You Just Can’t Fix Stupid
Virginia Beach sixth-grader Adrionna Harris took a razor away from a troubled student who was cutting himself and threw it in the trash. When school administrators found out, they gave her a certificate of merit for helping a classmate.
Ha, ha! Of course they didn’t. They gave her a 10-day suspension, with a recommendation that she be expelled. For three or four seconds there, she was in possession of a dangerous object in violation of the school’s zero-tolerance policies.
The only reason administrators found out about the incident was that Adrionna volunteered the information. And the only reason she threw the razor away instead of turning it in was because she didn’t want to violate school policy. As she told WAVY-TV, she didn’t want to “hold it in my hand long enough for it to, like, become an issue. The trash can was right there.”
School officials eventually backed down — after getting slammed by bad publicity — and the young lady returned to school a few days ago. Administrators reportedly are tired of taking heat from the public, the poor dears. (Why do bad things always happen to them?)
Nathan Entingh wasn’t so lucky. The 10-year-old who pointed his finger and said “bang” was suspended for what the Einsteins of the Columbus, Ohio, school system considered a “level 2 look-alike firearm.” After agonizing over that decision for weeks, officials decided that, on reflection, they had been right all along. They upheld the suspension.
Entingh got off lucky compared with Jordan Wiser, who spent 13 days in jail on a felony charge because he drove onto school property with a pocketknife in the trunk of his car. Then there’s Taylor Trostle, a middle-schooler suspended for pointing her finger and saying, “pew, pew.” And Andrew Mikel, a Spotsylvania 14-year-old expelled and charged with assault for blowing pellets through a plastic pen tube. And 7-year-old Josh Welch, of the infamous Pop-Tart gun. And too many other cases to list.
Zero-tolerance policies have been around for a couple of decades. They were launched by the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act, which required expulsion for bringing a firearm to school. But like diaper rash, they did not remain confined to one area. Soon kids were landing in hot water for bringing to school such deadly objects as a butter knife (King William) and nail clippers (Escambia, Fla.). They have gotten in trouble for engaging in such threatening behavior as drawing an Army man (Ouachita Parish, La.) and playing cops and robbers (Sayreville, N.J., and elsewhere). And for taking or handing out birth control (Fairfax), Midol (Pierce County, Wash.), Alka-Seltzer (too many places to name) and even Certs breath mints (Manassas).
Such stories invariably elicit outrage, and from time to time a district here or there will rethink zero-tolerance policies, or claim to. “Rethinking Zero Tolerance: A Few Schools Are Inching Away from One-Strike Policies,” reported Newsweek back in 2001. A decade later, The Washington Post reported “More Schools Rethinking Zero-Tolerance Discipline Stand.”
They must not be the fastest thinkers. In January 2013, a 5-year-old girl was kicked out of kindergarten for “threatening” to “shoot” classmates with a Hello Kitty soap-bubble gun. But don’t worry — this January, The New York Times confidently informed readers that “schools across the country are rethinking ‘zero tolerance’ discipline policies.”
If your brain has more electrical activity than a bowl of lukewarm Jell-O, then you know why zero-tolerance policies are stupid. First, they ignore blatantly obvious distinctions. Gnawing a Pop-Tart into the rough silhouette of a gun does not turn it into a firearm. Breath mints are not a Schedule I narcotic. Fingers don’t fire projectiles.
Second, zero-tolerance policies don’t prevent the incidents they are designed to prevent. Deeply disturbed individuals who commit school massacres — the Dylan Klebolds and Adam Lanzas of the world — are not deterred by rules, and they do not commit mayhem with soap bubbles. So a rule that bans soap-bubble guns in school has zero effect on school violence.
School officials will reply that they have to apply school policies consistently: A knife is a knife, and knives are weapons, even when they are used to spread butter. Nonsense. By that logic everyone on the wrestling team should be suspended for fighting, and a student who sketches a rifle should be punished for “drawing a gun” (which has actually happened more than once).
It’s great that a school district here and there has second thoughts about first-strike policies. But that doesn’t solve the broader problem, which is rooted in a bureaucratic compliance mentality. Just ask Chaz Seale, a Texas 17-year-old who accidentally shoved a Coors into his brown-bag lunch instead of a soda. When he realized his mistake he gave the unopened beer to a teacher. The teacher told the principal, and the principal suspended Seale for three days and sentenced him to two months at an alternative school.
Like Adrionna Harris and countless others, Seale has learned two things from zero-tolerance policies: No good deed goes unpunished. And — as comedian Ron White likes to say — you can’t fix stupid.
