Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Broken Windows Theory of Schools

BrokenWindowIn a famous article in the 1982 Atlantic Monthly, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling argued that a good way to prevent serious crime would be for police to intervene as to seemingly low-level crimes or misdemeanors:
[D]isorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.
* * *

We suggest that "untended" behavior also leads to the breakdown of community controls. A stable neighborhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other's children, and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change, in a few years or even a few months, to an inhospitable and frightening jungle. A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers.

At this point it is not inevitable that serious crime will flourish or violent attacks on strangers will occur. But many residents will think that crime, especially violent crime, is on the rise, and they will modify their behavior accordingly. . . . Such an area is vulnerable to criminal invasion. Though it is not inevitable, it is more likely that here, rather than in places where people are confident they can regulate public behavior by informal controls, drugs will change hands, prostitutes will solicit, and cars will be stripped. That the drunks will be robbed by boys who do it as a lark, and the prostitutes' customers will be robbed by men who do it purposefully and perhaps violently. That muggings will occur.

Via the New York Times' Idea Blog, Folwell Dunbar (Louisiana's academic adviser for charter schools) describes his very similar rules of thumb for guessing whether a school is any good. The title: "You don't always need a standardized test to know a school is in trouble. Just look in the boys' john." In other words, just as broken windows are a sign of a bad neighborhood, a school bathroom with graffiti, trash, and unflushed toilets is a good sign that the academic achievement level isn't too hot. That is, the fact that school administrators are incapable of monitoring bad behavior is a sign that students are probably being hampered from learning.

To be sure, Dunbar's theory doesn't rest solely on bathrooms. He lists many other conditions that, in his experience, indicate a poorly run school, such as:

  • Administrators are unwilling to let credentialed visitors roam. Instead, they insist on "giving a tour" of the usual, safe suspects.

  • Teachers read newspapers and take cell phone calls during professional development events.

  • Teachers play solitaire on their computers during planning periods (or class). Or: the Web sites most visited by teachers include eBay, ESPN and

  • Teachers and staff talk more about their latest degree or certification program than what they are doing with the kids.

The whole thing is worth reading.


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