Three Small Steps for School Success: The Broken Windows Theory

“Staff, come to the library for a quick stand up meeting.”

Oh no. In my experience, “quick stand up meetings” meant bad news.

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

We sauntered toward the center of the school. Some clutched their belongings, a few murmured together, but most entered the library in silence. The staff of Centennial Elementary School waited for doom or salvation from our standardized testing results. Poor scores meant a fifth year on “Priority Improvement” status with the Colorado Department of Education (CDE), and therefore a take-over by the state. Improved scores meant we could keep our school, and our jobs.

Murmurs melted into friendly chatter when our principal, Anthony Asmus, entered the room with a smile and a cake.

Anthony quieted us down and shared the news. Not only had our students improved, they had achieved so much we were out of the take-over zone. Our scores had jumped 20 percentage points from Priority Improvement status to Performance status. A transition from the second-to-lowest CDE rating to the highest.

Our little public elementary school – Title I, over half English language learners, 87% minority, and 93% free-and-reduced-lunch – grew from 40% proficient to over 60% proficient in less than three years.

And academic achievement was not our only success. We transformed our building from a school with over 500 office discipline referrals a year to less than 40 during the first half of the 2018-2019 school year.

Centennial fifth graders

How did we do it? To understand the dramatic and wonderful changes at Centennial, I must take you back. Not three years, when we began our turnaround, or even seven years, when Anthony Asmus came to our school. No, let me take you back almost 30 years to another city with another problem.

Broken Windows

New York City, late 1980’s. Crime is at an all-time high. The city averages 2,000 homicides and 600,000 serious felonies annually. Then, all of a sudden crime drops. Between the years 1990 and 1996, crime declines 40% in every district. In fact, crime continues it’s year-by-year decline to this day. In 2018, homicides were down to 289 for the year, with about 95,000 serious felonies. How did they do it?

In 1990, William Bratton, a police administrator from Boston, became chief of New York City Transit Police (NYCTP). Bratton arrived in New York preceded by a reputation for law enforcement turnarounds.

Bratton turned around no less than five police departments before coming to New York, all inspired by a criminology theory called Broken Windows. Presented in 1982 by George Kelling and James Wilson, Broken Windows Theory proposed that if a dilapidated building has a few broken windows, it’s easy to break a few more.

“One unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.”

Kelling & Wilson, 1982
Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

The building is vandalized, squatters move in, drugs are dealt, and fires start. The surrounding community gains a few more broken windows, vandalized store fronts, disorder, theft, and so on. Repairing windows soon after they break prevents the manifestation of subsequent illegal behaviors.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Tipping Point, explained Broken Windows Theory further.

Gladwell said small acts of ‘lifestyle crime’,

“. . . could be a signal, a small expression of disorder that invited much more serious crimes.”

Malcolm Gladwell, 2000

Bratton’s crime-fighting philosophy focused on the signalling effect of lifestyle crime (vandalism, loitering, ‘innocent’ acts of defiance) on serious crime. He understood that, just as small crimes lead to larger ones, small fixes lead to big impacts.

School Success

What does this have to do with education?

In 2009, Stephen B. Plank and colleagues set out to test the Broken Windows Theory in schools. With data collected from 33 urban East coast schools, researchers discovered “a direct association between physical disorder and social disorder” (Plank, et al., 2009).

They concluded,

“educators. . . should be vigilant about factors that influence student perceptions of climate and safety”

Plank, et al., 2009
Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

Disorderly environments invite disorder.
Organized environments communicate care.

1. Look smart, feel smart, act smart

On his first day as chief of NYCTP, Bratton encountered one of his men on duty. The young man looked disheveled, with untucked shirt, unshaved face, and crooked clip-on tie. The rest of Bratton’s squad was in similar disarray. He discovered their appearance was not a symptom of recklessness, defiance, or “being a bad cop.”

The lack of care they took in their appearance was symptomatic of a lack of morale. Nobody cared about them, and it showed.

Meanwhile, at Centennial, our leadership team began turnaround discussions with our uniform dress code. We already had, on paper, a policy prohibiting non-uniform outerwear (i.e., hoodies and jackets) in the classroom, but we failed to enforce this policy. Hoodies, especially, allowed students to hide, provided status symbols and communicated gang affiliation. The seemingly small issue of outerwear was our first broken window. A hoodie ban was officially enforced.

When students entered my music room, I required all jackets, hoodies, sweatshirts, coats, etc., to be removed.

First, of course, I received resistance. The students had worn these items. But after a transition period of firm, fair, and consistent enforcement, students accepted that at Centennial we leave our cold-weather clothing by the door.

Within a month of the hoodie ban, I noticed a difference in general culture among my classes. From first through fifth grade, each and every student sat up taller, participated more, followed directions quicker.

This simple yet powerful change demonstrated to our students,

“We see you, we’re taking care of you.”

Looking smart in your classroom

Are there small aspects of your room, your students, or your own appearance that you can change to communicate care? Even if your school is not a uniform school, are there dress code policies you can enforce? What about your own appearance? While you don’t have to look like the Oscars, I recommend Mr. Asmus’ advice: “If you have to change your clothes after work to play with your kids or pets, you’re wearing the right thing.”

2. Common language, common goals

Back in New York, Bratton spent his first week as transit chief taking stock of his team, his environment, and the concerns and failings of the department. He held meetings with every single member of his command staff, and went out to meet and talk with as many of his personel as possible. He rode the subways until he got himself lost to see what he was up against in his fight against crime in the ‘rat hole.’ No other transit administrator had actually ridden the subways before.

