What the Schools Can Learn from the Cops

The way law enforcement has been transformed points the way to fixing out broken public-education system.
by , | November 5, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

The situation in public education today is analogous to the one that existed in public safety in the mid-1990s. It was thought then that because crime was the result of poverty, unemployment and other deplorable but intractable community conditions, there was nothing that the police could do except contain the damage. Then came Bill Bratton. In Boston, Los Angeles and New York City, he showed that good policing can make a dramatic difference. And crime in America's big cities has been plummeting for the last 15 years without huge positive changes in the social conditions seen as breeding crime.

Building on the work of Jack Maple, Bratton adopted the process called CompStat, the essential elements of which were a clear focus on data, accountability for results, transparency and collaboration. In "The Turnaround," Bratton's account of his career at the New York police department, he says that he told his staff that they could reduce crime by 10 percent in the first year and 15 percent the next using CompStat to drive systemic changes throughout the department with a clear focus on preventing rather than just reacting to crime. "Several chiefs simply said, 'Can't be done,"' he writes. After Bratton's first two years as police commissioner, murders in the city were down 39 percent and all felonies were down 27 percent. Once Bratton showed that effective policing could in fact reduce crime dramatically, other police chiefs adapted and expanded on his methods.

Today lots of good, well-meaning people think that educational outcomes are determined overwhelmingly by social conditions and that it is simply beyond the ability of schools to make a difference. "The Bee Eater," Richard Whitmire's book about Michele Rhee's career as schools chancellor in Washington, D.C., describes a sign posted at one school, Slowe Elementary: "There is nothing a teacher can do to overcome what a parent and a student will not do." Whitmire writes that for the children of that school, "the sign was a daily admonition that the teachers at Slowe were not responsible for the student's failings. ... Look to yourself, look to your parents. You are to blame."

This sentiment was expressed eloquently by Karen Lewis, head of the Chicago Teachers Union, when she made the announcement in early September of the union's decision to go on strike. She said that the issues standing between her union and the school system were not primarily about compensation but about a proposed teacher-evaluation system. She said that too many factors were beyond the control of teachers--poverty, exposure to violence, homelessness, hunger and other social issues--for teachers to be able to impact student performance. "Evaluate us on what we do, not the lives of our children that we cannot control," she said. Lewis has a certain point, of course. Decades and decades of research have documented the fact that these inputs, the ones teachers can't control, are correlated with student performance.

But the fact is that there are schools with high levels of poverty among their students in which the students exhibit very high levels of performance. Karin Chenoweth, writer-in-residence for the Education Trust, has probably spent time in more of these high-poverty, high-performing schools than anyone else and has written extensively on what she's learned. She lists five basic imperatives for educators who want to make the same thing happen in their schools:

1. Focus on what you want the kids to learn.

2. Collaborate on how to teach it.

3. Assess frequently to see if they've learned what you're teaching.

4. Use data to look for patterns of performance and inform teaching.

5. Build relationships among the teachers and with community groups so they can learn from and support each other.

These processes seem to me to be directly traceable to Bratton's CompStat principles. It's important to recognize, as Bratton does, that it is the whole system working together that produces results. It's not the heroic cop working alone or the single superstar teacher. The work is done in collaboration and is accountable to the public for results. If the cops don't control crime, then who needs them? And if schools do not educate children, they will be disrespected as well.

There is a great deal of ferment in education today. Even with all the talk of charter schools, online learning and private schools, the huge majority of American children are educated in our traditional public schools. No one disagrees that we need to change things in public education. In her strike announcement, even Karen Lewis said, "We must do things differently." I think the lessons of Bill Bratton's experience point the way to go.