It’s not news that since the 1980’s, the percentage of Americans in prison has quadrupled, and it’s only common sense that those prisoners have children – and it has been widely reported that now one in twenty eight children has a parent in jail. Just for perspective – the average class size in the US is around 24 . It’s not news, really, but I’ve been thinking about it lately because the father of one of my students was recently arrested, and I’d have to guess that the parental incarceration rate of the population I work with is somewhere around 20%. I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes the incarceration of a parent is acutely beneficial to a student – but the overall tendency for locking people up presents a huge obstacle for kids looking for social mobility. It’s not an insurmountable obstacle – I watch kids deal admirably with the challenge all the time – but it’s certainly not a fair one to throw in their way.
If you’re looking for an explanation for why the last thirty odd years have not been kind to the US in terms of dropout rates or international testing results, looking at the effect incarceration has on students is one of many places you can start. Add in the arrests of almost 200,000 school age kids a year for drug possession, and it becomes more and more of a wonder that the United States keeps up with the rest of the industrialized world as well as it does. As we continue to follow these policies, our schools and the populations they serve are treated more and more as headquarters, battlegrounds, and collateral damage in our war on drugs, which makes it harder and harder to get an education there.