The Crimes of Children

Round Rock High School, just north of Austin in the Texas Hill Country, sprawls over 88 acres. It feels like a small liberal-arts college: There is a junior R.O.T.C. Training center. There are basketball courts, a gymnastics facility, a swimming pool, a football field, soccer fields, and a baseball diamond that, along its outfield fence, bears a faded sign commemorating the school’s 1997 state championship victory.

In January 2007, the principal called 17-year-old Jean Karlo Ponzanelli out of first-period history class and down to the office to join a waiting detective who took him to the local station for questioning. A girl he knew had run away from home and the police were curious about her whereabouts. They also suspected domestic abuse. (The girl declined a request for an interview, so her name has been withheld to protect her privacy.)

Ponzanelli had known this girl since the last day of 2005, when he attended a New Year’s Party at her home. “We go to the same high school,” he remembers her telling him in the kitchen.

“You’re in high school?” Ponzanelli asked.

Another partygoer asked her how old she was. “I’m 15,” she said.

After that, Ponzanelli and the girl drifted in the same suburban mix. He never ran into her in the hallways, but he’d often see her hanging out with his friends in the high-school parking lot at the end of the day. On occasion, she would call him and give a location and he would drive over. “Sometimes she had bruises on her face,” Ponzanelli said.

Ponzanelli said he couldn’t help the detective with her whereabouts that day. He hadn’t heard from the girl for some time. In the course of their meandering conversation, though, the Round Rock Police Department gathered another piece of information: Ponzanelli and the girl had had sex three times. On the first two occasions, the officer calculated, Ponzanelli had been 16 and she’d been 13. In Texas, sex with a minor younger than 14 is a first-degree felony.

A week later, when Ponzanelli walked out of the same first-period history class, he says waiting police officers cuffed him, bent him over the hood of their car, searched his backpack, loaded him into the back seat, and drove off to the county jail in Georgetown 10 miles north. The felony complaint, signed on January 19, 2007, states that the defendant “confessed to knowing the victim was 13 years old and still having sex with her anyway.”

Although the girl’s mother called for leniency, Ponzanelli was charged with aggravated sexual assault. When the state offered him the lesser charge of attempted sexual assault, he accepted the plea deal. But the crime was still a third-degree felony, and as a result, it came with mandatory jail time. He received six months in Williamson County Jail and 10 years of probation.

Ponzanelli started serving his time in an open room known as “the tank,” which contained four bunk beds, seven roommates, and a small patch of floor space. He was later removed to a single cell where he was confined all day save one hour in which he could exercise, shower, and make a phone call. He had no interaction with other inmates. He spent his 18th birthday, his high-school prom night, and his graduation day in that cell. He never received a diploma (though he later went on to earn his GED).

New inmates at a juvenile facility in Ohio are searched at the beginning of the intake process. (Will Shilling / AP)

This was Ponzanelli’s first arrest. His second happened less than a year after his release on July 20, 2007, after he had rejoined the Round Rock community as a publicly registered sex offender. The label would apply for 10 years, though the clock would only start ticking after he finished probation. Registration restricted him from any form of contact with children younger than 17, including by phone or email. He could not live in a house with an Internet connection, nor, according to orders of community supervision, could he go within 1,000 feet of parks, schools, daycare centers, pools, playgrounds, “or other places where minor children younger than 17 congregate without specific approval of the Court.”

The apartment where Ponzanelli lived with his mother was near a daycare. The Court did not give specific approval for Ponzanelli to remain there. But he had nowhere else to go and no money of his own, so he stayed. He said the police would show up on his doorstep and question his mother while he hid in his room. “My mom was all scared,” Ponzanelli said. He knew that, in time, he would be caught and re-incarcerated for violating his probation. He made it through the closing of summer and all of autumn. He made it partway through winter, into the early months of 2008.

One evening in late February of 2008, Ponzanelli was skateboarding with a friend in the parking lot of an apartment complex. Before his incarceration, Ponzanelli had skated competitively and earned a sponsorship from a skate store in the neighboring town of Leander. He had received free gear from Vans and commuted to work by skateboard through the dystopian interchanges of suburban Texas.

“Don’t look now,” Ponzanelli’s friend told him as they warmed up. “There’s an undercover cop car across the street.”

Ponzanelli didn’t look, but a few minutes later a voice commanded him to get off his skateboard and turn around. Ponzanelli turned to see two policemen advancing with guns drawn. “I picked up my board and just kind of stood there,” he said. They arrested him for failing to comply with the sex-offender registration requirements.

Ponzanelli was sent to a state prison in Huntsville, Texas, where he spent his 19th, 20th, and 21st birthdays. During that time, his file surfaced before U.S. Immigrations Customs and Enforcement. To their surprise—and, Ponzanelli says, to his own—he had never been a citizen of the United States: His mother, a Mexican citizen, had brought him across the border when he was an infant. Deportation proceedings began.

Registration as a sex offender and deportation are both collateral consequences—statutory penalties that attach to charges after a sentence is served. There’s an identifiable logic to some of these consequences: Convicted of laundering money? Then you’re barred from the financial industry, at least temporarily. Caught molesting children? Then you can’t work in a daycare. Others, like deportation or felony disenfranchisement, are more purely punitive. (In Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, more than one out every five African Americans lacks the right to vote because of this penalty.) Some of these sanctions don’t seem to match the crime at all: Busted on drug possession? Your barbershop license can be revoked.

Judges have no discretion over collateral consequences, and lawyers rarely grasp their extent. A recent project by the American Bar Association, the first of its kind, compiled every consequence in every state and found more than 40,000 on the books.

The U.S. juvenile courts split off from adult courts to protect against precisely this kind of scarlet lettering. A band of social reformers at the turn of the 20th century believed the stigma of incarceration affects children differently than adults. These reformers argued for courts that shielded children’s identities from the public and walled their cases off from corrosive media coverage; they argued that kids occupy an unusual behavioral chrysalis and urged sentencing that allowed them to learn from their mistakes. The juvenile justice system, opined the Supreme Court of Arizona in 1942, ought to “hide youthful errors from the full gaze of the public and bury them in the graveyard of the forgotten past.”

Decades of research on the peculiarities of adolescence reinforce this approach. Teenagers are rebellious, reckless, shortsighted, and tragically susceptible to peer pressure. They are impetuous and poor judges of many things that adults consider worthy of measured judgment. Eighty to 90 percent of teenage boys acknowledge, in anonymous surveys, having committed a delinquent act serious enough to result in incarceration. In short, kids, like the mentally ill, strain the norms of legal culpability.

Slowly and unevenly, the Supreme Court is shaping this science into precedent. In 2005, the Court forbade capital punishment for those under 18. It prohibited life without parole for juvenile non-homicides in 2010, and, in 2012, deemed it unconstitutional for anyone under 18 to serve a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole.

But while the judicial treatment of youth has gained nuance, a few particularly severe collateral consequences persist, undermining the historical ideal that what happens in juvenile court stays in juvenile court. The Adam Walsh Act of 2006, for instance, demands that state sex-offender registries include juveniles who are at least 14-years-old when they commit certain crimes. (Juvenile sex offenses, which account for about a quarter of all sex offenses in the United States, can range from teen sexting to the violent molestation of a young child.)

The inclusion of juveniles on registries was largely instigated by the congressional testimony of Amie Zyla, who was molested at the age of 8 by a 14-year-old family friend. The friend was sent to juvenile detention, released, and a decade later rearrested for the sexual assault of multiple children. “The simple truth is that juvenile sex offenders turn into adult predators,” Zyla testified.

Twenty-seven states currently publicize their juvenile registries. Texas, which has almost 70,000 registered sex offenders, is one of these, and stands out as particularly severe in its treatment of youth. Children as young as 10 can be placed on its registry. The state also imposes what’s known as “Condition X” on many offenders. This makes supervision requirements tighter, disallowing volunteer work without the permission of a parole officer, for instance, or requiring submitting to a search—of a person, motor vehicle, or house—at any time without a warrant.

A juvenile offender wanders the library at a youth prison in Wisconsin. (Morry Gash / AP)

Other severe collateral consequences include eviction from public housing and deportation. When juvenile defendants live in government-subsidized apartments, their arrests or misbehavior can swallow entire families in eviction proceedings. This can happen even before a court declares innocence or guilt. And for a child raised, but not born, in the United States, a crime as light as shoplifting can result in deportation to a country in which he has no immediate family and no way to communicate.

Such punishments are “the gift that keeps on giving,” said Lisa Thurau, the executive director of the Boston-based policy and training organization Strategies for Youth. “If you really wanted to marginalize people, you couldn’t do a much better job than our system of juvenile collateral consequences.”

When Ponzanelli got out of jail the first time, he had to attend a therapy program in Georgetown. It was hosted by the Center for Cognitive Education, a limited-liability corporation that runs court-ordered programs in five Texas cities. “Sex offenders hurt people,” Ponzanelli’s treatment manual began. “Victims deserve to know that the offender accepts responsibility for his actions and is aware of the pain and suffering he caused.” The course revolved around questions that forced introspection, questions meant to help sex offenders grapple with their illness. “How often do you masturbate?” the manual asked. “How old were you when your sexual problems began?” “List at least three thinking errors that encouraged your sexually deviant behavior.”

