Education Connection

thebroken system

One of the strongest correlations in predicting whether or not a person will end up in prison is the lack of a high school education.  This fact has been known for many years and has been codified into a law that requires inmates without a high school diploma or a GED to attend GED classes.

Even before there was a GED program in the MDOC there were primary and secondary education programs with Jackson Public Schools at the old walled prison in Jackson that allowed inmates to earn a high school diploma.  In fact, until the Pell Grant for prisoners was eliminated under President Bill Clinton there were college classes taught by institutions such as Spring Arbor College, where inmates could earn a B.A. degree.

I worked as a tutor in the GED program for 5 years and had the privilege of working a long side two old timers who had earned their B.A. degrees from Spring Arbor College. They were bright, articulate, knowledgeable, and earnest in communicating their passion for helping men earn their GED.

In the MDOC the inmates who work as tutors are the key to the program.  The reason is both simple and shocking.  First is that peer to peer learning has been shown to be an effective adult learning tool.  Inmates teaching inmates removes the power dynamic from the situation.  Also, there is the ability to establish relationships that would be inappropriate for correction’s staff.

During my time as a tutor I worked directly for three different teachers at two different facilities.  I knew 10 teachers      well enough by interaction with them and their tutors to know about their classroom environments to say that what I am about to share is not atypical.

The first teacher I worked for knew my former employer from a previous career in medical equipment sales.  All teachers in the MDOC GED program are certified educators and all that I am acquainted with had worked in public schools.  My teacher, who I will not name, was no exception.  He worked in primary education for Detroit Public Schools.  In fact, he had been fired by them.  The old saying is “Those who can’t do, teach.”  In prison it goes a step further, “Those who can’t teach, teach in prison.”  Teachers like many others who work in prison are there because they couldn’t make it in the free world.  Like COs that couldn’t make it as police officers, there are those “teaching” in prison who couldn’t teach.  This isn’t the case for all teachers, just like there are good COs, it is just that there are more than a few bad apples.

The second teacher I worked for was the Felix Unger to my first teacher’s Oscar Madison. They were in appearance the “Odd Couple.”  One was nattily dressed and a stickler for organization, the other unkept and easy going.  But being a snappy dresser didn’t make up for his inability to manage his class.  I got along great with him until I made the mistake of correcting him in front of the class, when he incorrectly described how to solve a math problem.  I went from getting a perfect work evaluation to ‘barely meets expectations.’  I had organized his filling system, written standard operating procedures to ensure that all future tutors would be able to maintain the system.  The tutors took attendance, graded work, assigned student testing, maintained educational files, and worked one-on-one with students, while the teacher chatted with students and wrote more tickets than any other teacher.  He did not have the respect of his students and did not have control of the class room.  The result is that the class room did not provide a learning environment for those who wanted to learn.

My second teacher was the complete opposite.  Wild hair and sloppily dressed, but he had a kind and gentle demeanor that commanded the respect of his students. His class room was a quiet, stress-free learning environment, where men succeeded in earning their GED.  It was in this class that I earned my greatest compliment.  I was on a visit and one of my students pointed me out to his family and said, “That man is helping me get my GED.”  And he did.  Just as the COs set the tone for what goes on in the housing units, the teachers set the tone for the class room and it makes all the difference when it comes to educational success.

The third teacher I worked for was not like either of my previous bosses.  He worked for 20 years as a teacher in the MDOC, he had seen it all.  He held court in his class room.  He told stories in a folksy style.  Nothing got under his skin except students that squandered the opportunities given to them.  He wanted the best for his students and did more to help them succeed.  He also saw to the needs of his tutors who he didn’t treat as inmates so much as co-workers.  The respect was mutual.

Education is supposed to be a priority for the MDOC, yet year after year budget cuts to education have reduced the number of teachers in the class room and the resources available.  When the new GED standard came out in 2014 the MDOC was not prepared to change over until 2016.  Even then they still did not have the text books available in all subject matters in sufficient quantities for all students in all classes.  They had bought new computers that were supposed to run new educational software for the students to prepare them for the computerized GED exams. Unfortunately, the computers sat unused for two years and when the new programs were implemented the servers and other hardware purchased were inadequate.

