Investing in Teachers Instead of Prisons

Investing in Teachers Instead of Prisons

September 30, 2015

As prepared—speaker may have deviated from this version

I want to tell you about something I'm not proud of.

Early in my time as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, we set out to make our schools safer places for children and adults.

We knew that too many of our students were going to jail. So I asked if we could find out what time of day our kids were getting arrested.

I figured that if we knew when the arrests were occurring—after school, I suspected—we could target an intervention to keep kids more engaged.

I didn't expect the answer: that the majority of the arrests were occurring during the school day, in our school buildings, mostly for nonviolent misdemeanors.

Those calls to the police, to put kids in jail? We were making them.

We were responsible. We had met the enemy, and it was us.

No one had set out to criminalize the behavior of our students, or to start them down a path of incarceration. But those were the facts.

And they are bound up with another set of facts.

The fact that America has less than five percent of the world's population—and more than 20 percent of its inmates.

The fact that America locks up black people at a far higher rate than South Africa did at the height of Apartheid.

The fact that young men of color are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males.

The fact that one out of every three black men in America is predicted to go to prison at some point in their lives—one in three—while just one in five of them receives a bachelor's degree.

Facing the facts on incarceration leaves us with no choice. We, as a country, must do more to change the odds.

You can reduce those statistics to numbers on a page. But there are people behind those numbers, in Ferguson and Baltimore and New York, and a hundred other places.

Spend time in those places, and you will be left with no doubt: we have to do more.

And that's why I want to lay out an idea today that will strike some as improbable or impractical, but which I think is essential.

It's about setting a different direction as a society, a different priority—one that says we believe in great teaching early in our kids' lives, rather than courts, jails and prisons later.

Let me tell you why this is so important to me.

In close to seven years as education secretary, I've had the chance to spend a lot of time bearing witness to great teaching and learning, and meeting young people who are finding ways to share their unique talents with the world.

But I've also met a lot of young people whose lives have followed a different trajectory, and I think a lot about those young people.

There's Brandon, who at the age of 11 wrote graffiti on the bathroom wall in his Denver elementary school. His school called the police, and Brandon's act of vandalism became a criminal matter. Brandon was sentenced to what they called "community service" alongside adult offenders. He told me, "I was definitely the only 11-year-old picking up trash on the side of the highway." It's simply mind boggling.

That experience also left him with a criminal record—and, years later, when he set out to become a police officer, the department turned him away because of that youthful mistake. I talked with him just a few days after he got that news, and he said, "It killed my sense of hope."

There's the young boy from Broward County Schools, who racked up almost thirty behavior referrals and received his first battery charge as a seven-year-old, after having an anxiety attack following the death of his grandfather.

And there are the young men I met recently in an Illinois prison, which I visited a few weeks ago, together with Father Michael Pfleger. These young men were locked up for a variety of crimes they had committed in their childhood years. They didn't make excuses or dodge responsibility, but many of them told us that from an early age they had to take care of their families, lacked meaningful job options, and felt completely alone in a world where nobody seemed to care about or believe in them.

What did these young people have in common?

All had made bad choices, large or small.

For many, when they'd needed support, it wasn't there. For some, the system found ways to push them out rather than help them.

And, as Father Pfleger wrote later, all of them were examples of unrealized potential.

Every day, as a society, we allow far too many young people to head down a road that ends in wasted potential. Sometimes, we are complicit in the journey.

We need to do more to change that.

Let's fix our priorities—in a way that says something very different about what we expect from our kids.

The bet we're making now is clear. In the last three decades, state and local correctional spending in this country has increased almost twice as fast as spending on elementary and secondary education. Ask yourself, "What does that say about what we believe?"

Leaders at the state and local levels have the power to change that—to place a bet on getting it right with kids from the start, and on the power of great teaching in particular.

I'm not pretending for a second that schools can do this alone—that they can replace efforts to deal with poverty, hunger, homelessness, or other ills that affect our young people. But the facts about the impact of great teaching are too powerful to ignore.

I haven't met a parent yet who needed to be convinced that it was important for her child to have a great teacher. Parents intuitively know what research tells us.

A mountain of evidence makes clear not just that teachers are the most important factor in a school, but how important they are—so much so that kids who have great teachers end up with months' worth more learning than kids who don't.

And the benefits of a great teacher prove out in life, not just in school. A single year with an excellent teacher rather than an ineffective one—a single year—has been shown to have benefits in lifetime earnings of a quarter-million dollars or more for that class—and a measurable impact on their likelihood of attending college, and of having a child in their teenage years.

The linkage between education, or a lack thereof, and incarceration is powerful.

More than two-thirds of state prison inmates are high school dropouts. And an African-American male between the ages of 20 and 24 without a high school diploma or GED has a higher chance of being imprisoned than of being employed.