On Campus, Education Often Isn’t Liberal
Virginians who think of colleges and universities as bastions of free inquiry and no-holds-barred arenas for intellectual engagement might be shocked at how inaccurate that picture can be. Some of the state’s colleges and universities have put in place policies that make a mockery of such notions.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has issued a report on the state of free speech on U.S. campuses. It makes for dispiriting reading. Fewer than half the institutions in America provide a robust defense of free expression. Virginia’s record is likewise mixed: Six of its public institutions – Christopher Newport, Longwood, Norfolk State, U.Va.’s college at Wise, VCU, and Virginia State — received the group’s lowest rating. Only three — James Madison, William & Mary, and U.Va. — received the highest.
The colleges receiving poor marks impose a combination of speech codes and prior restraint. For instance: At Christopher Newport, students are forbidden to post anything that might be deemed “disrespectful.” And anyone “wishing to exercise their freedom of speech … must register with the Dean of Students at least 24 hours in advance.”
Believe it or not, that represents a considerable improvement. CNU used to insist that groups wanting to demonstrate ask permission 10 days in advance. The school changed the policy after it accidentally redounded to a Republican’s advantage: In September of 2012, GOP vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan made a campaign stop at the school. Some students wanted to protest his appearance, including the Feminist Alliance and the Gay-Straight Union. They weren’t allowed to. And even if they had been, they might not have been noticed, because the school permitted demonstrations only on its Great Lawn, far from where Ryan was speaking.
Yet the school still has a long way to go: CNU’s policy on computer communications prohibits — among other things —– “unwarranted annoyance.” Given the hair-trigger sensitivities encouraged by the hothouse atmosphere of modern higher ed, that could cover a heck of a lot.
But don’t think CNU is an outlier. Many state universities impose equally egregious limits on freedom of expression. Take Longwood University, which designates the sole “area … for speeches and demonstrations” as “the Lankford Mall which is a primary crossway on the campus and will consist of the patio and the surrounding area located on the south side of the Student Union.” That’s it. And you still have to get permission first.
At Norfolk State, anyone who isn’t on a list of officially recognized campus groups must obtain written permission before handing out literature. Remember, Norfolk State is (like CNU and Longwood) a public institution — so the prohibition is just as unconstitutional as if the city of Norfolk itself had passed it.
Virginia Commonwealth University? It prohibits “humor and jokes about sex that denigrate women or men in general.” And last month, Virginia State University earned the dubious distinction of making FIRE’s “Speech Codes of the Year” list. Its code of conduct says no student may “offend” any member of the university community.
Private institutions do not face the constitutional issues public ones do, but some are no more enlightened. The University of Richmond has a system that enables witnesses of “bias incidents” to report them to a “Bias Response Team.” Bias incidents are those that “do not appear to constitute a crime or actionable discrimination” but which nevertheless “may,” among other things, “mock” individuals or groups. (You can find all the speech codes at www.thefire.org.)
Some might think policies like these cannot be taken seriously; surely they must be honored more in the breach than in the observance. In some cases that might be true. Yet FIRE’s case histories — and they are voluminous — make it abundantly clear that many colleges and universities not only take them seriously, but pursue them to sometimes ridiculous extremes. Consider some of the recent cases FIRE has highlighted: A student group at Dixie State rejected because its name included Greek letters. Modesto Junior College forbidding a student to distribute free copies of the Constitution — on Constitution Day. A pro-life group at Johns Hopkins denied recognition because it might make some students “uncomfortable.”
Virginia has seen similar episodes, albeit not so many in recent years. For that you can thank the eternal vigilance of groups such as FIRE. In the future, you also should thank those state lawmakers who have joined the cause. This year, two Republican delegates — Scott Lingamfelter and Rick Morris — have introduced legislation in Virginia’s General Assembly to restore a modicum of free speech at the state’s colleges and universities. Lingamfelter’s would do away with “free speech zones” that deny free speech outside the zones. Morris’ would grant students facing non-academic disciplinary charges the right to attorney representation. Based on FIRE’s findings, the measures are sorely needed.
Universal Pre-K: Mozart-for-Babies All Over Again?
Two decades ago, psychologist Frances Rauscher conducted an experiment in which she asked 36 college students to listen to different kinds of music before visualizing how a folded-up piece of paper would look when cut and then unfolded.
The results seemed to suggest Mozart might improve spatial reasoning. Nothing earth-shattering there — yet this one small study inspired a nationwide craze. Through something like a national version of the children’s game of telephone, countless Americans glommed on to the idea that playing Mozart to a child in the womb would boost his or her IQ.
