peer effects

It doesn't take an economist to tell you that just one or two really disruptive kids in a class can absorb a disproportionate share of the teacher's time and make things harder for everyone.  But two economists, Scott Carrell and Mark Hoekstra, have studied the question of just how much effect does a disruptive kid have on the outcomes of the other students in a class.  Here's the paper, here's a less technical version of it, and here's a Freakonomics post about it.  (From last summer, although the paper is dated this month — I guess there was a pre-publication version circulating.) 

They were able to link school records with court records for domestic violence cases, and looked at both the children of the parents in the DV cases, and their classmates.  And they did find worse school outcomes — poorer grades and more disciplinary infractions — among the children who had classmates from these troubled families than among their peers in other classes and even than the same children in other years.

This is elegant research, but the findings shouldn't shock anyone.  Catholic schools pay their teachers worse than public school teachers (even when they're not nuns) and have bigger classes, but their not-so-secret advantage over the public schools is that they can kick the troublemakers out.  The Great Expectations School isn't great literature, but it's a brutally honest report by a rookie teacher of how the classroom management challenge just kicked his ass and made his teaching skills pretty much irrelevant.

This also once again makes me wonder how much of the success of places like KIPP is due to selection.  I don't think they can expel kids any more easily than the regular public schools, but making parents go through even modest hurdles to enroll their kids probably winnows out a lot of the most troubled kids.  And is that ok?  If the lifeboat is sinking and they can rescue some of the kids, but not all, isn't that better than letting them all drown?

But what are you going to do with those kids?  Carrell and Hoekstra's methodology reminds us that these "troublemaker" kids aren't bad seeds — they're kids with pretty messed up home lives, who are probably used to violence as a way to solve problems, even if they're not being hit themselves.  If anyone deserves help, they do.  But it's probably too much to ask of overwhelmed teachers that they be the ones to provide this help, while also trying to teach 25 other kids to read.

15 Responses to “peer effects”

  1. Lynnie Says:

    As a teacher I find that study very interesting. Of course I readily agree with their findings, having experienced it first hand repeatedly. But I too wonder what to do about it. Kids will “let themselves be kicked out” pretty easily if that’s part of a school’s system and if they are experiencing a lot of turmoil at home. But they actually might be really bright kids with a lot of potential. I guess more research should be done on what works with disruptive kids?

  2. dave.s. Says:

    What to do? You have some fraction of the kids who are rocking the lifeboat, and water is coming in over the sides, and if you let them keep doing it, everyone is going to drown. In this analogy, KIPP and the Catholic schools are the ones which throw the rockers overboard, and they have good results for their kids. It is arguably evil to make non-boatrocker kids go to schools where their success is sabotaged by a few. But what is the moral thing to do for the kids who are boat-rockers? Military schools? Some kind of intensive intervention?
    My kids’ school just expelled a kid who had recruited others into a bullying event – principal’s view was, this kid is luring others into bad behavior, we have to get him out of here. He will now go to another elementary school, and everyone hopes he forms different habits when he is away from the web of associations he had here.
    I haven’t read Carrol and Hoekstra, but this is not very different from what one would predict from Judith Rich Harris on the effects of peers, and the difficulty of parents countering peer effects. Conscripting kids to be in a situation where they are socialized away from middle-class success strategies is a tough thing to justify.

  3. Jody Says:

    I was interested to see that this was an issue in grades 3-5. Here in NC, there are full-time teaching assistants through third grade, but in fourth grade, not only do class sizes increase to 28 (from 24) but there are no more teaching assistants. Having already witnessed numerous occasions when a disruptive child was diverted from the group by the TA or one of the many other staff people in the building, it seems to me the first thing that public schools could do would be to increase staffing at the upper grades so that teachers could more quickly divert the group’s attention from any disruptive situation.
    Then again, some huge percentage of the effect here has to be on the silent dialogue, “what’s acceptable — look, that kid’s contribution to the group set-point is pushing us all a little lower,” and there’s only so much that staff can do. Even when the budget isn’t resulting in dozens of those staff being laid off.
    Thinking back on my own childhood, and my own experience in the public schools, it seems to me that I survived whatever drops in performance resulted from my exposure to disruptive kids. Taking all in all, because of that, I’m willing to live with the same effects on my kids. BUT, there must be a tipping point here, since the costs presumably rise as the incidences of domestic spillover increase.
    Also worth thinking about: does domestic violence tend to correlate negatively with economic disruption? I know historically that family systems broke down during deep recessions and the Great Depression.

  4. bj Says:

    I’m going to read the study, but I thought I’d chime in to say that one thing we probably shouldn’t do with these kids is to put them in their own “behaviorally-challenged” classrooms. It turns out that there’s pretty strong evidence that the incidence of disruptive/violent behavior increases when the kids are put into specialized classes, even if the specialized classes are supposed to be intervention classes, designed specifically to address the disruptive behavior.
    Intuitively this isn’t a surprising result — you titled this post “peer effects” after all. But, it does make it even more difficult to figure out what to do.

