In the 1930s, Dr. Richard Cabot set up an intervention for at-risk kids.
He placed 506 boys, ages 5 to 13, classified by the state as “high risk,” in either a control or treatment group. The treatment group boys had a counselor and some academic tutoring, medical care, and referrals to YMCA, Boy Scouts, summer camps, and community programs. The other boys just had to report regularly.
It was a landmark longitudinal study over many decades – a potential career-maker for Dr. Cabot.
But, to his disappointment, the results came back less than stellar — in fact, the kids he tried to help were performing worse in nearly every measure.
He couldn’t let these results get out. It would ruin his life’s work. So, he reported no noticeable improvement between the subject group and the control group regarding criminal behavior or school performance. He quietly swept it under the rug.
Thirty years later, a young researcher by the name of Joan McCord, doing follow-up studies, decided to make it her business to understand exactly what went wrong with the intervention.
She conducted follow-up interviews with the boys — now middle-aged men — and dug deeper into the data. To her shock, things were much worse than they seemed on the surface.
“A larger proportion of criminals from the treatment group went on to commit additional crimes than their counterparts in the control group” – McCord
The intervention did have an effect, after all. A negative one. As she dug, she couldn't believe just how damaging the treatment was. The dark dotted line is the control group. The lighter dotted line is the treatment group:
Boys who’d been given intervention treatment during the study were more likely to:
Commit more than one crime (among those who had already committed at least one crime)
Suffer symptoms of alcoholism
Manifest signs of mental illness
Die before 35
Suffer from at least one stress-related disorder, especially high blood pressure or heart trouble
Report their work as unsatisfying
What was going on?
It's not the fault of the methods. Each method used in the study, including 1-on-1 tutoring, outdoor activities like Boy Scouts, and psychotherapy, has a positive effect. So why did the treatment as a whole fail so badly?
McCord wanted to understand what went wrong.
The law of unintended consequences
One possible cause was the proximity of anti-social boys to others like them. They encourage each other's psychopathy until they are all worse off than when they started.
Another potential explanation is that boys whose time was micromanaged by a team of experts failed to build the skills required to manage their lives.
And that uncertainty is the heart of why these boys did so much worse than the control group. Dr. Cabot didn’t really know why his treatment failed so badly. And he wasn’t going to risk his career to find out.
This is not an uncommon outcome for education experiments like this, unfortunately. For example, in the 80s, “whole word reading” started taking off in US schools. Instead of teaching kids to “sound out” words, they just taught them to memorize entire words at a glance. Since it taught kids to read faster in the short term, what could possibly go wrong? Well, just about everything. The method has been thoroughly discredited, and reading rates continue to be abysmal in the US, with 54% of adults functionally illiterate.
When you start meddling in people's behavior from a top-down approach, you have no idea what you're changing unintentionally. It turns out kids need to take their time to sound out words to be truly literate as adults. And the people who promoted the “whole word” learning have no reason to take responsibility for the failure and try to correct them. How would we even punish them now if we wanted to?
When academics like Dr. Cabot impose interventions, there are clear incentives to downplay the negative results and sweep them under the rug. The “experts” prioritize career and reputation over the lives of the children they study.
The law of unintended consequences is not well known in educational circles – probably because our entire state-run education system would collapse if we really internalized the implications.
The mass-education enterprise is a giant experiment like Cabot’s – with similar results.
Outcomes of the modern education experiment
We’ve covered in detail the sordid origin and catastrophic failure of the modern educational system. You can measure the outcomes however you like: geniuses produced, grades, happiness, or even health. None of them are very good.
In all of human history, it’s a new phenomenon to bus kids away from their families and place them in sterile classrooms to learn about abstract concepts from strangers. We’re running these experiments on 50 million kids (at a time in the modern school system), but we’ve never fully examined the unintended consequences.
Let’s start small: what are the unintended consequences of, for example, arbitrarily separating kids by age group? That’s difficult to measure, but some studies indicate it leads to bullying. Other research indicates that kids develop socially when they are exposed to kids of various ages. And why wouldn't that be the case? At no point in human history did we segregate kids by age – until the invention of the modern classroom.
Since doing so, we’ve seen a "mysterious" rise in bullying, cliques, and Lord of the Flies-esque behavior. Teen depression rises each year. Childhood suicides correspond with the school calendar. And yet administrators sit around wondering why?
