Does Kindergarten Lead to Crime? Fact-Checking N.H. Legislator’s ‘Research’

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Kindergarten — that bastion of macaroni crafts, crayon-eating and life lessons in sharing — is actually a major driver of crime, at least according to data collected by New Hampshire state legislator Bob Kingsbury.

Kingsbury (R-Laconia), 86, recently claimed that analyses he’s been carrying out since 1996 show that communities in his state that have kindergarten programs have up to 400% more crime than localities whose classrooms are free of finger-painting 5-year-olds. Pointing to his hometown of Laconia, the largest of 10 communities in Belknap County, the legislator noted that it has the only kindergarten program in the county and the most crime, including most or all of the county’s rapes, robberies, assaults and murders.

The lawmaker, who opposes New Hampshire’s public kindergarten mandate, promoted his theory at a Belknap County meeting of state legislators last week, stirring enough controversy to provoke responses from the Democratic candidates in New Hampshire’s gubernatorial race: for the record, they support kindergarten.

So, what could account for the association he found between early childhood education and crime? “We’re taking children away from their mothers too soon,” Kingsbury said. He explained his research this way to the Huffington Post:

The sources I have is, I went to the Department of Education and got a list of kindergartens and I went to the safety department and got the crime report. … In general, the towns with a kindergarten have 400 percent more crime than other towns in the same county. In every county, the towns and cities with kindergarten had more crime.

But Kingsbury’s conclusions contradict virtually the entire body of literature on the effects of early childhood education. And his “research” isn’t published, of course. While there’s nothing wrong with investigating counterintuitive hypotheses, like the idea that kindergarten could cause crime, Kingsbury’s analysis makes a number of Science 101 errors that are instructive to examine.

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To start, scientists who set out to investigate a topic first tend to review the earlier literature. Kingsbury argues that age 5 is too early for children to spend time away from their parents, but a check of previous data reveals that even younger children — preschoolers aged 3 to 4 — enjoy wide-reaching benefits by receiving high-quality education outside the home.

In a 2004 paper [PDF] by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman of the University of Chicago and colleagues, a review of the literature found that overall, preschool and very early childhood education increase children’s educational achievement, raise their rates of future employment, cut welfare dependence and yes, reduce delinquency and crime.

A more recent study, published in the esteemed journal Science last July, followed more than 1,500 poor children born in Chicago between 1979 and 1980. Those who attended preschool starting at age 3 or 4 (the children went to the second-oldest federally funded preschool program in the country) were 22% less likely to be convicted for a felony, 28% less likely to develop alcohol or other drug problems, and 24% more likely to go to college, compared with those who started school later in childhood.

In other words, if kindergarten is linked to crime, it’s because kids start school too late, not too early. Certainly, questions about early childhood education are complex and worth asking: What are the effects of day care for the very youngest children? What is the right age to start kindergarten? Should it should last all day and what should the curriculum include? However, there’s no suggestion in the research that kindergarten per se leads to criminal activity.

Nonetheless, Kingsbury’s data appears to support the opposite conclusion. Why that appearance doesn’t reflect reality comes down to the difference between simple correlation and true causality.

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In life, many things are correlated. For example, you might find that students from communities with more hot tubs in their homes have higher rates of college graduation. But you can’t conclude from a mere statistical association that giving everyone a hot tub will guarantee college success: what’s far more likely is that richer communities have more hot tubs — and income is well known to be linked with higher educational attainment.

Similarly, there’s likely to be a strong correlation between air conditioner sales and ice cream sales, but no one would argue that buying an air conditioner makes you want to eat ice cream, or vice versa. Quite obviously, both effects can be attributed to a third factor: hot weather.

The fact that correlation does not equal cause — and that powerful correlations may be linked with unmeasured factors that are truly causal — is the reason that genuine scientific research often involves complex statistical analysis. Determining causality is extremely difficult in science, and it typically requires experiments that are designed to allow investigators to manipulate the conditions carefully and to rule out any other factors that might be at play.

That’s why, for example, the FDA requires data from randomized controlled trials of a drug before approving it. Without being able to compare outcomes in people who are randomly chosen to receive the drug to those who are randomly given placebo or another comparable treatment, it is difficult to determine whether the new drug hurts or harms. If investigators were to rely only on patient anecdotes of success, they would surely miss instances of failure, or they might mistake normal fluctuations in response to the drug or placebo effects for a true drug response.