  5. jen Says:

    “It is arguably evil to make non-boatrocker kids go to schools where their success is sabotaged by a few.”
    This is a point that I think is not discussed openly enough. I’m a parent of two girls, both of whom were early readers and are quiet and attentive in class. This is exactly the kind of kid who gets totally ignored when there is too much disruption in the classroom. On the advice of my sister, an elementary school teacher, I put them in private school. I think this was the right thing to do, in order to get acceptable outcomes for their education. (Note I am not insisting on gifted programs, or super high achievement. I just want them to not end up de facto teachers’ aides.)
    I have never advocated for cutting funding for special ed programs, for limiting taxes or teacher pay. I do believe every kid deserves an education. But I can’t help but feel that, by advocating for my own kids and their full education, I’m viewed as being non-inclusive or “abilit-ist”. The fact is I rarely hear anything more than glancing concern for the average kids in these discussions about classrooms. Over at 11d, Laura goes so far as to say that “regular” kids need to suck it up, basically. This just does not seem right to me, or realistic.
    If we don’t find a way to talk about balancing the needs of all children, it’s just going to result in kids with no special issues being drained off into parochial or other selective schools. It’s not going to solve the problem.

  6. urbanartiste Says:

    I think the fact that the most experienced teachers are opting for better school districts is a big factor. Where I live most of the schools in need of highly experienced professionals are getting untenured, possibly uncertified teachers, which is not good for the overall stability of the school or education of its students. I also wonder if teachers are in need of more training in sociological areas that affect classroom outcomes – more than the standard one day workshop on child abuse.
    Overall, I think public schools need to figure this out rather than vouchers. Private schools are very selective about who they admit and it simply is not in the best interest for the country as a whole. As a person who attended private, Catholic school it was all about academic elitism. Private schools do not have to provide special ed services, they kick out students with behavioral issues and select children with high academic success. Yes, there are parents who send their kids there for the discipline, but a lot of parents are on the side of the school, so this works.

  7. Maura Says:

    As an experienced teacher, I’ll say from my experience that it’s not just about experience. My first three years teaching were in a great public middle school in Arlington, one that had a strong principal, great teachers, and a good program for students with emotional and behavioral problems. I got very good at classroom management very quickly, but I now know that I was able to do so largely because I was in a school with a very supportive and pro-active administration and in a system that did a decent job with students with extreme emotional and behavioral problems.
    In contrast, I taught a couple of years ago in another system in CT in a fairly wealthy suburb with a terrible school system and absolutely no support or programs whatsoever for students with behavioral problems. The administration was HORRIBLE and most teachers had given up trying to discipline unruly students. And just about everything I ever learned about classroom management went to hell. Very little learning went on except on the few good days when the one or two really bad troublemakers in my class were absent or suspended.
    I do think that programs that target and treat students with extreme emotional disturbance is part of the answer — and part of the answer does include removing those students from a mainstream classroom setting until and unless they are able to be present without significantly disrupting everything, both for their own benefit and for everyone else.
    Students who exhibit chronic and severe behavior problems are usually in need of intensive counseling, individual attention, and support, something that the mainstream classroom simply is not designed to provide. With an effective program like this, and intensive support, students can return to the mainstream classroom when they are ready and able. The program that Arlington had allowed me to collaborate with the teacher for students with emotional disturbances and decided on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis whether the student was ready or able to be successful in my classroom.
    I think of one student in particular who could be politely described as hell on wheels. He had a dozen different DSM4 diagnoses, but he was also very bright and very able to learn when his moods were stable, but when they were not, not only did he not learn anything, but he kept the whole class distracted (as well as some adjacent classrooms.) Once he got into a special program, he was in a classroom with no more than 4 other students, where his teacher was able to talk to his father at least twice a day to check in on how his night was, how his weekend was, whether there were any potential triggers or problems that might come up during the day. If all was well, he would come to my class, with a behavior contract that rewarded his good behavior. If he was having problems with any of the kids in class, he could ask me for a pass to leave back to his other class at any time. If he had a really bad weekend, he could stay in the smaller class so he’d have less hyper-stimulation or distraction. It worked really well. (In fact, at the end of the year, this student gave me and his ED teacher each a Miss Manners book as an end-of-year gift, which he picked out himself, saying he never had such good manners until he we were his teachers, which made me cry with joy.)
    Intensive programs like this can work, but they’re expensive. A 5-1 student/teacher ratio ain’t cheap, and you need a good principal and good colleagues and lots of support to motivate a teacher to come in an hour early every morning and call each and every parent to check in, make home visits on her own time, etc. etc. etc. It can be done, but it takes great leadership and it takes money, two resources that far two few systems have.