Such programs are based on the work of Robert Longo, who began treating adolescent sex offenders during the 1980s. Longo has since declared that much of what he thought about juvenile offenders was wrong: According to The New York Times, he now says that forcing offenders to dwell on their sexual fantasies and behaviors may “reinforce their self-image as ‘sex offenders’ with bad, deviant traits rather than as kids needing lessons in setting boundaries and creating better relationships.”

Still, the approach Longo helped develop three decades ago remains standard. Ponzanelli says he attended his therapy sessions sporadically. “They treated me like I had a child problem,” he complained. His probation officer made clear that she was aware of his violations—the irregular attendance at therapy, his continued residence at home near a daycare.

An inmate at a youth correctional facility in Stockton, California, takes place in a group counseling session at a sex-offender treatment program. (Steve Yeater / AP)

In all, Ponzanelli’s registration placed him under 37 “conditions of community supervision.” “The probation requirements are virtually impossible to abide,” said Jason Szanyi, a staff attorney at the Center for Children’s Law and Policy. These restrictions can appear negligible in isolation—community service requirements, notification about change of address or employment—but following all of them together is complicated and time-intensive, Szanyi explains. It’s also expensive, as offenders must pay for all of their court-mandated therapy sessions and drug tests. Ponzanelli recalls laying out $200 or $300 every week while working part-time at Schlotzky’s fixing deli sandwiches. “These laws are setting kids up for failure,” said Szanyi.

The effectiveness of the public registry is also hotly debated. Justice Department statistics show that 93 percent of sexually abused children are victimized by family members or acquaintances. Public registration, which was designed to signal when predatory strangers have finished serving their sentences and are living nearby, doesn’t protect against these kinds of assaults. And as a class of crimes, sex offenses carry some of the lowest levels of recidivism. Many studies find rates between 4 and 10 percent. (The average recidivism rate across all crimes is 68 percent within three years.) Research by criminologist and Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring found that juveniles with five or more non-sex-related arrests on their record are twice as likely to be arrested for sex crimes in adulthood as juveniles who did commit sex offenses but had fewer than five total arrests for any crime. The takeaway: If the juvenile registry is designed to identify and quarantine future sex offenders, then the quantity of crimes committed may be a better predictor than the substance of those crimes.

“The current setup is derived from the notion that past is prologue,” said Thurau of Strategies for Youth. “But there has been no developmental analysis going into this assumption. In the case of juveniles, we are dealing with a particular stage.”

Responding to this lack of analysis, the National Research Council released a comprehensive 2013 report entitled Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach. The 400-page synthesis foregrounds an adolescent “imbalance among developing brain systems.” The pleasure-seeking chunks of gray matter develop first; the systems that support self-control come second.

“Of course we need to protect public safety,” said Edward Mulvey, the director of the law and psychiatry program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and a committee member on the NRC report. But, he notes, crimes committed by juveniles are weak signals of anything to come. Their brains are “highly plastic,” and harsh punishment stifles the rehabilitative ambitions upon which the juvenile justice system is built.

“What kids are paying with in terms of time—from the years 16 to 23—is not the same currency as between 27 and 34,” continued Mulvey. “We have to be very careful about spending kids’ developmental currency. We all have one shot at development and don’t want to impede that. We don’t want to put weights around children’s ankles and tell them to run 100 yards. We don’t want to stop them from being able to achieve what they’re only going to achieve at this one time in their lives.”

Three hours north of Round Rock is Weatherford, Texas, a town of wood-sided cafes and saloons. A Second Empire-style courthouse rises over the traffic circle in the middle of town, anchoring the community like an ornate monument to justice. In a nearby working-class neighborhood, in a small blue house with an empty lawn, a middle-aged man told me about what happened to his children.

The father has spent so many years trying to help his children withdraw from the public eye that he asked me not to use their names for this article. The trouble began in 1997, back when the father was a long-haul trucker. He spent weeks away from home delivering steel to Windsor, Canada, and returning to Texas with granite from the Appalachian quarries of Pennsylvania. Upon arriving home one winter day, his then-wife (they’ve since divorced) explained that something was wrong. She was worried that their older son had engaged in some type of sexual activity with their daughter.

Together, the couple took their older son, then 12, to a therapist, where those fears were confirmed. They also learned that their younger son, then 10, had been present, though most likely not directly involved. (Their father is convinced that a porn video shown to the brothers by a friend led to their experimentation.) Their boys were 10 and 12 at the time; their sister was 7. Under legal mandate, the therapist reported the case.

A few days after the therapist’s report, Child Protective Services interviewed the young girl without notifying either of her parents. (In keeping with C.P.S. procedure, the parents were notified within 48 hours that an interview had taken place.) C.P.S. declined to comment on the specifics of this case, but according to her father, the agents asked his daughter questions that were never disclosed to her parents. Based on her answers, her father says, several police cars were sent to the house to arrest his 10- and 12-year-old sons, who were placed in pretrial detention in the nearby town of Cleburne. They remained there for about one month awaiting a court date. C.P.S. wanted to take the girl into state custody, too, but she and her mother fled secretly to a friend’s house in the nearby town of Hudson Oaks. On the day of their hearing, the two preteen brothers were marched into court wearing prison-issue clothing, handcuffs, and ankle chains. “A 10-year-old,” said his father, “in an oversized orange jumpsuit, the sleeves bunched up, and fucking shackles.”

Juveniles in a Stockton, California, sex-offender treatment program line up in their dormitory before going outside for exercise. (Steve Yeater / AP)

Texas C.P.S. is charged with protecting some of the state’s most vulnerable populations, and the agency gets involved in cases like the father’s for good reason. In May, the news broke that Josh Duggar, the oldest son in the reality show 19 and Counting, had sexually abused five underage girls—four of them his sisters—and faced no legal consequences. The public backlash against this story highlighted the need for intervention that goes beyond a parental reprimand or a stint of rehabilitative manual labor. But well-intentioned efforts to avoid an overly lax response can lead to the opposite: a string of collateral consequences that amounts to an overly severe punishment.

The state charged the 12-year-old son with aggravated sexual assault. He was sentenced to two years, most of which he spent in the Nelson’s Children Center of Denton, 60 miles northeast of Weatherford. Soon after his arrival there, his father says that he and his wife began receiving bills from a Denton-area pharmacy. In first grade, the boy had been diagnosed with ADD and a social-anxiety disorder, for which he was prescribed Ritalin. But the drugs listed on the receipts from Denton, according to his father, were antipsychotics unfamiliar to him and his wife. Though his father refused to pay the bills, he says the regimen continued. When he and his wife showed up on visits—once a week, if possible—their oldest son was often slumped in his chair, verging on unresponsive. “He might as well have been unconscious,” said his father. (The father told me he no longer had the receipts. The juvenile facility and the pharmacy have since shut down, and the boy’s records were closed to me, so I was unable to verify these details.)

The younger son, meanwhile, received a charge of indecency with a minor accompanied by two years of probation. C.P.S. allowed his sister to return home, but only on the condition that her brother not live there with her. He spent both years with nearby family friends, attending a state-accredited sex-offender therapy program from the ages of 10 to 12. “The drive out there was nice,” said his father. “We got to spend a bit of time with our son.” The therapy sessions were closed to both parents.

In 2000, the boys were finally allowed to return home. Their sister, then 9, said recently that she doesn’t recall feeling any apprehension. “I remember being excited,” she said, adding that it’s hard for her to recall much about the crime itself. “I remember wanting them to come home.”

But the family soon learned that the boys, now 12 and 14, would be listed on the Texas Sex Offender Registry for the next 10 years. No restrictions applied, so they could spend time at schools, in parks, with other children. But their names were posted publicly, as were the street on which they lived and basic descriptions of each child. The younger son’s registration listed a Weiland Road residence, brown hair, brown eyes, a height of four feet, and a weight of 80 pounds. Shoe size: six.

The registry was relatively new at that time, so local newspapers savored the subject’s tawdry potential, publishing the names and addresses of every sex offender in the county. Friendship Baptist, where the boys had been baptized and attended church with their mother every Sunday, ostracized the family. The younger son’s elementary school and the older son’s middle school both expressed abiding fear for the safety of the other students, who taunted the boys as the nature of the crime, if not the details, became public knowledge. The older son dropped out of school within a few years; his younger brother followed soon after.

Effects from the registry rippled out. The family’s seven-month-old Border collie was shot and left to die in a dumpster, where the father discovered it under a pile of trash bags; he believes the act was intended as a threat to his boys. A neighbor pamphleted the community to let everybody know that sex offenders lived nearby. In October 2008, a local paper ran the headline “Where are the monsters on Halloween?” The article encouraged parents “concerned about where the real ghouls and goblins are” to review their local sex-offender registry. Cars sped past the father’s home with windows down, drivers and passengers yelling obscenities. The siding of the house is cratered from B.B. gun pellets. Once, somebody lobbed a Molotov cocktail into the father’s driveway where it shattered behind his truck and spilled a rivulet of blue flame down the sloping, tree-lined street. No one was ever caught.

