Who should we believe? Should we believe the education academic who thinks talk of a behaviour crisis in Australian schools has been manufactured?
“Despite claims of a crisis in student behaviour – particularly in disadvantaged communities – my research team saw little evidence of student-driven disruption.”
Or should be believe the research reported in the Sunday Herald Sun:
“A LaTrobe University study into teacher-targeted bullying found 80 per cent of teachers were victims of harassment in the past year… 10 per cent of teachers reported being hit or punched by a student… Kids yelled and swore at teachers, assaulted them, made disparaging remarks both in person and on social media and damaged their personal property.”
How can two such contradictory views of Australian schools coexist and how can they be reconciled with international evidence that suggests Australian students suffer from a relatively large amount of lesson disruption?
Someone is spinning the facts to suit an ideological agenda, but who is it?
One answer is that people like The Herald Sun journalists and, er, me are trying to whip up a moral panic in order to impose neoliberal policies on schools. It is certainly the case that many Charter Schools in the US, and Free Schools and Academies in the UK, have used their autonomy to develop the kind of transparent behaviour policies that committees of education bureaucrats would likely never support.
And yet it seems odd to assume that people like me have invented all of this. How could we influence surveys of teachers and students?
One clue as to what is happening can be found in the Herald Sun when it discusses the, “Spiralling rates of mental illness among students.”
One interpretation is that we are clearly in the midst of a mental health crisis. Another is that behaviours that would previously have been seen as simply bad, and that would have resulted in a punishment and a moral lecture, are now being used as diagnostic criteria. There are hints of evidence of this when you look at the criteria to diagnose Oppositional Defiant Disorder. I would not advocate returning to past approaches to discipline but I do wonder if we have experienced an over correction.
Does it matter whether mental health issues have increased or been renamed? Are the effects not the same? No. If you construct misbehaviour as being part of a disorder then sanctioning that behaviour or suspending a student from school begins to look like discrimination.
There is an entire arm of education research that looks at the correlation between school suspensions and other negative outcomes and then heavily implies that the former cause the latter (e.g. here). The alternative view, that behaviours that are likely to lead to suspension are also likely to cause the other negative outcomes, is swept aside. It is a case of using hard data to tell something far from an established truth.
And when policymakers listen to these researchers, they make it harder for schools to act to manage problem behaviour which, in turn, increases the pressures on teachers and leads to the kinds of survey results reported in the Herald Sun.