There is well-deserved outrage over the decisions by two grand juries in St. Louis and New York City to not indict police officers Darren Wilson and Dan Pantaleo for the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The good news is that many of the nation’s school reformers realize that it isn’t enough to transform education. Groups such 50Can Teach For America, and Parent Revolution, along with activists such as Derrell Bradford, Stacy Childress, Alex Hernandez, and James Shuls, realize that reformers must stand up and counted when it comes to addressing the intersection between American public education and our criminal justice systems.
Raising voices is a start. But I declared in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, reformers must also take action by working with criminal justice reform advocates to address how schools and courts end up damaging our children. One area in which reformers can play powerful roles lies in keeping kids out of the nation’s juvenile justice systems and overhauling how those already condemned to youth prisons are treated, educationally and otherwise.
The latest focus on our juvenile prisons comes courtesy of the Obama Administration, which issued guidance on Monday to state superintendents and attorneys general on how to stem the high numbers of children caught up in juvenile justice systems, as well as overhaul how teaching and curricula is provided to the 146,979 kids incarcerated in prisons and jails (including residential treatment centers) as of 2011, according to an analysis of federal and state data by the criminal justice reform-oriented Justice Policy Institute. Certainly there will be some reformers who will argue that the Dear Colleague guidance is another form of federal overreach as they did when the Obama Administration began work on reducing overuse of harsh school discipline. But the administration deserves credit for once again shining a light on how schools and criminal justice systems work together to condemn so many children to the worst America offers.
One aspect of the administration’s guidance has to do with the reality that far too many children from poor and minority households are more-likely to end up trapped in juvenile justice systems than kids from white and middle class backgrounds. This, of course, reflects what happens in American public education. Sixty percent of delinquency cases involving black children, along with 58 percent of American Indian, and 56 percent of Asian kids, were petitioned (or led to formal charges) in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Justice; only one out of every two cases involving white kids led to formal charges.
The Obama Administration’s guidance comes both amid the uproar over the Ferguson and Garner grand jury verdicts, and as Justice Policy released its special report revealing that 46 states (along with the District of Columbia) spent $148,767 per child annually on juvenile incarceration in 2011. Based on those numbers, states (along with the federal government) actually spent $22 billion on imprisoning youth, more than four times the official number of $5.7 billion (which only accounts for kids in juvenile prisons, not those in residential treatment where most incarcerated youth will be placed). Concludes Justice Policy staffers Amanda Petteruti, Marc Schindler, and Jason Ziedenberg: “Policies that needlessly confine youth have an immediate cost for taxpayers and our communities.”
This is an understatement. Twenty-five percent of convicted juvenile delinquency offenders and seven percent of convicted status offenders (or children convicted of activities that would be legal if they were 18 or 21), were incarcerated in 2011. Another 64 percent of convicted juvenile delinquency offenders and 56 percent of those convicted of status offenders end up on probation, which can be just as onerous as prison time because probation usually lasts until a child reaches age 18 or 21 (and could lead to prison if they violate — quite likely given high recidivism rates — or if families fail to pay often-exorbitant monthly probation fees to courts). Given that only 4.6 percent of the 1.5 million juvenile arrests made in 2011 were for violent crimes such as murder, and property crimes accounted for just 23 percent of arrests, children end up in juvenile justice systems either for minor offenses that can be solved through better means or because of referrals by traditional districts and other school operators for matters they should be handling on their own.
This is especially troubling for three important reasons.
The first: Once a child lands in juvenile courts, they are unlikely to gain the kind of due process granted to adults. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1967 ruling, In Re Gault, established that juveniles are entitled to legal counsel and due process the same way adults are. Yet as Seattle University School of Law Professor Janet Ainsworth noted in a 1996 report, 47 percent of accused juvenile offenders in three states went through court without any legal representation; a decade later, the National Juvenile Defender Center and the Indiana Juvenile Justice Task Force reported that 40 percent of juvenile cases in Indiana were handled without defense counsel. Just 19 states allow alleged juvenile offenders to have their cases decided by jury trial in at least some situations, according to NJDC.
Because of the lack of due process and legal representation, children can end up being subjected to arbitrary and capricious behavior by judicial overlords — who often control juvenile jails and probation agencies alongside their own courts — whose decisions can end up causing more harm to kids than any possible good. Your editor detailed what could happen in a 2006 editorial series for the Indianapolis Star on scandal that enveloped the Circle City’s juvenile court. An even more-horrific example was revealed three years later, when then-Luzerne County (Pa.) Court of Common Pleas judges Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella were charged with (and later, convicted of) racketeering and bribery charges for funneling $1.3 million a year in taxpayer dollars to cronies operating two private jails by incarcerating alleged youth offenders (many of whom were first-time offenders charged with misdemeanors such as spraying graffiti, writing prank notes, and truancy), often finding the kids guilty in less than two minutes, and denying them their rights to attorneys.
The second reason: Once a child ends up in juvenile prisons and jails, there is little likelihood that they will be safe from harm. Twelve percent of juvenile prisoners report being sexually assaulted by either another inmate or by prison staff, according to a Justice Department study. Last year, the Justice Department revealed that one out of every three children held in 13 juvenile jails and prisons — including the Circleville Juvenile Correctional Facility in Ohio and the Illinois Youth Center Joliet — were sexually abused by guards, other employees, or fellow inmates. And in California, the problems of sexual abuse of children in juvenile prisons was brought to light once again last October when Cesar Navejar, who worked as an officer in Kern County’s juvenile jail, was accused of sexual battery on a child locked up there.