A new industry was born. What Amazon now calls the “baby brain-booster category” of consumer products soon grew crowded. Inevitably, politicians jumped on the bandwagon. Georgia Gov. Zell Miller directed that classical music recordings be sent home with new mothers. Florida mandated that state day care centers play symphonies.
Just one small problem: None of that had any scientific basis. True, babies can recognize music they hear in the womb for several weeks following birth. But this does not boost a child’s IQ. Six years ago, Scientific American reported that a German review by “a cross-disciplinary team of musically inclined scientists … declared the (Mozart effect) phenomenon nonexistent.” Even Rauscher, author of the original study, called the idea that playing music to a fetus will make it smarter “really a myth.”
Study after study has reached the same conclusion. Yet companies still pitch the idea of piping tunes into the womb, and parents still lap it up.
Something similar may be going on now — with pre-kindergarten.
Back in February, President Obama proposed “working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America. Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”
The claim was bunk. But the president’s proposal enjoys growing support.
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine recently penned an op/ed supporting the Start Strong for America’s Children Act — a “10-year federal-state partnership to expand and improve early childhood education.” Virginia Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe favors expanding pre-K, too. The support crosses red-team/blue-team lines: The Virginia Chamber of Commerce would like the state to “improve access to high-quality early childhood education,” and it was a Republican governor, George Allen, who launched the Virginia Preschool Initiative.
In his op/ed column, Kaine repeated the standard arguments: “Pre-K is good for the economy”; “early learning programs make it more likely that children will do well in elementary school”; and so on. It would be nice if we had an experiment somewhere to test the validity of those claims.
We do. It’s called Head Start. The United States has spent more than $160 billion on that early education program for at-risk children. The results are amazing — as in amazingly poor.
In 2010, the Department of Health and Human Services reported on a congressionally mandated study of approximately 5,000 3- and 4-year-olds who were randomly assigned to either a control group or a group that had access to a Head Start program. It found that “at the end of kindergarten and first grade … the Head Start children and the control group children were at the same level on many of the measures studied.”
Last year, HHS issued the results of another randomized study. It, too, found that Head Start produced “little evidence of systematic differences” in children’s elementary school experiences through third grade.
It’s pretty damning when the federal government itself concludes that a federal program doesn’t work. But if you’re still not convinced, consider a recent piece by Grover Whitehurst of the liberal Brookings Institution. Whitehurst is a development psychologist who spent his career “designing and evaluating programs intended to enhance the cognitive development of young children.”
The rhetoric supporting the Start Strong legislation, Whitehurst writes, is “entirely predictable and thoroughly misleading. … If you’re an advocate of strengthening early childhood programs, as I am, you also need to pay careful attention to the evidence — all of it.” And the evidence, he says, “raises doubts on Obama’s preschool for all.”
Just as the baby-Mozart crowd extrapolated wildly from one small and unrelated study, Whitehurst says supporters of universal pre-K “highlight positive long-term outcomes of two boutique programs from 40-50 years ago that served a couple of hundred children” — the Perry and Abecedarian pre-school projects. Those projects focused intensely on underprivileged children: Perry’s two-year intervention spent $19,000 per student.
Meanwhile, boosters ignore evidence that pre-K isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. That evidence, Whitehurst notes, includes “a newly released study of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K Program (TN-VPK). TN-VPK is a full day pre-K program for four-year-olds from low-income families.”
The study found that “seven of the outcomes are negative. … In other words, the group that experienced the Tennessee Voluntary State Pre-K Program performed somewhat less well on cognitive tasks at the end of first grade than the control group.”
“I see these finding as devastating for advocates of the expansion of state pre-K programs,” Whitehurst concludes. “I wish this weren’t so, but facts are stubborn things.”
Granted, other studies suggest early childhood programs can help prepare children for kindergarten.
One study of the Abbot pre-school initiative in New Jersey also showed modest results into fifth grade. But the claim being advanced by Obama, Kaine and others is far more sweeping: that pre-K’s benefits last long into the future — so long, in fact, that they raise graduation rates, decrease teenage pregnancy and reduce crime.
It’s possible. It’s also possible that piping Mozart into the womb makes your baby smarter. But shouldn’t government policy — and taxpayer funding — rest on a firmer foundation than that?
America the Ignorant
My fellow Americans, we are one ignorant bunch.
This is particularly true with regard to politics and government, subjects about which the public is a howling void of nescience. To say Americans don’t know much about politics and government would be more than just an understatement. It would be like saying a Galapagos tortoise doesn’t know much about medieval French literature.
