Common Core Enters the Prisons

  • 2016-01-14
  • OZY

Like most educators, Jermaine Simpson is a little frustrated. He wants to see more investment in his profession, and he hates that he can’t get higher-quality materials or raise salaries to attract better teachers. He doesn’t like the tests and standards and hoops through which he must jump to measure his students. He wants to teach them what’s useful and what will help them get a job, not just what the government says he should teach.

Much of Simpson’s ire is focused on the policy that educators love to hate these days: the Common Core, which tries to make high school degrees more rigorous and has attracted criticism from liberals, conservatives, parents and teachers alike. Now you can add Simpson to that list: a teacher and administrator who works with ex-offenders and inmates in Oklahoma City, and proof that even the denizens of America’s prisons don’t like the Common Core.

Interestingly enough, Simpson’s complaints about the system aren’t that different from those of his colleagues working far from the incarcerated. The main objection opponents have: The standards, they believe, overcomplicate simple processes in an effort to teach “fundamentals” and critical thinking skills. And people like Simpson worry that the philosophy behind Common Core is geared toward sending students to four-year colleges, not necessarily on teaching them the most practical skills to get them through the day. The debate over the Core and whether it serves students like Simpson’s exemplifies what’s playing out all over the country, from schools to presidential debates, between two camps, one of which believes that education should serve immediate needs, help students find jobs and just be practical already. The other? That side believes in two words: critical thinking, a crucial skill for anyone, whether they want to be a doctor or a plumber, says Carrie Heath Phillips, a program director for the Common Core’s national organization.

But high standards can make students’ goals difficult, critics say, particularly for the prison populace or ex-convicts, when many are just hoping to attend community college or land an entry-level job. “Not everybody has the will to want to go to school,” Simpson tells OZY. “Some just want to earn a certification so they can get out and not just make $6 an hour.” And not even the teachers are well-prepped to teach prisoners, who rarely have computer access, what they need to know to pass the exams: “Many instructors are older and haven’t done algebra” since high school, says Dawn Grage, who for two decades has tried to help inmates in Indiana’s prisons pass the test.