The Dirty Bathroom Theory of Schools

In a famous article in a 1982 issue of Atlantic Monthly, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling proposed the “broken window theory” of crime prevention:

[D]isorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.

Wilson and Kelling argued that vandalism and low-level disorder could be used to gauge the social disintegration within a neighborhood, and that by preventing such low-level destruction, more serious crimes could be prevented.

Folwell Dunbar, Louisiana’s academic adviser for charter schools, offers a similar way to judge public schools. You don’t always need a standardized test to know a school is in trouble, says Dunbar, you just need to look in the boys’ restrooms:

Whenever I evaluate a school, my first stop is the boys’ bathroom because, without an unflushed urinal of doubt, it is every school’s least common denominator. Its sticky floors, calcified wads of toilet paper and juvenile-yet-timeless graffiti (“Here I sit broken hearted…”) are generally not what a principal shows off. . . .

In today’s data-driven world of No Child Left Behind and high-stakes accountability, administrators and lawmakers tend to obsess over hard measures. Adequate Yearly Progress determinations and School Performance Scores are based on precise formulas—formulas made up of clean, cold and supposedly foolproof numbers. In this highly calculable place, soft measures are rarely factored in. Nonetheless, after my “inspection” discovers the good, the bad and the ugly of the boys’ john, I usually have a good sense (or scent) of how a school is doing. Though I wouldn’t necessarily hold the bathroom test up against SAT scores as a measure of school success, I do consider it a telltale sign of either problems or promise.

Dunbar also offers a number of other rules of thumb, including: “Classroom maps still show the Soviet Union, Rhodesia and British Honduras. Computers are shrouded in a patina of dust. Bulletin boards haven’t been updated since the Eisenhower administration.”

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