What Effect Does School Attendance Have on the Crime Rate?

Copyright © 2013 Karl M. Bunday, all rights reserved.

Increasing the length of school attendance does not decrease the crime rate, according to the postwar trends in most industrialized countries. Arguing that requiring children to attend school longer would reduce crime is arguing from a statistical fallacy. Neither school uniforms nor longer school days or school years can be expected to reduce crime as long as schools themselves promote the development of youth culture. A much more effective set of crime control measures, as demonstrated by the experience of the United States in recent years, is vigorous police work, strict law enforcement, and allowing young people more choice in education.

People have long been speculating on what relationship school might have to crime. A fairly typical example of the mainstream American view is found in the January 10, 1931 Literary Digest, in a brief article entitled “What We Shall Be Like in 1950” (pages 43-44). The predictions in that article are described as definite prophecies made by the National Education Association and adapted from a publication called Tomorrow's Business (New York) published by the Shaw-Walker company. The NEA prediction of most interest here, not attributed to any particular individual, is Crime will be virtually abolished by transferring to the preventive processes of the school and education the problems of conduct which police, courts, and prisons now remedy when it is too late. I wasn't born in 1950, so I don't know if this was an accurate prediction of that year, but today I still hear predictions that schools will prevent crime.

One ever-amazing aspect of research on the relationship between school attendance and the crime rate has been how few of the best scholars on the history of crime focus just on the one independent variable of school attendance. Almost all the better scholars on crime rates mention school attendance as an important variable, and many bring forth interesting historical data covering times and countries with important changes in government policy related to schools. In the end, I suspect, this issue will have to be resolved by fresh, focused primary research that develops previously undiscovered data. I am using the best secondary sources available, compiled by scholars familiar with current primary research, to gain ideas about what data to look for. Some of the books on the history of crime rates I have consulted include, for example

These authors compile excellent bibliographies that lead readers to still other sources, both primary and secondary. Other education researchers have told me about various research articles on this topic, including an article by the controversial economist John Lott. Is there a consistent global effect on the crime rate caused by school attendance? Below you can see my tentative thoughts on this issue as of early 1995, before the recent reduction in the United States crime rate took hold. Meanwhile, police and criminal justice practices have changed in the United States, and homeschooling is growing worldwide. I appreciate comments from any readers about additional research sources on the subject of school attendance and the crime rate.

Can School Reduce Crime?

The study of the relationship between school attendance and crime goes back more than 200 years. One of the most astounding things I learned from a law professor who researches criminal law and juvenile justice is that there are many experts who think school causes crime as much as or more than it prevents crime. This is not a new idea, as you can see from this quotation from more than 200 years ago: Public schools are the nurseries of all vice and immorality. Henry Fielding (1707-1754), Joseph Andrews, book III, chapter 5. It bears pointing out that at that time, public school meant education in classrooms outside the home, whether or not the schools were operated “privately” as we use the term today. Poet William Cowper (1731-1800), who attended much more school than most of his contemporaries, because his mother died when he was six years old, was also convinced that schools led to wrongdoing. He wrote an epic poem, “Tirocinium: Or, a Review of Schools” in which many rhyming couplets expressed his view that school children urge one another on to bad behavior, and the best form of education was the kind he had so little of, what we would call home schooling today. Cowper's poem is one of the early expressions from the modern period of the idea that age-peer socialization is inferior to socialization by a child's parents for preventing criminal behavior.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) toured the United States from 1831 to 1832 to inspect prison conditions. The most famous literary product of de Tocqueville's travels [link to a different Web site] is his book Democracy in America (1835), but before that, de Tocqueville wrote a study of American prison conditions with Gustave de Beaumont (1802-1866), entitled Du système pénitentiaire aux Etats-Unis. While studying the penitentiary system, de Tocqueville had seen some indications of increased crime in the United States. One factor de Tocqueville thought might account for the apparent increase in crime in the United States was the expansion of school attendance in America at that time.

The thoughts about schools and crime in de Tocqueville's study of prisons soon elicited attention and an attempt at refutation. I have borrowed from the University of Minnesota Education Library a book published in Philadelphia in 1835 entitled Remarks on the Relation Between Education and Crime, in a Letter to the Right Rev. William White, D.D., President of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, by Francis Lieber, L.L.D. (1800-1872). Lieber was responding not only to de Tocqueville's writings, but also to reported remarks in the British Parliament that increases in public schooling in the United States had resulted in increased crime. Lieber knew de Tocqueville's arguments intimately—Lieber himself translated Du système pénitentiaire into English, with added notes of his own, and published it in Philadelphia in 1833.