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In situations such as those involving kindergarten attendance, in which researchers cannot control who is exposed and who is not, studies need to be even more careful and they can never completely determine cause and effect. Without reviewing the existing literature or knowing about other relevant factors that can account for certain results, researchers cannot even statistically adjust, or control for, these possible confounding variables.

Kingsbury’s so-called research, for example, didn’t control for factors like income or population size, which are already known to have a big influence on crime rates, and which could also correlate with the presence of kindergarten programs. Towns with larger populations might have both more crime and more kindergartens — not because sending 5-year-olds to learn their ABCs together creates antisocial behavior, but simply because more people means more crime. Similarly, public kindergartens may be more likely to exist in lower-income communities, where crime rates already tend to be higher, because property is more affordable or because richer neighborhoods may rely more on private childcare arrangements.

Moreover, even if statistical correlations appear in the data, it doesn’t necessarily mean the associations are real. The more you look for patterns, the more you find them, and some correlations in data will occur by sheer chance. This is why research papers include figures like confidence intervals and measures of statistical significance — these calculations, while far from perfect, allow researchers to be reasonably sure that their results aren’t simply a fluke.

Many people find the math and scientific jargon used in scientific research to be intimidating or boring, but it’s there for good reason. While kindergarten may be too early to start teaching kids statistics, lawmakers who want to influence educational policy should have at least a passing familiarity with basic principles of good science. Otherwise, they risk misleading themselves and many others.

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Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

31 comments
DavidKay
DavidKay

Sounds like physician cure self...  same logic used to judge one side can be used to judge other side.


"post hoc ergo propter hoc error" obviously can be applied to claims by *either* side.


I think it comes down to quality of school compared to quality of parent and what determines whether school or parent is used.  The actual educational difference can disappear as early as end of grade 1.


If you for example did study in area of lower class, where parents often on drugs, etc, and schools were reasonably good then school has more advantage.  If instead on parents who provide higher quality home then home may have advantage, especially if in area where school quality is less perfect.  


Single parent families, those on social assistance, etc may have more trouble looking after kids.  


If you subsidize kindergarten but not give same subsidy to home, then state is also giving a very large financial advantage to kindergarten kids and financial advantage does affect later situation.


A study done in chicago or detroit would obviously skew towards kindergarten as advantage...  near highest rates of crime and lowest social conditions at home of entire US demographic.





Chad Phriday
Chad Phriday

A classic example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc error so commonly made by people who are supposed to be intellectual. What a shame

Dolores-Dolly Stoklosa
Dolores-Dolly Stoklosa

I think Mr Kingsbury would have some difficulty passing Elementary School based on his ability (or lack of) deep thinking and analysis.

gracetoday
gracetoday

Numerous studies exist that demonstrate that it`s best to start later. One harvard study concluded that 7 years old is the best time to start. Just because the messenger here is not exactly convincing, doesn`t mean his cause is wrong.

«Finland, a global superstar in education terms, is consistently among

the top performers. But it is also at the very bottom of the league in

terms of the hours spent in the classroom.

Finnish pupils start

formal education at seven and then enjoy 11-week summer holidays - and

they end up with the highest educational standards in Europe.»

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/723...

MC75
MC75

I've presented to politicians sort of like this (OK nowhere near as off-on-their-own-planet), and my wife teaches early childhood education.  I often think she has by more the more mature audience.

LevonTostig
LevonTostig

Sharing.  There's the basis of crime.  Sharing leads to a sense of entitlement.  Teaching property rights just might turn these crime-infested areas into bastions of self-sufficiency.

BindyH
BindyH

OMG. It's called correlation- not CAUSATION.  Statistic 101 people! Did you know if you have a refrigerator in your home then your child is 300 times more likely to live to it's 1st birthday?  WOW. Fridges must be powerful talisman.  OR maybe it's becasue the countries with the most fridges have access to proper food storage and are more likely to live in developed countries with proper health care?   Hmmm. ...Talisman or proper health facilities and food? This sciencey stuff must really baffle Rep. Kingsbury!

Anees Ebrahem
Anees Ebrahem

Everything and anything leads to crime. Also everything you eat lowers your risk of cancer but will also kill you.

Eric Johnson
Eric Johnson

Just a heads up.   New Hampshire has a Population of 1.3 million...and 400 State Reps, not exactly a political Fort Knox.  Laconia's city average household income is about $13k less than the state average household income, that might the crime problem he was talking about...or maybe it's early childhood education, who knows...

Toothy Grins
Toothy Grins

Is this an interesting case of trying too hard to prove a point?  

