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Fire So Big the Heavens Can See It
By Search the City

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How do you stop a moving train? Simple: get rid of a section of track. I’m not saying the stop will be pretty, but the train will not–no matter it’s mass, acceleration, inertia, or speed–reach the next station. In a sense, this is what made then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Malcom Gladwell famous [1].

After the crack wars of the 1980s (among myriad other factors [2]) brought violent crime to the fore of public attention, especially in New York City, Giuliani pulled from sociology’s “Broken Windows Theory” to fight back. Economically put, this theory posits that criminals face a decision to go into—or out of—crime; to make that decision, potential criminals compare the probable benefits of crime less the expected costs of crime adjusted for likelihood to the opportunity cost of legitimate employment [3]. In other words, if a potential drug dealer sees a house with a broken window and a kicked in door, he calculates that probability of arrest is low in this neighborhood, so it would be a good location to set up shop. No, I don’t think criminals go through these actual calculations, but remember, we’re talking about people who are on the fence about criminal activity; i.e. on the margin.

What does this have to do with education? Quite a bit. Suppose you have 25 students in a class room. What’s the probability that one more student will start talking during work time? The answer depends on how many students are currently talking during work time. If more people are talking, it’s more difficult to pay attention—even for the students who want to—and it’s a signal to other students that talking will not be punished right now.

Along the same vein but more troubling is violence in younger grades. Many of my wife’s student’s parents have explicitly told their kids that if someone hits you, you hit them back. Because they’re kids and kids fight (it’s in our primal nature after all [4]) some kids will hit each other. If these kids aren’t punished, or aren’t punished adequately (and often…little kids have the memory of a goldfish) other children will inevitably become more likely to hit others. As they get older, to some degree they will learn when and where hitting isn’t appropriate, but they will also become more used to the mantra that was instilled in them by their kindergarten classroom: if someone hits you, hit back.

Furthermore, when a fight breaks out—or something less serious like talking or general rambunctiousness—it means the teacher needs to redirect focus from the lesson to the troublemakers. This has many, many effects:

  • The troublemakers get more attention, which can be considered a reward and may reinforce the behavior (think temper tantrums in the store [5]).
  • This time is time that the teacher cannot focus on teaching, therefore the children who would have been learning are now not learning.
  • Because of the scarceness of teacher time, it is not only possible, but easy for a small number of students to derail the learning of the rest of the class; aggregated over the year, this can put the whole class at a disadvantage the next year, which for kids at the margin means they may get caught in a vicious cycle and never attain grade level-appropriate aptitude. (remember, marginal effects)

Thus, a moral dilemma: should we expel kindergarteners? Some of my wife’s students are not ready for school and really do need professional help outside the classroom. Inside the classroom, they are not only adept at, but all-too-eager to disrupt the learning of the entire class. Should the great needs of this one student be placed above the smaller needs of a larger number of students?

Does utilitarianism win out? Should we be quick to expel students who are disrupting learning for the rest of the class? Let the successful succeed and reinforce to the unsuccessful that they failed? What can we do with those we expel? At this point we’re drifting from the positive/description to the normative/prescriptive, which I don’t purport to know. My point is that this is the context we need in order to think about “special education,” which now includes “behavioral and emotional instability.”

All choices—including educational focuses—have trade-offs. In education, especially urban education, the trade-offs unfortunately are, put melodramatically, whether or not the students will become criminals. The good kids will probably be fine, but who deserves more focus: the bad kids who will disrupt the classroom or the marginally good kids who will join the bad kids if their learning is disrupted and they fall behind?


The tattooed economist sends his love.


[1] Gladwell’s Tipping Point, does an excellent job describing what Giuliani’s implementation of the “Broken Windows Theory” http://www.amazon.com/Tipping-Point-Little-Things-Difference/dp/0316346624; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broken_windows_theory
[2] Freakonomics; Leavitt & Dubner;
[3] Gary Becker; http://chicagomaroon.com/2012/05/25/the-economics-of-crime-with-gary-becker/
[4] Fight Club; Palaniuk
[5] http://pediatrics.uchicago.edu/chiefs/ClinicCurriculum/documents/TemperTantrums.pdf