Educating Juvenile Offenders: Teaching Techniques Determine Students' Success or Failure

Article excerpt

Youths in juvenile correctional facilities are among the most educationally disadvantaged in our society. Many are functionally illiterate when they enter institutions and either do not continue schooling upon release or soon drop out. Many juveniles' last contact with formal education will be in a juvenile detention facility.

Recent trends such as crowding and budget cuts are expected to continue weakening corrections' ability to provide appropriate educational services. However, recent studies have identified key aspects of educational programs that determine their success or failure to prepare juvenile offenders for life outside the institution.

N or D Program

Since 1974, federal education funds for juvenile offenders have been allocated to state-operated correctional institutions under Chapter 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. One part of Chapter 1, the Neglected or Delinquent program--known as the "N or D" program--provides education services to youths under age 21 who lack a high school diploma and are engaged in correctional education programs in state-operated juvenile and adult correctional facilities.

About 18,000 youths, or half the eligible population in facilities receiving Chapter 1 funds, receive services. Since its inception, the N or D program annually has been funded at a fairly stable level of $32 million, which in 1991 was increased to more than $36 million. Legislation reauthorizing Chapter 1 in 1988 dramatically changed expectations for the N or D program, adding the premise that all students can learn and are capable of both basic and advanced skills.

A study by the U.S. Department of Education of 40 facilities participating in the N or D program looked at which parts of the program were most effective. The study, which was conducted from 1987 to 1989, indicated that the quality of instruction in correctional institutions varied widely, largely due to teacher beliefs about students' capabilities and their own ability to improve students' literacy skills.

Many effective teachers viewed correctional education as the last meaningful opportunity to reverse students' histories of educational failure and to change their perception that they cannot learn. Teachers in less effective programs believed students are unmotivated and so educationally deficient that the average one-year confinement was insufficient for students to learn meaningful skills and knowledge.

One major problem the study identified was that too few teachers were familiar with new teaching strategies and practices. This is because teachers are allowed limited time for training, many institutions do not regularly receive publications that promote new and more recent notions of effective instruction, and limited funding for materials and supplies wed teachers to older materials and methods.

Program Obstacles

Study findings revealed these predictable obstacles to instructional change for institutionalized students:

* belief that institutionalized students are learning disabled--even when they are not--and failure to recognize their prior knowledge and learner strengths;

* belief that mastering basic skills must precede learning more advanced skills. Conventional wisdom regarding instruction for disadvantaged youths focuses on the sequential presention of lower order skills such as phonics, word attack and multiplication tables. Vocabulary, spelling and grammar are emphasized and generally are taught assuming rote memorization as the most effective learning strategy. Recent alternatives to conventional wisdom maintain that thinking skills are not the exclusive domain of the gifted and talented, and that effective strategies for gifted students also are effective for educationally disadvantaged students;

* belief that students learn best in one-on-one situations when, in fact, many young adults learn best in group situations;

* stress on classroom order and passive learning;

* perception that students need slow, repetitive drill and practice sessions;

* student/teacher compromises that trade obedience for undemanding instruction (such as programmed self-instructional materials) and undemanding activities (such as worksheet completion);

* insufficient focus on the importance of student attitudes, interests and motivation;

* tests that drive the curriculum in unproductive ways and test scores that lead to exaggerated claims of achievement (such as grade-equivalent scores that claim improvement from a third grade reading performance to a ninth grade reading performance in a few months). …