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Educating juvenile offenders: teaching techniques determine students' success or failure.

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).

Learning Techniques

About half the teachers of N or D students believed their instructional techniques are the key to promoting learning. They believed that student motivation follows, rather than precedes, effective instructional strategies. Key practices promoting accelerated learning among juvenile offenders included the following:

* Curriculum is driven by students' varied and changing needs. All programs work toward competence first, followed by the concern for credentials such as GED practice tests.

* The focus is on comprehension and problem-solving relevant to life outside the institution.

* A variety of instructional methods are employed to enhance the academic interest of students who have experienced repeated school failure. Individualized instruction is frequently combined with peer tutoring and cooperative learning groups to promote social cooperation, academic learning and problem-solving.

* Mathematics is presented as problem-solving and provides ample opportunities for solving everyday problems that occur in life outside the institution.

* Reading instruction focuses on comprehension and includes reading, writing, listening, speaking and thinking activities. Students dictate or write about personal experiences, and are provided a variety of strategies for learning difficult or unfamiliar text, including using prior knowledge, context clues, sight words or phonetic techniques.

* Instruction incorporates both teacher- and student-directed instruction. Students become active learners when integrally involved in curriculum development, lesson planning, materials selection and presentation of instruction.

* Direct instruction in basic and advanced skills includes reading comprehension, thinking and problem-solving.

* "Metacognition"--the knowledge of one's strengths and weaknesses as a reader or thinker--is meaningfully integrated throughout classroom instruction as well as in institutional activities. It is a principle of social interaction as well as instruction, since the examination and understanding of one's thought processes and behavior is central to the notion of rehabilitation.

* Teacher-student interaction is characterized by mutual respect.

* Instruction time is viewed as a valuable resource that must be wisely spent.

* Interruptions are minimal and only those essential for safety or security are permitted.

* Staff expect high achievement from students and communicate these expectations. Staff believe learning can be greatly accelerated and that it does not require a 12-year program to produce literacy and numeracy among offenders. Materials based on "life skills" relevant to noninstitutional living are used throughout the curriculum in all vocational, academic and counseling programs.

* A variety of materials such as newspapers, magazines, popular paperbacks, classics rewritten for lower reading ability levels and vocational/trade materials are used with students of all ability levels.

* Where computers are available, technology is up-to-date and allows the use of high-quality software. Software is available and is aligned with instructional objectives. Computers provide ample opportunities for writing, comprehension and problem-solving activities.

The study provided two recommendations to improve the quality of instruction for educationally disadvantaged students:

First, federal and state program managers should emphasize disseminating information, providing technical assistance and encouraging staff development of administrators and teachers. Administrators should explore alternative methods to successfully reach institutional staff. Topics should include program improvement strategies, better coordination of instructional services, increased integration of more advanced skills into Chapter 1 N or D curriculums, appropriate instructional methods for adult learners and flexible program design and service delivery models.

Second, program staff should consistently receive up-to-date, accurate information on student selection and evaluation requirements, and avoid exclusive or nearly exclusive reliance on test scores because it contributes to a narrow program focus.

As this information and these practices become more widely known and practiced, disadvantaged youths participating in correctional education programs will gain measurably from their experiences and attain a level of proficiency necessary to acquire a GED.


LeBlanc, L.A., J.C. Pfannenstiel and M.D. Tashjian. 1991. Unlocking learning: Chapter I in correctional facilities. Final Report of the National Study of the Chapter 1 Neglected or Delinquent Program. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.

Pfannenstiel, J.C., and J.W. Keesling. 1980. Compensatory education and confined youth: A final report. Santa Monica, Calif.: Systems Development Corporation.

Rowe, B.J.D., and J.C. Pfannenstiel. 1991. Unlocking Learning: Chapter I in Correctional Facilities. Effective Practices Study Findings for the National Study of the Chapter 1 Neglected or Delinquent Program. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.

Judy C. Pfannenstiel is director of Research and Training Associates Inc.'s Region D Chapter 1 Technical Assistance Center in Overland Park, Kan.
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Title Annotation:Correctional Education
Author:Pfannenstiel, Judy C.
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Feb 1, 1993
Previous Article:Changing to meet challenges in correctional education.
Next Article:Building inmates' skills through training, industry and education.

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