publisher colophon
Bruno V. Manno - Comment - Brookings Papers on Education Policy 2000 Brookings Papers on Education Policy 2000 (2000) 160-167

Comment by Bruno V. Manno

[The Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program]

"Our goal in this crusade is nothing less than a drug-free generation." Thus spoke President Ronald Reagan on October 27, 1986, during a ceremony at which he signed a $1.7 billion law that contained $200 million for school-based drug prevention programs. And thus began the federal government's odyssey into a world that today has lost its focus, expanding from support for school-based drug prevention to programs as diverse as violence prevention, health education, after-school instruction in the arts, and the purchase of curricula that "promote the awareness of sensitivity to alternatives to violence through courses of study that include related issues of intolerance and hatred in history." 60

Lawrence W. Sherman argues that twelve years after the inception of what is now called the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program, with expenditures totaling more than $6 billion and going "to some fifteen thousand local school districts and fifty state governors to spend largely at their own discretion. No evidence shows that this half-billion-dollar-per-year program has made schools any safer or more drug-free." To the contrary, "much of the money has been wasted on performing magicians, fishing trips, and school concerts--and on methods (such as counseling) that research shows to be ineffective."

His conclusion is buttressed by other investigations of this program. A recent analysis by Matthew Rees said, "Twelve years after its inception, the federal government has yet to comprehensively evaluate it. In other words, after spending a total of $6 billion on the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program, there's no way of knowing whether it's working or not." 61

A 1996-97 General Accounting Office report on the program's accountability and oversight provisions pinpointed the problems associated with ascertaining whether it works or how to improve it. The study [End Page 160] found that the program has innumerable loopholes in its requirements, placing an almost exclusive focus on local control and leaving the federal government with minuscule influence over how program funds are spent. No method was in place to collect comparable data that allows the U.S. Department of Education to reach valid conclusions about the program's overall effectiveness. 62 In short, the program is neither a typical categorical program with specific instructions on how to use federal money nor a block grant that permits local flexibility in implementation coupled with accountability for results.

Sherman argues that the program constitutes "symbolic pork"; that is, it sends taxpayers' dollars back into every congressional district to symbolize federal concern about a problem but does not require any evidence-based demonstration of positive results. Sherman points out the results of what I call a "spreading peanut butter" approach to distributing federal money: Fiscal disbursements reach 97 percent of the nation's school districts, with six out of ten school districts receiving $10,000 or less each year and small districts receiving only $200 or $300.

Are Schools Unsafe and Drug-Plagued Places?

Sherman presents a welcome corrective to the view that schools are dangerous settings for young people. His data show that, for most students, violence is a seldom-encountered experience concentrated in a few schools located in poor, segregated neighborhoods with many unemployed adults. Violent incidents occur mainly in middle and high schools, with the most likely victims being young men, particularly black seniors. Finally, violence is more likely to occur to teachers instead of students.

These facts may not change public perceptions about school safety and violence that stem from a few highly visible, dramatic, and tragic incidents such as the killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. But they are strong enough to have prompted U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley to caution the public about these incorrect perceptions in an August 1999 "back to school" op-ed in the Washington Post. He said, "Tragically, there are many homicides that occur among our youth, but less than one percent of all homicides among school-age children (ages 5 to 19) occur in or around schools. New data indicate that violence among young people is on a downward trend and that the [End Page 161] number of students being expelled from school for carrying a firearm decreased by one-third from the 1996-97 to 1997-98 school year." 63

Sherman also shows that drug use is limited to a tiny percentage of students, though its reported use is more "prevalent and ... widespread" among students than violent crimes. Drug use is only moderately associated with schools; schools are more likely to be a place where drugs are exchanged than consumed. And, not surprisingly, more consumption of drugs occurs in schools where drugs are easier to get. 64

Sherman goes on to present convincing evidence that the causes of both violence and drug use are predominantly outside the school. But schools can contribute to modifying the effects of outside influences and overcome family background factors and community liabilities. How schools are run contributes to making schools safe and drug-free. 65

What can schools do to decrease incidents of violence and drug use?

Sherman points to research that suggests effective prevention programs are schoolwide programs. They affect the climate and ethos of the school. Some of the key elements that foster a positive school climate that nurtures safe and drug-free schools include:

--School size. Small schools are safer than large schools, and programs that organize students in large schools into smaller educational groups ("schools-within-schools") are a promising approach to reducing school violence and drug use.

