Two Battles, One Sword: Dissecting the Stagnant State of Education and Prison Reform

Two Battles, One Sword: Dissecting the Stagnant State of Education and Prison Reform

By Makiah Green


When the State of Arizona projects how many prison beds it will need, it factors in the number of kids who are not meeting fourth grade reading standards. (Arizona Republic9-15-2004) Many have longed questioned the intellectual capabilities of students in low-performing schools and have disregarded the external factors affecting these students’ academic success, including parent involvement and socio-economic conditions. It is no coincidence that the lowest performing schools with the highest dropout rates are located in some of America’s poorest cities, which are also where the highest crime rates can be found. The Department of Justice agrees that the destructive relationship between academic failure, delinquency, and violence is rooted in reading failure. Yet, the justice system is currently incarcerating people who are raised in environments of crime and educational apathy at disproportionate levels and are, as a result, fostering similar settings for the next generation of students in these neglected neighborhoods. This form of class oppression that scapegoats the lower class for structural wrongs has prevailed because of the government’s insistence to manage the education and prison systems as two separate entities rather than regarding both failing systems as the interdependent complex that it is.

The positive correlations between poverty and low academic aspirations that have been exposed through various studies should be incorporated into the formation of a permanent solution to educational inequity. Students who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods are often affected by numerous factors, such as economic hardship and gang violence, which limit their access to the proper resources necessary for high academic achievement. Scholar William Wilson explored a phenomenon in the early 1990s regarding the changing dynamics of inner cities that remain true today in the nation’s current economic crisis. He observed in “Another Look at the Truly Disadvantaged” that these neighborhoods had experienced a concentration of poverty due to the outward migration of working and middle-class families that was worsened by an increase in unemployment rates. The lack of “material neighborhood resources and the relative absence of conventional role models” resulted in both structural and social-psychological setbacks, including the unavailability of informal job networks and “negative social dispositions, limited aspirations, and casual work habits” (642). The lasting scarcity of these mentors is not to be used as an excuse for low-performing students in low-income communities; however, the effects of such conditions should be weighted heavily in determining the multi-faceted causes and long-term effects of the educational achievement gap.

Although schools should ideally serve as places of refuge from the unfortunate realities of impoverished regions, schools in these locations often reflect and intensify the harsh conditions that students are facing at home. Sociology & Crime Professor Lori A.Burrington and Historian Christopher R. Browning insist that, “the potentially positive effects of school environments are often compromised in disadvantaged neighborhoods and may serve as contexts for the transmission of problem behaviors” (qtd. in Stewart 900). Students typically spend more time awake at school than they do at home. If the schools in their neighborhood, which children are mandated by law to attend, are reflections or even amplifications of the challenges already present in the community, the disengagement and rejection of school is not at all surprising. When students are plagued with a “culture of uncertainty” that results from the exposure to widespread dropouts and academic failure, it is unlikely that they will behave well in school or want to prepare themselves for future achievements (900). According to the 2010 U.S Department of Education Condition of Education Report, 38 percent of high poverty public schools reported 20 or more violent incidents in the last school year, while only 15 percent of low poverty public schools recorded the same. Moreover, Crime and Safety Surveys conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics record that 32.3 percent of students in urban cities reported gang presence at their schools. Because report-based statistics are ultimately dependent on the willingness of students to report gang presence, the numbers could be even higher, which would further display the pervasiveness of low-income school violence and misbehavior.  As evidenced through research and statistics, the lack of resources available in disadvantaged communities in conjunction with the failure of most low-performing schools to provide protection and connection from such conditions intensifies students’ negative interactions with destructive activities, such as gangs and crime, which counterproductively prompts many into a lifelong relationship with delinquency.

Although some students from low-income neighborhoods do indeed perform well academically and manage to avoid a life of crime, it is important not to regard their individual successes as the expected norm for others from similar communities. Personal access to professional mentors, college readiness programs, and substantial finances must be considered when determining the often-undermined nature and extent of the achievement gap. The paradigm suggesting that entire socio-economic demographics consciously choose to live in poverty is the same train of thought that is responsible for the stagnant state of education in America. If government officials continue to hold individuals accountable for an institutional shortcoming, the educational achievement gap will not only remain, but will widen over time due to over population and a worsening economy. In California alone, 2.1 billion dollars of the state education budget was deferred in the 2011-12 fiscal year (California State Budget 2011-12). These drastic spending cuts and deferrals are being echoed across the country and many pro-education organizations have been shutdown as a result, further decreasing the availability of the after-school tutoring and college prep programs that have served as life-changing buffers in countless low-income communities. The detrimental effects of poverty on school environments that are reciprocated in the communities through crime are undeniably evident and become even more apparent when prison statistics for low-income neighborhoods are considered. The students who are involved in street gangs and drug dealing, among other crimes at school routinely end up in juvenile detention centers or prisons.