When the younger son turned 18, both brothers, neither with a high-school diploma, asked the father to take them to the military recruiter. He says it “was perhaps the most hurtful thing” he ever did as a father: The recruiter explained that options exist for many criminal records, that felonies can often be overlooked. But registered sex offenders are barred from the military. The recruiter apologized and led them back outside.

About five years ago, the younger son overdosed on heroin in his bedroom. His brother, who was with him at the time, rushed out to tell his father, who pulled the younger son into the living room. The 9-1-1 operator asked if he was breathing. He wasn’t. “I was sure I’d lost him,” said his father. The paramedics arrived and dosed him with naloxone. His father followed the ambulance and stood behind the emergency-room curtains looking at his son, the monitors sounding dully, the IV tubes dripping fluids. When his son regained enough lucidity to register what had happened, he didn’t have much to say: “I really don’t give a shit anymore.”

Today, the young man has a girlfriend. She has a 7-year-old daughter and, together, they have two young children, but the state of Texas has told the younger son that he cannot reside with anyone under the age of 17. He does live with them, though, on the weeks he’s not working on an oil rig. His parole officer, like Ponzanelli’s, could seek him out, arrest him, and lock him up for living at home.

His older brother, meanwhile, has spent most of his adulthood living with his father. He has struggled to hold down a job. He rides out the minutes and hours of free time on his mountain bike. “It makes me think of that old movie, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” said the father. “This is the loneliness of the long distance biker. He’s 29 years old. He hasn’t got many friends. He just can’t adapt.”

Until recently, father and son lived in a 1,000-square-foot house with old carpet and two recliners in a tiny living room. Fake wood paneling covered the walls. They moved not long ago, down the street to a slightly roomier place. The father pointed to the back bedroom of the house, where the older son had holed up, refusing to talk about his past. “I’m his only support. I want to make sure my kids have what they need—that’s all I really want. They had no educational opportunity, they were not able to serve their society or serve their country. And they were denied these opportunities because of mistakes they made at 10 and 12 years old?”

In many ways, juvenile collateral consequences are a holdover from the 1990s, when a rise in poverty, broken homes, and drug-related violence was generating chilling national headlines. Professor John DiIulio of Princeton University, along with a few like-minded colleagues, predicted the rise of a new class of criminal, the juvenile super-predator. Noting the large numbers of children growing up with poverty and abuse, these academics inferred that hundreds of thousands of them would develop criminal tendencies. “They are just four, five, and six years old right now,” proclaimed a 1996 Time magazine article, “but already they are making criminologists nervous.” Politicians campaigned as though these young super-predators were already on the streets. Draconian legislation swept through Congress and statehouses, often based on the highest-profile and most egregious criminal cases.

President Bill Clinton responded to these fears in his 1996 State of the Union address. “I’m directing the FBI and other investigative agencies to target gangs that involve juveniles in violent crime, and to seek authority to prosecute as adults teenagers who maim and kill like adults,” he declared. He went on to introduce his “One Strike” policy for public housing: “Criminal gang members and drug dealers are destroying the lives of decent tenants. From now on, the rule for residents who commit crime and peddle drugs should be one strike and you’re out.”

Two months later, he signed into law the Housing Opportunity Program Extension Act. The HOPE Act gave public-housing authorities not just discretion, but monetary incentives, to evict tenants who break the terms of their lease.

The result has been widespread eviction in public housing, often due to the actions of juveniles. A 2002 report on Chicago estimated that 25 percent of One Strike evictions originated with claims against juveniles. No finding of guilt is required; a police report suffices. “Chicago doesn’t do everything efficiently,” said Anne Geraghty-Helms, pro bono counsel at the multinational law firm DLA Piper. “But boy are they efficient when evicting kids from low-income housing.”

As with the public sex-offender registry, eviction forms no part of a formal, criminal punishment; judges do not impose it as a criminal sanction. Rather, it serves as a collateral consequence of interaction with the law. Parents in public housing whose children brush against the police rarely understand the implications. The appearance of a notice to vacate hanging on the front door generally comes as a surprise.

Unless property management is present when youth get in trouble, “it’s not entirely clear how they get the records,” said Dennericka Brooks, a senior attorney at Chicago’s Legal Assistance Foundation. “But they do.” Under the Juvenile Court Act, juvenile records are supposed to be confidential. Select institutions, like schools and the military, are given access to the records, but public-housing authorities are not among this group.

The catalyst for an eviction may be small—Brooks cited cases based on trespass by teenagers or an argument between mother and daughter—but the effects can create lifelong reverberations. Families lose their vouchers for publicly assisted housing and often disperse across the city or county; parents and children become separated, dependent on the largesse of friends with an open couch or a guest bed. And parents who try to settle with housing authorities outside of trial are generally told that the rest of the family can remain in the apartment only if the accused juvenile is kicked out.

The Supreme Court, upholding the law in the 2002 case HUD v. Rucker, argued that such stringency “maximizes deterrence” among public-housing tenants. The soundness of this logic has never been tested: Eviction outcomes are neither tracked nor measured. Shantae Goodloe, a public-affairs specialist at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, told me in an email, “HUD does not keep track of the annual number of public-housing evictions based on lease violations.”

A similar dearth of statistics confronts those interested in tracking juveniles on the public sex-offender registry. There is no organization or federal agency that tracks people registered for offenses they committed as children. As Edward Mulvey of the University of Pittsburgh put it: “The fact is, our juvenile justice system knows less about the kids in front of it than the local supermarket knows about the buying habits of those same kids.”

In most states, many juvenile offenses can be erased from the public record, typically five years after the crime or the end of the criminal proceedings. But there’s a catch: Many juvenile sentences involve rehabilitation programs or steep fines. Those who can pay the bills are able to get their records sealed. Those who can’t may spend their entire adulthoods  stuck in a pattern of “needs-based delinquency” in the words of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Tamar Birckhead.

A 37-year-old woman from Washington State was recently informed that she couldn’t apply to the nursing program at Spokane Community College in Washington State. (Her name has been withheld so as not to further publicize her record.) When the admissions officer asked whether she had any felonies on her record, she mentioned a juvenile conviction. At the age of 17, the woman and four accomplices had robbed and vandalized a cluster of 10 churches. She’d served a few weeks in juvenile detention and the court ordered her to pay a total of $21,870.52 in restitution. As a 17-year-old working at McDonald’s with no family support, she’d had difficulty making payments.

Twenty years later, she has two daughters. She has lived and worked on the military bases where her husband gets stationed, and she earned her certificate as a physicians’ office assistant. But as long as her juvenile record is accessible to employers, she can only land jobs that earn her about $1,500 per month. Her record precludes her from working with children, the disabled, or the elderly. “Any helping profession, which is what I enjoy, I can’t do,” she said. In order to seal her record, she would have to settle her restitution, and the last time she asked, roughly 10 years ago, she still owed more than $50,000. At an interest rate of 12 percent, the total today is likely over $150,000. She no longer checks because phone calls reanimate the collectors.

“It’s a debtor’s prison,” said Casey Trupin, an attorney with the Children and Youth Project at Columbia Legal Services in downtown Seattle. “We need to pull back from this precipice where we’re giving life sentences to juveniles,” Trupin said. “We need to make it easier to seal records.”

An inmate looks out the window of his cell at the New Jersey Training School for Boys. (Daniel Hulshizer / AP)

Even sealing, though, can serve a symbolic more than a functional role. The younger brother from Weatherford, Texas, was removed from the public sex-offender registry in 2010. But his name still comes up at Public Record Repository, a website that advertises “free sex offender searches.” The site is able to publish sealed records because of what it says in its Terms of Use: It states that it “is not a consumer reporting agency” and admonishes subscribers not to use it to evaluate potential job candidates.

“Records don’t ever really disappear,” says Riya Shah, an attorney with Philadelphia’s Juvenile Law Center. As a result, crimes don’t ever really disappear.

Daniel Bryner still isn’t sure how prospective employers found out about the series of crimes he committed between the ages of 12 and 14—ranging from driving without a license to residential burglary. “I figured that when I had the record sealed, that would be the end of my troubles.” He laughed. “But once it’s out there, it’s out there.” Fast-food restaurants and box stores continue to decline interviews. Recently, when Bryner’s stepfather suddenly abandoned his mother, a stroke victim who requires support, Bryner was forbidden from stepping in as her legal guardian. The Administrative Office of the Courts, which could have found his record in any number of corners—an outdated FBI background check, for instance—pointed to Bryner’s juvenile felony. His mother became a ward of the state and Bryner received visiting privileges.

Far-reaching consequences like these are rarely disclosed when juvenile adjudications are settled through plea bargains. Even if a lawyer were to lay them out clearly, it’s hard to imagine a 10-year-old, or even a 16-year-old, comprehending them. And parents often find it hard to forecast how the punishment will impact their children—not to mention their children’s children—decades into the future.

One woman in Olympia, Washington, whose son spent much of his time as a teenager locked up, worries about the trajectory of his life. He now has a daughter of his own, but he has been unable to get a job and move out of his parents’ house. He would like to be a counselor for troubled youth, but is legally unable to work with children. “At what point does the new beginning start?” his mother wonders. “At what point are we willing to offer another chance?”