But the damage to kids in juvenile jails extends beyond molestation. Thirty-five percent of juvenile prisoners reported that they spent some time in solitary confinement, essentially being subjected to the kind of psychological abuse that has gotten prisons serving adults into trouble. Because juvenile prisons and jails are ill-equipped to deal with the underlying mental health issues of kids incarcerated in them, suicide ends up being common. The average age of children in juvenile prisons committing suicide between 1995 and 1999 was 15.7 years old, according to a 2009 report from the Justice Department; 72.7 percent of them were locked up for nonviolent offenses, while 65.8 percent had a history of mental illness, and 78.5 percent had a history of physical or emotional abuse. Given that 63 percent of kids incarcerated in juvenile prisons were convicted of nonviolent property, drug, and technical (read: probation) offenses, putting kids into juvenile prisons harms them physically and mentally in the present — and does little to help them change their behavior and become model citizens in the future.
Then there is the reality that most kids in juvenile jails and prisons are unlikely to be provided high-quality education. Just nine percent of children locked up in state juvenile prisons in 2009 graduated with either a high school diploma or lower-quality GED, according to the Justice Department; a mere four percent of inmates were either enrolled or accepted into a higher education program. When they are locked up in juvenile prisons, they are unlikely to get high-quality teaching and curricula; 26 percent of children locked up in juvenile prisons and jails for more than 90 days made any kind of academic progress, according to a report released earlier this year by the Southern Education Foundation. Meanwhile as lawsuits such as one filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center have revealed, few juvenile prisons and jails do much to provide kids with education in the first place.
The failures of public education in juvenile justice systems is especially problematic for kids who have been condemned to the nation’s special ed ghettos when they were attending traditional district schools. Thirty percent of incarcerated youth surveyed by the U.S. Department of Justice were diagnosed as being special ed cases. University of Florida professor Joseph C. Gagnon and his team determined in a 2009 study that between 38 percent and 44 percent of juvenile inmates were taking special ed classes. As Sarah Butrymowicz and Jackie Mader of the Hechinger Report detailed this past October in a report on Mississippi’s juvenile prisons, the likelihood of a juvenile prison following up on an incarcerated child’s individualized education plan is slim to none.
Certainly the complex nature of juvenile justice systems can make it difficult for school reformers to even discuss, much less devote energy to it. As I noted four years ago, the complex behavioral and psychological issues alone are harder to grapple with than matters of teacher quality. Yet reformers must work hand-in-hand with advocates for overhauling juvenile justice systems. Why? Because far too many children are condemned to juvenile systems for problems that have as much to do with the failures of American public education as they do with bad parenting and a fraying civic society.
As Dropout Nation has noted over the past few months, schools account for three out of every 10 status referrals to juvenile courts in 2011, according to the Justice Department. This includes 65 percent of truancy referrals, which account for 33 percent (or the single-largest share) of all status cases handled by juvenile courts. Given that juvenile court judges are incapable of handling matters that have to do with the failures of traditional districts to provide high-quality education and families not keeping their kids in classrooms, there is little reason why truancy cases are even be adjudicated.
The failures of traditional districts on the literacy front are another reason why so many kids are ensnared by juvenile justice systems. Forty-four percent of incarcerated children in state juvenile prisons were at least a grade level behind in reading. As Stanford University researchers Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles determined in a 2006 study, low literacy levels in first grade are strong predictors of long-term disciplinary problems by third grade; essentially kids act out because they realize that they are falling behind their peers, but are unable (or unwilling to) verbalize it. This was further borne out in a 2011 study by Chuang Wang and Bob Algozzine of University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Thanks to low-quality literacy instruction and curricula (especially in the early grades), along with the lack of intensive identification and remediation of functionally-illiterate children, kids who would otherwise stay out of trouble in and out of schools end up on the path to incarceration.
The failure of districts to help illiterate children end up leading to another problem that ends up in juvenile justice systems: The overlabeling of children, especially young black and white men, as special ed cases. As Dropout Nation noted in reports on school districts in Ferguson, Mo. (where Michael Brown was slain), districts in the Washington, D.C., metro area, and Minneapolis, children in special ed ghettos are at least twice as likely to be arrested or referred to juvenile justice systems as peers in regular classrooms. Because districts fail to address literacy issues, and because teachers and other adults in schools end up labeling certain groups of students as special ed cases because they think they are destined to end up that way, far too many kids end up being put on the path to juvenile and adult prisons. That many special ed ghettos embrace many of the worst practices of those prisons — including use of seclusion (or solitary confinement) and restraints on kids — essentially conditions kids to being mistreated in juvenile justice.
Then there’s the role that state education departments fail to play in regulating schools and other educational programs operated in juvenile prisons and jails. Because education agencies often fail to fulfill their mandates to oversee juvenile correctional schools — as well as because of their struggles in developing robust data systems that can provide data on their performance (as well as allow them to get information from districts) — jails and prisons end up doing little for the kids in their academic care. In fact, as a 2009 study by team led by Gagnon determined, more than half of principals running juvenile detention schools believe that kids in their care should not be expected to learn at grade level; which means that incarcerated children are being subjected to the soft bigotry of low expectations by those who should do better by them. The neglect of state education departments on this front is one reason why the Obama Administration’s guidance extends to them as well as to attorneys general.
