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It's the Culture, Continued

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Persons of sense have known for a long time that the primary "root cause" of crime is culture.  Kids growing up are subject to influence from parents, peers, schools, and popular media.  These influences instill in the growing kids either an attitude that (1) they should "do the right thing" in obeying rules (in all but extreme circumstances) and respecting the rights of others or (2) it's every person for himself and they should take whatever they can get away with.

Empirical validation of theories is difficult in social sciences because we generally cannot do controlled experiments.  That is why, for example, much of the "evidence" touted for rehabilitation programs is tainted by selection bias, as noted in posts last February here and here

Every once in a while, though, we get a "natural experiment" where a comparison becomes available between two groups that do or do not receive some "treatment" or "intervention" selected in a way that gives us increased confidence that the "treatment" and not the selection of the groups is the reason for the difference in outcomes.

One such "natural experiment" is forthcoming in the next issue of Pediatrics.  It is titled, "Successful Schools and Risky Behaviors Among Low-Income Adolescents."  The abstract is here and is copied at the end of this post.  The AAP press release is here.  AP has this story.

The thrust of the story is that kids randomly selected to go to better schools have a variety of better outcomes, including reduced gang membership.
Simply comparing kids who go to better schools with a demographically matched control group in "regular" schools doesn't work because parents who care more about education will work harder to get their kids into the better schools.  Such a simplistic comparison therefore confounds the variables of school and parenting.

The "natural experiment" in this case comes from the fact that the demand for the top-performing charter schools in L.A. exceeds the supply, and the school district hands out the slots by lottery.  Whether random assignment is a good or just way to hand out these slots is debatable, but it's certainly good for researchers.  From the AP story:

The researchers compared behavior in almost 1,000 kids in 10th through 12th grade who were admitted to the high-performing schools and in those who went elsewhere. Overall, 36 percent of the selected kids engaged in at least one of 11 risky behaviors, compared with 42 percent of the other teens.

The study doesn't prove that the schools made the difference and it has limitations that weaken the results, including a large number of students who refused to participate. Still, lead author Dr. Michael Wong said the results echo findings in less rigorously designed research and they fit with the assumption that "better education will lead to better health." Wong is an internist and researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The study involved mostly Latino students who applied to one of three top-performing public charter schools from 2007 to 2010. About half of the kids had parents who didn't graduate from high school and most didn't own their own homes.

Results were published online Monday in Pediatrics.

Teens were given computerized questionnaires to answer in private, to improve the chances for accurate self-reporting. Standardized test scores were obtained from the California Department of Education.

The results aren't a referendum on charter schools but the lottery system they use for enrollment made the comparison fairer, Wong said.

Despite the limitations, the study "is a beautifully conducted natural experiment" that could occur because there's more demand for high-performing schools than there is space available, said Kelli Komro, a professor of health outcomes and policy at the University of Florida in Gainesville. She was not involved in the research.

Because the Los Angeles schools' lottery system selects students randomly, not on grades or other differences, the study design "mimics a randomized controlled trial, the gold standard in health research," Komro said.

Certainly 36% versus 42% is not the difference between night and day, but it's a start.  Why are kids randomly selected to attend top-performing charter schools slightly less likely to join gangs than those who lose the lottery and get stuck in the other schools?  Random selection means that the parenting and popular culture variables are pretty well controlled.  Attitudes picked up from a more law-abiding peer group and the school itself probably have an influence.  The campus itself is likely safer, leading to less pressure to join a gang for protection.

If research and policies would focus on genuine root causes such as these, we could make more progress toward building a better, more law-abiding culture and a better life for future generations.

Here's the abstract:

Successful Schools and Risky Behaviors Among Low-Income Adolescents

Mitchell D. Wong, MD, PhD, Karen M. Coller, PhD, Rebecca N. Dudovitz, MD, MSHS, David P. Kennedy, PhD, Richard Buddin, PhD, Martin F. Shapiro, MD, PhD, Sheryl H. Kataoka, MD, MSHS, Arleen F. Brown, MD, PhD, Chi-Hong Tseng, PhD, Peter Bergman, PhD, and Paul J. Chung, MD, MS

Abstract

OBJECTIVES: We examined whether exposure to high-performing schools reduces the rates of risky health behaviors among low-income minority adolescents and whether this is due to better academic performance, peer influence, or other factors.

METHODS: By using a natural experimental study design, we used the random admissions lottery into high-performing public charter high schools in low-income Los Angeles neighborhoods to determine whether exposure to successful school environments leads to fewer risky (eg, alcohol, tobacco, drug use, unprotected sex) and very risky health behaviors (eg, binge drinking, substance use at school, risky sex, gang participation). We surveyed 521 ninth- through twelfth-grade students who were offered admission through a random lottery (intervention group) and 409 students who were not offered admission (control group) about their health behaviors and obtained their state-standardized test scores.

RESULTS: The intervention and control groups had similar demographic characteristics and eighth-grade test scores. Being offered admission to a high-performing school (intervention effect) led to improved math (P < .001) and English (P = .04) standard test scores, greater school retention (91% vs 76%; P < .001), and lower rates of engaging in ≥1 very risky behaviors (odds ratio = 0.73, P < .05) but no difference in risky behaviors, such as any recent use of alcohol, tobacco, or drugs. School retention and test scores explained 58.0% and 16.2% of the intervention effect on engagement in very risky behaviors, respectively.

CONCLUSIONS: Increasing performance of public schools in low-income communities may be a powerful mechanism to decrease very risky health behaviors among low-income adolescents and to decrease health disparities across the life span.

(doi: 10.1542/peds.2013-3573)

Speaking of better schools, this article by Naomi Schaefer Riley in the WSJ illustrates that better need not mean more expensive.  Intensive instruction, no-nonsense discipline, low tech, and low budget can be highly effective.

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