Ponzanelli’s deportation proceedings started in early 2009 while he was serving his three-year sentence at various Texas prisons. As Ponzanelli remembers it, every few months he would be bused from his prison unit to the Goree Unit, a prison in Huntsville. He would sit in a room with other men, all of them waiting to be arraigned. Only a few of the men would be called back on any given day. After waiting for about six hours, he would be taken out of the Goree Unit and bused back to his cell.

During one of these visits, he was finally escorted from the waiting chamber into a teleconference hearing with a judge in Houston. Ponzanelli’s name was called and his case number read aloud. He doesn’t remember if a lawyer was present; he doesn’t remember the brief exchange of words. When the hearing ended, he left the room and returned to the waiting chamber until, some hours later, the bus picked him up and returned him to his cell.

After Ponzanelli received early parole, with a release date in June of 2010, he was transferred to The Walls, a facility where all Huntsville inmates go for discharge, regardless of their final destination. There, two Department of Homeland Security officers informed him that his charge was unambiguously deportable. He had two choices. He could sign the papers in front of him and voluntarily agree to leave the country—a gesture of cooperation that would expedite the process and could result in a shorter period of deportation—or fight to remain in Texas. He signed voluntarily. He and a few other men scheduled for deportation were then released into federal custody. In the evening, a passenger van carried them south to Houston, where a Contract Detention Facility managed by Immigration Customs and Enforcement housed them overnight.

The next morning—Ponzanelli thinks it was June 10, 2010—he was roused and led outside. He was not allowed to call anybody to say that he was being taken to the border. After hours of waiting, he was handed a bag with his properties, his cash, and a paper that notified him, at the bottom, that he had been sentenced to deportation for life. (I asked the regional spokesperson to confirm this but was told in a phone call that, in order to protect detainees’ privacy, the facility does not release information about old cases.)

According to Ponzanelli, Homeland Security agents cuffed him and the other men and then loaded them into a van that angled southwest along the Gulf Coast, over the Brazos River, into the low light of the setting sun. The men arrived after dark in the failing city of Laredo, which is filled with discount stores selling box fans and bundled white t-shirts. The van parked in the wide asphalt funnel that leads to the eight-lane Juárez–Lincoln International Bridge. Under certain circumstances, a ninth lane along the bridge’s west railing can be opened to foot traffic.

The group stepped down from the van and clustered before border guards who wore fatigues and military boots, automatic rifles slung over their backs. The deportees were given a brown bag with a sandwich and an eight-ounce carton of orange juice. They were uncuffed and marched to the middle of the bridge, where the guards stopped. The Rio Grande rolled below as the guards ordered the men over the threshold between two countries and told them to keep walking into the brightly lit fringes of Nuevo Laredo, the seat of Mexico’s most notorious drug cartel, Los Zetas. “They stood there watching us get to the other side,” Ponzanelli said. “I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do.”

Ponzanelli still lives in Nuevo Laredo. He works as a bartender on weekends and recently opened a tattoo parlor in the small house that he shares with a roommate. He thinks about seeking some kind of pardon to return to the U.S. “I’d want to go back if I could have my life again,” he said. “But if I’m going to be on the registry, then I don’t really care to return.” In Mexico, he says, at least he’s free.

More Kids, More Problems


Many of the states with the fastest-growing youth populations are also the ones that produce the weakest outcomes for kids.

Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

Please consider disabling it for our site, or supporting our work in one of these ways

Subscribe Now >

It seems that America’s biggest nurseries are failing at their job.

Those “nursuries”—the states with the largest-growing youth populations—tend to produce the worst outcomes for kids, judged by such measures as high-school graduation, access to health insurance, and exposure to poverty. The states that produce the best outcomes for kids tend to be either stagnant or declining in their youth populations.

That means the United States is increasingly relying on the states that are most struggling—and often making the least effort—to equip their kids to succeed and ultimately build the country’s future workforce and consumers. “The fact that we have so many kids living in parts of the country where the outcomes aren’t as good … is something we are going to pay for later,” says the demographer Bill Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program who recently analyzed the youth-population trends for all 50 states.

These conclusions are based on a comparison of Frey’s analysis with the latest Kids Count data book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation (which is among the sponsors for the series that produced this piece). The foundation ranks the condition of children in the states across 16 quantitative indicators in education, health, family, and the economy. From these individual assessments, it synthesizes a cumulative rank of well-being for children in each state.

Comparing that ranking with Frey’s analysis—which looked at changes in the 20-and-younger population for each state between 2000 and 2014—produces results that are ominous for the nation’s future economic vitality and social stability.

The 15 states that the foundation ranked as producing the best outcomes for kids are mostly clustered in New England (New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut), the Midwest (Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin) and the mid-Atlantic (New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia). But in nine of the 15 highest-ranked states, the number of young people declined from 2000 through 2014, Frey found. Only in Utah and Virginia  did the number of young people increase by at least 5 percent.

The 15 states that Casey ranked as producing the worst outcomes for kids are clustered in the Sun Belt (ranging west from South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to Texas, Nevada, and California) and the Appalachia region (West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky). In nine of the 15 lowest-ranked states, the number of young people increased between 2000 and 2014. The increase reached double digits in six of those states.

Overall, nearly 37 million young people—representing 45 percent of Americans under 20—now live in the 15 states at the bottom of the Casey foundation list. Just 15 million youth, representing only 19 percent of that same age cohort, live in the top 15 states. Moving forward, this discrepancy may only widen: Of the 15 states that experienced the largest percentage increases in their youth populations, nine rank in the bottom 15 and just one is in its top 15.

Several chasms separate kids’ experiences across these states. For one, the share of children in poverty is lower than the national average (which was 22 percent in 2013) on all 15 states topping the list. Meanwhile, the share of children in poverty exceeds the national average in all 15 states at the bottom, including Texas (25 percent), Arizona (26 percent), and Georgia (27 percent). Results for high-school graduation rates and access to health insurance follow similar patterns.

Another chasm that separates the highest and lowest-ranked states is diversity. Nonwhites represent a majority of kids under 20 in just two of the 15 highest-ranked states, while they account for a majority of the under-20 population in eight of the 15 lowest ranked states (including Georgia, Florida, Texas, and California), and at least two-fifths of the age cohort in four others.

National Journal

The Sun Belt states seem to face the most acute challenge of putting more kids of color on track to the middle class. But that is increasingly becoming a national phenomenon. Frey’s data shows that the absolute number of white kids under 20 has declined in 46 of the 50 states since 2000. Against that backdrop, a failure to elevate the children of color, who will comprise a growing share of the workforce almost everywhere, will hurt not only the states in which they live, but also the nation’s competitive edge.

Largely for that reason, Rolf Pendall, the director of community policy at the nonpartisan Urban Institute, says the U.S. can no longer accept the historic tendency in which Washington primarily held the funding responsibility for programs affecting senior citizens while the states were charged with overseeing children’s programs. “Increasingly it’s a limited number of states, and a limited number of metro areas, that are the nurseries of the future workforce,” Pendall says. “That means it’s in the national interest to provide for maximizing the life chances of kids [in those] places. That’s … not charity. It’s investment.”

That recognition could translate into providing a national baseline of services, like access to preschool and health insurance for all kids, and a livable wage for parents. But it also means that the well-being of all Americans could be undermined if the states most responsible for nurturing the next generation don’t commit to improving the outcomes for those kids.

Why Schools Need More Teachers of Color—for White Students

Noah Caruso, 17, calls South Philadelphia home. Known for cheesesteaks, pizza, and bakeries, South Philly is a close-knit, largely Italian American neighborhood where much of the population has traditionally shared the same background, culture, and race. Though an influx of immigrants has made the area more diverse in recent decades, South Philly, like the rest of the city, remains highly segregated. Caruso’s predominantly white community was echoed at his middle school, Christopher Columbus Charter School, where he says all of his teachers were white like him, as were virtually all of his classmates. It was against this backdrop that Caruso enrolled in Science Leadership Academy (SLA)—a public magnet high school in the city—and landed in the freshman English class of Matthew Kay, his first black teacher.

Now a rising senior, Caruso looks back with appreciation on his ninth-grade year in Kay’s class. “He’s the most inspiring teacher I ever had by far,” Caruso said, recalling Kay’s emphasis and commentary on fraught topics such as present-day racism. “He definitely pushed us to really think about these social issues [that] weren’t talked about before in my life because everyone grew up in the same area,” he continued. “We were all white … and everyone had the same opinion.” Caruso recalled a class in which Kay had students watch a scene from American History X, a graphic 1998 film about neo-Nazis and white supremacy in America. The teacher, Caruso noted, didn’t hold back in expressing his perspective on the persistence of prejudice in the country. It was one of many discussions with Kay that Caruso said opened his eyes “to all of these things I never even thought about before … It inspired me to want to do something about it.”

The importance of recruiting and retaining more teachers of color for students of color is well-reported and deeply researched. Most teachers—over 80 percent—are white, and surveys suggest that won’t change anytime soon. Among the ACT-tested graduates in 2014 who said they planned on pursuing an education major, 72 percent were white, compared to 56 percent of all tested students. Yet nonwhite children are now believed to make up a majority of the country’s public-school population. Studies show that, academically, nonwhite teachers produce more favorable outcomes for students of similar backgrounds; emotionally and socially, these educators serve as role models who share students’ racial and ethnic identity. What hasn’t gotten much attention, however, are the potential gains for white students.