The failures of our schools and juvenile justice systems spill out onto our streets — especially in the form of black kids essentially condemned to lives of incarceration. So overhauling juvenile justice systems must be a priority for school reformers and criminal justice reform advocates alike.
This starts with reformers and juvenile justice advocates, along with the rest of the criminal justice reform community, coming together to support reforms that can keep kids out of juvenile justice systems in the first place. This includes ending mandatory sentencing for all but the most-violent acts of delinquency, as well as backing laws requiring jury trials and legal counsel (in a manner similar to the guardian at litem system for kids going through child welfare systems) for all alleged juvenile offenders. These moves, along with greater oversight of juvenile incarceration (including putting operation of juvenile jails in the hands of city and county jail agencies and out of the hands of judges) should be undertaken.
Directly addressing the intersection between public education and juvenile justice systems, reformers should support juvenile justice reform overhauls being advanced by outfits such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation. Casey, in particular, has worked diligently in cities such as Indianapolis to reduce the numbers of kids referred by districts to juvenile courts. Crafting laws that require state education departments to keep better tabs on juvenile prison schools must also be a key priority.
Yet there will still be some kids who will be in juvenile prisons and jails because of violent offenses. This is why reformers must play powerful roles in overhauling the schools that serve our kids locked up in juvenile prisons and jails. This is where charter school operators such as KIPP can come in. Outfits such as the See Forever Foundation, which operates schools serving the District of Columbia’s juvenile jail (as well as other charters serving ex-dropouts) have shown that incarcerated kids can and should receive high-quality teaching and curricula. Online and blended learning players such as Rocketship should also help out on this front. Universities, technical schools, and apprenticeship programs can also help by providing kids in juvenile jails the postsecondary education they will need to avoid poverty and incarceration upon adulthood.
Meanwhile juvenile justice advocates should support reformers in transforming American public education. After all, if we ensure that all kids are reading proficiently and on the path to lifelong success, we keep them out of juvenile justice systems. This includes high-level reforms such as implementing Common Core reading and math standards; implementing techniques such as Response to Intervention (which can keep kids from landing in special ed ghettos and help them get reading remediation); building school data systems that can help all schools inside and outside juvenile justice systems serve children well; and expanding school choice and Parent Power, especially for poor and minority families affected most by the dysfunctions of public education and criminal justice.
We must keep our children out of juvenile justice systems and help them, along with those already trapped in them, get the high-quality education they need and deserve. Reformers can’t stand on the sidelines any longer on this matter.
Featured photo courtesy of Richard Ross. Check out his Juvenile in Justice series.
Last week’s Dropout Nation commentary on focusing on overhauling school discipline in the wale of Ferguson caused me to think about how we can stem the use of out-of-school suspensions. One solution lies with our classroom teaching.
I have a theory I call the ’95-5 Rule.’ Let’s say you have a 500 student school, and every period of every day, 95 percent of students behave appropriately. That also means every period of every day you’d have 25 students in the dean of discipline’s office: There is no school in the country equipped physically and in personnel to manage 25 students out of the classroom, 3-6 times a day for 180 days. You can do the math for a 1,000 or more student school; a 3,000 person high school would have the equivalent of our school’s entire 8th grade class in the dean’s office every period.
This would apply to discipline over tardiness, too: The moment you have 25 students every period standing in line at the attendance office to get a late slip, the teachers get a memo saying to ‘not send students to the office who are tardy,’ even if the school rules state that clearly as the procedure.
Being unprepared to handle discipline issues like these lead to the harsh penalties for what seem to be small infractions, which has partly created the discipline crisis we have in our urban schools particularly.
To my knowledge there is no teaching program in California, especially in Los Angeles (which is home to the ed schools run by UCLA and that University of Southern California), that has a stand-alone classroom management class. My very first principal said “The best classroom management is a good lesson plan.” Teachers are not prepared to manage students well coming out of the schools, and often have to rely on extra professional development, their own efforts, or trial by fire to develop those critical classroom skills. For example, teachers in a school I worked at started improving their classroom efforts a year after I handed the former principal for whom I worked a copy of Douglas Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion, (a Dropout Nation Top Eight book).
Teachers must be trained to create a classroom environment where there is neither time nor opportunity for that behavior to occur. They must also be trained to address misbehavior with immediate-yet-fair consequences for that behavior. Those steps would greatly improve student behavior and school environments.
But improving school discipline isn’t just about better teaching. Schools must have the personnel and resources (space) to manage that 5-to-10 percent of kids who aren’t behaving well that day. that on any given day cannot function in a classroom. We already know that sending them home, especially if they are going into chaos, won’t work. Schools must also create a climate where students feel no need to have their shields raised every day, where they know that every adult is committed to their safety, welfare, and learning.
To say that I am indignant about yesterday’s ruling by a St. Louis County grand jury to not indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the murder of 17-year-old Michael Brown is an understatement. From the moment Brown was shot senselessly by Wilson with his body left on the ground for four-and-a-half hours, to St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch’s windy and often defensive announcement of how his office’s unusual presentation of the evidence ultimately led to a delivery of no-bill on five different counts, the case was another reminder that America still struggles with addressing the racial bigotry that is this nation’s Original Sin.
Yet for school reformers, the events in Ferguson offer new opportunities to keep our young black men alive and on the path to lifelong success. This starts by tackling one of the most-pernicious of the racialist policies and practices that remain in American public education: The overuse of harsh school discipline that condemns the futures of so many.
