Regarding my recent blog about Neil Gaiman for Secretary of Education (and the edited version at The Answer Sheet), Ken Libby took me to task on Twitter for, among other things, Gaiman’s comment about prisons and literacy:
I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.
It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.
My immediate point after quoting Gaiman was: “Gaiman even understands the difference between causation and correlation—a dramatic advantage over Secretaries of Education in the past two administrations.”
I have also received a friendly and much appreciated email from Chris Boynick addressing the same issue, noting that it is an urban legend that prisons use child literacy to predict prison needs. See “Prisons don’t use reading scores to predict future inmate populations” and “Kathleen Ford says private prisons use third-grade data to plan for prison beds.”
Boynick sent that same information to Neil Gaiman who responded on Twitter with: “@CBoynick Interesting. The person who told me that was head of education for New York city.”
So let me make a few clarifications addressing all this:
- My Gaiman piece is satire (and to be honest, that should put all this to rest). I don’t really endorse or want Gaiman as Secretary of Education, although I think Gaiman is brilliant (as one Gaiman fan noted, we don’t want to detract from his life as a writer!). My real point is the calamity that is those who have served at Secretaries of Education—especially in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.
- Nonetheless, Gaiman only relays a fact: He did hear this stated as a truth. So maybe we can level some blame at his believing this, but apparently a person with some authority who should have known the truth did state this in front of Gaiman.
- Has Gaiman, then, been a victim (like many of us) of an urban legend? It appears so.
- But, does Gaiman then make some outlandish or flawed claim based on misinformation? Not at all. In fact, I highlighted that Gaiman immediately made a nuanced claim: “It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.” And that claim helps him move into a series of powerful and valid points. I should emphasize that most politicians and political appointees start with misinformation and then make ridiculous and flawed proposals. On that comparison, Gaiman wins.
And for good measure, I suggest “Do prisons use third grade reading scores to predict the number of prison beds they’ll need?” by Joe Ventura, which addresses the urban legend, concluding with an important point relevant to this non-issue about Gaiman’s speech and my blog:
Perhaps it’s best to call this a distortion of the truth. While there isn’t evidence of State Departments of Corrections using third- (or second- or fourth-) grade reading scores to predict the number of prison beds they’ll need in the next decade (one spokesperson called the claim “crap”), there is an undeniable connection between literacy skills and incarceration rates.
You see, a student not reading at his or her grade level by the end of the third grade is four times less likely to graduate high school on time–six times less likely for students from low-income families. Take that and add to it a 2009 study by researchers at Northwestern University that found that high school dropouts were 63 times (!) more likely to be incarcerated than high school grads and you can start to see how many arrive at this conclusion.
But once incarcerated, not all hope is lost. In fact, literacy instruction can help on both ends of the correctional system; studies have shown that inmates enrolled in literacy and other education programs can substantially reduce recidivism rates. One study of 3,000 inmates in Virginia found that 20% of those receiving support in an education program were reincarcerated, while 49% not receiving additional support returned to prison after being released.
So, while prison planners do not use third grade reading scores to determine the number of prison beds they’ll need in the decade to come, there is a connection between literacy rates, high school dropout rates, and crime. While we should file this claim as an urban legend, let’s recognize why it resonates with us: it speaks to the important ways that poor reading skills are connected with unfavorable life outcomes [his emphasis].
With that, I rest my case: Gaiman’s speech is overwhelming on target, moving, and brilliant, and he deserves a bit of space for a small error of fact, and the current Secretary of Education is incompetent.
This leads me to wonder why so much concern about one detail in an author’s speech and my satirical blog, but so little concern for the incompetence of the Secretary of Education and the entire education agenda at the USDOE.