DARE Reinvents Itself — With Help From Its Social-Scientist Critics

By David Miller, Chronicle of Higher Education, October 19, 2001

Change spurred by threat to cut federal financing of popular drug-prevention program

If anyone can deliver an antidrug message to teenagers with authority, it’s Officer Kevin Sayre. With his bulging chest, tanned and chiseled face, and bleach-tipped crew cut, he could be the model for a DARE America action figure. He runs through a lesson on “assertive behaviors” with a practiced patter and a throaty Texas twang.

“Make eye contact.”

“Speak with a firm voice.”

“Use ‘I’ messages.”

“Describe how you are thinking or feeling,” he advises his audience, glancing at the lesson plan in his hand. “Instead of saying, ‘You are stupid for drinking beer,’ say, ‘I don’t want to drink because I don’t think it’s a smart thing to do.'”

Then he leads the assembled through a role-playing scenario called “Hangin’ at Anthony’s.” One group proposes that “Trey” deflect Anthony’s offer of a beer by saying no thanks, he might have one later. “Is that responsible?” Mr. Sayre quizzes the group. Realistic? Respectful? “How is that respectful?” he bears in. “Is Trey being respectful of himself?”

At the back of the room, Richard Hawthorne, a drug-education-curriculum expert at the University of Akron, has reason to be pleased. Mr. Sayre has taken to heart his warning not to rely on yes-no answers, or rush through the “three R’s” of sound decision making like some rote checklist. But whether his spiel is as impressive to adolescents remains to be seen.

As a veteran DARE instructor, Mr. Sayre has lectured before thousands of children in Houston’s elementary and middle schools. But today, in this downtown Akron hotel, he’s an eager novice again, taking his turn before a small audience of fellow officers from around the country. DARE may offer the most popular antidrug program on the planet, but this September it’s the DARE instructors who are going back to school.

DARE (which stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education) America is beloved by schools, police departments, parents, and politicians across the country, but it has been far less appreciated by social scientists. For most of the last decade, researchers in the drug-prevention field have been arguing that DARE’s core program produces no lasting reduction in children’s use of drugs, tobacco, or alcohol. The program’s leaders have disputed those findings in pugnacious and dismissive language, countering with studies by less-eminent scholars who have been criticized for using questionable methodologies.

But in a surprising turn, DARE has asked their critics to assist in a new and costly effort to rehabilitate and evaluate the program. As the federal agencies that helped finance DARE tightened their standards of effectiveness, DARE offered its critics an unprecedented admission of failure.

“I’m not saying it was effective,” Glenn Levant, DARE’s founder and president, said of his current curriculum when he announced its overhaul last February. “But it was state of the art when we launched it. Now it’s time for science to improve upon what we’re doing.”

DARE’s curriculum reflects mainstream theories about the best way to reduce drinking, smoking, and drug use by children. By 1983, when the program began as a collaboration between the Los Angeles Police Department and the city’s school district, scholars had long since rejected the assumption that kids could be “scared straight.”

Today most school-based prevention programs, including DARE, assume that adolescents need grown-ups’ help in resisting social pressures to use. So they try to correct children’s exaggerated beliefs about the prevalence of drug use among their peers. They offer them information about the physical and social effects of using. And they try to impart “resistance skills” for making and acting on thoughtful decisions.

As the only prevention program relying on trained volunteers from local police departments, DARE was inexpensive and instantly popular. Today, DARE officers teach in 80 percent of U.S. school districts, reaching 36 million children annually. Over the years, the program has tinkered with its curriculum to take account of emerging knowledge. But as the dominant player in its field, it could afford to ignore the naysayers.

“DARE was built on extensive research on smoking cessation,” says Dennis Rosenbaum, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who has evaluated DARE and other prevention programs. “But the problem is they tried to stuff too many things into a 17-week program.” Once the police-school-district partnership had adopted the fledgling “social influence” curriculum, he says, “they began to isolate themselves from feedback.” At the same time, DARE brushed aside the concerns of scholars that police officers might be ill-suited to delivering effective drug education.

The trick to applied social science is translating experimental knowledge into programs that work. By most accounts, the DARE program has failed to clear that hurdle:

* In 1994, researchers from North Carolina’s Triangle Research Institute and the University of Kentucky reviewed the literature on DARE’s effectiveness and concluded that its grade-school curriculum had only “limited immediate effects on students’ drug use.” Those results dismayed DARE officials, who had expected the study to vindicate their claims, and the U.S. Department of Justice, which had commissioned the review. After the government refused to release the report, the authors published it in a leading, peer-reviewed, public-health journal.

* In 1998, Mr. Rosenbaum and a colleague completed a six-year study of nearly 1,800 Illinois children, some of whom had graduated from DARE’s grade-school curriculum. “DARE had no long-term effects on a wide range of drug use measures,” the scholars wrote, and “previously documented short-term effects had dissipated by the conclusion of the study.”