The call for more teachers of color has grown more urgent in recent years because of America’s changing demographics. In an increasingly multiracial, multicultural society, some education experts question the impact on white students’ world views when the face of teaching almost always mirrors their own. Gloria Ladson-Billings, an African American professor of urban education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, broached this subject in a recent essay for Education Week responding to the apparent decline in nonwhite teachers—what some observers have described as a “disappearance crisis.” “I want to suggest that there is something that may be even more important than black students having black teachers and that is white students having black teachers! It is important for white students to encounter black people who are knowledgeable,” she wrote. “What opportunities do white students have to see and experience black competence?”

In public schools, where roughly 90 percent of the country’s children are enrolled, the lessons students learn are often skewed because of who is delivering the instruction and what kind of curricula and learning materials that instruction entails. Not only is the vast majority of the country’s teaching force white, but Eurocentric attitudes also tend to filter into classrooms. Some scholars, including the Temple University African American studies professor Ama Mazama, even attribute the notable rise in homeschooling among black families in part to the predominance of Eurocentric school curricula and teacher perspectives. American children’s literature is also often limited to white characters and narratives.

the most tolerant generation in American history, “beneath the facade of a colorblind generation remains a deep underclass,” wrote the Demos researcher Sean McElwee in an Al Jazeera op-ed earlier this year. “Millennials are not as racially progressive as the narrative suggests.” One study in 2007 found that youth aged 10 through 19 had just as much “implicit racial bias” as older generations did—and compared to some age groups, even more of it.

In Los Angeles, Joel Laguna, a Latino middle-school English and history teacher, incorporates discussions of his own ethnicity into classroom lessons in an effort to deepen his students’ cultural understanding. According to Laguna, achieving that is possible in a classroom community where all his students, many of whom are white, feel validated. Laguna previously taught at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, which he calls the “quintessential Mexican American school”; virtually 100 percent of the student population is Hispanic and low-income. There he would talk in class about his childhood as an immigrant, and his personal experiences, he said, would instantly resonate with his students. Now, at Thomas Starr King Middle School, located in the Silver Lake area, Laguna has a much more diverse crop of students—racially, ethnically, and economically—which he says lends itself to much different, fruitful classroom exchanges on social issues like immigration.

W. E. B. Du Bois: “A Negro Schoolmaster in the South”

Introducing these topics into class discussions is “a tricky balance, because I don’t know how much these kids, especially white kids, are being exposed to these issues or discussing them at home,” Laguna said. “As a Latino teacher, I am trying to be that role model and at the same time trying to open that door.” While many white students in the country are certainly aware of and sympathetic to the challenges faced by people of color, many others, Laguna suggested, aren’t. This past spring, during the height of the Baltimore uprising, Laguna’s students led a two-hour discussion that examined racial profiling. “A lot of the white kids were quiet,” he said,“but they were listening.” As the conversation progressed, a white student asked why all of the models she sees on billboards are white, too. It was at that moment, Laguna noted, that “I knew we were ‘going there’ with these kids.”

As a teacher of color Laguna feels a responsibility to humanize subjects like immigration to ensure that all students, not just those who’ve experienced it first-hand, understand the issue’s complexities. And when it comes to the white students in his class who he says have had less exposure to different cultural realities, Laguna believes he’s making inroads regarding their perception of people of color. He recounts a lesson last year on undocumented immigrants, most of whom work in low-wage jobs. According to Laguna, one of his white students responded: “Well, if you want a better job you have to work harder.” Laguna didn’t take offense to the comment; the boy, he suggested, simply hadn’t had an opportunity to challenge his own preconceived notions. “What I’ve developed over time is asking, ‘Why do you think that?’” Laguna continued. “Middle school is all about planting seeds,” he said.

Juanita Douglas, a veteran African American teacher at Lincoln Park High School in Chicago, shared similar experiences. Douglas said she’s frequently the first black teacher many of her students have ever had; about 28 percent of the school’s students are white, compared to 9 percent of students district-wide. As an honors history and law teacher she sees her role as helping all of her students sharpen their writing and oral-communication skills. But achieving these goals can be tricky, especially when it comes to her white students, said Douglas, citing the challenges she often faces in connecting with them and reconciling any differences in perspective. “I’ll have white kids come up to me and say, ‘2 Chainz has a new song,’ and I have to stop them and say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m 50 years old, and I don’t know who 2 Chainz is.” While Douglas recognizes their need to connect, she stresses that “I’m not black and cool … their image of black”—an image influenced by pop culture and rap music. “I’m black and a teacher.”

Douglas typically starts the school year discussing the concept of racial identity and harnessing what students have in common—what else defines them—other than their race. The idea is to get students to ask themselves, “Who am I as a human being?” Douglas said. “Once we get that settled, then we can move into education.” She also seeks to engage her classes in activities in which students from other schools also participate—academic events where the vast majority of attendees aren’t white, for example—in an effort to teach them both academic lessons and lessons about life. “That’s reality: Sometimes you might be the only white person,” she said “This world is increasingly becoming of color. [My students] should be comfortable with their other schoolmates.”

According to Douglas, who’s the only black teacher in her department, Lincoln Park employed 25 black teachers back when she started working there 15 years ago; today only eight remain. This is a trend seen across the Chicago Public Schools: Just 23 percent of the district’s teachers are black, down from 40 percent in 2000. “I don’t think people are willing to say that teachers of color are important for all students,” Douglas said, criticizing what she described as the Chicago district’s failure to recruit a more diverse staff. “I think they think the black teacher is in place just so the black students have someone to talk to … [A diverse teaching force] can benefit society and all students.”

The societal advantages of more teachers of color become clearer when considering the racial socialization—or the processes by which people develop their ethnic identities—of white adults, including the parents who may stumble in communicating racial understanding to their children. A Public Religion Research Institute study on “American Values” circulated last summer, following the shooting in Ferguson, showed that 75 percent of white Americans have all-white social networks. This self-segregation could help explain the racial divide over Michael Brown’s death and why it was seemingly so hard for many whites to understand what transpired in Ferguson: Their worldview was restricted to mostly white friends and family. And in a 2014 study researchers found that “the messages that white teens received [from parents regarding race] were contradictory and incomplete,” concluding that schools are a crucial link in building “productive and genuine relationships” between whites and people of color.

This finding tracks with the experience of Matthew Kay, Caruso’s English teacher in Philadelphia. Kay, who just completed his ninth year in the classroom, is purposeful and precise in his teaching style. Informally and without fuss, he seeks to challenge misguided perceptions of black people’s work ethic and dismantle preconceived notions about black men. According to Kay, by interacting daily with people who come from different backgrounds, white students who harbor stereotypes and prejudgments may be able to chip away at those convictions.

“If they come into the class feeling black people are dumb, that’s not going to survive contact with me or my black students for very long anyway,” he said. “I want [white students] to know that we work hard—[that we have] intellectual curiosity.” In his day-to-day dealings with students, Kay also fights the widespread, centuries-old narrative that black men are driven by anger and frustration. “I am affectionate and caring … I think it’s important that [the students] see we have the capacity to love.”

Underpinning it all, Kay said, are his close relationships with students and his ability to offer them a safe space to investigate and reflect on any racial privileges they enjoy without being made to feel morally deficient for having white skin. These kinds of relationship-building opportunities, he said, are lacking in too many schools and are seldom encouraged in undergraduate teaching programs. “In reality that should be 60 percent of what you learn,” he argued.

Kay practices this principle in the classroom and also as the founder and coordinator of the Philly Youth Poetry Movement Slam League, which took the top prize this summer at an international youth poetry competition. One of his white students and poets, Veronica Nocella, 17, describes her relationship with Kay as one that “really transcends the classroom.” Nocella says she got into slam poetry because of him, adding that she was going through a tough time when she got involved and that the experience has been “life-changing.” The slam-poetry program, Nocella said, offered “an environment where I felt the most human.”

Nocella, one of Kay’s students, says that he’s helped her discover slam poetry and express tough experiences she’s had. (Lee Mokobe)

Of course, integrated and diverse student bodies are just as important as interracial student-teacher pairings when it comes to building a more racially literate generation. Greta Haskell, another student at SLA, where the demographics closely reflect those of Philadelphia, said learning alongside students of color helps actualize the new perspectives she gains from nonwhite teachers. Last December, Haskell participated in a “die-in” at SLA to protest the non-indictment in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. “If I went off to college [as a white student] and didn’t know how to interact with [people not like me] I wouldn’t feel prepared,” Haskell said.

The racial composition makes the school a place where students “listen to each other and absorb what the other students are saying and make sense of it,” said Larissa Pahomov, an SLA teacher of color who serves on the school’s diversity committee. And according to the education professor Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, white students are “more likely to have a concrete understanding of racial and social injustices” and less likely to be prejudiced when they’re immersed in racially diverse schools. Still, the push for diverse schools—which in part because of housing segregation are uncommon nationwide—typically highlights an array of benefits for students of color, rather than that for their white counterparts.