Your editor can go through all the reasons why so many black men and women are saddened, angered, horrified, and disappointed by the Wilson’s non-indictment. Sadness because Brown’s life was senselessly snuffed out just days after he graduated from Normandy High School, his body allowed to sit on the street for nearly five hours before finally being removed. Anger because no justice at all will be sought for Brown; the fact that grand juries fail to indict one-hundredth of one percent of the time in federal cases (and, given that prosecutors at state and local levels rarely have to bring cases to grand juries at all, even less often) makes the failure to bring this case to a jury trial even more shocking. Horrifying because the Brown case is just one serves as another reminder that America has a long history of disregarding — and even sanctioning — racially-motivated murders of young black men; while Wilson’s action may not have been motivated by race (which, given his characterization of Brown as looking like a “demon” is quite unlikely), the growing evidence that police officers are far more-likely to shoot at unarmed black men than any other group casts an especially harsh light on his slaying of Brown three months ago. [Update: Wilson’s statement to an ABC News reporter that he doesn’t regret shooting Brown makes your editor wonder how someone can feel so untroubled about taking an innocent life. May God disturb Wilson’s conscience, and then save him from the torment that will soon come his way.]
Then there is the disappointment, especially among black mothers and fathers. Disappointment about the fact that from the moment Brown encountered Wilson, his life and his body were utterly demeaned by law enforcement officials, as well as put on trial by politicians more-concerned about being supportive of police officers than about an innocent young life. Dismay over the mistreatment of Brown’s mother and father during their time of undeniable grief. Disgust over the fact that even now, another generation of white people continue to fail to understand how centuries of bigotry, state-sanctioned and otherwise, have fostered the debasement of black lives. Dumbfounded that justice always seems to be visited upon those whose skins aren’t dark or brown, while the murders of those who are seem to never be worthy of it. At these moments, it is easy to feel hopeless about the future for our black children.
But as we may be, we must also remember these things: That when black people fight vigilantly for their civil rights, they can help bend the arc of history toward progress, and that out of tragedy can emerge activism and grassroots efforts that can save lives and communities. This is what is happening in Ferguson now. Each day since his death, protestors in the St. Louis suburb and elsewhere over his slaying has continually brought attention to how the militarization of police departments aided by the federal government have exacerbated the long history of antagonistic treatment of blacks by law enforcement that has long been a feature of American life. The efforts of teachers to pull together the Ferguson Syllabus is helping kids gain understanding of civic life in this country that can help address racialism. Because of what has happened in Ferguson, we now have new leaders and voices for social progress such as St. Louis city councilman Antonio French and Missouri State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal.
What we are seeing now is the second prong of the latest battle for civil rights, one that has the transformation of American public education at its center, but must also include what former National Alliance for Public Charter Schools President Peter Groff calls school reform in totality. This means addressing how the nation’s education crisis fuels the social ills that condemn the futures of our children, especially those from black, Latino, and Native households. This is where one aspect of systemic reform becomes especially important: Ending the overuse of the harshest school discipline.
As Dropout Nation noted back in August, the Ferguson-Florissant School District, which serves this St. Louis suburb, exemplifies how districts throughout the country harm the futures of black children through the use of suspensions and other harsh discipline for nonviolent matters that are better off settled through other means. During the 2011-2012 school year, Ferguson-Florissant meted one or more out-of-school suspensions to 15 percent of its black students versus 4.9 percent of white students, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of data submitted by the district to the U.S. Department of Education. None of the suspensions were for violent acts, according to data from Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; as typical throughout the rest of the country, most suspensions were for disruptive behavior, tardiness to class, and truancy, all matters better-handled through means that actually help kids understand the consequences of their behaviors. Black kids attending Ferguson-Florissant schools were more-likely to be suspended than either their white peers in the district. They were also more-likely to be subjected to harsh discipline than be a victim of violent crimes in their communities.
Harsh discipline is meted out even more punitively on black children condemned to Ferguson-Florissant’s special ed ghettos. The district meted one or more out-of-school suspensions to 23 percent of black special ed students, a rate 10 percentage points higher than the (also outrageous) 14 percent for white peers in those ghettos. Even worse, the out-of-school suspension rates for Ferguson-Florissant’s black special ed students was higher than nearby St. Louis’ 11.5 percent out-of-school suspension rate for such students.
This is not unusual. As Daniel Losen of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA noted last year in his review of suspension and expulsion data, the out-of-school suspension rate of 24.3 percent in 2009-2010 (based on data released by the U.S. Department of Education before earlier this year) is three times the 7.1 percent out-of-school suspension rate for white peers. Even worse, the gap in suspension rates has increased over the past three years; back in 1972-1973, the out-of-school suspension rate of 11.8 percent for black secondary school students was only double the six percent rate for white peers.
At the heart of the overuse of suspensions, both in Ferguson-Florissant as well as across the nation, is the reality that adults in schools often use harsh discipline as easy buttons instead of addressing the underlying issues behind the misbehavior of children. The biggest culprit of all: The struggles children have with their literacy, and the failures of American public education to provide them with the intensive reading remediation they need (as well as high-quality reading instruction and curricula) so they can succeed. As Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles of Stanford University determined in a 2006 study, kids who are functionally illiterate in third grade end up becoming discipline problems by fifth. This fact was further borne out in a 2011 study by Chuang Wang and Bob Algozzine of University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Given that just 47.1 percent of Ferguson-Florissant’s fourth-graders reading at or below basic proficiency on the reading portion of the Show-Me State’s battery of standardized tests, it isn’t shocking that the district (along with other failing school operators) overuse suspensions instead of dealing with underlying literacy issues.
