You really don’t truly get something until you directly experience it or see it with your own eyes.
You can’t un-see the video of Tamir Rice being shot down as he played in a park in Cleveland. You can’t un-see a 14-year-old girl in a swimsuit flung on the ground, manhandled by authority.
That’s how I feel about the data around education inequality in our country. I can’t un-know these facts:
- Two-thirds of students that cannot read proficiently by the end of fourth grade will wind up in jail or on public assistance.
- Nearly 85 percent of the juveniles who face trial in the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate.
- African Americans make up 40 percent of confined youth, although they represent just 16 percent of the population.
I saw these effects of educational neglect firsthand every day of the 12 years I worked in juvenile corrections.
Seeing It With My Own Eyes
My first position involved transitioning youth released back into society by connecting them to education, job training or employment programs in their communities. School-aged students, who have a legal right to an education, faced endless barriers to re-enrollment. Districts set-up hoops to jump through—claims of missing records and unpaid accounts, transportation delays, unreturned phone calls and other stalling tactics—until the family finally gave up.
In truth, it was pretty hard for these kids to re-enter school. Their histories were known. Most were over-aged and under-credited and schools weren’t set up for individualized instruction. Nobody learns when he or she feels unwanted.
The only schools that wanted them were dropout recovery or online charter schools. Two-thirds of school-aged juvenile offenders re-enroll in school after release, but only one-third stay enrolled for a year. There are very few job training or employment programs in place for juveniles. The best work we did—partnering with the Civilian Conservation Corps—was de-funded by the state.
Frustrated that districts got away with this, and infuriated by a state education agency that loathes to interfere with “local control,” I thought if I documented what was going on, people would pay attention.
I convinced higher-ups that No Child Left Behind required reporting on every kid. We went from no electronic record keeping—where transcripts, I kid you not, were sometimes done in pencil (education records were so haphazard, a parole officer remarked that they “looked like they were put together by Stevie Wonder”)—to systematically recording information on youth when they came in and tracking how they progressed during their stay.
The data we gathered was appalling. Districts were reporting students as attending district schools when, in fact, they were incarcerated. Credits and passing grades were awarded for youth who hardly, if ever, attended class. These kids were, on average, three to four years behind their peers in reading and math, and just 20 percent passed statewide assessments.
The stories these youths told—the narrative behind the data—described an uncaring and adversarial relationship to school. They spoke about how teachers and school administrators were quick to negatively interpret their behavior, how they were not given information and how frustration and anger would lead them to be pushed out or just stop showing up.
Most of these kids wanted to learn. The clear message they got was that they were not welcome. Their lives were not valued.
I naively thought that if we could make information visible, people would be outraged and changes would happen. I was wrong. Here’s what I learned:
- Too few people cared or had the ability to do anything about it.
- Data gets interpreted based on ideology. Where I saw proof of system-level failures, others saw proof that parents didn’t care and kids couldn’t learn.
- State-level education is very political.
Knowing Is Only Half the Battle
Currently, the federal government requires annual standardized testing, which gives us data that lets us objectively identify educational injustice and its effects.
But having information isn’t enough. That correctional education data I helped uncover appeared on the state education website for a number of years, but it made no difference because there was no lobby, no voice, no influence.
We need our federal education law to go further than simply gathering the data. States should be required to do something about persistent achievement gaps.
There has to be political will that results in action and holds systems accountable. And state education agencies need the political cover to be able to do something about vulnerable students.
Equality of educational opportunity has to be the responsibility of the entire education community. We need to show that as a nation, we value every child.