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Learning to Read in Cages: A Metaphor for Race and Class Disparities in Opportunities to Learn?

by Roslyn Arlin Mickelson - September 13, 2000

A commentary on the education of incarcerated African American adolescents.

On the morning of November 8, 1998, southern California residents opened their Los Angeles Times to find an article and a series of powerful photographs about the education of California Youth Authority (CYA) wards. One particular photo took a while to comprehend. Something was not quite right, almost surreal. It depicted a California Youth Authority (CYA) classroom equipped with the California state flag hanging over a chalk board, a teacher’s desk, and two students and their teachers working together--normal enough. But the young black male students were caged. While the cages grabbed readers’ attention, the reality that the wards had became adolescents without learning to read was, perhaps, more striking than the metal bars.

Both the adolescents’ illiteracy and their cages are tangible manifestations of the disparate and restricted opportunities to learn America continues to offer too many students. The breadth and depth of restricted opportunities to learn extend beyond the question of literacy. The recently filed suit against the Inglewood Unified School District (and the state of California) over the paucity of advanced placement classes offered in this overwhelmingly African American and Hispanic school district illustrates how opportunities to learn AP calculus and physics also are tied to race and class (Sahagun and Weiss 1999). The lives of poor and minority youth are confined by their inadequate educations as systematically and effectively as the bars confine the CYA wards.

The caged black adolescent learners remind us that the burden of racism, childhood poverty, and failed social institutions--especially school systems-- falls disproportionately on certain shoulders. It is not mere coincidence that the CYA population is overwhelmingly composed of males of color. CYA is the largest youthful offender agency in the nation. Currently, it serves about 8,000 wards and 6,000 parolees. Almost all wards are males (96 percent), and the majority are people of color--only 14 percent are whites (CYA 1999). Forty-six years after the Brown decision, systematic racial disparities in educational outcomes persist. Minority male students are among the most likely students to experience school failure.

Educational failure is associated with incarceration. The educationally lethal combination of childhood poverty, racism, segregation, and under-funded and failing schools attended by poor and minority children sets the stage for the scene depicted in the photograph above. One of the caged adolescents in the photo can read only at the first grade level (Colvin 1998). About 50 percent of the individuals sent to CYA read at less than a seventh grade level, and two-thirds read at less than ninth grade level. About one-fourth of CYA wards qualify for special education. The frustration of not being able to read undoubtedly contributes to some of the behaviors that result in a student being labeled an exceptional learner.

The relationship between early educational failures and incarceration is a national phenomenon. In his recent call for more attention to reading and early literacy education, Senator Jack Westwood, a Kentucky Republican, noted the connection between illiteracy and involvement with the criminal justice system, “In the research we looked at, I was amazed that some people predict the number of prison beds a state will need in the future based on the number for fourth-graders not reading at grade level” (Harp 1999; B5).

California annually spends $36,000 to incarcerate each ward and $5,400 to educate him. In 1998, California ranked amongst the lowest of the 50 states in per pupil educational expenditures (Education Week 1998). And money matters for educational outcomes. Researchers have documented the substantial real world effects of lower school funding, childhood poverty, and race on student outcomes (Natriello, McDill, and Pallas 1990; Payne and Biddle 1999). Moreover, there is strong evidence that with proper funding and targeted spending, we can provide the high quality education necessary to positively affect the educational outcomes of poor and minority children (Ferguson 1998; Hedges, Laine, and Greenwald 1994 ).

Inequitable access to high quality education is an invisible cage that constrains youngsters who live in inner cities and rural areas as much as the tangible metal bars restrict the CYA wards. Simply put, underfunded schools offer fewer opportunities to learn to those that attend them, and poor and minority youngsters suffer disproportionately from underfunded education. Nevertheless, as Rebecca Newman and Lynn Beck observe, our national school reform conversation about standards has focused almost entirely on issues of content and mastery. But for most poor and minority children the first topic that must be addressed is opportunity to learn. Much of the current discussion about school reform suggests the problems of underachieving minority and low income students and under performing schools will be resolved by imposing high academic standards, a notion that would be laughable were the topic not so serious (1999). Kenneth Howe observes that in situations where resources are lacking, “better educational standards can eliminate low achievement . . . no more effectively than better nutritional standards can eliminate hunger under famine conditions. Providing the means of attaining the standards is required in each case” (Howe 1995: 22).

It is relatively easy for poor children to remain in America’s collective peripheral vision. Incarcerated, poor, illiterate adolescents are relegated to the margins of our consciousness until their photos appear on the front pages of the Los Angeles Times. The young men depicted in the photograph are poor, illiterate felons who broke CYA’s rules against fighting. The fact that they are not Eagle Scouts does not relieve us from the necessity of transforming the social forces that shaped their lives and the conditions under which they made their bad choices.

More than one-fifth of American children are poor. School funding disparities follow the demographic contours of family income, race, and community wealth. Racism still infects educational policy and practice. Class and race gaps in achievement continue to defy neoconservative educational reforms such as standards and accountability. Our continued reluctance to deal squarely with the race-poverty-educational failure nexus makes us complicit in erecting the invisible cages of the segregated, underfunded, inequitable schools to which we send America’s poor and minority youth. Do we really need any more photographs to get the big picture?


California Youth Authority. 1999. hppt://www.cya.ca.gov/facts/aboutcya.html.
Colvin, Richard Lee. 1998. “Young Offenders Learn ABCs the Hard Way: Caged.” The Los Angeles Times. November 8: A 1, 32.
Education Week. 1998. “Resources: Are They Adequate, Distributed Equitably, and Focused on Learning?” January 8: 86.
Ferguson, Ronald. 1998. “Can Schools Narrow the Black-White Test Score Gap?” Pp. 318-374 in The Black-White Test Score Gap, edited by Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.
Harp, Lonnie. 1999. “Group Says State Must Improve Reading Skills.” The Louisville Courier-Journal. July 12: B1,5.
Hedges, Larry V., Richard D. Laine, and Rob Greenwald. 1994. “Does Money Matter? A Meta-Analysis of Studies of the Effects of Differential School Inputs on Student Outcomes.” Educational Researcher 23: 5-14
Howe, K. R. 1995. "Wrong Problem, Wrong Solution." Educational Leadership 52 (6): 22-23.
Kozol, Jonathan. 1991. Savage Inequalities New York: Crown, 1991.
Natriello, Gary, Edward L. McDill, and Aaron M. Pallas. 1990. Schooling Disadvantaged Children. Racing Against Catastrophe. New York: Teachers College Press.
Newman, Rebecca and Lynn Beck. 1999. “Standards, Curriculum Reform, and the Educational Experiences of One Homeless Youngster: Some Reflections.” Pp 134-146 in Children on the Streets of the Americas: Homelessness, Education, and Globalization in the United States, Brazil, and Cuba, edited by Roslyn Arlin Mickelson. New York: Routledge.
Payne, Kevin J. and Bruce J. Biddle. 1999. Poor School Funding, Child Poverty, and Mathematics Achievement. Educational Researcher 28: 4-13.
Sahagun, Louis, and Kenneth R. Weiss. 1999. “Bias Suit Targets Schools Without Advanced Classes.” The Los Angeles Times, A1.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 13, 2000
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10484, Date Accessed: 12/24/2021 11:37:44 AM

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About the Author
  • Roslyn Mickelson
    University of North Carolina, Charlotte
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