In order to ensure the social advancement of low-income communities that will inherently result in healthier school environments, substantial education and rehabilitation programs must be implemented in prisons. The damaging relationship between crime and education cannot be broken unless both systems are reformed simultaneously. In efforts to close the achievement gap through education reform, lawmakers often forget to include prison curriculum. The same students, who were once failed by their schools and have ended up in prison, will eventually have to return home and contribute to the same societies from which they emerged. These ex-convicts, if released unchanged, will return home only to provide the next generation of students with a destructive environment that could potentially result in the same low academic aspirations and counterproductive school atmospheres that indirectly landed their predecessors in prison. School reform efforts cannot operate at maximum efficiency unless synchronized efforts are being made to transform prisons into genuine correctional facilities. Countless research projects that measure the effectiveness of prisons have been conducted and a consensus has been reached that without conscious rehabilitative attempts, prisoners will be released with the same, if not diminished, mindset and skills than with they were admitted. In the article, “Transitions from Prison to Community: Understanding Individual Pathways,” authors Christy A. Visher and Jeremy Travis confirm the known fact that extended periods of confinement weaken individual ties to family, friends, and potential employers, later establishing: Recent reviews of the impact of correctional programming on post release outcomes generally conclude that a variety of programs, including those focused on individual improvement in education, job skills, cognitive skills, and substance abuse reduce recidivism (95).

When people speak of “bad neighborhoods” they are usually referencing crime. If prisoners are successfully trained and educated while serving time, there will be no need to return to crime once released. Inevitably, some people will commit crimes out of sheer deviousness, but there will no longer be even a remotely logical reason for previous offenders to commit crimes if they are properly prepared to reenter society as full citizens upon release. A decrease in recidivism rates will result in the improvement of crime-ridden neighborhoods, which will then have a direct positive effect on the overall environment in the corresponding schools that are currently failing. This decline in recidivism rates will also have an indirect effect on the increase of academic aspirations of students in these areas. Since academic achievement is not only based on classroom experiences, educational and professional development programs must be implemented in prisons to ensure that the social factors contributing to the achievement gap are minimized.

Supporters of separate education and prison reform efforts may think that quality prisoner education and job skill programs would provide valuable incentives to potential criminals. It is likely that a structured academic and professional development prison curriculum would cause a significant number of the nine percent of currently unemployed Americans to consider committing a crime to receive these resources that are unavailable otherwise. While this is a legitimate danger to consider, such programs would not supply prospective offenders with rewards greater than the opportunity costs risked by committing crimes worthy of jail time, nor would they burden taxpayers with more obligations than the current system already does. A substantial number of offenders have resorted to crime as a result of their disinterest or lack of access to adequate educational and employment opportunities. According to the U.S Department of Education, 60 percent of America’s prison inmates are illiterate. Due to this fact, it is highly unlikely that people who have low academic achievements desire time in prison only to obtain an education that they have failed to receive previously. In addition, the proposed prison curriculum should not be better than standard public education; it should simply be tailored towards prison inmates to meet their specific academic needs. An individualized program such as this would not cost more than it already costs taxpayers both financially and socially to keep a person incarcerated. As stated in “The Effect of Prison Releases on Regional Crime Rates” by Steven Raphael and Michael A. Stoll, 70 percent of ex-offenders are again arrested within three years of release and approximately 50 percent make an eventual return to prison (208). Needless to say, these statistics indicate a high level of criminal activity among former prisoners that could “impose substantial social costs on receiving communities” of which “poor urban communities are likely to bear a disproportionate share of the costs of addressing the problems of prisoner release and reintegration” (208). The additional short-term costs that could possibly accumulate from such an individualized prison education system should not be considered as a loss compared to the long-term benefits that society would reap from accepting generations of literate and rehabilitated ex-convicts.

The fact that 50 percent of children in low-income neighborhoods will not graduate from high school by the age of eighteen still rings true in America’s largest cities, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The thousands of organizations, like Teach for America and Homeboy Industries, that have sprouted in efforts to combat teacher inefficiency and to generate jobs for at-risk youth are producing grand results. Such movements, however, are limited in scope and simply do not have the influence or support to actualize their ambitious missions on a full national scale. These organizations were started as direct responses to what seems to be governmental inactivity due to the illogically segregated efforts to reform two interdependent systems. Politicians must acknowledge the institutional shortcomings in the education system in relationship to its disproportionate bearings on impoverished communities, while the people in these neighborhoods begin to raise global awareness of this modern day class warfare that cannot be combated solely on one front. Without fundamental changes brought about at a federal level, the current prison complex will continue to wrongly punish lower class citizens for institutional crimes against the right to a fair and equal education.

Works Cited

Brown, Edmund G., Jr. “K Thru 12 Education.” 2011-12 California Budget. The Department of Finance. Web. 2 Dec. 2011.

Percentage of students ages 12–18 who reported the presence of street gangs and frequency of gang activities at school, by selected student and school characteristics: School year 2006–07. Crime and Safety Surveys, National Center for Education Statistics Table 22. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey, 2007.Web. 27 Oct. 2011. <>

Raphael, Steven, et al. “The Effect of Prison Releases on Regional Crime Rates” Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs (2004): 207-255. Web. 30 Oct. 2011.

Reading Literacy & Education Statistics. The Literacy Company, 2011. Web. 30 Oct. 2011.   <>

Stewart, Endya B., Eric A. Stewart and Ronald L. Simons. “The Effect of Neighborhood Context on the College Aspirations of African American Adolescents.” American Educational Research Journal Vol. 44, No. 4 (2007): 896-919. Web. 19 Oct. 2011.

Travis, Jeremy, and Christy A. Visher. “Transitions from Prison to Community: Understanding Individual Pathways.” Annual Review of Sociology 29 (2003): 89-113. Web. 22 Oct. 2011.

Wilson, William Julius. “Another Look at the Truly Disadvantaged.” Political Science Quarterly Vol.106, No.4 (1992): 639-656. Web. 23 Oct. 2011.

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