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Navigating the 'school-to-prison-pipeline' for minorities

Photo by cayoup/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A post earlier this week about a Department of Education report that tallied incidents of harsher punishment for black and Latino kids in U.S. schools, as compared with their white counterparts, has drawn several comments on this site. And some of these, perhaps expectedly, have been along the lines of pointing the finger at minority kids as simply being more apt to be troublemakers.

One reader, Wpriceh, who described himself as a high school senior wrote: "The reason, as most students will admit, is because these students generally create more trouble than others."

Okay, let's back up here. There's more to what's often referred to as the "school-to-prison pipeline" than might meet the eye for some, and there are years of research behind it. The factors that work their way into this pipeline, which disproportionately affects black and Latino children, go all the way back to infancy and include health care access, family finances and educational access.

This includes access to early childhood education, an important factor that helps sets the stage for a child's educational success. From a 2009 report from the Children's Defense Fund, which has a "Cradle to Prison Pipeline" campaign:

Studies have shown that children who do not get the early intervention, permanence and stability they need are more likely to act out and fail in school because they lack the skills necessary to succeed. Researchers of early childhood emphasize the importance of early childhood nurturing and stimulation to help the brain grow, especially between birth and age seven, and even beyond and thus help children to thrive and to be on a positive path toward successful adulthood. The importance of stimulation in the first years of life is dramatically underlined in the U.S. Department of Education’s study of 22,000 kindergartners in the kindergarten class of 1998-99, which found that Black and Hispanic children were substantially behind when they entered kindergarten.

Shirley M. McBay, a dean at M.I.T. and minority education advocate, wrote about an experiment with early childhood education in the 1960s that followed "low-IQ, disadvantaged three- and four-year-olds" placed in a two-year preschool program through age 19:
Compared to children not enrolled in any preschool, those in the Perry Preschool gained 11 points in IQ scores, had much lower rates of enrollment in special education, and much greater high school graduation rates: 67 percent compared to just 49 percent for the control group. They were also half as likely to be arrested and about 60 percent more likely to be employed.

Despite these benefits, less than 4 out of 10 four-year-olds with family incomes below $10,000 are enrolled in any preschool program. Head Start, which has also been carefully evaluated and shown to benefit disadvantaged students, serves only one out of six of the 2.5 million eligible low-income children.

The next step on the educational ladder for most of these kids is the public school system. In recent decades, as school testing has gained favor along with punitive measures, the rules have evolved to favor children who start off with an advantage, not the other way around.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People published a report last year on the school-to-prison track as it relates to federal policy and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), reauthorized as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001. From the report:

When the original ESEA was passed in 1965, it represented a landmark achievement in addressing inequitable educational opportunities experienced by poor children and children of color. After being reauthorized and modified seven times over the last 35 years, ESEA now contains provisions that actually contribute to those inequities.

For example, the current version – NCLB – has bolstered the expansion of the School-to-Prison Pipeline in several ways. First, by focusing so heavily on standardized test-ing as a metric for accountability, and by attaching high-stakes consequences to the results of these tests, NCLB creates an extremely narrow definition of educational success. As a result of mandates to raise student test scores, districts, schools, administrators, and teachers are under enormous pressure to produce results. This pressure has actually given schools a perverse incentive to encourage or facilitate the departure or removal of lower-performing students.

Unfortunately, many schools across the country have done just that by assigning such students to alternative schools, encouraging or coercing them to drop out or enroll in General Educational Development (GED) programs, removing them from attendance rolls, or improperly using exclusionary school discipline methods such as suspension, expulsion, and arrest.

Second, the overemphasis on standardized testing has led to narrower and weaker curricula in schools nationwide, with substantially more class time being devoted to test preparation at the expense of richer and more well-rounded instruction. This, in turn, has led to increased student disengagement and alienation, both of which foster disruptive behavior and lead to increased use of exclusionary discipline.

Third, NCLB has played an important role in the expansion of the path from schools directly to the justice system. Due to the dynamics described above, schools have relied increasingly on police and juvenile courts to handle school disciplinary matters. NCLB funds support the hiring of school-based law enforcement personnel, and the law encourages the referral of students to law enforcement for school-based behavior. While there are legitimate purposes for these sections of the law, in practice they have too often contributed to the needless criminalization of children and youth.

The NAACP report also refers to "zero tolerance" school discipline policies that have become popular in the last decade, with suspension as punishment for campus offenses as relatively minor as dress code violations, cell phone violations and general defiance. It continues:
While these dynamics are affecting students nation-wide, they have been especially damaging for students of color and students with disabilities. Indeed, as the rates of punitive discipline have increased, racial disparities have only continued to widen....These racial disciplinary disparities are mirrored by disparities in academic achievement, as graduation rates continue to be far lower for students of color than for their peers.

For more context, the Columbia University-affiliated National Center for Children in Poverty has a compilation of research on disparities that begin in early childhood. It's a complicated issue, one that we'll explore further on this site. In the meantime, thoughts are welcome.