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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Education, Incarceration, and the Achievement Gap in Urban Districts: Using a Pragmatist Lens to Understand Student Achievement on a Community-Level

Education, Incarceration, and the Achievement Gap in Large Urban Districts:Using a Pragmatist Lens to Understand Student Achievement on a Community-Level

The possibility that incarceration could be a contributing factor to the achievement gap has been long overlooked. In fact, most research examining the relationship between education and incarceration merely portrays incarceration as a likely consequence of – rather than a contributing factor to- the low-level of achievement among those represented by our nation’s achievement gap (The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2010; Western & Petit, 2010; McKinsey & Company, 2009; Western & Wildeman, 2009; Harlow, 2003). However, recent data establishes incarceration as a significant factor impacting academic achievement in large-urban school districts where heavy rates of incarceration produce unintended socioeconomic consequences that work to confound student achievement at the local, community-level (NAACP, 2011).

In their report titled: Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate, Under Educate, the NAACP reveals how our nation’s prison system contributes significantly to poor academic achievement, specifically in large-urban districts. Their analysis of six major U.S. cities (i.e. - Houston, Indianapolis, Jackson, Los Angeles, New York, & Philadelphia) revealed that a majority of low-performing schools are found in neighborhoods with high rates of incarceration where large portions of the local budget are being dedicated to the prison system –as opposed to education- exacerbating already low achievement levels in schools that are forced to lay off teachers, increase class sizes, and cut after-school programs. The report also reveals that the rate of incarceration within these large urban districts is concentrated within small areas of these cities. For example, more than 50 percent of the people incarcerated in 2008 in New York were from neighborhoods that account for only 18 percent of the adult population. These heavy rates of incarceration create problems that confound student achievement beyond matters of limited funding, as the social and economic devastation associated with incarceration has been well documented by scholars outside the field of education (see, The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2011, 2010). As large numbers of individuals are being imprisoned for non-violent offenses (e.g. – violation of drug laws), the buildup of incarceration in these communities produces diminished returns that are counter to the logic behind our investment in imprisonment: you put bad people away to improve the community (Brown, 2009; Butler, 2009; Clear, 2002). More specifically, the prison literature base reveals that heavy rates of incarceration exacerbate and create many problems on the community-level such as: community economic strain (Gonnerman, 2004), increasing crime rate and intergenerational inequality (Butler, 2009; Shihadeh & Steffensmeier, 1994; Western & Pettit, 2010), child psychological/behavioral disorders (Wildeman, 2010; Miller, 2006), and the deterioration of social ties and families structures (Western & Wildeman, 2009; Clear, 2002; Western, Lopoo, & McLanahan, 2002). While some scholars in the field call for investment in social programs and better sentencing policies that could alleviate the rate of incarceration in these areas (Western & Pettit, 2010; Gonnerman, 2004), state and federal sentencing practices work to “over-incarcerate”, that is: incarcerate beyond a point that is effective for improving the public safety and welfare. Clearly, incarceration functions as a factor that can substantially shape the social dynamics of a community; moreover, the recent data published by the NAACP proves that over-incarceration confounds student achievement in large urban districts plagued with high rates of incarceration and low-achieving schools.

Presentation of Core Argument

The fact that most scholars position incarceration as a consequence of- rather than a contributing factor to- poor educational outcomes is perhaps indication that we are failing to understand the presence of the achievement gap in large urban districts. If such a significant factor impacting academic achievement is being overlooked, it is certainly clear why we continue to fall short in our efforts to close the achievement gap- especially in large urban districts where gaps in achievement are the most pronounced (McKinsey & Company, 2009). Moreover, if we have managed to overlook such a critical factor in urban environments as this, we should stop and ask ourselves: are there other factors that we may be overlooking? Clearly, we must refine how we understand –and search for solutions to- our nation’s achievement gap. More specifically, we must widen our perspective on student achievement to understand it as phenomenon shaped by factors that extend beyond the context of the school and work to incorporate those factors -whatever they may be- onto the list of essential matters that we must tend to in our efforts to find viable solutions. In this paper I propose and explore the following idea: In order to idealize practical solutions that will result in the systemic, long-term change that will eventually erase the persistent gaps in achievement among America’s low-income and minority subgroups, we must employ a pragmatist lens to re-conceptualize the achievement gap, by analyzing it in terms of transaction (see Dewey & Bentley, 1949) –a philosophical approach that would allow us to see the achievement gaps that pervade our nation’s districts as community achievement gaps.

