Jamie Zibulsky Ph.D.

Book Smart

Understanding the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Early reading skills play an important role in later school success.

Posted Sep 16, 2015

When I first decided to go to graduate school and study psychology, my goal was to work with teenagers who were involved in the juvenile justice system and to prevent younger children from following that same path.  It never occurred to me that I would end up focusing on pre-schoolers or early reading development, because I hadn’t thought about the fact that the experiences these adolescents had when they first began school could help explain the choices they made later in life.  But as I started to work as a school psychologist and spent much of my time with elementary through high school age boys who were angry or disengaged from school, the connection between their early school experiences and later desire to escape from school started to make much more sense to me. 

At first, when I would look through the school records of a troubled 15-year-old and see notes on his report cards as far back as kindergarten that said, “Please be sure to practice reading at home every night,” I would feel like a clever detective.  Over time, though, I realized that almost every student I was working with had notes like that in their school files.  Almost without fail, the adolescents who were cutting class and doing risky things when they should have been in school had been struggling readers since the day they first got there. 

I started to find evidence, and then do research, that showed that many of those young children entered school with behavioral skills that were just fine.  It was their reading skills that were low.  After just a short amount of time in school, their difficulties identifying letters and words and making sense of stories led to behavioral difficulties as well.  Even by kindergarten, a vicious cycle had started… kids who struggled academically started to act out, and acting out kept them from paying attention in class, which made it harder from them to catch up.  When you consider the fact that reading difficulties become much harder to remediate once children enter third grade, it starts to make sense that the late elementary, middle, and high school students (mainly boys) I worked with were discouraged.

I thought again about how vitally important it is to help children develop early reading skills when looking at a new article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic, called “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.”  It is a really insightful and sad article that highlights how poor a job our country has done of addressing social problems, and definitely belongs in the canon of recent writing documenting how institutionalized racism affects individuals and families of color (along with books like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and articles like “The Case for Reparations,” also by Ta-Nehisi Coates and also published in The Atlantic).  I won’t try to summarize the article here because I couldn’t do it justice, and you should read the whole thing here.

But there is one section that jumped out to me, given my own history working with kids who are victims of the school-to-prison pipeline.  Amidst talking about the other risk factors for incarceration—substance abuse, mental illness, poverty—the author quotes a professor who points out that “roughly half of today’s prison inmates are functionally illiterate.”  This statistic is not a new one, and there have long been reports of counties or states using the local literacy rate as a good way to forecast how many prison beds they will need in the future.

I don’t mean to suggest that learning to read is the solution to the complex problems that disenfranchised communities face, but it is certainly one piece of the puzzle.  There are good programs and teachers with track records of success when it comes to ensuring that even students with a host of challenges learn to read, but ensuring that those programs and teachers end up in the schools where they are needed most is a complex problem in its own right.

I often feel frustrated that it doesn’t seem like there is more I can do to tackle this issue.  However, I do think that there is a real benefit in making sure that folks making policy decisions understand how important it is for all children gets the support they need to learn to read.  Connecting the dots, by pointing out that low literacy plays a role in issues like incarceration and family involvement in schools (which I discussed here last week), is hopefully one way we can draw attention to the importance of reading.