Indeed, combined with an integrated student population, a diverse teaching staff can work to dispel myths about people of color and ultimately improve race relations. Yet while teacher diversity is helpful at an individual level, there are limitations to its potential systematically, cautioned Thomas M. Philip, an education professor at UCLA whose work focuses on racial ideology and teachers. Philip warned that putting the onus on teachers of color to carry the burden of discussions on larger historical and political issues carries significant risks, ranging from exceptionalism and tokenism to individualizing an institutional responsibility. “Part of the pattern is that people who experience the brunt of racism are called upon to engage these conversations while those who privilege from it are let off the hook,” leading to a problematic dynamic in which black teachers are expected to talk about Ferguson while an honest conversation about whiteness and privilege isn’t expected from a white teacher, Philip said.

Teacher diversity, Philip stressed, must be accompanied by systemic practices that support all educators in constructively navigating issues of race, racism, and racial justice. To do otherwise, he said, is to allow some to abdicate their role in engaging the same issues deeply and profoundly. “The unique strengths and perspectives of teachers of color are more likely to be beneficial for students if all educators, particularly white teachers and administrators, embrace the responsibility to work for racial equity and justice.”

Nevertheless, the immediate and long-term payoff of pairing teachers of color with white students is evident. Cedar Riener, a cognitive psychologist and professor at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, treasures his education in D.C. public schools for providing him with diverse teachers. (Compared to other states, D.C. has one of the highest percentages of nonwhite teachers in the country: In 2008, roughly two-thirds of its teacher workforce was black.) “My nerdy black chess coach and artistic black English teacher each undermined my own unconscious prejudice in their own ways,” he said, “ways I didn’t realize at the time in middle school and high school.”

Building a Prison-to-College Pipeline

If there’s an argument against giving Pell grants to prisoners that particularly galls Education Secretary Arne Duncan, it’s the suggestion by some Republicans that the Obama administration is taking money intended for hard-working students and giving it to criminals.

“Having an inmate receive Pell grants doesn’t take a nickel from anybody else,” Duncan told me in a phone interview on Wednesday. “This never pits one group over another, and it’s not robbing Peter to pay Paul. It’s just trying to have a few more people have access to what could be a life-chance-forming opportunity.”

Last week, alongside Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Duncan appeared at a prison in Maryland to announce the launch of a pilot program that would make a limited number of inmates eligible for federal college aid while they’re still in jail. Congress banned Pell grants for prisoners in 1994, but the administration is relying on a provision of the Higher Education Act to resume the practice on a trial basis. The idea—backed by a 2013 Rand Corporation study that found prisoner education is a cost-effective way to reduce recidivism—is one that has bipartisan support.

The Tricky Politics of Educating Prisoners

Yet the Obama administration is clearly taking a risk by launching the pilot program now, without waiting for full congressional approval that could come through the passage of criminal-justice reform, which has gained momentum on Capitol Hill in recent months. Already, some Republicans are accusing the administration of going around the law—an argument that Duncan similarly dismissed. “I think waiting on Congress is almost never a good bet,” the secretary said with a chuckle. He knows from experience. Duncan is one of two Cabinet officers (along with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack) who have served for the entire Obama presidency, and he has been waiting six and a half years for Congress to overhaul the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act. (In the face of congressional inaction, the administration has exempted most states from many of its key requirements.)

“Quite candidly, Congress often doesn’t do much until we do something, and then they react to that,” Duncan said. “So it kind of spurs them to take action. But anyone who says this stops them from doing something or stifles debate—it’s just patently false.”

The administration is now waiting for proposals from universities who want to participate in the Pell grant initiative. Duncan said that while there are no plans to restrict eligibility based on the type of crime an inmate committed, it would be focused on prisoners scheduled for release “in the next couple of years.” About 700,000 inmates are released from prison in the U.S. each year, which Duncan likened to a “tidal wave.” “They’re either going to be released and go back to the streets and go back to a life of crime, and go back to being a menace to society, or they’re going to be released with some real skills and possibly even a college degree, or credit towards a college diploma,” he said. “And as a parent, as a taxpayer, I know which one I would prefer.”

In the interview, Duncan also addressed a more fundamental goal of education: keeping kids out of prison in the first place. The administration last year stepped up its efforts to close what is often described as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” and Duncan said the government had spent about $5 billion on grants to turn around failing schools. He tied that effort to the push in many states and districts to reduce out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, which disproportionately affect people of color. “We’ve seen many states and districts start to change their policies, moving away from zero-tolerance, moving toward restorative justice and peer juries, and working with kids rather than putting them out into the street,” he said. “That’s a big, big step in the right direction.”

Here’s a transcript of my interview with Duncan, edited for clarity and length.

Russell Berman: Just getting Congress to reauthorize Pell grants for non-criminals has been a struggle under Republican control. What do you say to families of students who have worked hard, still are saddled with student-loan debt and may wonder why inmates should get government assistance for education?

Arne Duncan: To be clear, this is never haves-versus-have-nots or whatever. Having an inmate receive Pell grants doesn’t take a nickel from anybody else, and this is really about trying to help individuals get back on their feet. And ultimately why Republicans should—and some will—love this is it’s a huge way to reduce recidivism and save money over time. This never pits one group over another, and it’s not robbing Peter to pay Paul. It’s just trying to have a few more people have access to what could be a life-chance-forming opportunity.

Look, when this program was in place 20 years ago, it was something like 0.1 percent of all Pell money, so the budget conversation here is not a real debate or a real issue.

Berman: So it’s not coming from some pool of money that is limited?

Duncan: Exactly. The opposite of that.

Berman: How many prisoners are likely to receive Pell grants as part of this program?

Duncan: We really don’t have any idea yet. To be clear, what we’re going to be doing is putting out a [request for proposal] for universities who want to partner with prisons. We don’t know how many are going to step up. We’re only going to pick ones where we think there’s a good chance of success, where there’s a high quality. And of those we pick, we don’t know their capacity to serve a certain number, so there’s no sense now. We do hope that many universities across the nation will step up and apply. And we think, again, this has a chance to have a very significant impact. And [for] Congress, which we hope chooses at some point to take this to scale, hopefully that evidence base that we build will help to inform that conversation.

So we’re hopeful, and we’ll have a strong evaluative piece to this, and we’ll sort of learn over time what works and what doesn’t.

Berman: As of now, what limits is the administration going to put on this? Would violent offenders be eligible?

Duncan: The short answer is that we’re first going to look to work with folks who are going to be released back into society relatively soon, in the next couple of years. So I think we distinguish less on the type of crime and more on the, ‘Are you coming back into society?’ And I kept quoting, you know it’s sort of a stunning fact: We have 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prison population. It’s staggering, and because we have this mass incarceration system which is not working on any level—I think everyone acknowledges that—we release 700,000 prisoners from jail back into our society every year, like a tidal wave of inmates being released. And they’re either going to be released and go back to the streets and go back to a life of crime, and go back to being a menace to society, or they’re going to be released with some real skills and possibly even a college degree, or credit towards a college diploma. And as a parent, as a taxpayer, I know which one I would prefer.

People don’t want to admit it but it’s happening every single year, and so it’s really up to us as a society. Do we really want to arm them with skills and a chance to be productive citizens who are going to be taxpayers, or do we just want to perpetuate a system where the costs are mind-blowing and the costs to society beyond the financial are—just the fear factor on this thing is just very real.

Berman: So what happens if a prisoner gets his or her release before getting a degree or certificate? Will they be able to continue their education with the Pell grant after they get out?

Duncan: Absolutely. They can either stay with the same university, or transfer those credits or whatever, just like any other student. They may be pursuing an associate’s degree. They may be pursuing a bachelor’s degree. We want to see two-year options, we want to see four-year options. We want to see liberal arts programs. We want to see more skill- and technical-based programs. And we’ll get a sense of what happens.

The one former inmate who spoke at the event where we did the announcement in Maryland at the end of last week—it’s very interesting. He got a liberal arts degree, and obviously having the college diploma very significantly changed his life, but he said what was so helpful to him was just learning to think differently as part of the coursework that he took, seeing the world differently and seeing his place in the world very differently. And so while I think they’ll be a lot of emphasis on hard skills, whether it’s advanced manufacturing or IT, and we want that, I think he made a very emotional and very profound case for a broad-based liberal arts education, which I happen to agree with and which was interesting to hear firsthand.

Berman: You mentioned Congress. Obviously, the administration across the government has taken actions by itself on issues that have stalled in Congress but, as you know, there’s actually a fair amount of momentum right now on Capitol Hill for criminal-justice reform. Some Republicans are already criticizing the decision to start the program even in a limited way by yourself? Why not wait for Congress, and why risk Republican support by moving ahead unilaterally?

Duncan: Two things. I think waiting on Congress is almost never a good bet. [Laughs] That’s just the reality. And again I think it’s important for you guys, for the press, to cut through it, is that nothing we’re doing prohibits them from doing anything, stops anything from happening. This is just the ability to do a small pilot program under [the Higher Education Act] and they can debate this four years ago, they can debate it next week, they can debate it next month. It doesn’t change anything with Congress. And again, it should create an evidence base to help Congress make a wiser decision. And quite candidly, Congress often doesn’t do much until we do something, and then they react to that. So it kind of spurs them to take action. But anyone who says this stops them from doing something or stifles debate—it’s just patently false. There’s no truth to that whatsoever. It’s a way to cover their lack of action.

