Education and Incarceration

December 13, 2006

In 1996, when David and I first started developing an education and job training program for kids from the juvenile justice system, we did so because we wanted to fight 2 problems–the under-education and over-incarceration of low-income kids of color. 10 years later, we face some sobering facts. African-Americans have made significant progress over the last 50 years in most domains, including education. Today, 79% of African-Americans have high school diplomas, compared to 34% in 1970. 17% have college degrees, compared with 5% in 1970. Median income has increased substantially (35k in 2000 compared to 25k in 1970, in constant dollars), as has home ownership (46% of blacks owned homes in 2000, compared to 35% in 1950) and life expectancy (72 years in 2001 compared to 64 years in 1970). Poverty has declined (25% of black families lived in poverty in 2003 compared to 55% in 1959), and infant mortality rates have plummeted (14 deaths per 1,000 birth in 2000 compared to 33 deaths in 1970). The number of black elected officials has increased 600% (from approx 1,500 in 1970 to over 9,000 in 2001). Most people would assume that if a community’s indicators had increased in all those ways, this would correspond with a decrease in incarceration rates. And yet . . .

Exactly the opposite has happened. African-Americans comprised 30% of our nation’s prisons in 1954, when Brown v. Bd. of Ed. was decided and Jim Crow was law or custom in much of the nation. Today, the numbers are worse–blacks make up 50% of our prisons. And in 2003, there were more African-American men incarcerated than enrolled in higher education.

In future posts I will discuss how this has come to pass, but for now consider three questions raised by the juxtaposition of progress in so many areas combined with the horrific increase in incarceration rates.

1) Are there limits to what education can do if educational outcomes have improved alongside a massive rise in incarceration? Those of us who are educators need to come to grips with this—we need to expand our domain of concern beyond the classroom if we are educating more kids but incarceration rates are still getting worse.

2) Why isn’t there a greater national outcry over the incarceration statistics—if we knew 50 years ago that African-Americans were going to make progress in virtually every domain, but incarceration rates were going to get dramatically worse, wouldn’t we have predicted that the mass incarceration of blacks would be the lead issue for the civil rights community, concerned citizens, and progressives everywhere?

3) Shouldn’t conservatives and centrists care a lot about this issue—after all, these prisons are hugely expensive, drain resources and raise taxes.


I recently returned from an education conference with a number of charter school true believers. My table was abuzz with talk of KIPP schools and their high achievement with low-income minority students. More and more folks are arguing that KIPP’s success comes from pedagogical practices that teach poor kids ways of being that middle-class and rich kids have already unconsciously internalized from their parents. So, to use David Brooks’ formulation, the key is to replace slouching in chairs and staring vacantly off into space with the “KIPP-approved posture: upright, every head swiveling toward whoever was speaking.” On the other side, progressive educators like my step-father, who teaches at New York City’s Urban Academy (which also achieves great results with kids who have struggled in traditional schools) argue that success comes from project-based learning, portfolios instead of tests, and teaching kids critical thinking skills rather than drill and kill. At Urban the desks are not all lined up in a row, and lots of kids slouch. But they learn–a lot.

Let me clear about one thing–there is lots I love about both KIPP and Urban, and schools in Washington, D.C. and the nation would be much better off if the KIPP and Urban folks ran more of them. But how to resolve the debate between the KIPPs and the Urban Academys on whose approach is better?

Here’s my hunch: while pedagogy and curriculum matter quite a lot, both KIPP and Urban Academy are highly successful because both schools are able to recruit and/or retain the best teachers. KIPP does it through recruitment. As its leaders will admit in private, their brand has become so powerful that the best candidates (many of them Teach for America alums) apply to teach at KIPP schools. More proof that teachers drive the KIPP results: the number one obstacle to KIPP expanding more rapidly is the the quality of the teaching pool. They can’t grow any faster because they can’t find enough high-quality teachers. For its part, Urban Academy does it through retention. They already have a core group of highly skilled educators, virtually none of whom leave.

If I’m right, it means the answer to creating more KIPPs and Urbans is harder than simply saying it needs to be done.