Education Letter to the Editor

School Facilities and the ‘Broken Window’ Theory

July 12, 2005 1 min read

To the Editor:

Sara Mead performs a valuable service by highlighting the urgent need to address the growing problem of school maintenance (“Schooling’s Crumbling Infrastructure,” Commentary, June 15, 2005). In their zeal to improve educational quality, reformers have focused almost exclusively on the accountability of teachers, while widely ignoring the accountability of policymakers.

Not too long after the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the California legislature pondered the wisdom of establishing an “opportunity to learn” index, which would have required the publication of not only test scores, but also factors associated with learning. High on the list was a rating of the overall learning environment. This would have taken into account such items as clean restrooms and comfortable room temperatures.

The thinking behind the index was reminiscent of the “broken windows” theory of crime first published in the March 1982 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Its authors, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, hypothesized that if a broken window in a building is not repaired, people will be likely to assume that no one cares about the building, and soon more windows will be broken. Carried to its logical extreme, the theory posited that it eventually becomes acceptable to trash an entire neighborhood.

Perhaps the broken-windows theory helps explain the vandalism and associated disrespect for school facilities and faculty members that characterize too many large urban districts. The theory is certainly in line with Ms. Mead’s contention that classroom neglect sends a subtle but clear message to students about the priority we place on their education. It would be ironic if proper maintenance resulted in a decrease in overall criminal activity on school campuses.

Walt Gardner

Los Angeles, Calif.