The pipeline – schools, prisons, and bad economic development policy

A friend shared a graphic about literacy rates with some surprising figures in how many illiterate 8th graders we have, but also how low the literacy rate is among the poor and the prison population. The link between poverty and literacy may not be a surprise, nor the literacy rate among the prison population. But what this graphic made me reflect on was something I read from the author Neil Gaiman:

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read.

Then, thanks to a link from the NC Policy Watch, I see a report from the group NC Action for Children that calls attention to the growing problem North Carolina has in the schools-to-prison pipeline. WUNC’s the State of Things addressed the topic several weeks ago as well.

NC Action for Children report on Schools-to-Prison pipeline

I write on this subject as a connected topic to the “unraveling” I discussed about college students not pursuing education programs. We know that No Child Left Behind is moving kids through their schools despite the failure of gaining basic skills, like reading and math. Unheralded in that process is the psychological effect on these kids: a sense of anxiety and self-consciousness, an embarrassment of those skills they lack. Such feelings of isolation cause kids to act out (for which they get punished), to find a sense of belonging (in gangs, or other such ‘marginalized’ groups), and to validate not achieving that minimum academic knowledge (they get expelled).

I must add that I find it ironic that the idea in No Child Left Behind of advancing these kids despite inadequate mastery of their grade level was to reduce social stigma attached to repeating grades – but this system is compromising classes in several ways at once, not just the kids who are below their level in reading in math, but now students who would excel are in disrupted, distracted, and diluted classrooms.

NC Action for Children lists four action steps for addressing the school-to-prison pipeline:

  1. Raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 16 to 18 for youth who commit misdemeanor offenses;
  2. Implement evidence based reforms to ensure equitable treatment for all students in North Carolina;
  3. Improve data collection and reporting requirements to better inform school administrators, parents and policymakers; and
  4. Establish a legislative task force on school discipline policies.

These seem like essential steps in the process, but I must add that there need to be endeavors on two other fronts as well. First, similar to my recommendation for schools and local leaders to generate interest in science, history/social sciences and teaching, we as a society have to find any and all ways to address the issue of illiteracy (this goes for scientific literacy as well).  I know there are many resources for this, and I also know there will be repeated calls for parents to step up on this task, and I admit to not knowing what the solution is – I’m merely saying it needs to happen.

Second, prisons should not be considered “good” economic development. I have never understood why local leaders will applaud themselves and each other for getting a prison to open nearby. Sure, I get that the town or county will now have a regular utility customer and there are a handful of secure jobs at the prison. But prisons do not foster a true multiplier in the community. Prisons do not contribute to community development. If local groups look to use prison labor for roadside and park clean up, that is actually taking away potential economic development opportunities. Alternatively, these communities need to invest in education, and in literacy programs so that their next generation – their neighbors – will not go into these prisons (also support community development initiatives so park clean ups are done by members of the community).

These are just my own observations on part of how our society – our community at large – is failing itself. As I see it, the problems of illiteracy rates, dropout and expelled students, and the growing prison systems are in our education system (not necessarily the fault of teachers and administrators as much as in the underinvestment in the system), in our community, and in how we calculate costs and benefits. I hope to flesh these topics out a bit more in future posts (I realize this post today jumped between a couple issues that deserve much more attention on their own, let alone together), but please chime in with thoughts, insights, arguments, research, and resources.


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