* In 1999, scholars at the University of Kentucky surveyed 1,000 20-year-olds and found no significant differences in drug use between those who had participated in DARE in the sixth grade and those who had had other prevention education.

In each case, scholars were taken aback by the ferocity of DARE’s response. The organization not only supported the Justice Department’s decision to reject the 1994 study, but urged the American Journal of Public Health not to publish it.

In 1998, shortly after Mr. Rosenbaum released his study, he accused DARE of misquoting his findings on its Web site to imply that he had declared it effective in the long term. And in 1999, after the University of Kentucky published its negative findings in a peer-reviewed journal of the American Psychological Association, Mr. Levant publicly dismissed them as “voodoo science” and charged, without evidence, that DARE’s critics were biased by their financial interest in prevention programs that compete with DARE.

“Anyone who raised questions about the efficacy of DARE was regarded as an enemy,” says Richard R. Clayton, a professor of prevention medicine at the University of Kentucky who helped write two of those evaluations. “‘How dare you say my baby isn’t beautiful?'”

To be fair, not all of DARE’s criticisms were so inflammatory. All of those studies had evaluated only students exposed to DARE in grade school, but not to “booster” lessons in middle and high school. And all of them had studied DARE before 1994, when DARE revised its curriculum.

Critics regard those objections as accurate but irrelevant. “There is no compelling reason to believe that results based on the revised curriculum would be any different than the old one,” says Mr. Rosenbaum. And since the short-term effects on grade schoolers have been so modest, says Mr. Clayton, “booster shots” in later grades would have little to boost.

By 1998, the criticism of DARE’s effectiveness had grown too loud to ignore. Congress mandated that, by 2000, drug-prevention funds from the U.S. Department of Education’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools program could flow only to programs that have demonstrated their effectiveness. There is now little doubt of the department’s view of DARE’s efficacy: On a list released last January of 33 school-based violence- and drug-prevention programs that the department considers “promising” or “exemplary,” the nation’s most-used program was absent.

Even as DARE faced the loss of millions in federal financing, the U.S. Department of Justice decided that DARE would be easier to mend than end. The evidence of DARE’s failure “was clearly causing uneasiness in Congress,” says Laurie Robinson, a former assistant attorney general. But it enjoyed great popularity and political support, she says, “so we thought it was important to improve the program and take advantage of their delivery system.”

Federal officials brokered a meeting between DARE officials and the program’s critics, then got out of the way. First, scholars confronted DARE about its standards of scientific evaluation. “We said, ‘We can’t go any further until you admit that your program didn’t work,'” says William B. Hansen, a former researcher at the University of Southern California who developed the progenitor of the DARE curriculum in the early 1980s. “They crossed that line and admitted it, and work went forward.”

At a follow-up meeting, DARE asked researchers for their advice. “The consensus that came out was that they were adamant that we not dispose of our delivery system,” says William Alden, a deputy director of DARE who attended the meetings. His organization had an unmatched infrastructure for marketing and delivering prevention education, the scholars told him. But it needed a better product.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation agreed, and put up $13.7-million to design and test the next generation of prevention programs. For that, the foundation turned to Zili Sloboda, the director of the University of Akron’s Institute for Health and Social Policy and a former administrator at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

With guidance from experts in evaluation and curriculum design, Ms. Sloboda decided to focus on revising the middle-school curriculum, because new data showed that drug use among adolescents takes its biggest jump between 8th and 10th grades. And the clearest message from prevention research was that DARE lessons were too didactic and too dense.

The new curriculum, says its creator, Akron’s Mr. Hawthorne, differs in matter and method. The program has been streamlined to focus on resistance skills — communication, decision making, assertiveness, and refusal strategies. Gone are lectures on conflict resolution and gang activity, replaced by more information on the social, legal, medical, and neurological consequences of drug use. (Instructors will pass out brain scans that show diminished mental activity.) And the core of each lesson, he says, will be “highly engaging learning strategies,” like role-playing and mock courtrooms, rooted in “realistic situations faced by most seventh graders.”

It will be a while before Ms. Sloboda knows whether her efforts will succeed. Mr. Sayre and his colleagues from six selected cities will train more officers like themselves. The new program will then be tested in 80 school districts over four years. If the results after a year hold promise, DARE officers throughout the country will be trained in the new curriculum.

DARE might have saved itself years of uncertainty if it had adopted a proven alternative. At least two rival social-influence programs, Life Skills Training and Project ALERT, have shown long-term success in reducing drug use. But prevention researchers advised DARE to develop something fresh, says Mr. Alden. “Even the most contemporary curriculum was established in the early 1990s. There really wasn’t anything that was state of the art.”

