The value of teaching prisoners

February 21, 1996|By Michael D. Nauton

THE DECISION TO terminate GED programs in Maryland's prisons has me shaking my head in disbelief. My disbelief comes from the abandonment of hope I've held since the '94 elections that common sense in government was about to make a long awaited come-back.

Frivolity and failed social programs would be out; basic American fundamentals would be in. I cannot believe that something as fundamentally important as basic education, especially in its unquestionable role of reducing recidivism when administered to inmates, has found itself wounded by what was promised to be a responsible budget ax.

What can be more irresponsible than terminating GED programs that benefit those the public education system has failed and our communities as well?

In 1994, Maryland fourth graders ranked 27th among 39 states in the National Assessment of Educational Progress survey, finishing two points below the national average. These results are an indictment of our public school system.

Why can't Johnny read or write? Because he doesn't have to. More than 20 years ago traditional teaching methods and grading standards began to fall victim to deconstructionists who saw a competitive grading system and insistence on quality work as demons of our patriarchal past. Learning slipped from being a requirement to being a goal.

An educational plague

This sort of thinking evolved into an educational plague called Outcome-based Education (OBE) that now infects our public schools.

With OBE, Johnny doesn't have to read or write; he can lay his head on his desk and tell the teacher how he feels about rainforest destruction. If his feelings are politically correct, he gets a check and a smiley face for the day. But Johnny's feelings won't do diddly for him when it comes time to fill out a job application.

Not finding in school the challenges that would exercise their latent talents, Johnnys across Maryland often quit school and sink into criminality -- a lifestyle where feelings do matter more than literacy.

Prison GED programs differ greatly from public education programs.

How prison programs differ

First, because students are captive audiences accountable for their behavior, classroom disruptions tolerated in public schools are reprehended in prison schools. Pounding on the desk, slamming books or taunting a teacher can earn an inmate 30 days cell restriction, easily.

Second, when an inmate is absent from class, an officer tracks him down to find out why. If the excuse is no excuse, that student is sanctioned. Hooky is a rarity.

Third and most important, the inmate student must pass a test that covers reading, writing, arithmetic, science, history and social studies before receiving a high school equivalency diploma. An inmate student -- indeed, any GED student -- cannot graduate on the merits of check marks, smiley faces and politically correct feelings.

Armed with an earned diploma, Johnnys leaving Maryland's prisons are able to fill out a job application, write a resume and read the classifieds. They are more employable than some of their unincarcerated contemporaries who leave the public school system.

At a time when the public, educators and now the governor are calling for higher learning standards and orderly classrooms, the ax is falling on one of the state's most effective educational programs -- a program that could teach the public system a thing or two about teaching the basics first, the marginally relevant second, the irrelevant never.

I cannot believe that at a time when the public is so conscious of crime and when public officials jockey to have their crime remedies heard, prison GED programs -- unquestionably effective in reducing recidivism -- would face the budget ax with hardly a peep of public protest.

Unbelievable.

Michael D. Nauton is an aide at the Eastern Correctional Institute in Westover, Md.

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