  8. laura Says:

    My ears are ringing. (smiling)
    I have so much to say that I’m going to have to make it a post. Great topic, Elizabeth. I’ve been wanting to do a post on disruptive kids, because this topic came up in my comment section a couple of weeks ago. Just a couple of quick remarks here:
    1. Maura, my youngest son is in a program just like the one you described, but there are 10 kids in his class and he is mainstreamed for part of the day. It is expensive, but it works. The kids in his program do great and are fully mainstreamed within a couple of years. There are huge long terms savings with these programs and all parents are happy.
    2. jen, thinking about your point about the quiet girls getting neglected. I always gripe that Jonah, my oldest regular ed kid, gets neglected. He’s the one with dirt stains on his knees, sloppy hand-writing, fart jokes, and mis-matched socks. He’s also got a good sized IQ, but his teachers never get past the sloppy handwriting and the fart jokes, because they are the quiet girls all grown up. They prefer the girls.
    3. At least in the younger grades, the troubled kids are trouble for particular reasons — learning disabilities, neurological problems, or home life. Those kids need help. They are crying out for help. It’s the job of the public schools to give them aides, counseling, or special classrooms. They have a right to an education, too.

  9. Jody Says:

    Our school district invites parental comments every few years, and there are only ever two category of comments (broadly speaking) and these are them:
    (A) The only kids who get any attention in this district are the gifted kids and the kids with special needs; when are we going to do more for the average learners?
    (B) The only kids who get any attention in this district are average learners; when are we going to develop curricula that recognize the special needs of kids on either end of the curve?
    It would appear that in our school district, the kids getting the bulk of the district’s resources are whichever kids don’t live with the person making the evaluation. I suspect, though, that it’s the kids whose parents don’t fill out the survey who are really getting the shaft.

  10. jen Says:

    I’ll totally cop to what Jody is describing. It’s hard to be measured in your defense of your own children.
    I hate that I end up sounding like a shrew for advocating for my (neurotypical) kids. I hate that many parents are (justly) afraid if their kid is taken out of the mainstream classroom they’ll never truly be served. In general this all feels like we’re fighting over scraps. Yuck.
    That said, I really appreciate Maura’s balanced take on this. It is after all a problem we need to solve together, to find the right model for serving all these different kinds of kids. Isn’t this the question we’re trying to answer? What’s the right combination of skills, support structure, and cash? (And, I would argue, the underlying question of how to pay for it all. Local payment for these services is a huge part of the problem IMHO.)

  11. dave.s. Says:

    Jen, I am spectacularly fortunate. Our district spends $19000 per child, so there is plenty for everybody. My ADHD (#2) kid has a pull-out for the stuff he needs extra guidance on, and is in with the regular class for the rest. My two neurotypicals (great phrase) get everything they need in their regular classes. When #2 got diagnosed, the district had four people thinking about him and what he needed, and it’s been very helpful. Nobody is fighting over scraps, here. But we have this much resources because the County has 200,000 jobs, 180,000 residents, only 18500 public school students, and a whole lot of the residents are either empty-nesters or young-and-trendies who pay a lot of taxes and don’t consume a lot of services. So there is a huge tax base to support our Cadillac schools.

  12. Jackie Says:

    Here’s the thing– teaches are trained to be teachers, and sign up to be teachers, and are trying to their job *as teachers*. They are NOT social workers, psychologists, counselors, or mental-health professionals, and no amount of workshops will make them so. Until we stop expecting them to be, and berating them for not being these things, we won’t really begin to address the problem of the troubled kids.

  13. Amy P Says:

    “Here’s the thing– teaches are trained to be teachers, and sign up to be teachers, and are trying to their job *as teachers*. They are NOT social workers, psychologists, counselors, or mental-health professionals, and no amount of workshops will make them so. Until we stop expecting them to be, and berating them for not being these things, we won’t really begin to address the problem of the troubled kids.”
    By the same token, psychologists and social workers aren’t teachers, so you can’t just turn troubled children over to them. Effective teaching of difficult kids requires close contact and working relationships between teachers and other professionals who deal with difficult kids. You can achieve miracles if there is close communication between parents, teachers and these other professionals, but it’s not going to work if everybody points at the other people and says, “I’m not the X (social worker, psychologist, teacher, parent, etc.). It’s not my fault.”
    I also think that every teacher has to think seriously about psychological issues, motivation, and incentive systems and improve their skills at kid chess (thinking several steps ahead to achieve positive outcomes). Thinking deeply about this stuff will make one a more effective and sensitive teacher. I certainly wish I’d had Howard Glasser’s stuff on positive reinforcement at my finger tips before going out as a rookie teacher, but it’s not too late for me as a parent.

  14. urbanartiste Says:

    I think teacher training is not up to par with today’s student needs. When I trained to be a teacher I took ONE child psychology course. That does not make me capable of dealing with a wide variety of behavioral issues in the classroom. In general, I am confused about the purpose of mainstreaming. Wouldn’t a kid be better off in a school with fully trained educational staff in pychology, sociology and education rather than trying to mainstream? Does mainstreaming work for all kids or does is it there to make parents feel better?

  15. dave.s. Says:

    Here’s somebody who tested well and has done okay so far despite chaos around her:,0,1882109.story

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