Ilya Somin — a law professor at George Mason University in Fairfax — has written a book on the subject: “Democracy and Political Ignorance.” In it, he shows that Americans know woefully little about their political system, have known very little for a long time, and are not likely to change in the foreseeable future — because they have a very good reason not to.
For instance: In 1964, only 38 percent of Americans knew the Soviet Union, NATO’s principal enemy, was not a member of NATO. In December 1994, the month after Republicans led by Newt Gingrich took control of Congress, 57 percent of Americans had never even heard of him. In 2003, 70 percent of Americans were unaware of the passage of Medicare Part D, “the biggest new government program in several decades.”
Fifty-eight percent of Americans cannot name the three branches of government; 70 percent cannot name their state’s senators; 72 percent cannot name two or more of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Before you start cursing, note that Americans have very little incentive to know such basic things, and even less to study more abstruse details such as the content of specific legislation. (In 2009, only a quarter of Americans knew “cap and trade” addressed environmental issues rather than, say, health care or finance.)
This is because the cost, in time and effort, of becoming an informed voter is fairly high. And what do you get for it? Precious little. It isn’t polite to say so, but votes usually matter only in the aggregate. Your one vote in, say, a presidential election will have almost no chance of changing the outcome, and therefore roughly zero effect on your life personally. Hence, Somin writes, “For most people, the benefits of devoting more than minimal time and effort to learning about politics are greatly outweighed by the costs.”
Granted, there are exceptions — the political junkies who get the same enjoyment from politics that sports junkies get from sports. Sports fans often know a great deal, even though they cannot affect the outcome of the games. (Not even with their lucky hats.) Political fans, Somin writes, likewise “derive enjoyment from rooting for their preferred parties, candidates, ideologies, and interest groups, while deriding the opposition. They … also derive satisfaction from having their pre-existing views validated, and from a sense of affiliation with a group of like-minded people.”
So does the team-sports model rescue democracy from the pit of ignorance? Hardly — because partisan activism is, in important ways, even worse than disengagement. Partisans may know more, but their knowledge is often selective. On top of that, they use it in highly biased ways — primarily to reinforce their existing views and reject new information that challenges their cherished dogmas. And they often tune in to news sources (Fox News, MSNBC) that facilitate close-mindedness.
This renders partisans more susceptible to false beliefs that cement their team loyalty: Democrats are more likely than independents to believe “truther” conspiracies alleging that George W. Bush knew in advance about 9/11, and Republicans are more likely than independents to believe “birther” claims that President Barack Obama was born abroad. It also leads partisans to reject truths that do not square with their partisan leanings. In one series of studies, Democrats completely ignored a factual correction in George W. Bush’s favor. Republicans were even worse, believing a false claim in Bush’s favor even more strongly after seeing it corrected.
Are there any remedies? Perhaps. We could delegate more decision-making to experts. But this only adds a layer to the problem. The experts still would have to be held accountable by elected officials, and ignorant voters “are likely to be poor monitors of elected officials’ supervision” of the experts. On the other hand, if the experts are not supervised, then there is no way to ensure they are pursuing the public interest.
We also could limit voting to the knowledgeable. But not only would this be grossly undemocratic, it wouldn’t improve matters, for the reasons just described.
Somin suggests two structural remedies. One involves handing over more decision-making to smaller political units — states, or even municipalities — which would allow people to vote with their feet. People who vote with their feet tend to educate themselves first. (Think about how much research you put into buying a house or a car.) And they educate themselves because they know their “vote” — to live on a cul-de-sac, or move to Seattle, or buy a Toyota instead of a Ford — will be the decisive one. When you vote with your feet, the “election” is heavily rigged to produce the outcome you want.
The other structural change? Limit the scope of government. For Somin, the reason is straightforward: A smaller government means deeper knowledge. If the public will learn, say, only 100 things about the executive branch, then it will know a lot more about each agency if there are five agencies rather than 50. There is an “inverse relationship between the size … of government” and “the ability of voters to have sufficient knowledge” to vote intelligently.
For the rest of us, there may be another reason: A smaller government, even in the hands of Those Ignorant Bums on the Other Side, will do less damage than a big one can. When power is decentralized, you can flee to another state if things get too bad in your current one. When Washington is in charge of everything, the cost of voting with your feet gets much, much higher.
Each of these approaches has downsides — though not necessarily the ones you might think. For instance, the cost of moving would seem at first blush to impede “foot voting” by the poor. In fact, Somin notes, “households with an income under $5,000 per year are actually twice as likely to make interstate moves as the population as a whole.”
That’s just one of the many insights to come out of a book on ignorance that is, perhaps paradoxically, highly informative.