Lack of Literacy Skills Can Push Students Along the School-to-Prison Pipeline

The school-to-prison pipeline was not built in a day, nor can it be traced back to a single cause. An explanatory piece on the website offers a primer on some of the factors that helped shape the pipeline, which has been characterized as shuttling marginalized students straight from school to prison. Written by researcher and journalist Nicki Lisa Cole, the piece includes a rundown of the following elements:

  • Government funding priorities. In the last quarter of the 20th century, funding for education dropped while the government’s financial investment in prisons rose. Indeed, Cole pointed to a report released by the United States Department of Education in 2016 that noted, “State and local spending on prisons and jails has increased at triple the rate of funding for public education for preschool through grade P–12 education in the last three decades.”

  • Zero-tolerance policies. When some schools in cities such as Chicago and Denver implemented zero-tolerance discipline policies in the mid-1990s, this caused a rapid increase in suspensions and expulsions—which, Cole explained, effectively pushed students away from education and toward incarceration. As some legal experts have noted, the Clinton administration “signed into law a zero-tolerance policy that mandated expulsion from school for certain offenses” as part of a broader crackdown on crime.

  • Institutional racism. According to multiple sources, the students most likely to end up in prison are male African American, Native American, or Latino learners. These findings align with overall trends in the demographic makeup of America’s prisons, which contain far more people of color than white people. 

Criminalization and illiteracy compound the problem

In addition to the factors detailed above, Cole also highlighted the criminalization of young people as a contributing element to the school-to-prison pipeline. “Many students who express behavioral issues at school are acting out in response to stressful or dangerous conditions in their homes or neighborhoods,” she asserted, then went on to contend that punishing such students by sending them home—where they are more likely to be surrounded by the very stressors and social situations that led them to misbehave in the first place—is an approach that criminalizes rather than supports students in need.

Illiteracy is another significant contributor to the pipeline, as exemplified in a 2017 Huffington Post article written by Christopher Zoukis that included the following stark data points: “Across the U.S., fully 43 percent of adults read at a grade 8 level or lower. Broken down, 29 percent can only read at an eighth-grade level, and 14 percent can only grasp material at a fifth-grade level or lower.” Zoukis went on to describe how adult illiteracy begins in early childhood, which suggests that young children who lack access to adequate early literacy experiences either at home or in a childcare/preschool setting are often set on a troubling path: 

Research shows that children who struggle to read in first grade are 88 percent more likely to struggle in grade four, and those who struggle in fourth grade are four times more likely to drop out of school.

Similarly, the vast majority of young people who come into contact with the juvenile justice system (85 percent, according to some sources) are functionally illiterate. Data from the Prison Policy Initiative reinforces the connection between illiteracy and incarceration by indicating that imprisoned people are far more likely to struggle with basic reading, writing, and computation skills. 


Ways to ameliorate the problem

With a lack of basic literacy skills serving as a clear indicator that students may end up in the school-to-prison pipeline, what can teachers and administrators do to help set these young learners on a different path? Here are some ideas:

  • Focus more on the “why” and less on the “what” behind student behavior issues. As documented in a 2014 article published by online education news journal The Hechinger Report, there is a notable link between special education and the school-to-prison pipeline. According to the article, among the thousands of juveniles arrested each year, “at least 1 in 3 … has a disability”—including dyslexia.

  • Better understand dyslexia. The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity noted in 2013 that “while there are numerous curricula and programs designed to improve reading, dyslexia is often overlooked when searching for causes of illiteracy,” and African American and Latino students with dyslexia “remain undiagnosed and untreated” at disproportionate rates. (Remember, this is the same population that is more likely to end up in prison.)

  • Embrace the science behind reading instruction. “Science clearly shows that to become a good reader, you must learn to decode words,” stated American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford in a piece she penned for The New York Times. In 2018, Hanford's documentary, “Hard Words: Why Aren’t Our Kids Being Taught to Read?,” sparked a new round of debate over reading instruction and best practices, and her conclusion—that the scientific underpinnings of how children learn to read have mostly not been shared with teachers—helps explain her finding that “more than 6 in 10 fourth-graders aren’t proficient readers.”

Lack of adequate literacy instruction is not the only reason why some students end up pushed out of school and into the criminal justice system, as many other factors—including school climate, poverty, and institutional racism—also have a part to play. That said, it has become apparent that letting students move through (or get pushed out of) school without developing adequate literacy skills sets a dangerous precedent. As the editors of the Rethinking Schools magazine put it:

The school-to-prison pipeline begins in deep social and economic inequalities, and has taken root in the historic shortcomings of schooling in this country.

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