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Broken-windows methods in policing could work in education

Reading lesson
Reading lessonPhoto by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Student learning outcomes of the United States public education system reflect disorder (broken windows): just 38% of high-school seniors score proficient or above in reading, 26% in math. (National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2013) These low scores have remained relatively flat for decades. Huge sums are allocated in response to student learning failure rather than focusing on prevention.

Criminality is often accepted as the expected outcome of poverty, racism, out-of-wedlock births, family dysfunction, etc. That thinking flies in the face of successful broken-windows policing in New York City.

“Disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence.” (Kelling and Wilson, 1982 Atlantic) Disorder projects the appearance that no one cares. Bad people step in and take advantage. (Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal 8/19/14)

A look back almost two hundred years to Sir Robert Peel’s Nine Principles of Policing, # 9 states “The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.”

Broken-windows policing refers to being proactive and adopting a state of order in a neighborhood to prevent crime:

  • Broken windows are fixed immediately
  • Grass is mowed
  • Graffiti is quickly removed

It becomes obvious to others that someone is watching and someone cares.

Likewise, student learning failure is often accepted as the expected outcome of poverty, racism, out-of-wedlock births, family dysfunction, etc. That thinking flies in the face of successful implementation of effective curriculum and instruction.

Research and experience have repeatedly shown student learning outcomes are inextricably linked with the effectiveness of curriculum and instruction. Gering, Nebraska is an example of that success (video). Despite all Gering kindergartners being taught to read by Thanksgiving with a phonics-based curriculum, replication of the Gering program has not been widely adopted in Nebraska.

Just 37% of Nebraska fourth grade students score at the proficient level (grade level) or above in reading, 45% in math. (NAEP 2013) These scores reflect disorder. These windows are broken, no one is watching and no one cares.

The 2014 National Council on Teacher Quality Teacher Prep Review reports once again, teacher preparation in the United States is not aligned with the reading research. These windows are broken, no one is watching and no one cares.

An Australian survey found that “…primary school students recorded stunning improvements in literacy after using a cutting-edge phonics-based program.” However, an audit revealed many Bachelor of Education programs had adopted a whole word approach to reading instruction. As a result, the Board of Studies and Educational Standards of New South Wales (NSW) will strip universities of accreditation absent a return to the phonics method of teaching children how to read. NSW State Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli said, “It will become a requirement they teach phonics and we are going to enforce it.” (Linda Silmalis, The Sunday Telegraph 8/10/2014). These windows are broken, someone is watching and someone cares: broken-windows education policing Down Under.

When leaders are proactive, students achieve “stunning improvements in literacy” and the practices integral to those results are then implemented. It is obvious someone is watching and someone cares.

In the U.S. we react to learning failure with more funding and movement; producing more failure. Students are denied the opportunity to reach their greatest potential.

Limiting reading and math content mastery to a common low threshold interferes with individual autonomy, independence, logical and analytical thinking; jeopardizing our nation’s future. Nebraskans would refer to this strategy as eating our seed corn.

Accreditation, teacher certification and valid measures of student subject content mastery are broken-windows education policing tools readily available to someone who cares.