Today, our schools suspend roughly three and a half million kids a year, and refer a quarter of a million children to the police each year. And the patterns are even more troubling for children of color —particularly boys—and for students with disabilities.

We cannot lay our incarceration crisis at the door of our schools. But we have to do our part to end the school to prison pipeline.

That's going to force us to have difficult conversations about race, which I'll get to in a moment.

But I want to start by talking about bold new steps our states and cities can take to get great teachers in front of our neediest kids.

It's hardly a secret that it's challenging to recruit and keep fantastic teachers in the schools where the needs are greatest. The rewards of that work are extraordinary—but it's an incredibly hard job.

So here's an idea for how you put a new emphasis on schools rather than jails.

If our states and localities took just half the people convicted of nonviolent crimes and found paths for them other than incarceration, they would save upwards of $15 billion a year.

If they reinvested that money into paying the teachers who are working in our highest-need schools and communities—they could provide a 50 percent average salary increase to every single one of them. Specifically, if you focused on the 20 percent of schools with the highest poverty rates in each state, that would give you 17,640 schools—and the money would go far enough to increase salaries by at least 50 percent.

I've long said great teachers deserve to be paid far more. With a move like this, we'd not just make a bet on education over incarceration, we'd signal the beginning of a long-range effort to pay our nation's teachers what they are worth.

That sort of investment wouldn't just make teachers and struggling communities feel more valued. It would have ripple effects on our economy and our civic life.

Obviously, this isn't the only way you could redirect funds to attract and keep more great talent in the most challenged schools. Alternatively, you could take just a quarter of the $15 billion and use it to support teacher leadership, creating five positions at each of those high-poverty schools for accomplished teachers who'd mentor their peers—and giving those teachers $25,000 pay increases.

There are lots of ways to go about this, and ultimately, local leaders and educators will know what's best for their community. But the bottom line is that we must do more to ensure that more strong teachers go to our toughest schools.

Right now, in far too many places, glaring and unconscionable funding gaps create all the wrong incentives. To take just one example—and there are many—the Ferguson-Florissant school district in Missouri spends about $9,000 per student. Eleven miles away, in Clayton, funding is about double, at $18,000 per student. How is that a plan to give kids a fair start?

Right now, far too much great talent leaves our toughest schools, or never arrives at all. Let's challenge everything—and make that work the pinnacle of an educator's career.

Let's invest more in the adults who have dedicated their professional careers to helping young people reach their full potential. And let's place a new emphasis on our young people as contributors to a stronger society, not inmates to pay for and warehouse.

I'm not naïve about doing all of this overnight. And for those already in the system, we can't just walk away from them—we also have to invest in education, career training, treatment, and support programs that help young people who are already involved in the criminal justice system become contributing members of our society. That's why we are starting the Second Chance Pell program, to give those who are incarcerated a better chance at going to college.

To be totally clear, I'll repeat that we are talking about savings that come from alternative paths that involve only nonviolent offenders. This is not about being soft on dangerous criminals—this is about finding ways, consistent with wise criminal justice policies, to reapportion our resources so we prevent crime in the first place.

I'm not suggesting that this is an either-or with other investments we know we must make, inside and outside of education.

But I'm convinced that making a historic bet on getting it right from the start would pay massive returns for our families, our communities, our society and our nation's economy.

According to a 2009 McKinsey report, the achievement gap between us and other top-performing nations is depriving the U.S. economy of more than $2 trillion in economic output every year.

A separate study found that a 10 percent increase in high school graduation rates would reduce murder and assault arrest rates by approximately 20 percent. And a one percent increase in male graduation rates would save up to $1.4 billion in the social costs of incarceration.

So you don't have to be a liberal romantic to like the idea of investing up front in our kids. A hard-nosed look at the bottom line will take you to the same place.

I recognize that what I've just laid before you is ambitious. But, if we're serious about eliminating the "school to prison pipeline," a shift in funding is only part of what we need to do. In truth, there's a lot more we need to get right.

As I said, that need goes way beyond education. What we do to take on poverty, to deal with violence, to support families; to promote integration of neighborhoods and schools, to expand jobs, and improve health and much more—all of that is part of the solution.

In our schools, reducing the number of our young people who end up behind bars, fundamentally, is about changing the odds for our most underserved students. That means following through on the difficult but vital work of turning around chronically low performing schools, and helping educators continue crucial progress in cutting dropout rates and improving graduation rates, which today are at historic highs. It means ensuring that all students—including and especially those in low-income communities of color—have access to high standards, aligned to the expectations of the real world, and challenging coursework that prepares them for college—without time lost to remediation.

It means expanding the opportunity of quality preschool, whose power to reduce incarceration is well-established. It means giving teachers the preparation and support they need to succeed—especially in high need schools. And it means ensuring that children go to school free from fear —whether from gun violence or bullying or racial or sexual harassment or assault. None of that work is new; all of it is essential to changing the odds.