Starting anew will also give Ms. Sloboda a rare chance to test key assumptions of the social-influence approach. Does prevention education truly correct teenagers’ perceptions of drug use and improve their ability to resist it? And are those necessarily factors that influence their behavior?

For all its ambition, however, the study leaves untouched what many scholars consider the key unanswered question: Are police officers the wrong messengers? After all, scholars believe, the age when adolescents start experimenting with drugs is the very age when they begin to rebel against authority figures.

Ms. Sloboda considered testing the new curriculum with cops, teachers, and a combination of the two. But that would have required doubling the size of the study, she says — and $13.7-million only goes so far.

DARE maintains that police officers are critical to the program’s success. It’s a highly standardized and heavily monitored curriculum whose instructors receive 40-plus hours of training. “Teachers in the schools are so overburdened that they will not take it on,” says DARE’s Mr. Alden. And turnover and teacher autonomy would undermine his program’s standardized instruction, he adds.

Ms. Sloboda’s new middle-school program faces another daunting obstacle: A lack of market share. Although DARE estimates that its police instructors reach fifth and sixth graders in 80 percent of the nation’s school districts, fewer than 20 percent of middle schools choose to participate in DARE.

Even if more districts adopt the 10-lesson, middle-school curriculum, police departments are unlikely to devote any more personnel to the program. Ms. Sloboda’s solution is to trim the grade-school curriculum from 17 sessions to 10, so that each DARE officer can deliver both programs in little more time than they currently spend teaching grade schoolers.

Increasingly, though, other scholars in prevention research worry that the debate over DARE’s effectiveness obscures the need to consider alternatives to the whole social-influence approach. “We are really underreporting the level of program ineffectiveness and its negative effects on children,” says Joel Brown, the director of the Center for Educational Research and Development, in Berkeley, Calif. He cites evidence that antidrug education actually increases drug use, and that the designers of lauded programs have used data selectively to create the illusion of success. As a result, he says, public policy favors an approach to education that is likely to make adolescents more cynical.

“We say we’re teaching them that it’s their choice. But there’s really only one right choice: Don’t use,” says Mr. Brown. And he calls the scholarly focus on social skills among peers too narrow. It ignores the influence of children’s families, neighborhoods, and communities, he says.

In theory, Mr. Brown’s agenda is seconded throughout the field of prevention research. But his colleagues question how quickly social science can be expected to shift public policy.

“Getting DARE to revise its middle-school curriculum [and] agree to a multi-focus evaluation is a major accomplishment,” says Kentucky’s Mr. Clayton. “I think it takes a lot of courage.”

Still, prevention researchers are reluctant to declare the rapprochement permanent. For one thing, no scholar who attended the 1998 tte–ttes is serving on Ms. Sloboda’s two advisory panels, and many say that they have not been kept apprised of the new project.

And if DARE wants to reassure scholars that it now embraces social science, it should take more care over its public comments. Charlie Parsons, a DARE official known for his enthusiasm, promised the WebMD Web site last February that “this largest-ever longitudinal study will show conclusively” that the new program works. Mr. Parsons seems to have forgotten the first rule of sound research: data first, results second.

The Rocky Road To Rapprochement

Since its inception, the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) America program has had testy relations with scholars.

1983 DARE is started jointly by the Los Angeles Police Department and the city’s school district. William B. Hansen, then a researcher at the University of Southern California, claims that DARE cribbed its program from his own curriculum without his permission.

1994 At the behest of the U.S. Department of Justice, Susan T. Ennett and colleagues at the Research Triangle Institute complete the first comprehensive review of research on DARE’s effects. But the department disagrees with their conclusion that the program is ineffective and refuses to release it. “I don’t get it,” says Glenn Levant, DARE’s founder and president. “It’s like kicking Santa Claus. We’re pure as the driven snow.” Ignoring DARE’s protests, the American Journal of Public Health publishes the study.

1998 Dennis Rosenbaum, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago, publishes another long-term study with negative findings. Later, at the urging of federal agencies that finance drug education, he and other academic critics meet with DARE officials. Mr. Rosenbaum charges that DARE’s Web site mischaracterizes his study to imply that its program is effective in the long term. DARE removes the quote by lunchtime. At a second meeting, DARE officials admit the program should be improved and ask the scholars for advice.

1999 Researchers at the University of Kentucky publish another negative, long-term study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. “This is directed, voodoo science,” Mr. Levant replies. “I truly believe they are setting out to find ways to attack our programs and are misusing science to do it. The bottom line is that they don’t want police officers to do the work, because they want it for themselves.”

2000 DARE announces a major overhaul and evaluation of its middle-school curriculum, to be conducted by independent researchers at the University of Akron. “I’m not saying it was effective,” says Mr. Levant of his current program. “But it was state of the art when we launched it. Now it’s time for science to improve upon what we’re doing.”

Copyright, Chronicle of Higher Education, 2001.