The School to Prison Pipeline

The high schools in America are directly responsible for putting a disproportionate proportion of young people in prison. Seventy percent of the 2.5 million people in American prisons are high school dropouts as are the additional 4.5 million on probation and parole. The high schools force students to take college prep courses that many are not capable of mastering. This inappropriate education forces many students into hating high school and they do not see any relevance of education in their lives. These students respond by dropping out either in or out of high school. Some are sorted into GED, diploma mills, or charter schools, none of which offer career technical education sequences of courses. The problem is much larger than the almost million high school dropouts every year. With no employment skills, most students leave high school with no way to make a living and many commit crime thus creating the school to prison pipeline. This concept of connecting high schools to crime and prison has been around for about thirty years. At this point, we can no longer view this pipeline as an unforeseen consequence of an elitist education policy. Now, the American education system must own it.

Many people in America see the problem, but no one does anything about it. The educational system of America is intimidating to those outside of it. And since we imprison a disproportionate proportion of Black and Hispanic youth, the liberals are afraid to admit the problem is caused by the omission of career technical education in America’s high schools. They are afraid of the ancient racist tracking practice. Thus, they leave an absence of leadership in making education accountable. It is time for our country to overcome this ignorance and fear of our own educational system. Public education is part of our government and it should work for us. The problem with the American educational system is that it does not systematically prepare our youth with technical skills necessary to go to work. Far too many of our youth find themselves on the street with no possibility of obtaining a job. They are desperate with no way out of the ghetto and poverty.

The high school to prison pipeline is not hard to understand. When the kids leave high school with no technical skills or soft employment skills, they are left to the vicissitudes of the street. The constraining principles of religion and morality quickly go out the window. The primary cause of crime is economic. These kids need money to survive. They want their own place, a car, and entertainment, just like we all do. They want to be able to live. Their lack of skills make work impossible, so they commit crime. And, in America in order to protect yourself, you carry a gun. Sometimes they feel cornered and use the gun. Then, they are dead or in prison. This scenario continues to play out across America like a recording on replay. This is where the outrageous prison numbers in America are manufactured. Yes, they are criminals, but the economic cause is based in their lack of employment skills.

It is time to alter this horrendous, ongoing, tragic trajectory. For America, this problem is much larger and more significant than ISIS. This pipeline is impacting millions of American youth right now day in and day out, year in and year out. The numbers are astounding when you add up gang members, shootings, drug users, drug overdoses, prostitution, rape, and murders. It is time to use our educational system to educate employable youth in American high schools, not create criminals. It’s time to recognize that test scores are not what are truly important in our schools. Getting our youth through high school to work is what is truly important. Quite literally, we need a high school to work pipeline. Our priorities have become misplaced with a college prep fever. We pay for our high schools so it’s significant to try to get something out of them. It is time for our high schools to start over and produce employable youth. Career academies are a proven model that graduate a very high proportion of all high school students and provide all of their students with employable skills. We need a national movement to expand career academies as quickly as possible. This is the only way to permanently break the pipeline from American high schools to prison.

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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