Lieber began his book by deploring vagueness of expression on the issue of the relationship between education and crime, and he defined several terms before presenting his argument. His core argument in Remarks on the Relation Between Education and Crime is that the progress of "civilization," by which he meant the cultivation of all our powers and endowments, and whatever results from their cultivation, hardly ever fails to cause, at the same time, two things: first, . . . , multiplied opportunity for crime, and, secondly, an improved state of the administration of justice, as well as of the police which detects the deviations from the law. Lieber asserts that "education," which he defined as "the cultivation of the moral, mental and physical faculties of the young," could "not possibly promote crime." Lieber thought that to say education might promote crime would be to imply that human nature was corrupt, a point of view with which Lieber disagreed as a matter of religious conviction.

Lieber went on to address the actual policy point, which is whether universal instruction is conducive to a decrease in crime. In other words, Lieber recognized that the policy issue is what a statistician might call an issue of longitudinal treatment of a national population, and what effect that treatment might have. He began by noting that domestic education--the rearing of the young in sound morality, the fear of God, and with the all-important example of virtue in their parents before their eyes--is of vital importance to every society, and can never be supplanted by any general school system, however contrived. Lieber considered that point self-evident, but thought that schools could be means to improve the domestic education in bad homes, generation by generation.

Lieber fell into a grave conceptual blunder as he continued his argument, making an inference still heard before legislatures and on mass news media today. He asked, But is there no test, then, by which we may ascertain whether universal education tends to prevent crime . . . ? The test Lieber proposed is what a statistician would call a cross-sectional view of the population. Lieber inferred, invalidly, that if the population of persons convicted of crimes consists mostly of persons with little schooling, then an increase in the schooling of the whole population would reduce crime. Lieber's statistical fallacy is well addressed by an author I cite below.

But first we may turn to the influence that crime-fighting theories had on forming the current school system in the United States. Horace Mann, pioneer of introducing Prussian ideas of schooling to America, had none of the doubts about schools expressed by Fielding, Cowper, or de Tocqueville. As a Whig Party lawyer-politician, Mann helped establish the Massachusetts Board of Education. Although he had not been a teacher in a common school beforehand, Mann became the board's secretary, working closely with former legislative colleagues who shared his membership in Boston's Unitarian elite. Mann published the enormously influential Common School Journal, to communicate with "friends of education," as he termed them. In January 1841, Mann wrote:

. . . . The Common School is the institution which can receive and train up children in the elements of all good knowledge, and of virtue, before they are subjected to the alienating competitions of life. This institution is the greatest discovery ever made by man;--we repeat it, the common school is the greatest discovery ever made by man. In two grand, characteristic attributes, it is supereminent over all others:—first, in its universality;—for it is capacious enough to receive and cherish in its parental bosom every child that comes into the world; and second, in the timeliness of the aid it proffers;—its early, seasonable supplies of counsel and guidance making security antedate danger. Other social organizations are curative and remedial; this is a preventive and an antidote; they come to heal diseases and wounds; this to make the physical and moral frame invulnerable to them. Let the Common School be expanded to its capabilities, let it be worked with the efficiency of which it is susceptible, and nine tenths of the crimes in the penal code would become obsolete; the long catalogue of human ills would be abridged; men would walk more safely by day; every pillow would be more inviolate by night; property, life, and character held by a stronger tenure; all rational hopes respecting the future brightened.

Writing in 1841, Mann despaired of the people of Massachusetts ever agreeing with the evident rationality of his position. Mann's long writing career added a new crime to the penal code, however, when in 1852 Massachusetts became the first state to follow the Prussian model of making school attendance compulsory.

Horace Mann died in 1859. It remained for a later generation of Americans to examine the reality of his promises on behalf of the common school. Zachariah Montgomery (1825-1900), Poison Drops in the Federal Senate: The School Question from a Parental and Non-Sectarian Standpoint [link to a different Web site] (Washington, DC: Gibson Bros., 1st ed. 1886) (original available in various academic libraries, and apparently available in a photo-reprint edition) is one of the first books on this subject to draw on the vast statistical resources of the United States federal government. At the time Montgomery wrote Poison Drops in the Federal Senate, there was a suitable control group for investigating the effect of schooling on crime: states that did not compel school attendance as contrasted with those that did. Montgomery reached the conclusion that any time a state adopted compulsory school attendance laws in the nineteenth century, its crime rate and youth suicide rate increased. United States census figures are cited throughout the book. Montgomery also reemphasized the point Cowper made a century earlier, that age-peer socialization produces more criminal behavior than socialization by parents.