As researchers such as Russ Skiba have demonstrated over the past three decades, the consequences of overusing harsh school discipline is academic, economic and social failure for kids who are acting out because of the failure to address their learning issues. As Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz determined in his own research, sixth-graders with “unsatisfactory” behavior marks (which indicate being suspended from school at least once during the school year) have only a one-in-five chance of graduating on time six years later. At the same time, the consequences extend beyond schoolhouse doors. hen districts overuse harsh school discipline, they teach law enforcement outside schools that poor and minority children are only criminals. The lawlessness of some police officers in cities such as Ferguson — and the evil they have shown toward the black people who live their and pay their wages — is mirrored by the unwillingness of those working within its schools to provide all kids with high-quality education.
Thanks to the Obama Administration’s efforts on addressing school discipline — including investigations into practices by districts such as Minneapolis, as well as the guidance it issued earlier this year — reformers have opportunity to reduce suspensions for the long haul by addressing literacy curricula and instruction. This can start in Ferguson-Florissant by forcing the district to implement intensive reading remediation, especially in the early grades when discipline issues can be headed off, as well as leveraging approaches such as Response to Intervention to identify kids struggling with literacy. Wang and Algozzine demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach (when paired with an approach called Behavior Instruction in the Total School) in a 2012 study funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Implementing restorative justice programs that focus on teaching kids how their behaviors affect themselves and their fellow classmates is also critical. Black school leaders and teachers, who often work in the highest-suspending districts i the country, should take the lead on transforming how we discipline kids (as well as call out colleagues who continue these failed practices); anything other than that is an abject abandoning of our responsibility to all children, especially those who are from our backgrounds.
This isn’t just a matter for traditional districts alone. As Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard and others have pointed out, public charter schools have engaged in overly harsh school discipline practices for far too long, justifying them as part of developing a culture of no excuses that are geared toward fostering school learning. [Sadly, reformers such as Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and former New Schools for New Orleans boss Neerav Kingsland have also justified such shoddy thinking.] But as I noted last year in my criticism of Success Academy cofounder Eva Moskowitz’s justification of her charter school operation’s overuse of suspensions, the evidence has been proven long ago that overusing suspensions doesn’t lead to improvements in student achievement. If anything, because of such overuse, it allows opponents of school choice to claim that the success of charters is due more to pushing kids out of school than to efforts in providing kids with high-quality education. Reformers cannot defend failed policies and practices for which we would call out traditional districts.
But addressing school discipline goes beyond the practices of teachers and school leaders within schoolhouses.
As Dropout Nation as consistently noted, districts bring law enforcement into schools through arrests as well as through referrals to juvenile court of matters that were once relegated to principals and parents. Schools account for three out of every 10 status cases referred to juvenile courts in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, the second-highest source of referrals after law enforcement agencies. When districts refer kids into juvenile courts unequipped to help them, our most-vulnerable children are put into a cycle of cycle of incarceration and poverty from which they cannot emerge. Even worse, poor and minority children regardless of whether they end up in the juvenile justice system end up being tarred by perceptions that they are merely the potentially lawless, not young people whose potential should be nurtured.
There’s also the fact that districts have also become as mired in the militarization of law enforcement as police departments in their communities. This is because districts, especially those in big cities, have launched their own police agencies even as youth crime has been on a three decade-long decline. Between 1996 and 2008, the number of districts operating police departments more than doubled (from 117 to 250), according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The NAACP and Texas Appleseed rightfully raised this issue back in September when they issued a letter to the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency complaining how the federal government’s move to hand over military-grade weapons to districts such as Los Angeles Unified was exacerbating arrests of students.
There is no reason why a district such as Compton Unified arms police officers with AR-15 rifles or why L.A. Unified’s police division had grenades in its arsenal. In fact, there is no good reason why traditional districts should operate police departments in the first place. All that does is transform schools into virtual jails where being a child is criminalized instead of communities where a kid is nurtured by high-quality teaching and college-preparatory curricula. As reformers, we must stand up and work to pass state laws that put an end to the ability of districts to launch their own law enforcement agencies, as well as work to force districts to dispense with juvenile justice referrals and arrests for better approaches to dealing with the children they serve.
By tackling all aspects of school discipline, along with other systemic reform efforts, we are doing honor to the life of Michael Brown and his family, as well as saving the lives of young men and women who deserve better. Darren Wilson may have escaped human justice (even as he will face God’s verdict). But school reformers can help tackle the legacy of racialism that lingers within American public education as well as on the streets where our children live.
Last week’s Dropout Nation commentary on why school reform is critical to stemming unwed pregnancy and poverty evoked plenty of e-mail responses to yours truly. Those who view poverty and unwed pregnancy as consequences of bad choices — also known as the Personal Responsibility Myth that is a dominant strain in anti-poverty and education policy discussions — were particularly vexed that your editor didn’t fully validate their perspective. After all, from where they sit, if single mothers and others exercised some form of personal responsibility, be it not getting pregnant until they got married, or spending wisely, then they wouldn’t be impoverished.