Language arts Math Science Social Studies

Examples of GED textbooks used by the MDOC.

The old GED standard was said to be about equivalent to an eight-grade education. The new GED based on the new high school graduation requirements significantly raised the bar.  Many students who had passed some but not all subject areas were given several opportunities to complete their GED, but when push came to shove the lack of staff to administer the additional tests resulted in some students losing out and having to start over with a significantly elevated bar. This was a real blow to moral and I watched a number of students give up and throw in the towel, resigning themselves to the reality that the new GED standard was unattainable. The new GED was designed to be high school equivalent, while prisoners are anything but.

The old models of self-teaching by students with assistance from the teachers and tutors didn’t work that well under the old GED.  With the significantly higher educational requirements the MDOC needs to rethink how it operates its classes. Self-learning only really occurs after fifth grade because students up to that point lack the necessary vocabulary and learning skills to effectively study on their own. When all you were asking was about three grades of learning many could get by with their life skills to bridge the gap and earn their GED.  Under the new system it is asking too much for inmates, many of whom are functionally illiterate to self-study.  What is needed is a structured class room environment where teachers actually teach and students are expected to learn.

Participation in the GED program was a parole board requirement, but because there weren’t enough teachers or class room space there were waiting lists based on ERD at each facility.  The result was that inmates serving short sentences would go to the head of the list, but if they didn’t have an interest in learning thought that they could wait out their time.  The result was that those who actually wanted to earn their GED and would write kite after kite asking to get into school would have to wait.  And due to their longer sentences were further down the waiting list were prohibited from working in the interim.

In addition to the GED program the MDOC also offers vocational training programs intended to provide marketable job skills to aid inmates in gaining employment upon release. Programs like Carpentry, Electrical & Plumbing, Masonry & Concrete, Horticulture, and Food Service were popular.  These programs were available to those who had a vocational training requirement from the parole board because they had no prior history of employment before coming to prison.  These programs required a GED or high school diploma as a prerequisite.

I knew a guy who was hired to be a tutor in the Masonry & Concrete program as they were setting up the program.  He was a masonry contractor in the free world and knowledgeable in all aspects of the trade.  He was not impressed with the training curriculum and I would trust his judgement on this.  What he also told me made me sick and it should make you angry.  The facility where we were located was very limited in the available class room space.  In fact, the GED class that I was a tutor for was relocated to a much smaller classroom that had previously been used for other programs such as AA, in order to give the larger classroom to the Plumbing & Electrical class.  The room across the hall from my smaller class room was the technology room where the GED testing was held.  They were displaced to make room for the Masonry class. Before the masonry class could begin a secure tool crib needed to be built along one wall of the room to store the tools to utilized by the class.  When they brought the brand-new tools that had been ordered for the class to put them in the tool crib it was apparent that they would not all fit.  With no other storage options available the teacher had his tutors throw thousands of dollars of brand new tools in the trash compactor rather than deal with the situation.  After the class started one day I watched as they tracked cement dust all over the hallways in the school building. the utility closet was half way down the hall and they made a huge mess making mortar for a brick laying project.

The level of incompetence displayed is hard to grasp but it really happened.  My teacher saw it coming and tried to warn them but like every other good idea proposed in the MDOC it was ignored.  They tried to set up this program quickly and on the cheap and then forced it into a facility that could not accommodate it.

I understand that in recent years new programs have been introduced such as Asbestos Abatement for which I have no first-hand knowledge, just what I’ve seen on the news or read in the paper.  It makes a great sound bite but if it is anything like the vocational education classes I’ve seen first-hand then it will be worse than useless and potentially dangerous to the students.

Many of the inmates participating in these programs selected them based on availability at the facility they were housed at, not on what they saw as a potential career that they would actually be interested in.  They are just checking off a parole board requirement to increase their chances of parole.  Given how these programs are run it is a pretty obvious and safe to say that the inmates aren’t the only ones going through the notions when it comes to educational programs.

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