Montgomery's views were ignored among the flood of rationales other than crime control offered for making school attendance compulsory. Most persons in the developed world in this century have grown up with compulsory school attendance. But modern authors have continued to produce aphorisms casting doubt on the "socialization" produced by schools, for example those quoted on the quotations from notable persons about problems in school page.

There have been, of course, modern authors who were entirely convinced of the power of compulsory schooling to produce desirable characteristics in children--but one must note what characteristics they desire: "The People's State will have to make certain that by suitable education of youth it will someday obtain a race ripe for the last and greatest decision on this earth." Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, volume 2, chapter "Der Staat" (translation after Manheim and Murphy).

In any event, the social effects of school deserve further open-minded research. "As the labor of children has become unnecessary to society, school has been extended for them. With every decade, the length of schooling has increased, until a thoughtful person must ask whether society can conceive of no other way for youth to come into adulthood." This is the striking cover quotation from Youth: Transition to Adulthood: Report of the Panel on Youth of the President's Science Advisory Committee (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1974). The articles by eminent scholars such as James Coleman and Joseph Kett, collected in Youth: Transition to Adulthood, go a long way toward refuting the fallacious assumptions of earlier eras. For example, Lieber's statistical fallacy, which is still repeated daily in this century, is identified and refuted in an article by Norman Ryder, "Background: The Demography of Youth," on pages 45-64. On page 61, Ryder provides an example that should be familiar to any American adult today to show that cross-sectional studies are not valid predictors of longitudinal relationships. Throughout much of United States history, the population group with the least schooling has also been the group with the earliest age of marriage, on average. In general, there is a positive cross-sectional correlation between length of schooling and age of marriage. Yet the generation of adults who married from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, the parents of the Baby Boom, married at much younger ages than any previous (or subsequent) generation of Americans, even though that generation had attended much more school than any previous generation. In other words, it is certain that a cross-sectional observation (e.g., the persons with the least education commit the most crimes) does not in any way, by itself, warrant a longitudinal conclusion (e.g., increasing length of schooling will reduce crime).

Things might be very different from how they are now in the socialization of young people. They have been very different in the past. Joseph Kett, one the contributors to Youth: Transition to Adulthood, and now one of E.D. Hirsch's collaborators in the Core Knowledge Series, also wrote a full-length historical exploration of the process of children growing up, Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America 1790 to the Present (1977). Kett demonstrates, among other things, that the "peer group" of most children used to range in age from four to twenty-two-- until age-segregated public schools became commonplace after the Civil War.

A few young people today enjoy optimal socialization for preventing crime. Larry Edward Shyers obtained a Ph.D. degree at the University of Florida in part by conducting research reported in his thesis, Comparison of Social Adjustment Between Home and Traditionally Schooled Students. The whole 299-page thesis is available from University Microfilms International. A 1992 Associated Press article about Dr. Shyer's research was widely reprinted in newspapers across the country. Dr. Shyers reports that direct observation by trained observers, using a "blind" procedure, found that home-schooled children had significantly fewer problem behaviors, as measured by the Child Observation Checklist's Direct Observation Form, than traditionally schooled children when playing in mixed groups of children from both kinds of schooling backgrounds. Shyers concluded that the hypothesis that contact with adults, rather than contact with other children, is most important in developing social skills in children is supported by these data.

It would be a good idea to reexplore how children can best grow into adults, in view of the likely changes in schooling resulting from changes in our economy. Many scholars on new learning technologies, notably Seymour Papert and Lewis Perelman, conclude that computer networks and associated technologies have already made schools obsolete as places of instruction. If the purpose of schools is no longer instruction, what will their purpose be?

I have brought up these issues many times on Usenet, CompuServe, Prodigy, and other computer networks. Some participants in the networks have commented that crime, violence, and youth gangs have existed for thousands of years, since before compulsory school attendance statutes. This is surely true, because crime, violence, and youth gangs are all recorded in the Bible and in other ancient literature. Nevertheless, learning, invention, cooperation, and achievement have also existed for thousands of years before the existence of compulsory schooling. The question for the policy maker must be whether, on balance, compulsion of school attendance and state operation of schools produce so great an increment of learning or achievement that would not occur without them that we can be certain that they make up for whatever increment of crime and other social ills that would not occur without them.

What do you think? I'd like to know.

[Last revision 9 March 2013]

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A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by a natural tendency to one over the body.
John Stuart Mill On Liberty (1859)
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