School Violence Prevention: Choice and Accountability Are Key: an interview with Alexander Volokh

Published September 1, 1999

“Parents care about grades, they care about violence, they care about safety. School choice will tend to make any of those things go in the right direction.”

In the wake of the Columbine High School murders–where two teen misfits killed twelve fellow students and a teacher–media pundits, elected officials, and religious leaders have cited many possible factors as triggers for the incident and have proposed a wide range of possible solutions. They run the gamut, from banning guns, prohibiting disrespectful behavior, and putting metal detectors in schools, to putting God back into the classroom, hiring more school counselors, and abandoning public schools altogether.

When concerned parents demand action from school boards and superintendents, what response is appropriate? Indeed, what should parents demand?

Before the recent spate of multiple murders in schools, Alexander Volokh examined strategies for the prevention of school violence in a 1997 Reason Policy Study that he authored with Lisa Snell, School Violence Prevention: Strategies to Keep Schools Safe. With degrees that bridge the worlds of mathematics, economics, English, and world history, Volokh brings the broad perspective necessary to deal appropriately with this important public policy issue.

Volokh is an adjunct scholar with the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles, where for five years he has conducted public policy analyses in a variety of areas, including environmental federalism and environmental right-to-know laws as well as education. Together with Richard Seder, he has studied private schools, charter schools, public-private partnerships, and bilingual education. He spoke recently with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: How did the issue of school safety come up at Reason before the recent explosions of school violence?

Volokh: There is always a concern about school violence, but it’s more about preventing everyday school violence. Although some incidents make the headlines, school administrators are more concerned with preventing the more mundane, everyday school violence, like students being beaten up or bullied or having their lunch money stolen. They are more concerned with keeping proper discipline in a school and making sure that the school experience is a pleasant and safe one for the student.

We have to remember that–despite the movie The Blackboard Jungle–school violence has been around ever since youths have been around. There are Sumerian clay tablets from 2000 BC that discuss youth misbehavior, and there was a great deal of school violence in France, England, and the United States in earlier centuries that was worse than we read about today. There were student mutinies and strikes.

In the mid-nineteenth century, one observer writing about American schools commented, “There is as little disposition on the part of the American children to obey the uncontrollable will of their masters as on the part of their fathers to submit to the mandates of kings.”

So this is a very long-standing phenomenon. People are more concerned about it today not necessarily because the problem has gotten worse, but because our expectations have gotten higher.

Clowes: Is there any evidence that school violence is getting worse?

Volokh: Well, everyone likes to think that school violence is getting worse because it always plays into somebody’s agenda. It’s just not very sexy to say that school violence isn’t that much of a problem or that it’s stable or that it’s going down.

The fact is that we don’t have good evidence one way or the other. All of the anecdotal evidence suggests that it’s getting worse, but that suffers from all of the problems of anecdotes, which is that people are nostalgic for an imagined past, like a 1950s’ Donna Reed culture.

In the 1950s there was a big movement away from neighborhood schools and toward bigger schools, and some people say that may have made violence more of a problem. One of the side effects was that you removed the neighborhood watchfulness influence–the culture of shame, which means that you’re always being watched by somebody, so there’s more of a societal check on how much violence you carry out. That’s a possibility, but the evidence is not really conclusive because it’s so hard just to get evidence on how much violence there is or was. There was no systematic evidence collected before the 1970s.

Clowes: Is there any way of responding to the question “What causes violence in schools?”

Volokh: Everyone has a theory on what causes violence in schools. In fact, everyone has their own theory on how to fix violence in schools, which stems from that person’s theory of what causes violence.

For example, you can imagine a socially conservative critic who says, “Violence all comes from our permissive culture, where students and children are no longer taught to respect authority figures, and so what’s needed is a return to a less permissive culture.” Implicated in this whole thing is the civil rights movement, which is widely seen as coddling troublemakers and not punishing them. From this view, the logical result would be to go back to the good old days of discipline and punishment.

Then there’s another view, more popular in academic, educational circles, that says people aren’t responsible for their own violence but that it’s determined by societal forces. Because racial minorities are more likely to be poor or oppressed, then this will translate into people lashing out. The recommended solution from this view is to address the root causes and have a more sympathetic and understanding society.

There’s even a third view, that it’s just a matter of what environment you’re in. If you’re in an environment where you wear school uniforms, for instance, then that will just naturally make you a more calm and quiet person because you’re in a more disciplined environment.

There’s a ton of different explanations of what causes violence and a ton of different theories on what will fix school violence. Unfortunately, the research shows there’s really nothing that works across the board or doesn’t work across the board. It’s always something that works in some schools in some environments and not in other schools in another environment.

Clowes: Are there any successful models or best practices that administrators could follow?