Such arguments are seductive, especially to your editor, who is conservative on social issues (even as I am libertarian on economic and political matters, and a creative radical on education policy). Yet as an editorialist and reporter, I’ve learned to dismiss simple answers because they don’t explain everything. This is true when it comes to arguments from those who espouse the Poverty Myth (or that structural and other issues render the poor fully incapable of helping themselves). And this is especially so when it come to Personal Responsibility myths.
If bad choices were the sole or even the predominant reasons why so many people are mired in poverty, then Paris Hilton would be suffering economically and socially from her myriad bouts of misbehavior, my mother (who gave birth to your editor at age 16) would be on welfare, and Watergate player Charles Colson would have died as impoverished and ostracized as most convicted felons. Yet none of these things have happened. Hilton has been greatly rewarded financially and socially thanks in part to her infamous porn tap. My mother is a college-educated second-generation member of the American middle class with a lovely suburban home to boot. And Colson died last year after having spent the last three decades attaining redemption (and even a pardon) through his ministry to his fellow convicts.
Keep in mind that Hilton, my mother, and Coulson are not outliers. Humans being, well, imperfect creatures with a penchant for error, this isn’t possible anyway. From suburbanites in the D.C. suburbs living way above their six-figure means, to movie stars self-medicating their pain through drug and alcohol addictions, to middle-class moms and dads who hire maids to clean up the homes instead of having their kids do some chores, bad decisions are as common as crab grass. This is especially true when you keep in mind that you and your next-door neighbors in Alexandria have engaged in the same vices — including as alcohol consumption and premarital sex — as people who live in Anacostia.
Yet your decisions, and those of Hilton, my mother, and Coulson, haven’t been harmful in the same way as they are for those in poverty. Why? The first reason lies with the fact that unlike most poor people, those of us in the middle class had the resources (from income to health care) available to overcome bad choices. For Hilton, her status as a scion of the most-famous name in the hospitality industry has given her the money and the connections needed to parlay even the worst decisions into profit and fame. My mother? Thanks to my grandparents, whose middle class status and high levels of education were the resources they needed to help care for me during my childhood, my mother could go on to overcome one not-so-great decision (for which I am grateful she made) to make smart decisions. As for Coulson? His friendships in Republican political circles, among with his notoriety and sensible decision to become born again, helped him focus his life away from the amorality of politics and towards helping other ex-convicts change their lives for the better.
The other reason lies with the most-important of resource of all: Knowledge. Not only is it power, it is the most-crucial tool for acquiring the financial and social resources needed to emerge and stay out of poverty. This is especially true in an increasingly knowledge-based economy and society in which what you know is more valuable than what you can do with your hands.
My mother is a perfect example of how knowledge can keep people out of poverty. Even as my mother carried me in her womb, my grandparents made sure she stayed in high school, and kept her on the path to graduation even after I was born. Because my mother was in a household where my grandmother was also college-educated and my grandfather was an avid reader and learner, she also became a lifetime acquirer of knowledge. A decision she made in the early 1980s to move from working as a claims adjuster for an insurance company into the information technology field put her into a field in which incomes were (and are still) increasing; this gave her the income she needed to support my siblings and I. By the 1990s, she sought her college degree, and then a graduate degree, providing her with
As I pointed out last week, poverty is in part a result of the interplay between how skills (and the lack thereof) are rewarded in the marketplace, and the choices that result from levels of knowledge. But it is more than that. Poverty is also the consequence of the interplay between resources, knowledge, and decision-making.
For middle class families, bad decisions can be easily overcome because they have the means — from higher incomes to social connections — needed to do so. This includes bad decisions made by laggard teachers and school leaders. One out of every five young white male high school seniors from college-educated read Below Basic on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress. But most middle-class households have more means to ameliorate the consequences of the nation’s education crisis — including the ability to send their kids to tutoring services — while the wealthy can insulate their kids from the worst American public education offers.
The poor aren’t so fortunate. Because poor families are the ones most-likely to attend dropout factories and failure mills — and because Zip Code Education policies such as school zones restrict their options — they are less likely to graduate from high school or even complete any form of higher education, the keys to gaining financial and social capital. As a result, the consequences of any bad decisions are even more pernicious because they have no means to bail themselves out of them. And even good decisions may not be enough if the resources — especially a wide array of high-quality school options — aren’t available for those choices to be beneficial to their lives.
Just as importantly, because poor families have been subjected to educational neglect and malpractice, they also lack the academic knowledge (including understanding of how to ask questions and find resources) they need to even make the best of good decisions. Natural curiosity just isn’t enough; it must be honed by practices of the mind that come from being nurtured by high-quality teaching, college-preparatory curricula, and even religious instruction. The fact that they cannot access high-quality data, either on schools or teachers, that they need to make smarter decisions makes it even tougher for them to emerge from poverty.
In fact, the lack of academic and social knowledge ends up obscuring the ability to make good decisions. The negative becomes the positive because the truly positive isn’t visible. It is why a young woman who dropped out of high school at age 17 ends up pregnant at 20; the better solution may be to avoid pregnancy, go back to school for learning remediation, then attain a high school diploma and a college degree. But you don’t know what you don’t know. So you make decisions blind. The more decisions you make without high-quality knowledge, the more likely the choices will be negative. And without the resources (which come as a result of acquiring knowledge) to ameliorate bad decisions, the consequences are even more pernicious.
[The lack of knowledge also explains why the arguments of Poverty Mythologists that more money is the solution also doesn’t work; as I noted last week, knowledge is critical to managing resources and acquiring more of them.]
