During the first presidential debate both President Obama and Governor Romney referenced plans for improving America's education system. After all, an educated workforce has long been viewed as the engine for America’s economic development and prosperity and education is commonly understood as an important path to social mobility. However, the candidates aren't talking about a key cause and consequence of school failure for children in America's most disadvantaged communities: the "school-to-prison" pipeline.
The "school-to-prison" pipeline characterizes the increasingly tight connection between educational failure, limited employment opportunities, and the historic growth in America's prisons and jails, which have become a repository for many of our high school dropouts and conceal the extent of educational disadvantage—particularly for black males—from public view.
Although crime is down over the past 35 years, the incarcerated population in the United States has increased five-fold. The total inmate population housed in federal, state, and local prisons and jails is about 2.3 million people, a historic high. One percent of American adults are living in correctional facilities. Even more are under the supervision of the correctional authorities while on parole, probation, or other forms of community supervision.
Recent data show that 7.2 percent of young white men and 13.5 percent of young black men don’t finish high school and there is reason to believe that the numbers are even higher. At a time when economic opportunities and wages for those with low levels of education have dwindled, incarceration has become increasingly concentrated among dropouts: 12 percent of young, white men and 37 percent of young, black men with less than a high school diploma are in prison or jail. Even more can expect to spend some time behind bars.
Those numbers seem straightforward until you dig into how the data is collected. The U.S. has a constitutional mandate to collect data about the population through a decennial census for the purpose of congressional apportionment. In the middle of the Civil War, President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which was designed to give land, and later money, to states to support the education and training of a competitive workforce. This type of public policy design—often termed grants-in-aid or block grants—meant that the federal government needed to collect more information about the size, distribution, needs, and capacities of the population to guide the design and evaluation of policy and to decide how to distribute money to states and localities.
During the Great Depression, the federal government began collecting data in between census years through the Sample Survey of Unemployment—which in 1942 became the Current Population Survey, a monthly survey of 50,000 to 60,000 individuals living in households. We continue to collect and use this data to design and evaluate public policy and determine how to distribute federal money. Reports that the unemployment rate dropped to 7.8 percent in September, for example, come from data collected through the Current Population Survey.
Here's the problem: Those data don't include some of the most disadvantaged segments of the population—people who are highly mobile, people who don't live in households, or people who reside in prisons and jails. The most recent Current Population Survey data show that in 2008, 13.5 percent of black men between 20-34 years old didn’t finish high school or an equivalency degree. But, including inmates in estimates of high school completion suggests a nationwide dropout rate among young black men of 19 percent—more than 40 percent higher than conventional estimates.
Including inmates shows that there has been no improvement in the black-white gap in high school completion among men since at least the early 1990s and the racial gap in high school completion has hovered close to its current level of 11 percentage points for most of the past 20 years. Moreover, young black male dropouts are more likely to be in prison or jail than they are to be employed.
These findings call into question claims about educational progress. They also call into question the data commonly used to construct accounts of the American population, to design and evaluate social policy, and to decide how to spend billions of federal dollars.
The presidential candidates have offered a range of proposals for how we might improve the American educational system. Yet, good public policy demands better data that reveal the real causes and consequences of educational success and failure. If we are to better prepare the American workforce while also making education more affordable and accessible to America's most disadvantaged groups we need our candidates to demand better data and then create policies using that data that represent the full range of the American experience and include people housed in our prisons and jails.
This is the fifth in a series of essays provoking a conversation around the invisible issues of Election 2012—those crucial topics that hide in plain sight as the two candidates square off during the presidential debates this month.