Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Benefits of Customer Selection

Megan quotes from an NYT story on a policy change that gives NYC homeless shelters the power to expel troublesome residents:

But others said they were grateful for the ability to threaten the most difficult families with ejection.

"If you need a big stick now and then, for certain families, so be it," said Richard Motta, the president and chief executive of Volunteers of America of Greater New York, which runs three family shelters.

The lack of such a threat was a problem, Mr. Motta said.

"There's not a caseworker alive that wants to realize that threat, and as an agency, we don't want to move people to the streets," he said. "That's not what we're in business to do. But if you enter the shelter, if you know there's a threat of being put out of the shelter, you'll be more likely to follow the rules."

She then observes:

[W]hy does [Motta] want to kick them out of the shelter? Because families in crisis are sometimes in crisis because the head of household, or an older child, has a severe behavior problem. That minority can make life unbearable for the majority. They can also make life miserable for themselves, and facility managers would like to be able to open slots for new intakes by forcing refractory long term residents to, say, apply for jobs, or move into subsidized housing.

If you had asked me, I would have said that of course a homeless shelter intended for families could expel troublemakers. I'm gratified that policy is catching up to common sense.

But that still leave another venue where common sense has yet to reach: public schools. I assume without knowing that a process still exists for expelling students who cross some threshold of criminality. But it's also abundantly clear that that threshold is far too high. Think about it: in what other public place is verbal and physical assault considered one of the routine hazards? A man on a public street, a store, or a workplace is not expected to figure out how to "resolve interpersonal conflicts" with someone hurling abuse at him. If I am in, say, Wal-Mart, and another customer starts insulting me, I can pretty much count on Wal-Mart asking the person to leave the store. And if that person struck me, he would be criminally and civilly liable. Yet public schools and their students are forced to grapple with behavior that would never be tolerated anywhere else. But more importantly, the troublemakers know this. And the knowledge that antisocial behavior has real consequences in the real world is sufficient to curb most of it. Very few (I suspect) erstwhile school bullies try this kind of thing outside of lawless gang areas of inner cities. (Which is not to say they don't aggravate neighbors and coworkers in other ways.) But in public schools, the students have, not only a presumptive right to attend, but the legal obligation to do so. And this makes life difficult for those students there simply to learn.


Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. I would go even further I would aim to expell ~5-10% of people for poor academic performance. This may seem harsh, but at least it brings the childs problems into the forefront, rather than letting them sit around high school for 4 years. It would also motivate the others.

Φ said...

Anon: well said. There just isn't much point to having the left tail of the bell curve hang around a comprehensive high school 'till age 18. Better to have trade schools for the "non-college material" types, and a much lower threshold for sending troublemakers to reform school.

Of course, we all know why it will never happen: disparate impact.

Trumwill said...

In my school, expulsion was always possible but temporary. The worst you could do was expel them for the balance of the semester, after which they would be back. Hit a kid in the head with a tire-iron? Make sure to do it at the end of the semester and you're back in 6 weeks. You had more protection from the law than you did school administrators.

This improved somewhat in high school. Kids that were perpetual troublemakers would be shipped off to an "alternative" school. Plus, the worst of the worst would just start dropping out. It was technically truency, but if you were 16 and were working, people were more-or-less willing to look the other way. If you weren't working, you just hung around the house I guess.

Trumwill said...

Of course, we all know why it will never happen: disparate impact.

Uhmm, even in a school district where there were no minorities - and no Democrats - would Anon's plan be allowed to happen. Nobody is going to accept some school administrator telling them that their kid is in the bottom 5-10% of the class and thus they cannot graduate from high school. No way.

Φ said...

Trumwill: you are correct that we have built up a cultural expectation of universal high school, where "high school" means a college-prep track. And this is especially true among middle-class whites.

On the other hand, it is difficult to disentangle our nigh endless post-Sputnik educational reform efforts with the post-Brown educational "rights" movement.

Anonymous said...

In some (all?) states, students under 16 or 18 who are expelled from school have to be given tutoring or other forms of alternative education, at the school district's expense of course. It doesn't come cheap.