Unfortunately, some in this country would have us move in exactly the opposite direction—by cutting the funds that states and districts so desperately need to make opportunity real for our kids. That's exactly what Republican budget proposals would do. As compared to the President's budget, they would cut funds for vulnerable students, support for teachers, job training, and preschool opportunities that we know—we know—help our young people become productive citizens rather than wasting years behind bars. It is the foundation upon which academic success can be built.

Taking the essential steps to expand what we know works in education should be a no-brainer. But there's more to it than just budgets and policies. Perhaps the hardest step of all is taking an unsparing look at our own attitudes and decisions, and the ways they are tied to race and class. In the wake of Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere, this has become a central discussion for many in America, and rightly so—if belatedly. Those of us in education cannot afford to sit back.

Let's recognize, up front, that this is among the hardest conversations we can have in education. People enter this field out of love for students and the genuine desire to see them excel and thrive.

Yet we also know that suspension, expulsion and expectations for learning track too closely with race and class.

As the author Ta-Nehisi Coates recently pointed out, our high rates of incarceration, our high numbers of high school dropouts, and our high rates of child poverty are not unrelated problems.

As was true for me and my colleagues in Chicago, sometimes the facts force a tough look inwards.

This is not just about explicit, obvious bias. Indeed, sometimes, when a genuinely transparent moment of bias arises, the whole country takes a breath.

A child holds a clock. And we see a bomb.

But more often, it's far subtler stuff, buried in invisible privileges and expectations we're not even aware we hold.

A psychology professor named Phillip Goff is working with police departments and school districts to help officers and educators become more aware of the implicit biases we all carry within ourselves.

What Dr. Goff and others are discovering is that when we become more aware of the biases we carry—and we all carry them—we can learn how not to act on them.

It is painful to admit that one's own actions might be causing harm, particularly for those of us who have dedicated our professional careers to serving young people.

When I found out what was happening in our schools in Chicago, it was like a punch in the gut. But, it forced us to analyze, and change adult behavior in many of our schools. And the students we served were better off for it.

All of us have work to do. All of us.

Not by asking teachers and principals to put up with more misbehavior, or to feel less safe themselves. Quite the opposite. Learning requires order, and unacceptable behavior is unacceptable behavior.

Instead, we need to do the hard work of comprehending our own biases, and building supportive structures that help all children reach their full potential.

This is what they're trying to do in Broward County. I'm thrilled to have Superintendent Robert Runcie here with us today. Three years ago, as he put it, "our default response had become law enforcement." But hitting rock bottom had been their wake up call, and it led him to insist that Broward County find a way to keep kids in classrooms and out of courtrooms.

Now, three years later—in partnership with folks like Dr. Goff, and thanks to the educators and staff in those schools who were willing to do the work—disciplinary incidents have been reduced by a quarter. And school-related arrests are down 63 percent.

Part of the reason has to do with new systems the school district put in place. But the bigger change had to do with the way people saw themselves and the problem they were trying to solve.

It's difficult work, challenging centuries of institutionalized racism and class inequality. But I firmly believe a hard look at ourselves is an essential part of becoming the nation we strive to be—one of liberty and opportunity, regardless of the circumstances of your birth.

As many of you know, this work is deeply personal for me. I grew up in Chicago, and formed some of my deepest relationships playing pickup basketball on the South Side, near the afterschool tutoring center my mother started in 1961. For the young men I played ball with, there wasn't a lot of margin for error, and not a lot of second chances.

Some of them ended up on a path toward a strong education—and that shaped their lives. One helped me run the Chicago Public Schools. Another, who never met his dad, and whose mom was largely absent, tutored me at my mom's tutoring center. Today, he is chief technology officer at Cisco and was named one of the 50 most important black research scientists in the country. Others—just as smart, and just as full of potential, promise and energy—ended up on a different path, and they are in prison or dead. What they lacked was education opportunity, support and guidance.

We cannot stand by while another generation of young people—from Chicago to Denver, and from Baltimore to Ferguson—faces the same choices.

That's why we're in the fight we're in, to make opportunity real for those who were born without advantages, and who have lived and grown with struggle and fear. That's why I so strongly believe, as the President does, that we must be a nation of second chances. It's why we have to try new ideas. It's why we have to do everything we can.

All the ideas I've talked about today are part of that same fight. Yes, it's about educational and economic opportunity. But it's bigger than that. It's a fight to increase social mobility. It's a fight for social justice. For too many of our children today, it can literally mean the difference between life and death.

Our children and our country deserve a different bargain, a different set of priorities. And, when we bet on the extraordinary potential of ALL of our children, when we bet on the transformative power of teachers, we cannot lose.

Thank you. I look forward to your questions.