The fiscal crisis that Massachusetts currently faces may aggravate an already serious problem. Many good children are entering schools with grossly inadequate resources and teachers and with punitive policies that criminalize behavior. Research shows that these children are being pushed out of school and into prison, and, unsurprisingly, there is an alarming racial bias with this situation.
New “zero tolerance” approaches to discipline have almost doubled the number of students suspended annually in the last 30 years, from 1.7 million to 3.1 million, while the total number of students enrolled in elementary and High Schools has stayed flat since 1970 – at about 50 million. Minorities have been disproportionately punished. According to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, Black students are 2.6 times more likely to be suspended than white students. The Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs showed a similar racial inequality in the percentage of students suspended for more than one day from 1972 to 2000. For white students, the percentage rose from 3.1 percent to 5.09 percent; for Black students, it rose from 6 percent to 13.2 percent.
This disturbing racial disparity carries over to the criminal justice system. According to the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), between 1980 and 2000, state spending on corrections grew at a rate six times that of state spending on higher education. During the same period, the population of prisons quadrupled, growing from 500,000 to 2 million. JPI estimates that during this time, for every one African American male who entered a college or a university, three African American males entered a jail or a prison. At the end of the 20th century, there were more African American men in the prison system (791,600) than in the higher education system (603,000).
These two trends are interrelated. Research by the Sentencing Project shows that in 1997 approximately 68 percent of state prison inmates had never completed high school. What we are seeing is a “School-to-Prison Pipeline.”
This May, educators, advocates and researchers presented research on this phenomenon at a conference sponsored by The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University.
The Weekly Dig sat down with two officials from The Civil Rights Project, Daniel Losen, legal and policy research associate, and Johanna Wald, policy analyst and senior development officer, to explore this School-to-Prison Pipeline.
What is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?
Losen: We’ve done extensive work looking at the racial disparities in the impact of high-stakes testing, dropout rates, graduation rates and racial inequities in special education. We’ve looked at the racial segregation of our schools and the impact of racial isolation in urban settings. It occurred to us that there are all of these connections with the work we’ve done on the juvenile and criminal justice systems, where there are these gross disparities in terms of who’s winding up in prison.
We thought it would be a good idea to have a conference to help tie all of these things together, so that rather than focusing on these students as the problem to be fixed, instead look at what is going on in these schools. Not to eliminate student responsibility from the equation, but to say, “There is a lot going on in schools that could be done differently to eliminate this problem of so many kids of color winding up in the juvenile justice system and prison.”
Wald: It is fairly well known that there is a strong relationship between school failure and ending up in prison, i.e. that prisoners are disproportionately high school dropouts. But what has been very unclear is what are the paths of those students, and could schools somehow impact that progression?
We want to deconstruct this progression so that policies might be redirected in a way that doesn’t push very vulnerable youth out of school. We do know that school is a protective factor. If you are attached or connected to school, it lowers your likelihood of being arrested or incarcerated.
Losen: The conference itself was the beginning. We didn’t expect the research to be completely conclusive at this point. We wanted to get the ball rolling so that people are thinking more about the connections and getting the researchers thinking about those connective points.
What are some of those connective points in the Pipeline?
Losen: We started with indirect things that schools do, including high-stakes testing for diplomas and grade retention, lack of qualified teachers, lack of counselors and support services – including support services for girls who have been through all sorts of trauma. We also looked at direct policies, like referring kids directly to the juvenile justice authorities, on-campus police and, of course, zero-tolerance policies. These are harsh policies where kids are being suspended for first-time minor offenses. We’re not talking about kids who bring in guns and get expelled; that’s a very small – a tiny – percentage of kids being removed from schools. Then we explored what’s going on in the juvenile justice system.
Wald: The danger is that this becomes another criticism of schools, which is not what we’re trying to do. It’s understood that schools are simply not given the resources to provide for an incredibly needy student population.
Could you expand on the lack of qualified teachers?
Losen: There is existing research that shows that poor and minority students have much lower access to qualified teachers. They have a more mobile teacher force, so even the teachers who are “qualified” oftentimes don’t stay very long, compared to suburban and wealthier districts.
Effective teachers are not only effective in regards to academic instruction; they know how to manage a classroom. The effective teachers aren’t resorting to suspensions right and left to control their classroom. The nexus of a good classroom environment comes from good instruction and respect for students.
The problem is there are disproportionately fewer experienced teachers in more difficult situations. It’s true that in poor districts there are more problems teachers have to deal with. They have fewer classroom resources, lower student to counselor ratios, less administrative support; the buildings are often falling down, many times the textbooks are either nonexistent or damaged.
Exactly what is high-stakes testing?
Wald: In states where high-stakes testing [Massachusetts has the MCAS] is imposed, there are two things happening. One is that students who are denied diplomas for failure to pass the tests are disproportionately minority students. The second thing is grade retention. There is an increasing number of students who are being held back in the ninth grade for failure to pass these tests.
Losen: Boston has high-stakes grade retention as a policy.
Wald: In Massachusetts, there has been an increasing number of kids being held back since the introduction of MCAS three years ago. If you are held back in the ninth grade, the likelihood of your dropping out increases.
How could the School-to-Prison Pipeline be allowed to exist?
Wald: There is a political climate that makes it easy. Politicians and others frequently demonize youths and make statements like “Get the disruptive kids out of school.” This oversimplifies a very complex problem and fails to recognize that when those students are not in school, they are at heightened risk for both school failure and arrest. There have even been official suggestions made that increases in suspensions and expulsions are a positive thing because it means that schools are more “vigilant.” But that ignores all the research we have about how damaging being out of school is for youths, as well as research that shows a lot are being kicked out for relatively minor misbehaviors
Expelled kids don’t just go away.
Wald: Exactly. And we’ve got 2.1 million adults in prison, the highest rate of any industrialized country.