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No Room for Alternative Facts in Higher Ed

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States use third-grade reading scores to determine how many prison beds they will need in the future.

Even though this claim has been widely debunked, there seems to be no shortage of highly intelligent and influential people who not only believe it is true but will repeat it in earnest — and often unchallenged — in front of crowds of similarly intelligent and influential people.

These are people who — some of whom hold Ph.D.s — have deluded themselves into believing that there are actually governmental agencies where officials go through the trouble it takes to procure and analyze state education data so that they can use it to inform their prison construction plans.

Usually, the purveyors of this claim use it to try to emphasize the importance of teaching children to read early in life, lest children fall behind academically and never catch up, and wind up being relegated to a life of crime as a result.

I can recall several instances in which I have witnessed accomplished professional people proffer the idea that third grade illiteracy rates are used to calculate the need for future prison space.

For instance, back in 2012, Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS, made the claim in her “headline remarks” at a forum on education technology as she touted how PBS promotes literacy in young children. (Start watching at 1:08:25.)

“California decides how many prison cells it will need to build based on the reading scores of its third graders,” Kerger said matter-of-factly, explaining that she makes it a point to include the “statistic” in every speech that she gives around the country.

“If that isn’t a sobering statistic and if that doesn’t underscore the importance of our focus on education, I don’t know what else I can share with you,” Kerger said.

The idea that government officials base prison construction on the reading abilities — or inabilities, rather — of America’s elementary school students has no shortage of believers in higher education as well.

Back in 2015, Dr. Bahiyyah Muhammad, assistant professor of criminology at Howard University, made the claim at a forum titled “The Criminalization of Black Youth.” (Start watching at 21:40.)

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When I challenged Muhammad to provide proof (1:08:25), she responded “the way you find that information out is inside of the prison,” but that it would be next to impossible to document.

“There’s no researcher that’s going to be able to go into prison and get the warden of the facility to say, ‘Yes, I’m gonna allow you to interview these people to say this is what we’re doing,” Muhammad said. “It’s also about money for them. So you have to go about it through the back door.”

In my younger days, I might have embarked upon this fool’s errand. However, I’m no longer interested in trying to track this story down, because I have come to realize that — no matter how many highly respected people vocalize it — there’s simply no evidence to support it.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, an award-winning journalist at The New York Times Magazine, and who moderated the forum at which Muhammad spoke, indicated at the forum that she had tried several times to document the claim herself.

“I’m a pretty good investigative journalist, and I could not track it down, either,” Hannah-Jones said. “I would love to write the story but I’ve never been able to prove it.”

Other journalists have also come up empty-handed. One of the most oft-cited pieces is this article by Bill Graves, of The Oregonian.

Every time I am prepared to just forget about this urban myth and move on, someone else in academe repeats the claim and gives it new life.

The latest instance took place earlier this year at the University of Southern California (USC), when Dr. Michael Quick, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at USC, made the claim during a forum I attended for members of the Education Writers Association.

When I asked Quick to provide a citation or credible source for the claim, he said he would check with faculty to see if there was any data about reading levels and prisons. He has yet to get back to me.

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“I had always thought that this story was apocryphal,” Quick conceded in his emailed response.

He then explained his rationale for using the statistic.

“What I was trying to say was — we have all heard the claims of 3rd grade reading levels and prison beds — the point of that story is that early interventions are key — and universities need to get away from thinking we can only be involved with 18-22 year old students,” Quick wrote. “We need to partner with high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools if we are really going to get at the issue of access and opportunity.”

As a former crime reporter from a postindustrial city in America’s Rust Belt, I couldn’t agree more with the importance of teaching children how to read early in life. I’ve reported on several cases of young men who drifted into lives of crime — and subsequently were killed — because of the fact that they could not read.

For instance, in a 2002 article I wrote about Andre Bates — a teenager who got shot and killed while on probation and trying to rob a Milwaukee tavern — I noted how his juvenile court records indicated that he had poor academic skills because of “prolonged environmental impoverishment.”

Andre’s uncle told me his slain nephew was “embarrassed” because he could not read.

Earlier in 2002, I wrote about similar issues faced by Laron Ball, a 20-year-old man who was shot to death in a Milwaukee courtroom after he grabbed a deputy’s gun and shot the deputy while trying to escape after being convicted of felony murder and armed robbery.

The article — which is quoted at length in this essay by my late Africology professor, Dr. Winston Van Horne — notes how Laron’s problems with the law began early in life and were linked to “lack of family support,” while his family faulted the school system for his poor academic performance.

“A psychologist linked Ball’s problems to ‘significant feelings of insecurity … which relates primarily to his intellectual/academic deficiencies,’” the article states. “‘Because of feelings of insecurity, he may have been … motivated to engage in illegal activities as he attempted to earn respect and esteem from his peers,’ the psychologist noted.”

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Researchers have long known about the link between the inability to read and heading toward a life of crime.

“Reviews of the research literature provide ample evidence of the link between academic failure and delinquency,” the U.S. Department of Justice concluded in this widely cited 1993 paper. “It can also be shown this link is welded to reading failure.”

So I can see why education advocates — or anyone else, for that matter — who wants to stop the flow of young men with poor educational backgrounds who end up in prison as a result would want to spur some type of action to reverse the trend.

However, is it really necessary to pretend that there’s some nefarious governmental committee that is sinisterly sitting around and waiting on the latest report about how many third graders don’t know how to read so that they can build a prison big enough to accommodate them all once they break the law?

If third-grade reading scores are used to determine future prison space needs, then my challenge to anyone who holds that belief — particularly those who have successfully defended dissertations and now sit on committees that make upcoming Ph.D.s defend their dissertations — is to produce the proof.

Absent the evidence, the idea that government officials are hawkishly eyeballing poor, illiterate third graders to feed America’s so-called prison industrial complex should be laid to rest.

There’s enough legitimate and provable reasons to teach kids how to read — such as love of learning, expanding their minds and giving them a decent shot at life — without having to resort to the realm of fiction in order to make it happen.

Let’s focus on those reasons — and stop relying on made up facts — in order to make the case for early reading.

Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at jabdul-alim@diverseeducation.com or you can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.

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