Debate Lessons: Valid, Reliable Research Must Drive Policy Decisions, from Candidates, Ed Commissioners and Board Members

Last spring, without fanfare, Chancellor Rosa created a Research Work Group, co-chaired by Regents Johnson and Reyes, which might be the most important decision made during the last school year. The concept: decisions should be based upon valid research findings.  I know, I know, a radical concept.

Federal law, federal initiatives, state law and regulations are commonly based on a hope and a prayer. In 2002 the No Child Left Behind law, annual testing with punitive threats for schools that fail to meet pre-set goals was based on the belief that fear is an effective motivation to improve school outcomes. If you don’t improve your school will be closed or converted to charter. The Arne Duncan Race to the Top, billions in federal dollars to increase choice, i. e., charter schools, create student outcome-based teacher evaluation systems (VAM) and adopt the Common Core and Common Core-based annual tests. A few years down the road New York State adopted a moratorium on the use of test results and is amending/re-writing the Common Core. The feds dangled dollars to lure states into implementing policies without any research base; in fact, the research base was antithetical to the policy.

At the September 26th Presidential Debate candidate Trump claimed that “stop and frisk,” a policy initiated by former Mayor Giuliani (1994-2002) is responsible for the sharp decline in murder rates in New York City.

The murder rate in New York has dropped from over 2000 per year in the 90’s to 352 in 2015 and 252 murders through September 25, a 5.3 percent decline compared to this time in 2015. “Stop and Frisk” has been dramatically reduced and murder rates continue to drop: Why?  (Read articles here and here)

A study of murder rates in the 57 largest cities shows decreasing murder rates across the board with the exception of handful of cities:  Chicago, St Louis, Houston, Washington DC Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Nashville, Kansas City and Baltimore. Why have murder rates plunged in New York City and many other cities and increased in other cities?

Experts; whether criminologists, sociologists or economists, disagree.

In 2001 the highly controversial Donohue-Levitt hypothesis posited that legalized abortions that followed the 1973 Roe v Wade decision are responsible for decreased crime rates; potential criminals were never born.

States with the highest abortion rates in the 1970’s and 1980’s experienced greater crime reductions in the 1990’s. In high abortion states, arrests of those born after legalization fell relative to low abortion states. Legalized abortion appears to account for as much as 50% of the recent drop in crime.

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined rebuts the hypothesis and argues that over centuries the world has become less violent.

After years of declines the murder rate increased in 2015; however, if we redact the handful of cities in which rates increased the rates continue to decline.

A June, 2016 study from the National Institute of Justice, entitled “Documenting and Explaining the 2015 Homicide Rise: Research Directions,” takes a deep dive into the data and concludes,

.. three plausible explanations of the homicide rise; an expansion of urban drug markets fueled by the heroin epidemic, reductions in incarceration resulting in a growing number of released prisoners, and, a “Ferguson Effect” resulting from widely publicized incidents of police use of deadly force against minority citizens.

The study casts doubt on “plausible” explanations and urges “evidence rather than speculation.”

The cities with increasing murder rates have somewhat higher poverty rates (24.6% to 20.8%), not dramatic; the cities have significantly higher Black populations (40.8% to 19.9%) and lower Hispanic populations (15.2% to 26.4%).  What does this mean?  We don’t know.

If we are to continue the reduction in murder rates and decreases in rates of violent crime we have to understand the reasons for the decline in most cities and the spikes in others.

Sadly one presidential candidate argues “law and order,” whatever that means, is an answer to increasing crime; however, increases are limited to a few cities, the vast percentage of cities continue to see the trend of decreasing crime rates.

In 2013 I was the labor coordinator for a candidate for the City Counsel (He won!) and we were meeting with a union representing police commanders. We decided to begin the interview by addressing what we thought was the elephant in the room: stop and frisk.

The candidate explained that he could not support the current policy of indiscriminate stop and frisks, to our surprise the union leader agreed; numbers of stop and frisks were part of management reports: rating documents. The union leader argued commanders should be given discretion based on data and not required to conduct specific numbers of stop and frisks, most of which were not warranted.

The application of valid research combined with the experience from the field, i., e., teachers and school leaders, supported by the policy makers, I believe, will bring about the outcomes we desire.

We all speculate on policies to reduce the racial/ethnic achievement gap: closing or redesigning schools, charter schools, eliminating funding inequality, highly qualified teachers and school leaders, revised age appropriate standards, adopting more rigorous curriculum, all or some may be part of the magic bullets, or not. We support programs with which we are familiar or comfortable: phonics or Lucy Calkins, the “old” math or the “new” math, etc.; decisions must reflect research findings, and, we must acknowledge that implementation of the policy is also vital.

The Regents Research Work Group has an awesome task.

2 responses to “Debate Lessons: Valid, Reliable Research Must Drive Policy Decisions, from Candidates, Ed Commissioners and Board Members

  1. Google and read Gina Kolata educational research and let me know where the valid and reliable research is.


  2. The What Works ClearingHouse ( is a reliable source … unfortunately it is the rare school or school district that bothers to research programs and the NYC Department and State Ed are not helpful … we recycle what is comfortable


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