What Is the “School-to-Prison” Pipeline?

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Photo by Steven DePalo / Education Votes

Today is Saturday, August 10, 2013.

What is the school-to-prison pipeline?  Basically, it is a metaphor for what is happening to kids, predominantly kids of color, in our public schools.  In certain school districts, when kids break school rules, they are sent to juvenile jails and detention centers.  We are not just talking about major infractions such as causing bodily harm to another person or causing significant property damage.  In some places, kids have been sent away for wearing the wrong color socks to school, because that particular color has been identified as a gang symbol.  Kids who commit school dress code violations, use profanity, or engage in fighting are also sent away, even if the fighting has not involved weapons or resulted in serious injury.

Pretty soon, kids get desensitized to being in jail, and they no longer care about the consequences of their actions.  The result is that they end up in adult jails, wasting their lives for no good reason.

One of the underlying reasons for this is the so-called “zero tolerance policies” in schools.  Zero tolerance sounds good, and it makes adults feel that they are in charge, but many times, the rules are carried too far.  Zero tolerance means, for example, that a 10-year-old who has a kitchen knife in his backpack can be suspended from school for several days, even if it is found that the knife was dropped into the backpack by his 2-year-old brother.  It means that an 8-year-old can be suspended for carrying a toy gun to school, even if it is only a water pistol.  It means that a 12-year-old can be suspended for wearing a bandana on his head, because it is thought to be a gang symbol.

Every time a child is suspended from school, even for a couple of days, they miss in-class instruction, and no matter how much schoolwork is sent home, the child may never catch up with the rest of the class.  Teachers end up having to spend extra time with the kids who have been suspended to make sure they are given the instruction they missed, but this doesn’t always happen, especially if the child has to be bussed to school.  (These days, teachers cannot legally drive a child home after school, because of liability issues, so staying after school is not an option in many cases, unless the parent comes to get the child.  Many parents, when contacted, refuse point-blank to come and get their kids after school, often because they don’t have a car, or they can’t get off work.)

The parents of the kids who are suspended often cannot afford to take time off to supervise their child at home while on suspension, so all too often, the child is home alone.   They watch cartoons on TV all day or end up getting into more trouble at home.  The “punishment” doesn’t really punish the child.  It simply gets the child out of the classroom for a few days.

Kids who miss school a lot tend to fall further and further behind, and they naturally act out their frustration with the system, often causing them to miss even more school.  These are the kids who tend to drop out of school in junior high and high school, and these are the kids who join gangs in order to “belong” somewhere.  Because they lack a high school diploma, they are guaranteed a lifetime of minimum wage work, and that’s if they work at all.  Many of them will end up getting caught by law enforcement and put in jail.  If they manage to get out of jail, they have no job skills, so they go back to what they were doing before they were put away, and the vicious cycle begins again.

Who gets into this school-to-jail pipeline?  Typically, it’s children of color, and mostly boys.  It is one of the reasons why our jails are disproportionally full of black males in this country.

Why do schools participate in this process?  One answer is the high-stakes, standardized tests that schools are required to give in order to maintain accreditation and comply with federal regulations so that they can receive funding for their remedial education and  special education programs.  The teachers are forced to teach to the test, because they feel that their jobs are on the line if they don’t.  When kids take a test, their scores are grouped by classroom or homeroom teacher.  If the students in a particular teacher’s classroom are lower than others, for some reason, the teacher can receive a poor job performance evaluation.   Young teachers, who tend to bond the best with kids on a personal basis, are especially pressured to teach to the test, because all teachers in their first three years of service are considered “on probation,” and can be fired for any cause whatsoever.   Test scores for school buildings within a larger district are grouped together, and used as a basis for deciding which principals are performing well.  Tests are typically given in the spring, and it takes so long to get then back from the company that produces the test that scores are not seen by the teachers and administration until the following fall.  Meanwhile, average scores are often reported in the local newspapers at the end of summer, before school starts, meaning that the general public knows how the kids did before the teachers do.  Schools that underperform for several years running are forced to commit to district-prescribed “schoolwide improvement plans” administered by for-profit companies, for which the schools must pay big bucks.  In fact, school districts also pay millions of dollars for the “privilege” of giving the standardized tests, which are produced by for-profit companies.  Politicians, who love to crunch the numbers, use test scores as a basis for rewarding or punishing school districts in their constituencies.  It’s a racket, pure and simple.

Standardized testing and textbooks are big business in this country.  Business controls the curriculum by controlling the textbooks and the tests by which teaching and learning are judged.  They are in league with state and federal governments.  Meanwhile, teachers are not able to connect meaningfully with kids, and they feel pressured to get the disruptive and low-performing kids out of their classrooms in a desperate bid to raise test scores.  As a result, children of color, especially the boys, lose out.  So do kids in the lower economic classes, regardless of their race, who start school with a smaller vocabulary, making it hard to learn to read.  These are the kids who are in need of remedial instruction or special education services.  These are the kids who end up in the school-to-prison pipeline.  😦

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