This isn’t to say that poor families are helpless automatons in structures that work against them. When poor families are provided the knowledge they need to make smarter decisions, they will often do so because, as the legendary civil rights activist Ella Baker would likely say, strong people emerge from knowledge. This is why systemic reform — from overhauling how we recruit, train, and reward teachers, to expanding school choice — is so critical to stemming poverty and the ills that emerge from it in the first place. In fact, transforming public education can help provide to our poorest kids schools that can nurture them both academically and emotionally, helping their families help them stave off the mental illnesses that can keep them mired in poverty when they reach adulthood. But thinking that bad choices alone explain poverty is as wrongly simpleminded as believing that impoverished people are too tied down by structural inequities to emerge from their conditions.
Reformers have an opportunity to help anti-poverty activists on all sides engage in more-nuanced thinking about what poverty is and how we can stem it. And it starts by reminding all sides that education is a critical solution to helping poor people help themselves out of poverty.
Featured photo courtesy of Arleen Hodge. Please support her work.
Even amid the battles over the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards, and the sparring over reforming the nation’s dysfunctional immigration system, an old debate is flourishing again: How to stem unwed pregnancy and the chronic poverty among out-of-wedlock households that are caused and exacerbated by it. But for all the talk about how to deal with the matter among conservatives and progressives — as well as the policy proposals for dealing with it — neither side have looked at the one critical solution that could stem out-of-wedlock pregnancies and ultimately, is the long-term key to reducing poverty: Systemic reform of American public education.
What has sparked this latest discussion is the proposed anti-poverty effort unveiled last month by Congressman Paul Ryan as part of his likely run for the Republican presidential nomination. The proposal has gained attention for its plan to increase the number of poor adults qualifying for the Earned Income Tax Credit program — the most-successful non-educational approach to stemming poverty — and merge all anti-poverty programs into a block grant that is annually distributed to states.
But Ryan’s plan has stoked discussion because it also calls for those on anti-poverty programs to sign life contracts that tie their receipt of welfare subsidies to meeting a series of life goals geared towards getting out of poverty. In some ways, the requirement is similar to both the successful welfare reform efforts of the 1990s as well as the approaches taken by organizations such as the Salvation Army during the 19th century. But the Ryan approach would end up being more invasive and bureaucratic because caseworkers would be charged with keeping families on whatever state and federal governments define as the straight and narrow. Given that the bureaucratic-heavy Great Society programs of the 1960s achieved little success, as well as research showing that in most cases, those receiving welfare cash without strings will spend it properly, that part of Ryan’s plan may not make sense at all.
As you can imagine, Ryan’s proposal have once again focused attention on the divide between progressive and conservative anti-poverty advocates over whether poverty is a result of structural problems resulting from free market systems or bad decisions resulting from a lack of personal responsibility. Which, in turn, has focused attention on the role of unwed motherhood in miring kids and families in poverty.
From the perspective of progressives such as Matt Bruenig of Demos, poverty is a structural problem, one that results from the fact that young families mired in poverty aren’t either paid more by jobs or get more in welfare benefits in order to deal with the burdens of raising children. Particularly for poor women, argues Bruenig, “the mere act of adding a child to a family”, further mires them (and their kids) in poverty. From where progressives sit, simply providing families with cash benefits would do plenty to alleviate the burdens of poverty.
On the other hand, conservatives such as Robert VerBruggen of RealClearPolicy argue that poor women could stave off their plight by delaying childbirth while they are in their early 20s, a time in which they are less likely positioned to earn middle class incomes. By waiting longer before having their first child (and perhaps, getting married before then), poor women and their kids are less likely to be impoverished. Writes VerBruggen: “women might encounter a better marriage market or at least be able to collect more stable child support.”
Both points are compelling. Poverty is in part a result of the interplay between how skills (and the lack thereof) are rewarded in the marketplace, and the choices that result from levels of knowledge. Yet both arguments and the respective solutions are flawed, as is Ryan’s plan overall. Why? Because the solutions ignore addressing the nation’s education crisis, the underlying cause of both unwed motherhood and long-term poverty.
Let’s start with this fact: Fifteen percent of young women age 16-to-24 in 25 of the nation’s big cities are neither working, finishing high school, or studying at an institution or program of higher education, according to Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristin Lewis of the Social Science Research Center in a report released in. This includes 20 percent of young Latino females, 19 percent of young black women, and 11 percent of young white women. These young women are dropping out of school at a time in which knowledge attainment is critical to economic and social success.
Annual compound growth in real weekly wages for high school dropouts has declined between 1963 and 2008, even as high school grads with some higher ed training, and college graduates have seen compounded annual wage growth of at least four-tenths of one percent. This is because dropouts (and even many high school grads) lack the strong reading, math, and science skills needed to gain entry into high-skilled and knowledge-based white- and blue-collar jobs that are (and will continue to be) the biggest sources of economic growth.
The news isn’t much better for women (and men) who only graduated with a high school diploma and have no training at the traditional colleges, technical schools, and apprenticeship programs that make up higher education. The unemployment rate for young adults age 16-to-24 with just a high school diploma and not enrolled in any form of schooling was 17.4 percent in July, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, double the overall unemployment rate for the nation. The average high school dropout earned 35 percent less in median weekly wages in 2012 than a high school graduate who attended college, a gap that has been growing for some time.