Berman: Let me just broaden it out a little bit, because obviously the main objective is to keep young people out of prison in the first place. What is the administration’s top priority or main focus when it comes to addressing what’s been described as the school-to-prison pipeline?

Duncan: I’ll try to give not a two-hour answer on that. We’re trying to do a number of things. We found that when we announced this with [former] Attorney General Eric Holder that the school-to-prison pipeline starts as young as pre-K, where across the country staggering numbers of young boys of color were being suspended and expelled, and that was devastating to find that out. I had no idea, but that’s the truth. So there’s not a short answer to your question. It starts with doing much less out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. It starts with having school districts really look at the data and look at how so often it’s disproportionately young boys of color—again, as young as 3 who are being suspended and expelled.

We’ve seen many states and districts start to change their policies, moving away from zero-tolerance, moving toward restorative justice and peer juries and working with kids rather than putting them out into the street. That’s a big, big step in the right direction. We’ve invested about $5 billion in school turnaround grants, which is trying to challenge those places, including “dropout factories,” where things simply just aren’t working for children. We know a wildly disproportionate number of folks who end up being incarcerated are folks who don’t have a high-school diploma. And today, we’re pleased to say that high school graduation rates, for the nation, are at all-time highs, and dropout rates are down. They’ve been cut in half for Latino students, by 45 percent for African American students. So we’ve made real progress and are proud of that. Having said that, we have a long, long way to go, both in having districts and states examine their discipline policies and we can’t rest until that graduation rate gets much closer to 100 percent, and that dropout rate gets close to zero. The best anti-crime program is a quality education, no question.

Berman: Lastly, bringing it to the debate we’re seeing today, what if any lessons can be drawn in the education community from the debate over policing, between people of color in the community and white police officers in positions of authority? You see some of this same dynamic in inner-city classrooms. Are there lessons that can be drawn or that you’re studying here?

Duncan: You see some of that. I will say that in the vast majority of our communities and our communities with high crime rates and challenging socioeconomic issues, schools are frankly often the safe havens. And while far from perfect, they’re the places where kids feel safer than the streets, than the community. So the more our schools can become beacons of hope—I’ve talked a lot about our schools becoming community centers that are open 12 hours a day with a whole host of after-school activities for children and families that will help them grow but will also keep them safe and off our streets. For me, the answer to some of that is having our schools, particularly in the inner-city communities, become true community centers, offering academic enrichment, and drama and arts and sports and music, and for parents GED classes and ESL and family literacy nights and family counseling. We have schools that have healthcare clinics. We have schools that are doing food banks, and where you have that kind of support and where the school truly becomes a community anchor, again I think the benefits for young people and their families are extraordinary and cuts through some of those negatives that you were talking about.

Berman: Are you staying on for the remainder of the president’s term?

Duncan: I’m working hard every day—long way to go!

When Parents Are the Ones Getting Schooled by the Common Core


Grownups are hitting the books and taking classes just so they can help their kids with their math homework.

A mother helps her 6-year-old daughter with her Common Core-aligned math homework at their home in Berkeley, California. AP Photo

Please consider disabling it for our site, or supporting our work in one of these ways

Subscribe Now >

“It feels like a dark time,” wrote the comedian Louis C.K. in a tweet last April. “I’m pissed,” he wrote in another, a few minutes later. C.K. was, indeed, very, very angry. And this time, it wasn’t his own “yucky” existence that was making him fume. Rather, it was a different kind of “massive stressball” irking him: the Common Core State Standards.

In his now-famous rant, the middle-aged father of two lamented the controversial academic benchmarks and the accompanying onslaught of rigorous testing in New York City’s public schools, where his daughters were enrolled. Specifically, C.K. was exasperated by the Common Core’s overhaul of math—a subject his kids, he noted, once loved. “Now it makes them cry,” he tweeted, posting pictures of his then-third-grade daughter’s apparently mind-boggling homework. “Thanks standardized testing and common core!”

Yes, the cynical, self-loathing comedian was stumped by the Common Core. And if the flurry of responses commiserating with C.K. is any indication, so are thousands, if not millions, of other child-rearing adults across the United States. As The Washington Post noted last year, parents are finding themselves “flustered” by their inability to comprehend their kids’ homework. The Common Core standards stress “the application of knowledge through higher-order thinking skills” in math and reading and, although they technically don’t prescribe curriculum, they have incentivized schools to adopt new materials and instructional tactics designed to be more in sync with the new standards. That’s why “old-fashioned” arithmetic methods such as the carry-and-borrow technique are being phased out. That’s also why, in large part, the country has seen an outbreak of desperate Facebook pleas, indignant op-eds, talk-show commentary, and mass testing boycotts from parents seeking nothing short of a Common Core apocalypse.

But amid all that handwringing, another curious and perhaps amusing phenomenon has emerged: Parents are going back to school (or somehow continuing their education) just to try and make sense of it all. School districts across the country are hosting parents’ nights to get them acquainted with the new academic strategies. Nevada’s Clark County School District, for example, has offered twice-monthly, taxpayer-funded seminars devoted to helping parents understand Common Core math. On top of Khan Academy’s resources, parents also have at their disposal a plethora of how-to videos and tip sheets, practice exercises and “road maps.” There’s Common Core Math For Parents For Dummies (with accompanying online videos) or the more general Common Core Standards For Parents For Dummies (sans videos). Or, to change it up, there’s Parents’ Guide to Common Core Arithmetic: How to Help Your Child. For those who really want to master it? At least one institution—Suffolk County Community College—offers a $108-a-person Common Core math course for parents that runs a few weeks long.

As Education Week has reported, it’s not uncommon for new math methods to cause panic among America’s parents. Take the federally sponsored, Sputnik-inspired “New Math” movement of the 1960s (a favorite among satirists such as Tom Lehrer), for example, or the 1989 standards initiative aimed at promoting “mathematical literacy and technical agility in the age of information” (which prompted what some commentators described as “The Math Wars”). Still, this likely marks the first time in American history that education reform has prompted such an intense and proactive reaction from parents. The question is: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Depending on how you look at it, the degree to which parents are investing their time and energy and sanity in learning the Common Core’s newfangled methods—for the sake of keeping their kids’ grades up—could be more depressing than it is exciting.

* * *

“Perhaps the most disconcerting issue, for us, is the distance the Common Core has created between parents and their children’s education,” wrote the Lifehacker writer Melanie Pinola. “It’s like having a nightmare where you’re trying to help your child over some hurdle but you’re given foreign instructions like ‘use a multiplication fact as place value as another way to multiply by a multiple of 10.’ (That’s a real math problem.)” The new strategies come with catchy names like “skip counting” and “drawing an array” and “making 10,” among a range of other tactics students are encouraged to master. One way to figure out a subtraction problem, for example, is called “counting up.” Say a question asked a student to subtract 29 from 248. Using traditional methods, you and I might do something like this:

Now, however, kids would instead employ series of alternative methods to arrive at 219, such as “counting up”:

In other words, students would be asked to count up to 248 using numbers that are easy to work with—numbers that they’d then add up to arrive at the difference.

Still, for many parents, that new approach may look like pure nonsense—or just a lot of extra work. Erick Erickson, a parent and the editor in chief of the conservative political blog RedState, lamented last year that the Common Core-style learning amounts to “insanity”: “This is maddening and angering and frustrating. This is why so many parents are so upset,” he wrote. “They cannot help their children. The math makes no sense and seems to offer no practical purpose other than it is new.”

But Common Core supporters such as Nina Leonhardt, the associate dean for continuing education at Suffolk County Community College and creator of the $108 course for parents, argue that it offers a more practical approach to thinking about the equation. The standards encourage kids to calculate the arithmetic in their heads using tangible, visible concepts—much as they would in the real world. Educators say getting students acquainted with these strategies early on can help them develop the skill sets they need when they’re faced with increasingly complex math. A recent RAND Corporation study of 17 state standardized tests, pre-Common Core, found that 2 percent of math questions assessed students on “cognitively demanding” skills.

“You always hear people say, ‘I can’t do math, I don’t like math. Why do I need it?’” said Leonhardt, emphasizing the practical value of these new strategies for today’s adults. “The reality is that if they understand how it is applied to the real world … then perhaps it’s not so ancillary; it’s a basic skill that should be acquired. There are applications to daily life and to the workplace and to the critical-thinking skills cited over and over again by employers.”

Some observers point to how poorly the country’s students perform on standardized math assessments, particularly relative to places like Singapore, whose world-famous math approach is comparable to the one promoted by the new standards. Just one in three U.S. eighth-graders performed proficiently on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2012. And it’s worth noting that math proficiency levels in the U.S. have always been on the low side: Based on extrapolated NAEP data, the average eighth-grade math score in 1973 was 266 out of 500 (compared to 285 in 2012).

With all that in mind, some previously skeptical parents have conceded that there may be merits to the Common Core. The elementary-level arithmetic most of today’s adults likely learned is based largely on rote memorization and other superficial methods designed to help kids land on  an answer. The way I mastered my multiplication tables (in 1998, as incentivized by prizes such as special post-lunch popsicles) involved JumpStart computer games and a few shortcuts I gleaned from my teachers—the hand trick for multiples of nine, for example.