Article Overview

I will begin first by explaining how and why previous research efforts have fallen short in establishing the link between incarceration and its impact on education- which I use to introduce the need to widen our perspective on understanding student achievement and the achievement gap. Next, I introduce transaction as a viable philosophical approach for understanding and making sense of persistent trends of poor achievement. I then apply a transactional lens to introduce and explain how the achievement gap is really a community achievement gap: a persistent trend of poor achievement perpetuated through a collective system of interwoven exchange between the social structures that influence and shape the experience of daily life at the community-level. I conclude with a brief discussion of how community-based efforts of school reform can be improved through a transactional lens.

How Research has explored the Link between Education and Incarceration

Most data examining the relationship between education and incarceration reveal that there is only a one-directional causal relationship between education and incarceration, where the results of one (i.e. – educational achievement) can prevent (or lead to) the other (i.e.-incarceration). Figure 1 below reveals a growth trend that confirms this reality: showing data where the rate of incarceration among men aged 20 to 34 increases with lower levels of education for white, Latino and black men alike.

Fig. 1

The findings from the NAACP’s report, however, break the mold of this one-directional interaction between education and incarceration to restructure our understanding of the relationship between the two as a dynamic bi-directional system. Figure 2 below places this refined understanding in juxtaposition with the typical viewpoint of the relationship between education and incarceration.

Fig 2

The bi-directional transaction depicted in state 2 (in yellow) reveals that while incarceration increases with decreased educational achievement, the increasing rate of incarceration can work to diminish educational attainment, creating a compounded deficit, so to speak.

The data linking incarceration as a causal factor for poor achievement is indication that our current efforts to understand and resolve the achievement gap are failing to actualize the true complexity of its existence. Although scholars have managed to build a strong literature base that works to explain how the social and cultural dimensions of a given context present challenges to learning and academic achievement for those represented by the achievement gap (Lee, 2008; Ladson-Billings, 2006; Sebring, et. al, 2006; Spencer, 2006; Burton et al., 2005; Graham & Hudley, 2005; Eccles, 2005; Aronson & Steele, 2004; Lee, Spencer, & Harpalani, 2003; Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Eisenberg & Damon, 1998; Burton, Allison, & Obeidallah, 1995; Coleman et al., 1966), none have considered incarceration as an underlying contributor to poor achievement. Instead, many discussions surrounding educational reform have typically provided very limiting analyses of our nation’s achievement gap that fail to seek how student achievement is perhaps impacted by factors that extend beyond the context of the school, focusing instead on topics such as: teacher quality (Engel, 2009; Darling-Hammond, 2006a; Hanushek & Rivkin, 2006; Peske & Haycock, 2006; Darling-Hamond & Youngs, 2002; Darling-Hammond & Snyder, 2000), teacher experience and effectiveness (Munoz & Florence, 2008; Nye et. al, 2004; Rivkin, Hanushek & Kain, 2005; Weisberg, 2009), teacher training and certification (Boyd, et. al., 2008; Bransford & Darling-Hammond, 2005; Kane, Rockoff & Staiger, 2007), teacher compensation, retention & sorting (Hanushek, Kain, & Rivkin, 2001; Lankford, Loeb & Wyckoff, 2002; Levin & Quinn, 2003; Loeb & Reininger, 2004), high-stakes testing and external accountability (Carnoy & Loeb, 2002; Darling-Hammond, 2006b; Dee & Jacob, 2009; Diamond & Spillane, 2004; Duncan, 2009; Figlio & Ladd, 2008), school organization and instructional leadership (Elmore & Burney, 2000; Elmore & Jones, 2007, Elmore, 2000, 2005; Spillane & Diamond, 2007; Weiss, 1990), school resources (Hanushek, 1998; Kober, et. al, 2009), and school choice (Bilfulco & Bulkley, 2007; Levin, 2007; Miron, 2007; Plank & Smith, 2007). The breadth of this policy literature reveals that most have sought solutions to close the achievement gap with very limiting perspectives that enable potentially vital factors (e.g. - incarceration) to escape our scrutiny for their impact on student achievement. It is evident that we must widen our approach to understanding the persistent deficits represented by the achievement gap, or we will continue to overlook potentially pivotal leverage points that inform our efforts to idealize better, practical solutions that could serve to wipe it away once and for all.