--Resources. Assets should be focused on enhancing teaching and curricula.

--Governance and management. Strong administrative leadership and teamwork are needed in schools.

--Socialization. Norms for behavior should be well known, and enforcement should be fair and consistent.

The line of inquiry that tries to understand what school practices reduce drug use and violence bears remarkable similarity to "effective schools" research. Effective schools have a clear, focused mission; a core curriculum with high expectations for all students (and teachers); an organizational climate that supports the school's mission and expectations; and strong leadership that provides the school with a measure of autonomy within which it shapes its own destiny. 66

Recent analysis of the effective schools research goes beyond this list of attributes to explain how these characteristics are nurtured and sustained. These schools place a premium on a coherent vision and shared [End Page 162] values about teaching and learning. They have "integrative capital." 67 In short, good schools are focused and coherent communities of learning where adults collaborate--especially educators and families--and share a set of ideas about what constitutes good teaching and how to exercise responsibility for nurturing learning and virtuous behavior in young people.

What Should Be Done to Fix the Progam?

Sherman's analysis and the additional information that I have cited lead me to conclude that:

--There is no evidence that the program is working.

--The program has weak-to-nonexistent accountability provisions and a diluted focus.

--Schools today are mostly safe and drug-free, with most violence and drug use concentrated in middle and high schools in urban areas.

--Schools are safer and more drug-free than their communities.

--Effective prevention programs are schoolwide, based on a unifying vision of the school and replete with a moral code that holds high expectations for learning and virtuous behavior.

Sherman suggests four paths to changing the program, given that political constraints will not allow its elimination.

1. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) model. The federal government would oversee a program that aims to reach scientific agreement on research-proven programs that would qualify for federal funds. Conversely, ineffective methods would be barred from federal funding.

2. Agricultural extension agent model. A (mostly) university-based research infrastructure would provide grass-roots leaders with knowledge of effective programs. School districts would receive technical assistance from educational extension agents on how to use their program funds to implement proven or promising programs.

3. Governance Performance and Results Act (GPRA) model. School districts would annually administer survey instruments to students and others in the district to document trends in crime and drug use. This would provide a modicum of evidence about program results.

4. Evidenced-based democracy model. Sherman's recommended approach is a hybrid of the other models that combines "national knowledge, risk-adjusted local GPRA accounting, and grass-roots democracy." It [End Page 163] would replace ineffective programs and methods with those that are proven to work or show promise of working. It combines knowledge of effective or promising programs with local documentation of trends in school crime and drug abuse and a participatory planning process.

Sherman's favored approach brings to mind two tried and mostly ineffective approaches to creating national knowledge and fostering grass-roots democracy in education. First, his FDA and agricultural extension models are similar to the present U.S. Department of Education's Research and Development (R&D) Centers, Regional Educational Laboratories (the Labs), and Educational Resources Information Clearinghouses (ERIC). Second, the participatory planning process that is part of Sherman's evidenced-based model recalls the planning and oversight groups--the "stakeholder" committees--that are the bane of federal education programs such as Title I and Goals 2000.

NATIONAL KNOWLEDGE IN EDUCATION. The R&D Centers, the Labs, and ERIC have a long, complicated, and checkered history, beginning in the mid-1960s and then undergoing significant structural changes in 1972 with the establishment of the National Institute of Education (NIE) and in the early 1990s with the reauthorization of the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (the earlier reconstituted NIE). The theory underlying this approach was that the (mostly) university-based R&D Centers would produce research-based knowledge; the federal regional labs would work with states (and districts) in field testing and disseminating new knowledge; and ERIC would be a collection of clearinghouses that would store knowledge and information on best practice for use by education stakeholders and community members bent on improving education.

Maris A. Vinovskis has conducted several studies of the work of these federally supported programs. He aptly summarized these federal investment as "generally disappointing and limited." 68 In another report he said, "The evaluation of the quality of the research and development work produced by the centers and the labs ... paint[s] a mixed, but, overall, a rather disappointing picture of the conceptual and technical soundess of much of their work." 69

Why such a gloomy picture?

