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Caring educators know students never rise to low expectations

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This week marks the beginning of the school year for New York City public schools. Returning teachers and students will find that the district's disciplinary code has been softened. Responding to criticism that there has been overreliance on zero-tolerance policies and punitive measures, such as suspension and expulsion, and that these punishments were disproportionately meted out to historically underprivileged youth, New York schools have adopted a carefully specified system of what they call progressive discipline.

In recent years, suspensions in New York Schools have increased by nearly 10 percent while enrollment decreased according to the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a non-profit advocacy group. Furthermore, African-American students have been suspended at a rate of nearly two times their represented population in the school.

Critics of the new policies are concerned that educators send a terribly misguided message to youths about consequences when the official response to increased rates of rule-breaking is abandonment of the rules being broken.

In fairness, if the increased rates of suspension and expulsion have been because of unprofessional classroom management, petty legalism, officiousness or stereotyping, then introducing a more carefully specified program of discipline based on a shared understanding of student rights, responsibilities and maturity levels makes sense. We also appreciate that there are many instances where common sense has been overwhelmed by codified zero-tolerance approaches.

Nonetheless, a close look at the new rules speaks volumes about much of what ails education.

It is disturbing to learn, for example, that smoking at a New York City school (what the new guidelines call a "level 2 infraction") can only result in admonishment, reprimand and counseling. According to the guidelines, a teacher confronting a student smoking at school can't even ask the kid to leave the classroom unless the smoking is persistent and the teacher has exhausted all recommended "guidance interventions" (appropriate guidance interventions for level 2 infractions are outlined in a 14 point list that includes peer mediation, community service and "positive behavioral interventions and supports").

It is disturbing to consider that a contemporary school code of conduct must carefully contemplate acts normally associated with criminal justice, such as arson, rioting and sexual assault.

For all the good intent that might have gone into New York City's guidelines, the way each of its two dozen pages drips with jargon, process and bureaucratese suggests that it was written by and for administrators and lawyers rather than for teachers, students and their families. Unfortunately, this kind of approach is taking root in large school districts around the country.

Far more impressive to us is what the nationwide KIPP charter schools are accomplishing with a population as diverse and underprivileged as the New York City schools. Focused on providing a free college preparatory experience for underprivileged families, KIPP graduates have a higher rate of college completion than all students and four times the completion rate of students from comparable households.

KIPP educators believe that their superior results come from strengthening character and self-discipline. Collaborating with top educational psychologists Angela Duckworth, Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson, KIPP educators have found that focusing attention on seemingly small habits — how to line up for class, how to answer a teacher with respect, how to care for school materials, how to pay attention to a teacher during class, how to use the basic elements of etiquette with classmates — end up being far more predictive of success than native intelligence. By fastidiously fostering a simple list of character strengths like self-control, gratitude, curiosity, optimism and grit — from the first moment students enter their school — KIPP actually educates the hearts and minds of needy students.

We believe that no amount of regulatory language can replace the power that comes from straightforward standards of decorum and conduct that respect the integrity of individuals and the institutions to which they belong. For example, the West Point honor code says simply: "A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do." No amount of formal process can accomplish the results that come from principled aspiration, exemplified by the Scout Law, that instead of forbidding conduct outlines 12 characteristic virtues to which one should aspire.

Caring educators understand the truth that students can never rise to low expectations.