Widening Our Perspective on the Achievement Gap

The findings linking incarceration to lower achievement in schools proves that student achievement is inextricably tied to a complex web of social, cultural, economic, and political structures that shape life experience at the community-level. If we ever hope to put together viable reforms we must learn to understand the presence of the achievement gap in these terms. In her 2006 Presidential address to the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Gloria-Ladson Bilings heroically reconnected passive measures of student achievement typically published in reports on our nation’s achievement gap (see Anderson, Medrich & Fowler, 2007) with the complex reality from whence they emerged. She re-contextualized the achievement gap as an “education debt”, an embodied deficit of the accoutrements that nurture and cultivate academic success shaped by a complex web of historical, economic, sociopolitical and moral tensions. In doing so, she radically widens our perspective on the achievement gap as a phenomenon with a very complex, tangled reality; one that that must be understood and addressed with a mindset that considers the cumulative and wide-range of social factors that contribute to the existence of the gap. In offering this critical re-conception of the achievement gap, Ladson-Bilings, evokes an analytical lens that resounds with the pragmatist ideals of Dewey and Bentley (1949) who introduced the concepts of self-action, inter-action, and transaction as stages/modes of inquiry used to understand phenomenon. Self-action, the first of the three, explains things as acting under their own power, while, interaction (the second stage of inquiry) explains things as independent entities being balanced in causal interconnection (i.e. - cause and effect relationships). Transaction, the foremost stage, is explained to be the most comprehensive and complex mode of inquiry that, by procedure, “permits a full treatment, descriptive and functional, of [a] whole process, inclusive of all its ‘contents’…in whatever way the advancing techniques of inquiry may require” (p.137). That is, transaction is a method of analysis that sees things not in isolation, but in light of the entirety of their ecological context as necessary.

Unfortunately, (as revealed earlier) most scholars have employed an interactional level of analysis of the achievement gap, which often view the differences in academic performance among sub-groups simply as short-comings that result from causal interactions limited to the school environment (e.g. - teacher quality, school leadership, parental support, school choice). In order to put together viable efforts to close the achievement gap, we must gather a more comprehensive understanding of its existence: we must untangle the complexities surrounding student achievement by employing a transactional interpretation of student educational outcomes. We must place the resulting differences in student performance (expressed as “gaps of achievement”) back into the active contexts from whence they were shaped, “to see in union what it becomes important to see in union” (Dewey & Bentley, 1949, pp.135): student achievement and the community at large. It is only in a transactional light, that the true reality of our nation’s achievement gap can be revealed; not simply as an accumulation of learning deficits among sub-groups struggling to succeed within America’s schools, but as a web of community-level transaction that produce poor learning outcomes for students therein- a community achievement gap. Building on Ladson-Bilings’ notion of the education debt, I argue that we must place emphasis on explaining and understanding the persistent inequality present in our nation’s schools as a deficit actively perpetuated through a collect system of interwoven exchange between all dimensions (i.e.- social, cultural, historical, political and economic) that influence the structure and experience of daily life at the community-level.

The Community Achievement Gap

Employing a “transactionalist” approach to understanding student achievement enables us to reify the achievement gap in terms of community-level transactions. More specifically, it allows us to understand how the different roles that we play as individuals (and organizations of individuals) weaves a collective web of reality at the community level that shapes what, when, where, why and how individuals (and groups of individuals) learn (Rogoff, 2003; Dien, 2000). A transactionalist approach places emphasis on the fact that this web is woven by an assortment of hands that extend beyond those typically seen as directly involved with schools (e.g. – parents, teachers, administrators) and pushes us to search for a more comprehensive solution by extending our analysis to examine how other community factors contribute to low levels of academic achievement. More specifically, it pushes us to see how social institutions driven by those typically seen as indirectly involved with schools (e.g. – state legislators, local government officials, law enforcement, social services) play an integral role in shaping community transactions that influence and structure the trends of life experience that emerge in environments where low-levels of academic achievement persist. For example, figure 3 (below) shows us a model of the success of schools being tied to the typical stakeholders (i.e. –teachers, administrators, & parents) with the school acting as the primary social institution through which achievement is fostered. Recent research found that parental ties, leadership, professional capacity, ambitious instruction, and a student-centered learning climate are the essential supports for school success in large-urban districts (Sebring et. al, 2006).

