Sorting out the nation's educational problems is complicated by the contradictory and passionately held positions put forward by experts -- whole language vs. phonics vs. some combination; heterogeneous groupings vs. tracking; mainstreaming vs. pull-out classes for special needs students; problem solving vs. rote drills; back to basics vs. anything else.
And the experts all have studies (of varying quality) to demonstrate the rectitude of their views.
But you almost never hear experts arguing -- nor see solid research proving -- that schools would be much better if only the students were beaten more regularly. Yet somehow, President Bush considered this issue significant enough to include in his educational package.
He didn't exactly advocate whacking kids, but his administration suggested that it's important to protect teachers and administrators from lawsuits by parents whose children have been whacked.
Fortunately, both the House and the Senate now have exempted corporal punishment from the "teacher protection" bill. But the fact that the administration raised the issue at all is troubling.
The number of schoolchildren who are paddled has been declining, although nearly 400,000 students are still physically disciplined in the course of a year. Twenty-seven states ban the practice altogether. In most other states, many districts either prohibit corporal punishment or practice it sparingly.
But there is a swath of states, primarily in the South, where corporal punishment is widely practiced. Texas leads the pack, with more than 80,000 paddlings, followed by Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee. (Pennsylvania allows corporal punishment, but most districts have banned the discipline, so there are fewer than 100 paddlings a year in the state.)
There is no indication that children are better behaved or learn more in those states. And in fact, if the punishment were so effective, officials wouldn't need to resort to it so frequently and repeatedly.
Not surprisingly, certain students are more likely to be the target of the teacher's paddle. That list includes blacks, special-needs students and boys.
And no matter how many people have fond recollections of being publicly humiliated and physically assaulted back in the good old days, the fact is that corporal punishment increases aggression and depression and has no place in school. That's why it is opposed by the two main teachers unions, the national PTA, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and the National Child Abuse Coalition, among other organizations.
The best idea is to find a way to discipline that does not violate the trust between teacher and student, that does not reinforce the notion that might makes right; that does not undermine a child's confidence or provoke aggression. Schools all over the country and in most democratic nations in the world have discovered alternatives without sinking into chaos or academic distress.