The School-to-Prison Pipeline: School Reform as a Civil Rights Issue

On December 12 the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on thenConstitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights held an official hearing on ending the so-called School-to-Prison Pipeline. The witness list for this hearing included the National Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education, the National Administrator for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Ohio Attorney General, Edward Ward, a former Chicago City Schools student and youth leader of Blocks Together and the Chief Judge Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Georgia, Steven Teske. Despite the good intentions of some of these witnesses, and the senate hearing in general, all persons involved concentrated on the worst abuses, the most heinous instances of injustice, and none addressed the larger, systemic issue which plagues public education in this country.

Contemporary American culture requires a high level of functional literacy to acquire basic needs: food, shelter and housing, acquired through earning a living wage. Literacy has become a human right because without it people cannot secure their basic needs. Despite this, the United States has one of the highest levels of illiteracy in the industrialized world. The U.S. Department of Education conducted a five-year, $14 million study of U.S. adult literacy involving lengthy interviews of U.S. adults—the most comprehensive study of literacy ever commissioned by the U.S. government. This government study showed that 21% to 23% of adult Americans were not “able to locate information in text”, could not “make low-level inferences using printed materials”, and were unable to “integrate easily identifiable pieces of information.” The data was grouped by literacy level — how well the interviewees responded to material written in English — and indicated that 40 to 44 million of the 191 million U.S. adults in the least literate group earned a yearly average of $2,000 and about 50 million adults in the next-least literate of the five literacy groups earned a yearly average of $5,ooo at a time when the Census Bureau considered poverty level for an individual to be $7,000 per year (National Center for Education Statistics). These findings demonstrate that although there are many illiterate people there are many more who are functionally illiterate. These people can read basic words and may even be able to read aloud without error, however they lack comprehension. Public education has failed to provide these individuals with the tool they need to survive—literacy. This is a new and privileged position for literacy to hold. This technology, despite having existed for over 10,000 years is still not universally adopted. Never before has a society required this skill for survival—not even American society.

Public education was not meant to serve this purpose. Public education—like the factory system it was modeled on—was meant to sort children into different categories. Some would work in menial jobs, some in semi-skilled, some skilled and others in professional, white-collar work. This is the system currently in place. However, it is an anachronism. There are no jobs in America, which can support a family, that do not require a high degree of functional literacy. Our educational system needs a radical re-design to accommodate the need all Americans now have for a high level of functional literacy. However, this is easier said than done. Literacy is a complex process that involves much more than simply being able to decode and recite the phonetic sounds; rather, comprehension requires conventional reference. Literacy experts call conventional reference by many names: background knowledge, cultural understanding, contentknowledge… However, they all mean the same thing. People have to know and understand before they read. This seems counterintuitive—that literacy functions in reverse—however people with literacy have constructed a signification system by which phonetic signs serve as hints to and not direct representations of meaning. Therefore, meaning is in fact absent in the most literal sense. The construction of meaning from written symbols has much less to do with what is literally represented on the page than with the internalized signification an individual possesses. Schools and schoolteachers are much more in the business of cultural indoctrination than we are in the business of teaching literacy—especially when standardized tests are the measure of student success.

White, middle class people highly literate in the dominant cultural paradigm develop standardized tests. These people develop test questions which are fundamentally biased towards this dominant culture and which marginalize all others. The results of thetest—like the process of reading—is determined prior to its enactment. So too, are the effects of public education, which are largely a failure. The school-to-prison pipeline is only the most obvious and heinous of the routine failure of the public education system. Standardization is partly to blame, the anachronistic system of grades (1st, 2nd, 3rd) based on a child’s age, the measurement of success by degree of conformity, the bell system, the arbitrary and universal rules (no chewing gum, no talking, stand in line, etc.) are also to blame. All these ideologies can be discarded, however. They are not required for a school to function. Not only are they not necessary—they do harm. However, many are not willing to go so far as to recommend a complete dismantling of the current system.

The solutions mainstream liberals advocate are predictable. Ira Glass, on the September 14th edition of This American Life, suggested that character education is the key to eliminating the “achievement gap”—that portion of students who fail to become functionally literate through American public education. Character education has been lauded in the past as well—American Indian boarding schools were founded on the same principle. The well-intentioned witnesses at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing had similarly well-intentioned but futile suggestions. Even if the rates of suspension and expulsion are reduced and the most heinous and grievous child civil rights violations are abated our educational system will still be attempting to enforce an outdated and ineffective model of societal organization which fails millions of Americans. What American public education needs is a radical redesign that fosters self-determining and autonomous individuals who create anew. Internal motivation is a much stronger enforcer than external punishment. It simply needs room to grow. The public education system needs to loosen the chains—on students as well asteachers. We need to enable the innate curiosity of children and allow teachers the autonomy to teach to their passions and talents. When we do prisons will loose inmates and schools will gain learners and leaders for a new society.