Vinovskis hits the nail on the head: "Much of the research and development produced by educational scholars is ... methodically and conceptually second-rate." 70 Another article on the status of education [End Page 164] research calls that research a "black hole, ... weak and inconclusive ... [and] especially lacking in rigor." The result is that "education reform is often shaped by political whim and pedagogic fashion." 71

This aversion of educators to creating a sound research base for "what works" and then using it in teaching and learning manifests itself in the implementation of the drug-free program. Analysts at the Research Triangle Institute funded by the U.S. Department of Education to investigate some elements of the program concluded: "Drug prevention approaches that have been shown to be effective are not widely used, while approaches that have not shown evidence of effectiveness or have not been evaluated properly are the most common approaches currently in use." 72

GRASS-ROOTS DEMOCRACY IN EDUCATION. One of the primary reasons that ineffective programs have made their way into schools is that stakeholder groups and influential constituencies have come to regard federal funds as pork barrel entitlements for their favorite programs whether or not these programs are effective. Symbolic pork invariably becomes traditional pork. In other words, federal money always becomes a jobs program for some group of beneficiaries, making it nearly impossible to eliminate these programs and the power centers they create.

In education, most operational power rests with the producers of education, not with consumers, taxpayers, or citizens. Most decisions are made by an education establishment that includes the two big teacher unions; groups representing principals, superintendents, and the other school employees; state departments of education; textbook publishers and software vendors; colleges of education; the custodians, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers; and so forth. They are frequently joined by (slightly sheepish) business groups and by a docile Parent-Teacher Association (PTA). These expert professionals and their legion of supporters place the schools largely beyond the self-correcting reach of community politics. They mask a system of bureaucratic and interest groups politics that derives its sustenance from the pork barrel funds they receive.

HOW SHOULD THE PROGRAM BE STRUCTURED? Most schools are safe and drug-free, and the money spent on this program is mostly wasted. Furthermore, education R&D, its dissemination apparatus, and the producers of education are not likely to vanish before the present reauthorization of the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program. This seems to argue strongly for getting rid of the program. But if that action is not politically [End Page 165] feasible, then the program should be made into a genuine categorical program or block grant program. Either approach should include statutory language with stringent accountability provisions, reflecting Sherman's GPRA model. For example, there should be a statutory requirement that states annually collect effectiveness data demonstrating program results.

In the categorical approach to the program, at least the following additional elements should be federal requirements:

--Focus the program more clearly on supporting activities and services that foster safe and drug-free schools.

--Direct most of the money to the source of the problems--middle and high schools in poor urban neighborhoods.

--Target federal funds to treat the whole school and reflect those proven core attributes that foster coherent, small, and purposive schools.

--Allow some small percentage of money for communitywide safe and drug-free prevention efforts, because this is the source of many problems that occur in the schools. (An example of the kind of program is the effort to create "violence-free zones" undertaken in Washington, D.C., by the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and the Alliance of Concerned Men in what was formerly known as the "most murderous" section of the city. Since January 1997, youth homicides have been eliminated where twelve had occurred within the prior three years.) 73

Two options exist for a block grant approach to restructuring the program. One approach would keep a distinct program but narrow the scope (for example, exclude areas such as health education from funding) and require the use of proven or promising programs. States and communities would be free to spend the money as they want, as long as they annually report on and demonstrate positive program results. States would determine what actions to take if a school district's program is not effective.

Another block grant approach could link the program with the "super ed-flex" idea being advanced in Congress under a legislative proposal called the Academic Achievement for All Act (also known as "Straight A's"). Under this approach, up to fourteen K-12 federal categorical education programs would be combined into a block grant with teeth. In essence, the federal government would enter into a contract with interested states to swap rules and regulations for results, defined primarily [End Page 166] as evidence that students are progressing to or achieving high levels of student learning.

This approach differs from the traditional approach to creating a federal block grant in education. First, this block grant would be voluntary. States would not be required to participate. States or school districts that did not wish to consolidate their funding in this way could continue to receive categorical funding under the new reauthorization of the Safe and Drug-Free School program. But those who do participate could consolidate their federal dollars and spend that money as they want. Second, this block grant would require that states commit themselves to results--students learning more, with evidence to show it. For example, student academic results could be measured using the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

The three options I propose accept Sherman's GPRA model in that they require evidence of program effects. But they would minimize the drawbacks of Sherman's evidence-based model: national knowledge and grass-roots democracy in education--that is, what I call second-rate knowledge and producer control under the guise of stakeholder participation.

Previous Article


Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2007
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.