12/12/2012 01:08 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2013

If Murder Can Be Tracked Like an Infectious Disease, Should Failing Schools Be, Too?

There's a fascinating new story out there, courtesy of NPR, in which a team of researchers pored over 25 years of murder data in Newark, N.J., and reached a surprising conclusion: murdering someone is not as individualized a decision as we might think. In fact, the study suggests we may need to adopt a different lens when viewing the problem, and start thinking of homicide less as an individual choice, and more as a reflection of a larger infectious disease like AIDS or the flu.

"We looked at homicide as an infectious disease," said Michigan State University's April Zeoli, one of the lead researchers. "To spread, an infectious disease needs three things: a source of the infection; a mode of transmission; and a susceptible population."

Zeoli and her team studied every homicide in Newark over a period of a quarter century -- 2,366 murders in all, at a rate three times as high as the rest of the U.S. They tracked down the time and location of every single murder, and then plugged the data into a program that was previously reserved for tracking infectious diseases; it creates a model to show how the epidemic is spreading -- and where it might go next. "We hypothesized that the distribution of this crime was not random, but that it moved in a process similar to an infectious disease, with firearms and gangs operating as the infectious agents," the researchers wrote.

The implications here are that rethinking the causes for homicide could help cities predict how and where the "disease" would spread in the future.

Anyone else seeing the implications a study like this could have for how we think about school reform?

Currently, we tend to (overly) assign individual causes to the symptoms of whole-school or single-child success in school. A growing chorus of educators and communities, however, recognize there is a complex constellation of forces impacting every child's capacity to learn and grow (see, e.g., Harlem Children's Zone, Communities in Schools, etc.).

What would happen if we reclassified how we define a failing school -- away purely from individual adult ineptitude or child indifference, and more toward the holistic language of infectious disease? As Zeoli explained, by figuring out "what makes some neighborhoods 'resistant' to homicide, despite having the same risk factors as areas with high homicide rates, policymakers could apply those insights to 'inoculate' other areas in order to prevent homicide from spreading."

We can do the same in school reform. We should do the same. Don't you think?