Stephanie Fox
Stephanie Fox

This study substitutes association for causation. It's nonsense.

f_galton
f_galton

Did kindergarten make me a criminal? No, but it is where I learned the block hustle and the  change-raising scam.

KevininPHX
KevininPHX

Another bitter, angry, old, white, republican explaining why his way is not only the best way, but the only way to prevent the imminent destruction of the very fabric of his society. How is this considered news again?

mdenis46
mdenis46

Sort of like the argument that marijuana use leads to hard drugs.  I'd add that breast feeding or bottle feeding both lead to alcoholism.  Same type of argument here...

 

Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar

well .. there is clear correlation between GOP voters thinking and the kind of gas is passed by them. 

In other words, when GOP voters think, there is clear rotten smell.

frbacon21
frbacon21

Outstanding - nicely done in demanding a scientific perspective to examine provocative pseudo-science.  

DAVe
DAVe

I would find it interesting to analyze the correlation between the incidence of crime and Laconia's annual Bike Week. While it would be no surprise that the rate of crime committed in Laconia per day peaks during the warm summer months, I would hypothesize that the crime rate in Laconia peaks yearly in mid-June during the annual motorcycle festival. I shan't proceed further with an additional hypothesis as to the typical or average education level of those attending the motorcycle festival.

Whatnow05
Whatnow05

I was under the impression most neglected children (most likely to grow up and commit crime) Don't really head off to kindergarten; because well that would take effort on the parts of the parent/s

Reythia
Reythia

Thank you for the nice description of correlation/causation and basic statistics!

KaylaR2009
KaylaR2009

So many children are away from their mothers almost from birth. My mother sent both my brother and I to day care when we were less than 1 month old because she was so "dedicated" to her job. Time away from our mothers is not necessarily a bad thing. I have grown up to be a much better adjusted adult because I didn't have her terrible influence as a child.

Danyz
Danyz

A good article, but ah, I have a little quibble here. I see this in other places too - educational policy. Would it not be more grammatically sound to say education policy? The former suggests a policy that is educational, the later a policy of education. Sorry, I know how grammar quibblers irritate!

Rebecca Weinberg
Rebecca Weinberg

So, your argument is well taken and if he didn't control for SES at all it's inane to comment as though there's a real connection.

However, for the purposes of intellectual amusement... we already know that being reminded of child-ish things, like toys, can induce more ethical behavior in lab settings.

Why is impossible to entertain the hypothesis that when kindergarten age children are more likely to be seen out in public, people behave better?

That is, early childhood ed is good for kids. But kids are good for getting grown ups to act ethically.

TucsonTerpFan
TucsonTerpFan

"Does Kindergarten Lead to Crime?"

No, it's breast feeding...no, wait, it's birth...no, it's having sex...no it's impure thoughs...no, it's really George Bush's fault! 

CharlieVM
CharlieVM

Ms. Szalvitz,  for myself and on behalf of the other three rational humans left  in New Hampshire, thank you for this article.  Can you send us some help up here, please.  

DavidKay
DavidKay

On subsidy example, if state spends $10K per year providing kindergarten for kids which in turn creates extra $4K in tax revenue (extra salaries of teachers and working parents on average), then state is given an extra 6K subsidy to the families that enrole in kindergarten, so they on average may be "richer".


If no kindergarten then some of those teachers would instead be earning jobs in other industries - perhaps better paying ones.  As well some of those parents would be raising kids at home rather than earning money at work.  Other parents would have financial cost of babysitting.


A fair test would be to make either side have same subsidy from government, subsidize stay at home at age 5 with same as go to state school.


Maureen Owen
Maureen Owen

Sharing leads to a sense of entitlement? You're even nuttier than the legislator. You don't even cite correlation, you just make something up and say it's a fact. Then again, that worked for Bush/Cheney/Rove for eight years.

Xcrucio
Xcrucio

That's the most absurd thing I've read today.  Sharing does not lead to entitlement, spoiling does.  Sharing is "Hey, we have one box of crayons so everyone share it."  Spoiling is "Everyone get's a 64 count box of crayons cause you're all special."

Not to mention it's absurd to think that being taught to share things when you're 5 suddenly perpetuates some kind of entitlement in you which leads to crime (tell me again how entitlement leads to crime anymore than property rights does?)

Flower Jasmin
Flower Jasmin

 Is insulting only thing liberals are good at? I am sure your gas smells like roses

mdenis46
mdenis46

 Danyz, I do the same thing.  However I'd say that the adverb, "educational" can be used to describe "policy" meaning a policy that deals with education.  I also correct for your, you're, its, it's, their, there, they're, and ALOT.