Saturday, May 16, 2009

Math deprivation as punishment

Yesterday programs at San Quentin resumed after a week and a half of non-activity – the prison had been closed in order to prevent an outbreak of swine flu. I had been wearing a blue shirt to work in the assumption that there would be no class that Friday night, but found a white student uniform polo lying around at school, donned that for the evening, and got to the carpool on time. The guys were happy to be back after two weeks without classes and settled down to study. I mostly worked with E-, who was struggling with translating word problems into algebraic statements; M-, who was getting familiar with the coordinate grid and with slopes of lines; P-, who needed an explanation why 4.7 is a rational number; and with R-, who displayed a thick stack of notes from the work he had done on fractions while classes were cancelled. We got a good chunk of work done, and it was a satisfying start of the weekend.

Math 50 is a is a numeracy and pre-algebra course that is a prerequisite for enrollment in math courses for college credit. Years ago, it was taught as a lecture-based course, but fail rates were abysmal, and now it is a self-paced course structured by a series of quizzes – when the quizzes for a chapter are passed, the student moves on to the next chapter. Three to eight tutors, mostly grad students from UC Berkeley, work with 20-50 students to resolve difficulties with the material and to grade quizzes. Some students need less than a semester to complete Math 50, others need a couple years, some never make it.

The progress made by many of these students is incredibly gratifying. Students who start out unable to multiply a decimal number by 10 end up fluent at long division and knowledgeable about place value. Students who start out studying times tables end up performing operations on fraction with accuracy and understanding. There are always some students who have significant learning disabilities and who seem to forget everything between classes. And every now and again a natural math whiz come around, making up his own algorithms and doing most of the work on his bunk between meetings so that he can quickly move through the quizzes during class time.

San Quentin is the only prison in California that has a college program, and only some 50 of its 5000+ inmates are enrolled in Math 50. Since there is no public funding in the state for prison education beyond the GED or a high school diploma, all instructors are volunteers, and only a prison located so improbably close to a cluster of universities can staff a college program. Working with these students on Friday nights, I wonder at how little it really is they are asking for, how unnecessary it seems that the public will not afford this opportunity to anyone who would make use of it. If a person wants to spend the time from 6 to 8 pm on a Friday night on learning to add fractions, after having been up since 4 or 5 am to work and attend other programs, is it so much to ask that this opportunity be given?

I wonder, also, whether some argument can not be made that restricting access to education at this level amounts to a kind of differential punishment above and beyond that meted out in accordance with law for whatever misdeed was committed. By analogy, suppose that a person with diabetes commits a crime and is imprisoned. If that person in addition to being confined is deprived of necessary medication and medical supervision to control his illness, that would constitute a differential punishment beyond that implied by his sentence – his punishment would in reality be different from and more severe than that given to a healthy person who had committed exactly the same crime. Can something similar be said for undereducated persons who are incarcerated? To the extent that a certain level of education is necessary in order to function outside the institution, and to the extent that learning meets fundamental human needs, I would say yes. If two people commit the same crime, and the one has a master’s in engineering and the other does not know how to distinguish adding from multiplying, then deprivation of opportunities for learning constitutes a differential punishment, a more severe consequence, for the undereducated person. Restricting access to math at a level afforded by most high schools constitutes a consequence beyond that included in the prison sentence.

I would hope that interest groups for diabetics work to ensure that their incarcerated members receive access to necessary medical care and medication. I would argue that if we as educators think of learning as a fundamental human right, then we should fight for citizens’ access to education when they are in prison, too. Of course my argument hinges on math being necessary, like insulin perhaps, for a human to thrive, and I’m sure my (high school) students would look oddly at me if I suggested that math deprivation constitutes a punishment… ☺ And yet, and yet!

Anyways, if you live in the Bay Area and have either a math teaching credential or a master’s in math or science, and if you’d like to spend one evening per week this summer on making math just a little bit more equitably available, you could send a resume and an application to the Prison University Project. During the summer, in particular, when the grad students go home to their faraway families, an influx of math teachers on summer vacation wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Update: Jonathan made me aware of an important error - it should be "there is no public funding in the state for PRISON education beyond the GED or a high school diploma," and I had left out that word (thanks, Jonathan!). However, it used to be the case that federal Pell Grants could be spent on education for low-income citizens even if they were in prison, and this changed in 1995, immediately decimating junior college programs throughout the state.


Kate said...

Wow. Well said. I wish I lived in the Bay Area.

H. said...

Thanks. And I also wish you lived in the Bay Area :)

Sarah Cannon said...

Reading this, I was reminded of the factoid that California uses 4th grade literacy tests to budget how many prison cells to build.

At end of TFA debrief, someone commented on the importance of remembering that the education gap doesn't end when you leave school. That our students can become the adults. This post captures one of the arenas where it's visible.

H. said...

Sarah, yes - the "relentless pursuit" rhetoric of TFA should imply following those students right through the prison gates when necessary to continue educating there.

Sarah Cannon said...

we do have a corps member working at the local JDC. But I've certainly fallen short in following students.

Yeah. One of my smartest seniors didn't graduate today because he's in federal prison. Never mind the other 2/3s of the cohort who entered as freshmen with today's graduates. Scary enough to break my heart.

Mr. K said...

I'm going to sidetrack for a bit, and say I'd like to know more about the Math 50 curriculum.

Our state standards force us to teach content that keeps racing farther and farther away from our kids, leaving them trailing behind at all sorts of different competencies.

In order to get them back, we need a program that allows them to work at their own speed, at their own level, and still progress.

It sounds like Math 50 does this. It just seems sad that we have to wait until they're in jail to make it available to them.

H. said...

Mr. K: The text we use is Bittinger's Developmental Mathematics. There's a whole long chapter, with subchapters, on fractions, and another on decimal notation. I agree with your comments about how we are pushing students through math that they have not had a chance to develop foundations for. There's this snobbish misconception that math before Algebra is trivial (and that teaching it properly to older students amounts to having low expectations) - but arithmetic is cognitively demanding stuff. Understanding how numbers are placed on the number line, what we're actually doing when we borrow to subtract, why we need common denominators for adding fractions - these things are rich and complex. I guess we all end up trying to teach Algebra to students who don't have this background (except at DCP, of course, where they're serious about numeracy) - small wonder the new knowledge sits tenuously atop this rickety foundation. Are you familiar with the book Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics?

Jared May said...

Wonderful post. I, too, want to comment about the value of the self-paced curriculum you describe.

I am hopeful we will find a way to make self-paced learning much more common throughout our educational system, as my experience has shown me that a great number of students reach secondary education without a solid foundation.