American High Schools Cause Crime and Incarceration

James C. Wilson, Ed.D.

Unfortunately, most people in America do not understand the connection between high school education and crime and incarceration. The high school is supposed to prepare youth for life after high school. This does not only mean a college education that the top achieving thirty percent obtain. It means an appropriate education for all students. The cold reality, however, is that the alternate program in high school of vocational education has been decimated over the past thirty years. Since the other seventy percent of students will not complete a bachelor’s degree, the high schools of America have abrogated their responsibility to this supermajority of our youth.

How did this happen? About thirty years ago, so-called educational reformers began to reconstruct the American high school. The method they used was to incrementally increase high school graduation requirements until they look like college entrance requirements. There was no quality, replicated research that was the basis for this revolution in American high schools. It was created by politicians who meant well, but did not understand the unintended consequences of their actions.

What were these nefarious changes to the high school graduation requirements? Instead of two years of any math courses, students must take three years consisting of Algebra, Geometry, and Algebra II. How many non-college jobs require all this math? Damn few. Instead of one year of any science, students must take Biology and Chemistry. Some school districts require Physics as well. Again, who, other than college prep kids, needs these classes? These math and science required courses are way beyond any general education concept. This is essentially a college prep curriculum. And they have reduced Physical Education from four years to two. This is ironic considering all the information about obesity in America. These added required courses are not necessary for jobs without a college degree, which comprise seventy-seven percent of all American jobs.

What was the rationale for increasing the course requirements? There was no compelling research suggesting this approach to high school education. Presumably, the reformers saw fewer Black, Hispanic, and Native American youngsters qualifying for college, and even fewer graduating from college. This raising of requirements was their misguided solution to fixing the college entrance proportions of these under represented groups in college. This new curriculum amounts to a reverse tracking system. The historical tracking was a racist practice where minority students were purposely placed in vocational education regardless of their academic achievement. Rather than addressing the actual issue, these politicians chose to alter the entire curricula for all high school students. They ignored programs such as AVID that target high achieving minority kids to assist them in completing college entrance courses, taking the SAT, and making sure they apply to colleges. The media ignored the changes to the requirements presumably because the cause seemed to be helping underprivileged youth. The people who should have stood up to these changes were afraid to speak up for fear of being called racist.

What has the impact of raising these requirements been? It has not raised test scores. It has not equalized college entrance or graduation rates for minority groups. Some progress has been made, but it certainly is not clear that it was requiring these courses, but far more likely is the impact of specialized support programs like AVID. More significantly, the high school dropout rate exploded. This was directly due to enormous cuts in course offerings in vocational education, now called career technical education. It is well documented that high school students are highly motivated by career technical education. The high schools also cut courses in music, art, and choir. The combination of the loss of these courses and requiring the very difficult courses had the effect of pushing students out of high school. There are about a million dropouts a year in America. Seventy percent of the two and a half million people in prison in America and the additional four and a half million on probation and parole are high school dropouts. This dropping out, joining a gang, selling and using drugs, prostitution, committing crime, and going to prison are a direct result of this so-called high school reform. There is even a new name for this phenomenon called “the school to prison pipeline.”

The second unintended consequence has been a lowering of standards or “watering down” of these college entrance courses. The system pressures teachers to pass low achieving students forcing no choice but to lower standards. There is a bell shaped curve for all races. Most kids cannot comprehend the subject matter of these college prep courses. Half the kids are below average intelligence and are certainly not capable of passing these courses. We know that only thirty percent of high school students go on to graduate from college. The norm-referenced test results of urban high schools continue to be terrible, which clearly demonstrates the lowering of grading standards. Sometimes school districts will combine their test results with other high achieving high schools to hide the reality. Another trick is to compare their results with the statewide average. In this case, the state average has been skewed to a very low point by large city schools. Thus, this reform has not equalized minority test scores. This is not surprising because there was no substantial research saying that it would.

Third, we know this combination of increased courses and high stakes testing causes institutional cheating. We saw the cheating in Atlanta. It has happened elsewhere as well in different forms. There is no magic solution that makes all kids above average.

Fourth, the career technical education courses have been devastated and few students leave high school ready for employment.

Fifth, because of the watering down of standards, many high school grads don’t get into college and are forced to follow their dream to the community colleges. The community colleges have been dealing with this issue for many years. They require all students to take placement exams in math and English. These low achieving youngsters who were passed along in high school, do poorly on these tests and are required to take a series of remedial courses. Some of the students quit immediately and many flunk out. They have finally met reality with no lowering of standards, but they have no employable skills and are left on the street.

After seeing all of these unintended consequences, why haven’t states and school boards taken action to repair all the problems that their predecessors caused? They refuse to admit that everyone isn’t capable of completing these college entrance requirements. They prefer to pretend that they believe the fiction that everyone is capable, if they just work hard. This absurd fiction allows the school boards, principals, and counselors to avoid looking students and parents in the eye and telling them that they aren’t going to college. The reality, however, is that this may avoid headaches for high school educators, but it harms the supermajority of students horribly.

While attempting watered down irrelevant coursework, students are precluded from curricula that could actually prepare them for life. The obvious curriculum that they desperately need is career technical education. They need a sequence of these courses to give them truly technical employable skills. In addition, courses like consumer math, computers, nutrition, and parenting would be very helpful in life after high school. The point is that high school must not be college prep for the supermajority. It must be career prep.

James C. Wilson, Ed.D.

Dr. Wilson is the author of Disposable Youth: Education or Incarceration? available on

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Dr. Wilson is the author of Disposable Youth: Eucation or Incarceration? on
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