Wednesday, August 30, 2017
You'll hear it often dropped in conversation or blog posts: Prisons use fourth-grade reading scores to determine the number of prison beds they'll need in the future.
Nope, that is an urban myth. Education academics and prison operators alike will tell you that it is "nonsense" if you ask them. Prisons do not use reading test scores to plan the number of future prison beds. Period. Pass it on.
Still, the myth touches on a vital fact: Educational deficiencies, especially when coupled with poverty or trauma, do increase the risk of crime later. It's important, though, to break down the various pieces of the puzzle to find solutions and not put all effort, and blame, into the reading basket.
Research does show that poor reading skills lead to drop-outs later on for rather obvious reasons. If a child cannot read well, he cannot keep up in classes, and frustration sets in. He feels that it's easier to stay home or hang out with other dropouts. And dropping out of school, or a high number of absences, is a top precursor for a young person later going to adult prison, as is being treated or stereotyped as a young criminal or "thug" for even minor offenses.
The BOTEC Analysis Corp. reported in its 2016 study of Jackson crime that dropouts and absences are a primary precursor of going to prison later; so is any contact with the criminal-justice system, such as juvenile detention or being detained by police officers, which even happens often at school for minor offenses. And suspensions and expulsions feed the same school-to-prison cycle.
BOTEC found that 225 children in Jackson Public Schools are at highest risk of committing serious crime based on the top precursors. It recommended educational programs that accept children at high risk as a primary way to lower the likelihood of crime later, as well as smart alternative programs for children who get in trouble.
Sadly, the young people who need such help often don't get it due to what BOTEC called "stereotyping." The report warned that "providers of youth activities sometimes deliberately exclude children perceived to be dangerous or likely to be a bad influence on other children." That is, the ones who need it most are pushed aside, which is often the result of the school "choice" options that are putting even more financial pressure on public schools.
So, yes, early reading is vital for young people, as is learning skills such as math and critical thinking. Arts and history are vital, too. Public schools that serve children in poverty need the most resources to help them serve children who often live in poverty or traumatic circumstances—and must not be penalized for having additional needs. These children deserve the same chance to succeed as Dr. Clinton Smith points out in this week's cover story.
Likewise, Operation Shoestring is an afterschool program supplementing what is missing from a child's education and environment—and helps keep young Jacksonians out of those high-risk groups. The reality is that not every child can get enough support at home, so organizations, programs and individuals must fill that void.