Suppose you buy a mosquito trap and find, after using it for a few months, that there are just as many mosquitoes in your yard as before, if not more. You complain to the manufacturer, which says it now has a new model that works much better. You try it, but it's no more effective than the first one. Then you read in Consumer Reports that the company never tested the trap and has no evidence that it works. Livid, you call the manufacturer again, and you're told the bad reviews apply to products it no longer makes. It is now developing a new mosquito trap that no one has tested yet.
This is essentially the strategy that DARE, the country's leading drug education program, has successfully used to stay in business for nearly two decades. One study after another has found that students who complete DARE (a.k.a. Drug Abuse Resistance Education) are just as likely to use drugs as students who don't. Yet DARE claims it is constantly revising its curriculum, so any research indicating that it doesn't work is immediately outdated. And with a few exceptions, school districts–four-fifths of which use the program–always seem willing to give DARE another chance.
A study in the latest issue of the journal Health Education Research concludes that many schools use "heavily marketed curricula that have not been evaluated, have been evaluated inadequately or have been shown to be ineffective in reducing substance abuse." The lead researcher, Denise Hallfors of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, does not mince words in her evaluation of DARE. "There's no scientific rationale whatsoever for maintaining DARE in the schools," she says.
But such criticism does not faze DARE. The organization's executive director, Charlie Parsons, told the Associated Press the research cited by skeptics "refers to DARE's old curriculum, which is no longer used."
The authors of a 1999 study anticipated this "new and improved" argument. After following DARE participants for 10 years, they found that "in no case did the DARE group have a more successful outcome than the comparison group." Noting that DARE's defenders "may argue that we have evaluated an out-of-date version of the program," they wrote, "We believe that any changes in DARE have been more cosmetic than substantive, but this is difficult to evaluate until DARE America shares the current content of the curriculum with the broader prevention community."
Never mind. Two years later, DARE unveiled an even newer curriculum that supposedly addressed the weaknesses it had always denied. Now A.P. reports that "DARE America is conducting a five-year study" to evaluate the new approach. Whatever the outcome, you can be sure there will be yet another curriculum waiting in the wings.