The school system is failing at every turn. Fixing it from the top is impossible when administrators wouldn’t risk their careers to examine what’s going wrong. They just clamor for more funding and more time to do more of what we know doesn't work.
Unintended consequences illustrate a simple law of humanity: much of what we do is unexamined, and we’re terrible at considering second and third-degree consequences of our actions.
The opposite of a top-down approach is a bottom-up approach. In other words, from the individual, the family, and the community.
This is precisely why families are so important.
Family structures prevent unintended consequences
When families and communities form the central education structure, the impact is clear, and the actors are accountable. Parents, mentors, and caretakers are responsible for whatever happens to their children. In the case of the Somerville study, if someone had actually cared about the kid’s outcomes (instead of trying to prove an academic theory to make someone’s career), someone would have changed course when it became clear that the kids were not doing well.
Families offer a level of responsibility that no institution or administration can rival. Things inevitably go wrong in the short term, which is not a problem for involved educators, but a vital part of the learning process for you and the child. You can correct the problem together.
Each kid requires a unique approach to their education – and only a caring mentor, teacher, or parent can provide that.
Giant bureaucracies are overly reliant on theoretical interventions. When outcomes go wrong – like the current education crisis – everyone is in a big hurry to divert attention and save face. There is no accountability for results, so results keep getting worse. Like Dr. Cabot in Somerville, they may have the best intentions, but their incentives are to promote (or protect) their own careers, even if it means sacrificing another generation of kids to bad ideas.
It takes someone exceptionally courageous like Joan McCord to come along and say, "Hey, this isn't just failing to help kids. We are actively hurting them."
Even after her courageous work, you can still find reports defending the Cambridge Somerville Study. Similarly, you can find plenty of people defending the current disastrous education system. No one wants to admit their ivory tower intervention failed horribly, even with 100 years of evidence that it has. Prestige is maintained for those who defend and double down on their interventions, even if they turn catastrophic. The truth-tellers are ostracized and silenced.
It shouldn't take someone like McCord speaking up to change this. We shouldn’t rely on bureaucratic machines to educate our kids in the first place – because institutional incentives do not support kids' well-being. That’s the nature of top-down structures with zero accountability.
Who’s falling on the sword when interventions fail? In big school systems, no one but the kids.
Kids need less intervention, more play
Left alone as much as possible with good guardrails, kids’ curiosity guides them well. Kids with less top-down intervention typically do better than kids burdened with too much intervention.
We could stand to leave our kids alone a little more often.
When we intervene, the intervention should come from someone with a vested interest, and therefore accountability, in the kid, like a mentor, educator, or parent – not the system.
Kids are much more resilient than we give them credit for. But, an intervention like the Somerville study or the state education system, even with benign intentions, can ruin their lives as efficiently as if designed to hurt them.
When parents fail in the short term (which is normal and okay), at least we will know who to point the finger at. And when they succeed, they can pass on what they learned to their communities, developing an evidence-based picture of what actually works — not what we imagine should work, in theory.
But that's the core issue with large-scale programs and interventions. They take away the unseen behaviors that have worked for untold generations and toss them in the trash in favor of whatever new idea an ambitious academic claims will work better. It's a recipe for disaster. And we see it playing out all the time.
The rising support for school choice is a hopeful development toward giving parents more options for how their kids are educated.
Kids with strong family and community ties are more likely to question what they learn in school. They are also more likely to follow their own interests and passions.
Give them as much freedom as you can stand.
We should trust ourselves, not distant “expert” interveners, to build strength and self-reliance.
Thanks for reading,
Taylor + rebelEducator team
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What a fantastic article. Thank you for sharing so clearly not only how things are so broken, but for guidance and suggestions and hope for how we can rescue the minds and hearts of our children.
This is critically important. And as you point out, anyone who tries to point out that the emperor is naked is summarily dismissed, ridiculed and shut out of the conversation. As deeply (horribly) concerning as the right wing politicization of some churches has become, those that have-- literally- kept the faith (along with other houses of worship) became, along with families, that multi-generational community centered on values and a higher and larger purpose. Both sides are to blame for the degeneration of education, including the tendency to demonize anything faith related, which has gutted our culture.