Volokh: Definitely. But what I’m questioning is the idea that there is a single policy or set of policies that are generally applicable across the board. In solving most problems in society, we’ve never had the idea that there has to be one single way to do it. For example, if you’re running a factory, then you have the choice of following whatever policies you’ve seen or read about in all sorts of different factories. But if all factories were run by a government agency, then the agency would be faced with the problem of finding the best way to run all factories. They would run into the very same problem we run into with the public schools: There is no one best way, only very difficult, case-by-case decisions.

What society does with the factory owner is to say: “We’ll put you in an environment where you’ll have the incentive to figure out what is best for your factory.” The incentive is that you have to provide a good deal for your customers or they’ll buy someone else’s product. If you adopt some way of running your factory that gives you very high costs and poor quality, we don’t need to force you not to do that, because you’re unlikely to succeed if you continue doing it. The factories that will tend to succeed are those that adopt policies that give them lower costs and a higher quality product.

It would be the same with schools if there were freedom of choice and the discipline of accountability. If each school could decide on whatever policy it thought was best for its own particular needs, then those that chose bad policies–resulting in increased violence instead of decreased violence–would suffer because parents would not choose those schools.

With those twin elements of choice and accountability, you would have an institutional structure where you wouldn’t have to tell individual schools what to do. Individual schools would have a powerful incentive to find what it is that works. But by and large, public schools today do not operate in such a structure.

Clowes: So a structure involving school choice would produce the incentives needed to bring down levels of school violence?

Volokh: Right. Parental choice is the necessary condition for accountability on the part of the school officials. Accountability from the school’s point of view equals choice from the parent’s point of view. The fact that the parents can choose leads to accountability of the school officials.

The federal and state governments offer very strong inducements to school officials to choose particular programs, but those programs aren’t really tailored to the needs of the individual school. A lot of them are touchy-feely programs, like violence prevention, anger management, and conflict resolution. These programs are very, very highly thought of in the academic educational community, but the evidence in their favor is not very strong, and they may even be counter-productive.

Clowes: But if the principals at different schools had the opportunity to choose between, say, more strict discipline, dress codes, security cameras, or conflict resolution programs, then the parents could see which of those programs appeared to be working?

Volokh: Exactly. Right now, their incentives are being skewed by grants from the federal and state governments that make it artificially attractive for them to adopt these sorts of programs.

There’s another issue related to strict discipline. Because of the civil rights revolution, it’s very difficult for a government-run school to apply a policy of strong discipline and punishment to reduce school violence.

Private schools have much more freedom to use the same kind of discipline and punishment that parents can use because it’s the parents’ choice through a contract with the school. So if you believe in corporal punishment, you can send your kids to a school that has corporal punishment. If you believe that indoctrination with religious values is a good way of reducing violence, you can send your child to that kind of school.

That’s something government schools can’t do–and I wouldn’t want them to.

Some people believe in a strong disciplinary hand, some people believe in a religious hand, some people believe in understanding and sympathy. All of those are possible ways to educate your children, and all of those can have beneficial effects in terms of reducing school violence. All are approaches where there is some evidence–not totally ridiculous–that a rational person might look at and say, “Yes, I think this works.”

It’s precisely because there is no one standard that this choice element is so important, because not everyone agrees on what it means “to work.” Before you ask the question “What program works?” you have to establish what it means to “work.” That’s one thing that we ought to have more of in the educational debate–the understanding that it’s not always a bureaucrat in the educational establishment that knows what it means to “work.”

Clowes: What would be your recommendation to federal and state policy makers about preventing school violence?

Volokh: Don’t just focus on a particular issue and then throw money at a specific program you think will work.

The key policy issue is how to set up a structure of choice and accountability. As much as possible, the decision-making power in education ought to be devolved to the local school district or even to the local school. But the necessary corollary is that there has to be accountability. One way of achieving that accountability is parental choice, which means, for instance, a school voucher program.

School vouchers will not only increase students’ achievement, but they will make schools better on any variable the parents care about. They care about grades, they care about violence, they care about safety; school choice will tend to make any of those things go in the right direction.

But doing this doesn’t necessarily require school vouchers, though I think that the best way of doing that is to have every school–public, private, secular, religious–compete on the same level. If one doesn’t want to go that far, there are charter schools, which are an element of choice within the public school system.

Even within standard public schools, there has to be much more of an emphasis on measurable results. One of the reason why these conflict resolution programs are so popular is because they very rarely get evaluated beyond asking people, “How do you feel about the success of this program?” Whenever these sorts of programs are tried in particular schools, they ought to be very rigorously evaluated with respect to their results.

Also, the violence records of schools ought to be readily available for comparison, just like test scores. Even if the parents had no choice, just the fact that those numbers are out there would bring a certain amount of pressure to bear on the school with bad results. Ultimately, while the effect of shame on schools with bad results is helpful, it’s nowhere near the effect of losing students.

Alexander Volokh can be reached at the Reason Public Policy Institute, 3415 South Sepulveda Boulevard #400, Los Angeles, CA 90034; phone 310/391-2245.