“Explaining the School-to-Prison Pipeline” – from change.org

by Megan Greenwell

Published January 31, 2010 @ 11:12AM PT

change.org  – Poverty in America

It’s well-established that low-income students are much less likely than their more affluent counterparts to receive a challenging, fulfilling education. When one group of students is at a disadvantage from the beginning, they don’t perform as well on the standardized tests required to graduate from high school and they are more likely to have behavioral problems leading to punishment in school. But could those factors actually push low-income students toward prison?

A new report from the civil rights group Advancement Project concludes that high-stakes standardized tests and zero-tolerance policies in public schools have created a direct school-to-prison pipeline for many low-income students and students of color. These disadvantaged students are being forced out of their schools, whether by overly harsh punishments for their infractions or by being held back because they failed a standardized test. And when school is no longer an option, many of those disenfranchised teenagers turn to crime. High school dropouts are eight times more likely to be incarcerated than their peers who graduate.

The report documents the dramatic rise in police presence at schools over the past several years, calling students the most “policed” group in the country after actual inmates. Unsurprisingly, the schools with the heaviest police presence are the most “troubled” ones — in other words, inner-city schools where poor students of color often receive little more than a cursory education. “The results have been devastating,” the report’s authors write, “as across the country there have been dramatic increases in the use of lengthy out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, referrals to alternative schools, referrals to law enforcement and school-based arrests.”

Although standardized tests and school discipline procedures rarely are considered together, the Advancement Project researchers argue that they are the two major complementary factors pushing kids out of school. Making state tests required for graduation has been a major effect of the disastrous No Child Left Behind Act, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wants to link them to teacher pay as well (the latest New Yorker includes a great read about Duncan’s philosophy on standardized tests). The problem is that those tests discriminate against poor students and those of color. They are more likely to study in schools with fewer resources and be taught by underqualified teachers throughout their educational career, not to mention have problems out of school, like serious hunger, that affect their ability to focus. In many states, students who fail the standardized tests early in high school are held back a grade. And being held back has been shown to be the single largest predictor of dropping out.

After eight years, No Child Left Behind has compounded many problems in American public schools and created others, leaving them nearly as dysfunctional as the country’s criminal justice system. Perhaps under new leadership America will finally end the direct pipeline from one to the other.

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