Fig. 3

On the other hand, Figure 4 (below) is a hypothetical model of the community achievement gap that persists in large urban districts, where school performance is placed in context with the community-level transactions that take place when there is a high rate of incarceration. While this model is not entirely comprehensive, it is a step towards a more pragmatic understanding of the student achievement as influenced by social structures beyond the school. Here, among many other things, it can be understood that improving schools in these communities would mean targeting solutions that consider how to address the deficit of family/adult support for schools and the students therein. Figure 5 (also below) reframes the typical viewpoint of school improvement within the context of the community achievement gap in large urban districts. In light of this contextualization, one could see connections arise between the loss of essential supports for schools in these environments (i.e. - parental community ties and professional capacity) and the lack of funding and parental support due to high rates of incarceration.

Fig 4.

Fig. 5

Moreover, this model attempts to encourage a “zoom-in” and “zoom-out” approach to understanding student achievement, where each given contextual factor could itself be examined for its inner properties. In this sense, whatever body of research relevant to that factor should be called upon to explain and understand the fundamental properties of how that particular element operates in connection with its role in contributing to lower levels of achievement. For example, figure 6 (below) attempts to zoom in on both crime and incarceration rate in order to highlight the connection between the large amounts of individuals from large urban districts being incarcerated for drugs-related violations due to mandatory sentencing laws. While my overall purpose of this paper prevents me from going much deeper on this issue, one should take away the larger connection made between state (and federal) legislature as a social structure that can confound student achievement indirectly in its efforts to deter crime by enacting laws that have driven up the rate of incarceration.

Fig. 6

The benefit of attempting to actualize student achievement in terms of community transaction is that we can make higher level connections to the social structures (e.g. – incarceration practices, absence of robust community services) at the root of community-level problems that confound student achievement. The work to improve, then, requires us to draw from bodies of knowledge from all sectors of relevant research (e.g. - psychology, criminology, education, law, economics, and sociology), where we come to theorize and construct solutions that coordinate the reform of multiple social structures in tandem. In the case of large urban districts, successful efforts to mitigate the achievement gap sustained in these communities must incorporate: (a) state-level (and federal) prison policy reform that would reduce prison spending and shift much needed funds toward education and (b) provide preventative social services and employment opportunities that reduce crime.


A community-based approach toward improving student achievement is not a new idea; Mark Warren (2005) makes the case that successful reform of urban schools must incorporate reform of the surrounding community. Although he provides three different models for reform (i.e. – community schools, school-community organizing, and community sponsorship of schools) each model more or less finds its foundation by honing in on the same key social constructs typically examined in evaluating and improving academic outcomes in urban neighborhoods (i.e. parents, community members/centers, administrators, district employees, and teachers). However, one particular model gets very close to a more robust vision of addressing the stagnation of student achievement by incorporating health and dental services and educational opportunities for parents within the school. This community-school model, described by Warren, points toward a more comprehensive effort to attacking the factors that actively contribute to recurring student deficits in achievement.

However, as comprehensive as this effort is, it still centralizes reform efforts through one social structure: the school. If true, systemic change is to take place, reform efforts must be centralized at the community-level. That is, the community itself, all parts and components, must be treated as the “school” in which its citizens are pupils- including those who become incarcerated. Each avenue of community life must work in tandem to increase the educational outcomes for the pupils therein. Two examples come to mind: (1) those incarcerated must be given opportunities to be educated so that when they return to society, they may be a source of human capital to operate in social service programs that deter crime among youth and reduce recidivism; (2) subsidized housing efforts must be paired with educational and employment programs that teach fiscal responsibility and provide counseling support to families bewildered by intergenerational deficits of unstable family practices. The achievement gap is a living, breathing phenomenon whose cumulative reality simply cannot be captured in terms of student progress on achievement tests. The learning that must take place reaches beyond the pupils that sit down to take such exams; it extends out into a community of individuals who are beyond the impact of a K-12 system. We must re-examine the social structures at work in communities that harbor persistently low-levels of achievement and understand how they can be utilized as vehicles of change.


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