Can't read? Let's build you a prison cell

-Guest post by Gary Romano, President, Civitas Strategies

I am an early learning zealot.  I have been for years – seeing the evidence on brain development and evaluations of effective practice – it is hard not to become a true believer.  But there is so much data to talk about and so many people to reach.  To communicate more effectively, the field has boiled down some of the information to pithy lines.

If you have been to a few events you will know them.  One of the most frequently heard is that prisons are predicting inmate populations based on their state’s third grade reading proficiency.  I heard it again last week when Raising A Reader MA tweeted, “HELP! Can ANYONE verify the assertion that ‘some states use 3rd grade reading scores to help plan for future prison populations’?”

It is an amazing line that evokes a visceral response – How could we know that falling behind in the earliest years will lead to incarceration and not pour resources into early learning?  Every time, I have seen it used, there is a shocked pause followed by indignation.

However, when I went to use it in a presentation two years ago, I searched for a citation and found out the truth – it is an urban legend.

A quick Google search uncovers numerous permutations of the myth and well-researched articles debunking it.  Sometimes the citation is a generic “some prisons” or “state corrections departments.”  In other cases, specific states are named – I have personally heard that California and New York are among the states that are alleged to callously write off struggling third grade readers as future residents of the state prison system; Florida, Indiana, Oregon, Virginia, and others have also been implicated. Appropriately defensive prison directors have repeatedly denied the rumors, explaining that they predict prison space using complex equations based on criminality, population growth, and other factors, but not educational outcomes.

What we do know, from long-term studies of high-quality early learning, is that participants in programs have lower levels of adult incarceration than control groups.  This means that neither my colleagues nor I need to repeat urban legends to compel people to invest time, energy or financial resources into early literacy. Consider this:

  • The National Adult Literacy Survey reported that the percentage of prisoners in U.S. jails who tested at the two lowest levels of reading proficiency is 70% (2003).
  •  The U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that 30 percent of federal inmates, 40 percent of state prison inmates, and 50 percent of persons on death row are high school dropouts (2003, 2007).
  • Dr. Andrew Sum and his colleagues at Northeastern University found that young people who drop out of high school are 63% more likely to be incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized than their peers with four-year college degrees (2009).

But what does this have to do with early literacy? The correlation between early reading experience and high school dropout is proven repeatedly in academic studies. In 2011 the Annie E. Casey Foundation report “Early Warning! Why reading by the end of third grade matters” showed definitively that low-income children who are not reading on grade level by 3rd grades are six times more likely to drop out of high school than their peers are. And low-income children of color who are not at grade level by 3rd grade? Eight times more likely to drop out of high school.

So we can assert that early learning may lower government incarceration costs, which may not be as dramatic as “prison planning” but is nonetheless, critical for people to know.

Despite this important, evidence, the myth continues – tweeted by Colin Powell, on a New York City schools web site, used in Virginia political ads.  But it is too easy to refute, and distracts us from the important message that we know to be true – early learning transforms people’s lives.


Gary Romano is the Founder and President of Civitas Strategies, LLC (, a firm that helps public helps public serving organizations increase services to children and families, scale innovations, and leverage resources through partnership.  Gary has worked with some of the nation’s leading early learning organizations, including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Ready Schools Miami, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.  You can follow Gary on Twitter – @civstrat.

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