• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Thursday 24th January, 2013

The mystery of the school to prison pipeline

strong>Kids who struggle at school are more likely to get involved in crime. But, as a recent review reveals, the depressing state of research into effective ways to block the “school to prison pipeline” leaves advocates with little evidence on how to help. It is well known that low educational attainment is linked to higher rates of delinquency and reoffending. Researchers call it the school to prison pipeline. Students who become disengaged from school become more involved in crime and delinquency, and vice versa.As a mark of how serious the education problem is, more than a third of juvenile offenders participate in special education in the US, compared to 8% of the general population. And special education participants are often years behind their peers in academic skills: the average 15-year-old in special education has the reading skills of a typical 10-year-old. With this in mind, a team from the University of Texas at Austin set out to uncover the effect of delinquency interventions on educational outcomes. They made an extensive search of scientific literature on this subject from 1974 to June 2010.Of the 250 relevant reports they found, just 15 met their inclusion criteria. Studies needed to be on delinquent youths, focus on outcomes of delinquency interventions, include a comparison group, measure academic achievement or school functioning, and come from the US or Canada.The research team’s dispiriting conclusion was that “juvenile delinquency interventions are generally ineffective in improving academic outcomes.” This held true even when the delinquency program contained an academic component.The researchers also found larger effects reported in weaker studies: “While small to moderately sized positive effects of intervention on achievement were found among studies using non-equivalent control groups, these designs do not typically allow for as trustworthy conclusions as those coming from randomized experiments. For the most trustworthy research designs, the effect of intervention on achievement was not significant.”Underinvestment in delinquency interventions?The first and most serious problem the researchers discovered was that the interventions themselves were not very solid. None of the studies included an intervention that was manualized (that is, with written protocols to help practitioners deliver the program consistently) or rigorously tested. Such a lack of strongly logical, empirically evaluated approaches “may explain the overall lack of effectiveness even in the well-designed studies,” the authors note.The second problem was the dearth of relevant and high-quality studies. Although the link between education and delinquency is well known, relatively little high-quality evaluation is being funded or undertaken. Only 15 relevant studies could be found from a search of more than 35 years of research. Perhaps even more worryingly, there appears to be almost no current research. Although the review searched for both published and unpublished reports up to 2010, there were no relevant reports from the last five years of the review period: “the most recent report that met our criteria was reported in 2005.”One glimmer of lightThe only glimmer of light in the review was that, if the least trustworthy studies are excluded, juvenile delinquency interventions may have a positive effect on school attendance among delinquents aged 15-18. This finding is consistent with other research suggesting that older kids respond better to delinquency intervention. However, this apparent success may actually be due to the different characteristics of children who become delinquent at different ages: many of the older youth have less serious problems than younger offenders.As the authors explain, “Children who display more symptoms and higher levels of problem behaviors at younger ages are often simply more distressed and have a poorer overall prognosis. Children who display symptoms in milder form or who display delinquency at older ages may represent the ‘milder’ form of disruptive behavior disorders.”The mystery continuesSo what needs to happen to help block or divert the school to prison pipeline? It is possible that better-designed interventions, supported by high-quality research and evaluation, could help. Perhaps if delinquency interventions incorporated evidence-based educational programs, they might improve delinquent youths’ academic achievement, school attendance or school attitudes – and this might, in turn, help these young people stay out of trouble. And perhaps not: but only good quality research can determine what will work, for whom, and how.However, creating solid interventions and research is likely to require more than the renewed attention of program designers and academics. It may also require politicians, decision-makers in the juvenile justice system, and educators to decide that they are ready to commit the political will and the funding necessary to chip away at the mystery of the school to prison pipeline. *********Reference:Sander, J. B., Patall, E. A., Amoscato, L. A., Fisher, A. L., & Funk, C. (2012). A meta-analysis of the effect of juvenile delinquency interventions on academic outcomes. Children and Youth Services Review, doi: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2012.04.005.

Back to Archives