Zero tolerance school disciplinary codes, high schools with airport-like security, punishing testing regimes, and “no excuses” charter schools promise to solve all American society’s educational problems. George W. Bush dismissed the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and promoted a high-stakes testing regime that would miraculously improve education for all children – but didn’t and has been replaced twice. Charter school mogul Eva Moskowitz’ no excuses Success Academy Network in New York has been accused of getting higher scores on standardized exams by punishing and suspending low-performing or “misbehaving” children, making them cry, and driving out children and families that resist tight control.
Scientific studies, I know science is a “bad” word in Trump federal government agencies, show that “Zero Tolerance” and “No Excuses” policies in schools are probably counterproductive. They create better liars, more ingenious rule breakers, and frequently people with a weakened internal moral compass. Remember, Donald Trump’s parents sent him to military school because of constant misbehavior. In a highly controlled environment, the future President of the United States learned to be a world-class liar.
An op-ed piece in the New York Times on the intellectual importance of a little childhood lying led me to scientific studies of how children and young adults respond to restrictive conditions and the negative consequences of too much restriction.
One study examined the “effects of a punitive vs. non-punitive school environment” on the executive function of children. “Overall, kindergarten children in the punitive school performed no differently than their counterparts in the non-punitive school. However, in grade 1, children in the punitive school performed significantly worse than their counterparts in the non-punitive school.”
Another study explained how a punitive environment “characterized by harsh physical and/or verbal punishment” increases negative behaviors and “moral transgressions.” According to the researchers, “Deception is a covert adaptive strategy particularly suited for the young and the weak because other strategies such as physical violence are often not an option for them.” They concluded, “a punitive environment not only fosters dishonesty in young children,” but leads to better and more frequent liars and other anti-social behavior such as “cheating and stealing.”
Proponents of religious education argue that restrictions on student behavior and a focus on religious principles provide their students with a moral compass to guide their adult lives. This claim also does not hold up to scrutiny.
A study that looked at that looked at religious differentials in the sexual and reproductive behaviors of young women” found that religious “affiliation and attendance” for girls may delay the age of initial sex activity, but has “little impact on sexual behaviors once intercourse occurs.” Another study examined the phenomenon of “hooking up,” defined as casual sexual encounters. It found that “Catholic college women are more likely to have ‘hooked up, while at school than college women with no religious affiliation” and women who “attend colleges and universities with a Catholic affiliation are more likely to have hooked up while at school than women who attend academic institution with no religious affiliation.” Catholic religious teaching had so little an impact on behavior once people became young adults that a survey of students at thirty-eight Catholic colleges commissioned by the Cardinal Newman Society found that “graduating seniors are predominantly proabortion, approve of homosexual ‘marriage,’ and only occasionally pray or attend religious services,” which is probably a very good thing.
If we want healthy and intellectually curious children who grow up into responsible adults, they need to be allowed to experiment, and lie a little bit, without fear of severe consequences. Harsh punishment and external control at home, in school, and in religious institutions, inhibit normal intellectual and moral development, and may help explain the phenomenon known as Donald Trump.
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