordered as possible. The choice is a weak teacher, no discipline, and no students getting kicked out versus a strong teacher, good discipline, and only one student kicked out. But, if the decision occurs after the shoving occurs the maximization problem is different. The decision is either you kick out one student, force her to waste a year of her life, and have a slightly better class for two days, or you give her one more chance, let her go to high school, and perhaps have to interrupt your lesson a couple extra times to ask students to stop talking. Which is better? Certainly the second.

The problem arises when she tests the teacher and isn't on perfect behavior the next day. Now, there is only one day of school left and again, the utility maximizer would give her another chance. By this point, however, the threat of kicking a student out of school has been lost and that one fewer tools to use to control the classroom. I don't know how bad a problem that is when there are only two days left in the year and the level of misbehavior is talking and swearing, not fighting and defiance.

I don't know what the right thing to do is. All I know is that I would have an incredibly hard time sleeping at night if I knew that a girl was spending a whole year of her life in classes that aren't helpful just because I saw her push a friend.


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