The very changes in the economy that have rendered dropouts unemployable is increasingly hurting young high school grads without college experience as well; the fact that they often have little in the way of on-the-job experience (something that grads age 25 and older have attained) is also damaging their employment prospects. The fact that employers, especially those in knowledge-based sectors, have long ago figured out that many high school grads have not been provided with the college-preparatory education that is the baseline needed for tackling high-skilled jobs is also a problem.
As a result, both dropouts and high school grads without some form of higher education training are mired in poverty. Twenty-seven percent of households in the lowest 20 percent of income earners were high school dropouts and another 36 percent were high school grads without some form of higher education, according to the U.S. Census Bureau; they made up just nine percent of the highest-earning fifth of the nation’s households, and just a quarter of those in the fourth-highest earning fifth of all households.
But the consequences of dropping out or only attaining a high school diploma without some higher ed training extend beyond being unemployable. Particularly for young women, when they unable to attain anything other than the most menial of work, puts them into a vicious cycle. They are more-likely to become out-of-wedlock mothers in part because they see no point in either using birth control or delaying gratification, especially since they are already out of school and in the adult world, the natural stage that comes before starting families.
Thirty-five percent of young women neither working or in school becoming pregnant versus just 10 percent of peers who are engaged in college and career, according to SSRC. Once female dropouts and high school grads without college training have children, they are unlikely to continue on the path to high school and higher education even though achieving those goals will lead them to gain middle class employment. As a result, they remain impoverished for the long term.
At the heart of the problem is the fact that American public education continues to subject far too many young men and women — especially those in big cities that are home to the worst-performing districts, as well as poor people in rural areas and increasingly in suburbia — to educational neglect and malpractice. Forty-seven percent of fourth-graders eligible for free- and-reduced lunch, along with 34 percent of eighth-graders from impoverished backgrounds, read Below Basic on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal test of student achievement.
These woeful results are the consequence of shoddy reading, math, and science instruction, often by teachers poorly trained by the nation’s ed schools and protected by near-lifetime employment laws that allow laggard teachers to stay in classrooms. There’s also the fact that our children, especially those from poor and minority households, are being provided shoddy curricula, exacerbated by a century of rationing education — especially the comprehensive high school model, gifted-and-talented programs, and special ed ghettos used to condemn young men considered unteachable by those unwilling to instruct them.
The consequences of low-quality education have been reaped by the young women of today — and will eventually be borne by their own kids. This is a problem because poverty doesn’t naturally determine academic destiny. Some 3.4 million children from poor backgrounds — many of which came from homes where parents were either dropouts or merely received high school diplomas — were among the top-performers in their schools, according to a 2007 study by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. But they are unlikely to progress any further so long as they are condemned to failing schools that don’t nurture their talents or even address the literacy issues plaguing struggling peers.
This isn’t to say that providing cash benefits isn’t a good idea. It certainly is. Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit — which provides money (in the form of tax refunds) in exchange for working — is a good idea. But as with most anti-poverty programs of the last century, pure cash payments will only ameliorate the effects of poverty for the short term — even when they spend money properly. To paraphrase the old proverb, teaching a young woman to fish (through high-quality education) will do her more good in the long run than just handing her food.
Given that education — specifically the premiums given to collegians for attaining higher education — accounts for between 60 percent and 70 percent in the variations in wages, according to Harvard University professors Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, it is critical to address the long-term educational issues that has resulted in so many young women (along with young men) into economic and social despair. [This would also help address income inequality.] Reforming education will also help their children get onto the path out of poverty.
As for delaying childbirth? Women should do this, and civic society (especially in black and Latino communities) should encourage this; in fact, community groups already do. But there’s no way any government anti-poverty program can make this a condition of receiving benefits without either greatly expanding welfare state bureaucracies beyond a level tolerable to the public or violating the U.S. Constitution.
More importantly, the best way to encourage young women to delay pregnancy (and help them, along with young men, attain jobs that can pay them middle class wages needed to sustain families) is to get them back into school. Young women, along with young men, will delay short-term gratification when they can attain long-term goals. Just as importantly, they will then keep their kids on the path to graduating from high school and higher education, keeping them from remaining poor.
This is where systemic reform of American public education comes in. This can start in the short term by expanding the array of charter schools and other school operations that can help dropouts and those who merely graduated with a diploma get back on the path to educational success. Academy of Hope, a charter school in D.C., and the See Forever group of charters, are among the operators engaged in such work. In fact, anti-poverty programs can reward women and men receiving benefits for attending remedial education programs that address their illiteracy and innumeracy, as well as complete higher education.
Creating a tax credit program modeled on EITC that would reward poor women for skipping out on low-wage employment and going back to school would also make sense. Expanding early childhood education programs (and even offering them at night) so that kids can learn while poor women go to school is also critical. [By the way: As Ellen Galinsky, the author of Mind in the Making, would note, both adult education programs and early childhood education offerings should include focusing on the seven executive functions that are key to both kids and adults making smart decisions.]
Then there’s addressing elementary and secondary education for the long haul. Within urban and even many suburban communities, this means moving away from traditional districts that have long ago proven incapable of providing kids with high-quality education, and expanding a wide array of school options — including charters as well as private schools operated by churches and community groups. This also includes overhauling how we recruit, train, compensate, and evaluate teachers and school leaders; as well as implementing Common Core along with developing of high-quality curricula aligned with them.
The most-important solutions for stemming unwed motherhood and poverty for the long haul start with addressing the ills of American public education. Better-educated women are less likely to end up having children before their educationally and economically ready to do so.