Go to Bad Schools, Go to Prison: The Teacher Union's Dirty Little Secret

For those of us old enough to remember its beginnings, the United Negro College Fund’s iconic “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” campaign is still haunting. It began in 1972 with images of black students shut out of college classrooms, and ended with an almost undeniable appeal: donate to UNCF so that black kids can get an education. 

But 45 years later, we’re still wasting minds. Many are black, but almost just as many are brown. In any poor California community, kids trapped in teachers-union-dominated classrooms are the least likely Californians to read or perform basic math at grade level. They are also the least likely to graduate from high school, much less go on to college. And now we have learned that beyond “terrible,” a mind is undeniably a dangerous thing to waste. 

Though derided by the teachers’ unions as an urban myth, experts in education and corrections have observed a correlation between reading proficiency in the third grade and incarceration. They do not yet use this data to project the number of additional prison beds that will be needed, but some in the field think they should. California and New York reportedly once used fourth-grade reading scores but abandoned the practice. They should rethink that decision.

America has the largest prison population in the world (more than 2 million) and the second highest per capita incarceration rate. Although the average rate is 698 per 100,000, there are enormous differences between various subgroups.

The rate is 459 per 100,000 for White men, but that number rises to 3,074 for Blacks and 1,258 for Latinos. These differences mirror the striking disparities in academic achievement and NAEP test scores between the groups.

The failure to achieve reading proficiency by age 8 or 9 is a warning sign, a marker. Third grade is viewed as a pivotal point. Before third grade, students learn to read. After third grade, they read to learn. Reading proficiency is therefore a critical skill. The correlation between reading proficiency by the third grade and school dropout has been proven repeatedly in academic studies.

A study released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that there is a six- to eight-fold increase in the high school dropout rate among students who fail to achieve proficiency by the third grade. Recent large studies have compared dropout rates and incarceration.

Robert Balfanz at Johns Hopkins University found that 80-90% of students who do not achieve literacy in the third grade fail to graduate high school on time and face a fourfold risk of jail or prison.

Another study by Dr. Andrew Sum at Northeastern University reported by the New York Times noted a 63% higher rate of incarceration among school dropouts. One in 10 young male high school dropouts is in jail or a juvenile detention facility compared to 1 in 35 young males high school graduates. 

Not unsurprisingly, seventy per cent of the nation’s prison population (males and females) lack a diploma. Sadly, the importance of literacy at such a comparatively young age has not yet been widely recognized by educators, the media, or the public.  

Reading scores are difficult to improve. Students learn math in school. Language skills are acquired at home. Children who grow up with parents who lack reading proficiency themselves and who provide limited reading material for them start out at a significant disadvantage. It is a handicap that is difficult overcome. Unfortunately, most of them do not. 

The importance of achieving proficiency by the third grade and the costs of the failure to do so is finally catching the attention of state officials. The National Governors Association has released a report urging governors to take five policy actions to improve reading by the third grade.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have strict retention policies on third grade reading. Florida was the first to mandate that students who fail to meet reading benchmarks are to be held back.

Mississippi, Ohio, Arizona, Iowa, Michigan, and Nebraska also imposed benchmarks. Utah requires public schools to improve the percentage of third graders reading at grade level or lose state funds.

Given the progressive decline in NAEP scores, more states are planning to do the same. Although it ranks 49th in NAEP scores, California remains obsessed with increasing taxes to pay for state employee pensions and high-speed train to nowhere and has yet to mandate that its youngest citizens achieve basic reading skills.

Nationwide, 32% of fourth graders were proficient in reading, based on 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores. 25% of the California’s fourth graders achieved proficiency. Only 15% of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District were proficient (literate). Eighth graders performed just as poorly.

Orange County has many failing schools, particularly those in Anaheim and the primarily Spanish-speaking city of Santa Ana. When Anaheim's school district failed to reform its curriculum and teaching methods in order to improve student performance in reading and math, parents at Palm Lane School invoked the Parent Trigger Law. The law enables parents to request that a chronically failing institution be turned into a charter school.

The union-backed Anaheim Elementary School District responded by filing a lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court. Legal fees for the action cost taxpayers $700,000. The parents were represented pro bono by Kirkland and Ellis. The court ruled in favor of the parents, finding that the district had failed to abide by the law when it reviewed the parents’ petitions, and ordered the district to turn Palm Lane into a charter school.

The union-backed school district kept the school as it was, still failing, while it filed an appeal. Legal costs now exceed one million dollars. It has been more than three years since the parents filed the required signatures. While their case has languished in the courts, the parents have been watching their children leave home each day to attend a chronically failing school.

How many Palm Lane third-graders will end up in prison? Does the union even care? The facts at Palm Lane and the other chronically failing schools, which the teachers’ union does nothing to fix, represent a scandalous failure of public education.

It is imperative that every avenue to improve the public education be pursued, from overhauling existing union policies regarding training and tenure of teachers to promoting vouchers, charter schools, Education Saving Accounts, home schooling and online courses as well as developing innovative new teaching strategies.

Res ipsa loquitur. The data speak for themselves. A mind is a dangerous thing to waste. A very dangerous thing to waste.

R. Claire Friend, MD recently retired after 35 years in the private practice of psychiatry. She is the former editor of two professional publications and the current editor of the UCI Department of Psychiatry and human Behavior Quarterly Psychiatric Journal with an appointment on the volunteer faculty as an Assistant Professor.

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