Our own rock-star team went about change in the same way. Dr. Deirdre Pilch, the superintendent of Greeley-Evans School District 6, along with school board members, came to our schools and our classrooms. They met with us, listened to the issues, took a serious look at data from staff surveys. It was the first time in my 15-year career I had ever met and spoken with district officials. Out of this collaboration came common goals to work together for the good of everyone. Read about our Innovation2020 here.

Bratton instilled his common goals by giving his men and women “authority and responsibility with accountability” and by being firm but fair about the non-negotiables. That’s how we did it too.

At Centennial, we adopted school-wide same-language expectations from Teach Like a Champion (TLAC) by Doug Lemov. Classroom rules are communicated in the acronym STAR.
Sit Tall
Track the Speaker
Ask and Answer Questions like a Scholar
Respect All

While in hallways and during transitions we use HALLS:
Hands by side
All eyes forward
Lips are zipped
Legs walking safely
Stick together

The common language expectations laid the foundation for a safe and common culture. We nit-picked about the details with a “warm-strict” attitude (another awesome TLAC strategy from Lemov). In my music classroom, as with the hoodies, I waited with a smile until every single pair of eyes tracked, every single pair of legs crossed, every single pair of hands settled. Small expressions of order led to increased participation, improved attitude, and made everything more fun!

Common language in your classroom

What common goals can you make with yourself, your team, or school? If you are not in a place to make wide-sweeping changes in your school, what things can you be consistent about in your classroom? Find some common language, such as tracking, bubbles in mouths (for the littles), or some other way to state an expectation that communicates to the students quickly and kindly that we are all in this together.

3. All Means ALL

After cleaning up New York’s subways, Bratton was appointed police commissioner under Rudy Gulliani in 1994. Within 24 hours of being sworn in, he visited one of the more difficult, controversial, and overlooked district stations in the entire city. The cops were shocked and surprised. Previously, if the “brass” were going to visit their station, the men would be given fair and advance warning to clean up their act, so to speak. Bratton didn’t want this. But he also didn’t want to catch them unawares. He wanted to simply show up to communicate that every single cop, borough, and station mattered to him.

He had an environment of inclusion, not exclusion.

At his first press conference, Bratton made the promise that he would reduce crime in “every single borough, street, and neighborhood.” People laughed at him. But he did it.

I’ve always requested 100% participation in my music class, but I was lackadaisical about enforcement, just as everything above.

The next game-changing step I took in my own classroom, and that we took as a school, was to live up to the principle, All means ALL.

I demanded, in that warm-strict way, all students participate 100% of the time, with 100% of themselves. I did not let “problem children” sit out because of negative behavior. I realized most of the time the children were creating a problem in the first place because they didn’t want to participate. Most disciplinary actions (time out, office referrals, detentions, suspensions, etc.) give the child what they want – escape – and therefore reinforce the negative behavior.

Instead, I rewarded children and classes that showed up with 100% positive attitudes and participation. I responded to disruptive behavior with either warm invitations to join or pointed ignoring.

Schoolwide, “All Means All” meant we brought students with special needs back into the classroom. Where previously we thought that placing students with language, academic, or behavioral needs in a separate classroom would help them, we kept all kids in the homeroom and gave them supports while they remained with their peers. Morale soared, as did the numbers.

All Means All in your classroom

Where can you instill an All means All attitude? It took a mindset change for me to really believe that we could get every single student to comply and achieve. I had an All Means Most attitude. Who are the 1-5% students that are keeping you in All means Most? What can you do to raise a 90-95% engagement to 100%?

To Be Continued. . .

As was done in New York City, the fantastic administration and staff of Centennial Elementary fixed our broken windows, and we repaired our entire neighborhood.

But our work is not finished. We took our students from 40% proficient to 60% proficient. What about 75%, 80%, or even 90% proficient? We reduced discipline referrals from 500 to less than 50. What if we reduced that number even more? What if we kept this momentum going and accomplished more than any of us can dream?

After Bratton stepped down, New York City officials did not stop doing the wonderful work he began. You can see the benefits of their consistency almost 30 years later in the continuously falling crime rates. Raising test scores is a huge accomplishment, but keeping test scores high is an even bigger accomplishment. We have to constantly live in a state of learning, growing, and reaching for the next mountaintop. Otherwise, we stagnate. And when we stagnate, we fall.

So, Centennial Eagles, “What’s next?”

To read the story from the “top”, from our district superintendent, the wonderful Dr. Deirdre Pilch, and my principal, the fabulous Anthony Asmus, click here:

References & Further Reading

Original Broken Windows Theory article from 1982:

Most recent New York City crime statistics:

Johns Hopkins study of Broken Windows Theory in schools:
Plank, S. B., Bradshaw, C. P., Young, H. (2009). An application of “Broken Windows” and related theories to the study of disorder, fear, and collective efficacy in schools. American Journal of Education. 115(2), 227-247.

CDE news story about Centennial and Greeley-Evans District 6 turnaround:

Book List:
Bratton, W. (1998). Turnaround: How America’s Top Cop Reversed the Crime Epidemic. Random House: New York, NY.

Gladwell, M. (2001). Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

Lemov, D. (2015). Teach Like A Champion: 62 Techniques that put Students on the Path to College. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.

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