A young man I have tutored for a few years recently got his GED. He left Baltimore City public schools in the fifth-grade. “Dropout” is not an appropriate description for a fifth-grader. Over a number of years he has spent time in juvenile detention, group homes, and the Baltimore City Detention Center. When I met him he had an unpaid debt to a mid-level drug dealer and feared for his life, especially in certain neighborhoods and at certain times of the night. He moved often and he regularly wore his hoodie up outside, regardless of the season.
While embarrassed by his lack of education he was always hungry for more of it. And getting the GED–at age twenty–represented a monumental achievement for him. His ability to obtain high-level literacy and numeracy after adolescence and a high school diploma is testimony to a kind of intellectual discipline that those with access to quality educational options would be lucky to emulate. He received his degree from the Commonwealth of Virginia while he attended the federal Job Corps program in Woodstock, Maryland. He took the test in Virginia, in part, because of the overly bureaucratic and user-unfriendly GED process in the state of Maryland.
Labor-market economists would be quick to point out that in the present economy getting a GED does not significantly alter the life chances of those, in aggregate, who obtain them. But this is part of the narrow view in Maryland and across America that ignores the growing significance and necessity of post-K-12 educational opportunities for those in need of basic skill, remedial education, job training and second-chance schooling.
Mike Rose—Professor of Education and Associate Director of the Writing Program at UCLA— in his important new book, Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education, provides a timely and substantive argument about the fundamental need to improve America’s “second chance” schooling options. Rose, author of numerous books on schooling and working-class education (Lives on the Boundary is absolutely necessary to understand the educational landscape in Baltimore) provides in Back to School both big-picture policy proposals as well as beautifully rendered stories of individuals trying make their way in community colleges, adult basic education and GED programs, job training programs, prison schools and remedial classes in our four-year colleges and universities, among other places.
What Rose makes clear is that those attending such institutions are not “the other America,” but represent a broad cross-section of the majority of America: the single mother, the veteran, the displaced, laid-off, globalized worker, the immigrant, those too broke for other options.
Rose describes what such institutions are about:
It is in these institutions that we can get a measure of how we’re doing as a society on a number of questions that are fundamental to our best sense of who we are. How well are we preparing students from a broad sweep of backgrounds for life after high school, and how adequate are the programs we have in place to remedy the failures of K-12 education? How robust is our belief in the ability of the common person, and what opportunities do we provide to realize that ability? Given the nature of Western capitalism, what mechanisms are there to compensate for boom and bust cycles, for “creative destruction,” for globalization? Do we have an adequate social safety net and how effective are we at providing people a second chance? How open and welcoming are our core institutions—such as postsecondary education—and how adaptable?
The problem is that these second-chance institutions are not living up to their promise, and the current political climate poses threats to their improvement and, in some cases, to their continued existence.
Because of the sheer number of citizens who have been failed by the K-12 education system in a place like Baltimore and those at the mercy of race- and class-segregated post-industrial economic conditions, Rose’s book is necessary reading for Maryland and Baltimore policy-makers.
Building on Rose’s thesis, let me also make the argument that investing in the reform of Baltimore’s second chance educational institutions would be one of our single most important and cost-effective investments in public safety.
When we link Baltimore’s education problems to the city’s “crime problem” we often think only of K-12 education. Experts will point to the school-to-prison pipeline, the connection between truancy and “delinquency,” the demand for curfews, for example.
Largely invisible in our discussion of the link between education and public safety is the inadequacy of Maryland prison education opportunities, the inadequacy of adult basic education and job training opportunities for the ex-offenders and those recovering from addictions. When we connect crime and school we don’t, for example, connect the failures of our local community colleges to more adequately fulfill their mission.
What are the educational opportunities for the 22-year-old who has already spent time in the criminal justice system and didn’t finish high school?
There is an immense amount of evidence that those in the criminal justice system did not get the education they needed. Similarly, there is an immense amount of evidence that providing educational opportunities reduces recidivism and prevents crime.
I have worked in and observed a number of prison education programs. I have worked in and observed many GED and adult basic education programs. Baltimore has some great teachers and individual programs that can change lives—but the good programs and teachers are the exception and not the rule. Many of our city’s second chance schools are completely, criminally inadequate.
We like to think narrowly about our “crime problem.” We talk about numbers of cops, arrests, murders. We also like to believe America is fundamentally about the possibility of a second chance—even for the more than six-thousand individuals who leave Maryland prisons and return to Baltimore each year.
Mike Rose expands the vision like this:
One of the defining characteristics of the United States is its promise of a second chance; this promise is central to our vision of ourselves and to our economic and civic dynamism. When we are at our best as a society, our citizens are not trapped by their histories. Sadly, this possibility is shrinking ….
The Baltimore young man who got his GED in Virginia is now living in a dorm at the Job Corps site in Pittsburgh. At that site they provide advanced training in the construction of green buildings, weatherization of older buildings, and a variety of other construction and workplace skills. He hopes to return to Baltimore and find a place to settle down and make a life.