Why you should care

Because an education might keep ex-offenders clean.

Like most educators, Jermaine Simpson is a little frustrated. He wants to see more investment in his profession, and he hates that he can’t get higher-quality materials or raise salaries to attract better teachers. He doesn’t like the tests and standards and hoops through which he must jump to measure his students. He wants to teach them what’s useful and what will help them get a job, not just what the government says he should teach.

Much of Simpson’s ire is focused on the policy that educators love to hate these days: the Common Core, which tries to make high school degrees more rigorous and has attracted criticism from liberals, conservatives, parents and teachers alike. Now you can add Simpson to that list: a teacher and administrator who works with ex-offenders and inmates in Oklahoma City, and proof that even the denizens of America’s prisons don’t like the Common Core.

Not even the teachers are well-prepped to teach prisoners.

Interestingly enough, Simpson’s complaints about the system aren’t that different from those of his colleagues working far from the incarcerated. The main objection opponents have: The standards, they believe, overcomplicate simple processes in an effort to teach “fundamentals” and critical thinking skills. And people like Simpson worry that the philosophy behind Common Core is geared toward sending students to four-year colleges, not necessarily on teaching them the most practical skills to get them through the day. The debate over the Core and whether it serves students like Simpson’s exemplifies what’s playing out all over the country, from schools to presidential debates, between two camps, one of which believes that education should serve immediate needs, help students find jobs and just be practical already. The other? That side believes in two words: critical thinking, a crucial skill for anyone, whether they want to be a doctor or a plumber, says Carrie Heath Phillips, a program director for the Common Core’s national organization.

But high standards can make students’ goals difficult, critics say, particularly for the prison populace or ex-convicts, when many are just hoping to attend community college or land an entry-level job. “Not everybody has the will to want to go to school,” Simpson tells OZY. “Some just want to earn a certification so they can get out and not just make $6 an hour.” And not even the teachers are well-prepped to teach prisoners, who rarely have computer access, what they need to know to pass the exams: “Many instructors are older and haven’t done algebra” since high school, says Dawn Grage, who for two decades has tried to help inmates in Indiana’s prisons pass the test.

Very little about prisoners’ educational history has been standard. Originally begun in the 18th century to teach inmates how to read the Bible and little else, prisoners’ education was meant to help the inmate “identify his or her sins, seek forgiveness from God and thus achieve salvation,” writes Cleveland State professor Jonathan Messemer in the International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences. It took half a century before reading, math or geography were added, and not until the industrial revolution, when people realized rehabilitated prisoners could serve a key economic need, that education for inmates jumped into the national interest. Today, the conversation is all about reducing recidivism rates — keeping people from returning to jail once they’ve come out from behind bars.

Which explains the urgency for people like Simpson; he believes the Common Core standards are responsible for his students dropping out — in a course meant to help students prepare for a GED exam (one that’s now tougher than before), 30 people signed up; only one completed it. A zoom-out perspective: Though national statistics for that GED test weren’t available for the incarcerated, the state-by-state outlook isn’t terrific — only 126 of Kentucky’s jailed test-takers passed last year, compared with 1,135 in the previous year. In Ohio, only 97 had passed by December 2014, far less than the 2,000 each of the previous two years.

But some have found the Common Core working among prison populations: It has “increased the level of knowledge required,” says Grage. Though she acknowledges that fewer offenders might aim for the diploma, she says her class pass rate has remained “above 95 percent.”

Nationwide, advocates for the Common Core argue that the test had to either match higher standards or become a dumbed-down certificate for simple reading and math skills. “The problem is, you can’t do both,” says CT Turner, a spokesman for the GED Testing Service. “We have a pipeline problem,” Turner tells OZY, and employers can fill more mid- to high-skill jobs if they view the credential as credible. Turner points to some successes in the mainstream: This year, 37 percent more people passed the new GED than in last year’s first run. Common Core advocates argue that the point of the standards is to be hard. When they hear criticisms like that of Oregon ESL teacher Elizabeth Hanson, who says we’re “making A-standard the norm” and leaving “the poor and the average” behind, well, the response might just be — good.

Back in Oklahoma City, one clear positive: Darmesha Gaddis, the lone graduate of that ill-fated GED test preparation class, is now enrolled in a four-year university. “That’s looked at as a major accomplishment in a lot of households,” Simpson says. “Now they see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

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