Your tax dollars on drugs
Debra J. Saunders
8/23/2002 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders
If the Department of Education's list of America's best school
drug-prevention programs were a game, it would be called: The judges can't
lose. It turns out that five of the 15 panelists who picked the nine
exemplary and 33 promising programs were involved with drug programs that
the panelists found to be the best. Four programs were deemed exemplary, one
promising. Some coincidence.
School districts that look to this list for help choosing which
anti-drug programs to adopt, however, won't see affiliations between
panelist and program clearly posted in the glossy 8-by-11-inch brochure the
Dept of Ed folk put out. Panelist Gilbert Botvin, for example, is listed for
his affiliation with Cornell University Medical College -- not with the
exemplary "clearly articulated and logically appropriate" Life Skills
Training program he developed.
Botvin's on vacation. The Dept of Ed folks couldn't offer a
good response by deadline. Phyllis Ellickson of Rand and its "exemplary"
Project Alert denied the relationship was incestuous. "You should realize
before any programs came to the panel for review," she said, "they had been
reviewed by a larger group of experts in the field." Ellickson recused
herself from evaluating Rand's program.
On the outside looking in, however, Lynn Lafferty of the
InDepth program -- which didn't make the list -- sees a skewed process. When
she was a San Francisco pharmacist, Lafferty began developing an innovative
anti-drug program that uses economics and risk-analysis to teach kids
lessons about the pros and cons of drug use and drug dealing.
Lafferty operates on the assumption that kids -- especially
poor kids -- are open to analysis that looks at the dollars-and-cents
downside to the drug world. She's been in jails and interviewed dealers to
see how many actually saved money. (Answer: precious few.) She appeals to
kids' rational instincts.
Lafferty didn't see rational in her Dept of Ed evaluations. One
evaluator faulted Lafferty for using an "investment" metaphor with poor
"The reviews were so disparate," noted Barbara Dietsch of the
education research group WestEd.
Looking at the winners and losers, Lafferty saw a process that
works like this: "First you get millions of dollars to develop a product" --
although it should be noted some favored programs were developed without tax
money. "Then you get millions of dollars to research it. Then you write
about it in journals to say how good it is. Then the U.S. Department of
Education puts you on a committee so you can select yourself and make sure
no one else gets on that list."
Franklin Zimring, a professor at U.C.-Berkeley's Boalt Hall
School of Law, was a panelist not involved with a drug program. From his
East Bay home Wednesday, Zimring said that he knew there was a link between
one panelist and an "exemplary" program -- but not five. He also noted that
he didn't feel any pressure to favor any of the well-connected five
programs, but he wouldn't say there was no "halo effect" for programs
favored by the chosen circle.
That said, Zimring wasn't exactly dazzled by the Dept of Ed's
modus operandi. The selection process, he noted, was "staff-dominated" and
hobbled by bad criteria. He would have used different criteria to select the
programs. And he took issue with six touchy-feely criteria featuring this
sort of language -- "content and processes are aligned with (program)
goals," "program promotes multiple approaches to learning."
"If you were to ask me with a lie detector to describe some of
the sub-criteria, as far as my understanding, I would not do well on the
test," said Zimring.
These criteria could explain why Lafferty's ratings varied so.
And when a cadre on the inside can pick language that allows
insiders to self-select -- and favor other programs with similar
viewpoints -- you see how a world once dominated by the results-poor DARE
anti-drug program may be setting itself up for Son of DARE.
Does Zimring now think the panel should have more independent
members? "Good heavens, yes. Nobody likes a Little League where the parents
are the managers and umpires."