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Research Shows Impact Of One "Bad Apple" On Entire Classroom

Freakonomics2Bad apples usually refer to isolated wrongdoers.  But in the classroom, it's well known that one "bad apple" can affect everyone else.  To confirm this, researchers linked court records and domestic violence reports to individual student records in one Florida county.  No surprise, kids exposed to (or victim of) domestic violence showed achievement levels were lower than other similar kids and reported behavior problems that were higher. 

But then the researchers compared how the classrooms with kids who had been exposed to domestic violence did compared to similar classrooms with no such kids, and found that 70 percent of classes had at least one such kid in them, and that the effects of exposure to domestic violence tended to affect the entire class.  From Freakonomics:  Externalities in the Classroom


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I don't know--it starts off looking good, and they did pull of something very difficult to accomplish, which was to match child by child data to an outside database (domestic violence charges). It still leaves a whole lot of questions. While it asserts to have measured classroom impact, as far as I can tell, the unit of analysys was grade level (school/grade/year)--which would typically include several classrooms in most schools. The skipped over the usual researcher cautions about applying this data to other grade levels, population groups, etc and went directly to a conclusion that education policies that mix "these kids" in with the others is harmful. There some interesting differentiations of effect by group--non-poor white boys experienced lower achievement but no behavioral effects. poor black boys experienced no achievement effects but were more likely to demonstrate behavioral effects.

In the end, I suspect the reliability of the domestic violence data--it does not indicate conviction rates, nor is there any indication of whether violence is ongoing or in the past, or if the family has received any kind of intervention. I would be interested to see if this study can be replicated with similar results. In the meantime, rather than leaping to policy recommendations to keep those kids out, I would prefer to see policy that supports both early identification and therapeutic responses.


The point is not whether a dog can play a piano well, as so much as whether he plays it at all. The point is not that this research will "keep those kids out," after all they were very circumscribed in their conclusions. The point is that they had a brilliant idea about researching something that nobody has every tried before. And they seemed to have done it well.

No amount of research can determine the best balance between integration of troubled children vs. protecting the welfare of the rest of the class. Neither can the combined wisdom of educators reach a predetermination. Most teachers, as evidenced by the polling data, think we have gone way too far, defying common sense, in refusal to recognize the damage that is done by troubled kids. And if we don't have a real, and honest conversation regardless of the pain involved, then there will be a vigilante-like backlash. I often call for discussions on race, class, and parenting, and then when we have them - even on responsible blogs like Bridging Differences - I get horrified by what people are thinking out there.

The value of the study is that it helps disprove assertions that are called "research" but which most teachers and parents and taxpayers believe are bogus. I will never forget the faculty meeting that I consider to be the beginning of the end of collaboration in our school which was turning around a troubled school. Coming back from a workshop on "Love and Logic" our principal said, "research does not confirm" that disciplinary backing is a key to increasing performance. Even now, I don't know whether she had had a change of heart, or if she had finally given in to the nonstop pressure by the central office to place nonstop pressure on teachers to not write disciplinary referrals.

Yes, it would be painful for adults to have an honest conversation about the causes of classroom disruptions, and the best solutions. But the discomfort we face is nothing in comparison to the pain inflicted on kids, and the pain that is worsened by schools that refuse to protect children.

This weekend, a father said on NPR that he would not vote for Obama because his son kept getting beat up at school. Juan Williams said "of course" that happens and when it happens, of course, it effects voting. But its not just race. Its also related to the assumption that Obama must be "the most liberal" when clearly he is not. Parents see a mixture of political correctness and deference to civil rights (in this case disablity rights) where the good of the whole is always placed beneath the good of the individual for ideological reasons. There is plenty of racism involved also. But, the general public is right in assuming that the educational establishment is typically predisposed to decide in advance to protect the individual vs. the community. Again, I don't know the right balance. I don't know the best way to minimize the harm to the suffring kids while also minimizing the harm to the whole. I do know that the education establishment has the balance way out of whack and we could make much better decisions.

Compared to all of this, the troubles of teachers who have to defend themselves against the 'benign racism of low expectations" is tiny. The real damage, as the study shows, is inflicted on kids with more troubled classmates.

Let's take the opportunity of Obama to talk straight, or we will be regretting that lost chance.

See, John, if you want straight talk then you have to be willing to stick to the facts and some appropriate protocol in evaluating research. The authors of this research, do, in fact state: "The presence of these externalities suggests that to the extent that education policy increases a group's exposure to children from troubled families, student performance will be affected in a negative way." That's a pretty expansive conclusion from the evidence at hand--which despite being able to pull off something pretty extraordinary in in melding the data from two systems--is still limited to an age grouping and a single district with some important validity questions about the methodology for identifying children from troubled families. Judging from the comments to the Freakanomics article (which centered around whether it was appropriate to call such students "jerks" and whether the situation might be improved by increasing the number of corners in the room), there are plenty in "the field" who are more than ready to go the whole nine yards with this.

Now despite my own sense of horror at the author's suggested conclusion and the cheering throngs, research is research and data is data. If we look at this piece, as a part of an ongoing process of teasing out what knowledge is useful and reliable and how to make things better, I think that there are some very interesting questions that it raises. Overall, it found more profound academic impact (BTW--the academic impact, while significant, indicated that for a 1 standard deviation increase in troubled students, there was a 1/40th standard deviation decrease in academic achievement--which doesn't seem insurmountable) and far less behavioral impact on white students. For minority students this was reversed. This raises some areas for further research. What protective factors are associated with white culture that minimize the behavioral impact (or is this a differential teacher/school response in who gets suspended)? Are there protective factors in minority culture that serve to minimize academic effect (or does this just disappear in the face of whatever factors already produce an achievement gap)? Do the results hold up at other grade levels or in other geographical areas? Is proximity to the charge of domestic violence a factor (they used 10 years of court data with third graders, raising the possibility that in some cases abuse ocurred before they were born)? Are there family interventions that serve to minimize the impact, not only on peers, but particularly on the students experiencing abuse?

It would be also br helpful, John, if the "educational establishment," or teachers or principals, or basically the adults in charge would elect to stop trying to change their data through shortcuts--such as trying to hide their disciplinary problems (without saying whose fault they are) by doing things like refusing to suspend kids instead of working to eliminate the causes of problems. There are all kinds of hurts imposed on kids. Personally I have chosen to raise my kids in the city (where the perception is that there are more kids from "troubled" families) because I can't stomach the hurt that is laid on kids who are different in more affluent areas.

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