Don’t Help Your Kids With Their Homework

Meanwhile, the prospect that parents are likely striving to keep up with their kids’ learning as never before indicates a degree of engagement that, in itself, is beneficial for their achievement—at least according to some research. The widely cited Harvard Family Research Project study by William Jeynes, now an education professor at California State University, Long Beach, suggested that parental involvement in homework can boost a student’s academic performance.

But other, more recent research suggests outcomes that are quite contradictory, as The Teacher Wars author Dana Goldstein reported for The Atlantic last April. “Most measurable forms of parental involvement seem to yield few academic dividends for kids, or even to backfire—regardless of a parent’s race, class, or level of education,” she wrote, citing an extensive, longitudinal study by sociology professors at the University of Texas at Austin and Duke. “Once kids enter middle school, parental help with homework can actually bring test scores down, an effect [the UT researcher Keith Robinson] says could be caused by the fact that many parents may have forgotten, or never truly understood, the material their children learn in school.”

Goldstein pointed out that the federal government has since the 1960s incentivized parent involvement, primarily for low-income youth, a trend that continued under No Child Left Behind. While some habits do seem to have a positive impact—such as reading aloud to young children or discussing college plans—little evidence suggests that intensive involvement in school-specific activities is helpful, she wrote.

Regardless of whether parental involvement in homework hurts or helps a student’s achievement, though, the Common Core–inspired continuing-education movement among parents could simply be symptomatic of Americans’ growing emphasis on having a competitive edge, what Brookings economists recently dubbed “The Rug Rat Race.”

Steven Mintz, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin who directs the UT system’s Institute for Transformational Learning, said the trend demonstrates “that parents are full partners in their children’s education,” which he said sharply diverges from his upbringing, “when my schooling was entirely my own responsibility.” According to Mintz, this type of reaction is “a recent phenomenon”: “Now that education is one of the keys to a child’s future class status, and now that there is a widespread consensus (at least among the more affluent) that parental investments (whether in terms of cultural capital, social capital, or education) in children pay off, many parents worry that a lack of involvement will have long-term negative consequences,” he said in an email, echoing Goldstein in pointing out that the onus is increasingly on parents to give their kids an advantage in school activities like science fairs. “To put this bluntly: In more competitive circumstances, children are increasingly seen as projects to be perfected (and other children are seen as threats to be managed or outperformed).”

But it’s not just about competition, necessarily. Mintz also pointed to a simultaneous trend in which adults are increasingly participating in “DIY learning opportunities,” such as MOOCs. “What I’m implying is that parents aren’t simply helping their children,” he said. “They are seeking to broaden themselves.”

The problem with all this engagement, wrote the middle-school math teacher and writer Anthony Cody last month, is that it risks widening socioeconomic disparities in academic achievement. Pointing to the $108 course at Suffolk County Community College, Cody asked in a recent blog post, “Any guesses as to the socioeconomic status of the parents who will find the time to take special courses like this?” It’s true—it often takes a little extra cash for parents to brush up on things like new Common Core skills, regardless of how engaged a parent is. “Most parents will not be taking these classes, and will be helpless—even embarrassed,” Cody wrote, “ when their second graders bring home work that looks arcane.”

Jeb Bush’s Questionable Record on Education

Jeb Bush wants you to think he opened the doors to higher education for students of color. Hillary Clinton wants you to think he shut them in their faces.

When Bush took the stage last Friday at the annual National Urban League meeting, he said, We found that with fewer obstacles imposed by government, more people had the opportunity to achieve earned success … We expanded our community-college system and made it more affordable for low-income families. Florida in those years helped thousands more first-generation college students make it all the way to graduation.”

He extolled his history of raising the Advanced Placement exam results and performance by students of color. The former Florida governor didn’t address Clinton’s comments directly, but the implication was clear: Bush has made it easier to go to college.

Rhetoric and politicking aside, what actually happened—particularly when it comes to students of color—while Bush was in office?

It’s a compelling question, considering that Bush became the first governor in 1999 to end the use of race and ethnicity in admissions decisions at Florida’s public universities through executive order. Black enrollment fell nearly 11 percent at Florida universities between 2000 and 2013, while black enrollment rose nationally by more than 3 percent.

The percentage of black students enrolled at the state’s flagship schools—the University of Florida and Florida State University—dropped. Black enrollment saw a 50-percent decline between 2007 and 2013 at the University of Florida, while it fell by 15 percent at Florida State between 2000 and 2009.

As governor, Bush created “One Florida,” which guaranteed that the top 20 percent of high-school graduates would be admitted to an institution of higher learning in the state. But as The Washington Post noted, black students are far more likely to end up in less-competitive regional schools.

Statewide, black enrollment sits at about 13 percent, while approximately 17 percent of Floridians identify as black.

Hispanic enrollment, in terms of numbers and percentages, is up. It nearly doubled between 1999 and 2013 to 24 percent. But, as Politifact noted, the sizeable growth in the state’s Latino population has likely fueled much of the enrollment increase, not policy.

National Journal

“I don’t think you can credibly say that everyone has a right to rise and then say you’re for phasing out Medicare … They can’t rise if their governor makes it harder for them to get a college education,” Clinton said, invoking the name of Bush’s political action committee. She didn’t say his name, but the implication was clear: Bush has made it harder to go to college.

So while it is technically true in terms of sheer numbers that more black and Latino students are enrolling in college, percentage-wise, black enrollment is down, and there’s little evidence to suggest that Bush’s policies contributed to an increase in Hispanic enrollment.

The Citizen Preschooler


What should young children learn about being part of a democracy?

A prekindergarten class at Seattle’s Community Day Center for Children Ted S. Warren / AP

Please consider disabling it for our site, or supporting our work in one of these ways

Subscribe Now >

One morning this past April, scores of preschoolers and kindergarteners dragged their grownups into the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The children had created an exhibit demonstrating their perceptions of the nation’s capital and what it means to belong to the city. In one gallery, there was a replica of the D.C. Metro routes, made from neon-colored plastic pipes. In another were cardboard, foam, and popsicle-stick models of the children’s dream playgrounds.

Over the course of the morning, a signboard asking “what does it mean to be a citizen?” bloomed with more and more bright sticky notes containing answers to that question. Some contributions came from parents and teachers. “To participate in decision-making for the country,” read one. “To be free, to explore, to grow through learning,” offered another, signed with a heart and the name “Ms. Rachelle.” Other contributions came from children: “to be a homin” (i.e., “human”), for example. “To help another bear in my classroom,” signed Lucas, a member of the participating “Cinnamon Bears” class.

But the goal of the activity wasn’t just to have cute kids make art and share happy thoughts.

“We are not doing this work to be nice,” said Ben Mardell, an education researcher who collaborates with Harvard’s Project Zero, which brings together scholars to study how people learn. The program that brought the kids to the museum, “Children Are Citizens,” is meant to be practical: “We actually think we have something to learn from children.”

Mardell and his collaborators at Project Zero believe that children as young as 3 have ideas about how to make a city more fair, safe, and livable. D.C. was the third test ground for “Children Are Citizens,” which calls on early-childhood educators like myself to tap into their students’ knowledge about their neighborhoods, get the children to brainstorm ways to make their communities better, and facilitate the sharing of their ideas with the general public and policymakers. Teachers at a handful of public and private D.C. schools, including two serving high percentages of low-income children, participated in the program this year (my school did not participate). Another batch of high-poverty schools are slated to participate next year, too.

Children participating in the program came up with noteworthy ideas: In Boston, when invited by Mayor Marty Walsh to propose civic improvements, some kindergarteners suggested “making more buildings so parents can have jobs.” Another group of kids made a model of an indoor playground that their peers would be able to enjoy during the long New England winter. The roof, they specified, would have solar panels. But it appears few preschoolers in the country have opportunities to engage in the civic process.

Efforts to empower young people as citizens typically target adolescents. Government initiatives like Youth Engaged 4 Change and nonprofits like Generation Citizen seek to boost civic education—which can range from lessons about how government works to experiences that promote self-government, like student-led field trips—for teenagers. The idea is to prepare these students to be active participants in the democratic process and civic affairs. After all, the number of young people aged 18 to 29 who vote has generally declined in recent decades; just 45 percent of them voted in the 2012 elections. And although there’s lively debate among researchers about which approaches are most effective in increasing students’ civic engagement, various studies have shown that classrooms that host open discussions of issues important to high schoolers promote their civic participation in the long-term.

But many early-childhood teachers think about how to cultivate the next generation of “small-d democrats,” too. In my experience teaching children aged 3 through 6, I’ve found that early-childhood classrooms can serve as a natural cradle for democracy, as they’re typically where kids learn their first lessons about group membership. Young children are often fiercely curious about power and how it works: who makes the rules, and why. Qualitative evidence shows that children have the capacity to debate ideas, and to work together to solve problems that arise in the classroom (how many kids can play in the block area at a time, for example) and outside of it (how to improve a city park). What if young children had more opportunities to offer the general public some civics lessons of their own?

The country’s children continue to struggle with limited access to quality early-education opportunities: In the 2013-14 school year, just two in five 4-year-olds were in some sort of publicly funded prekindergarten, and many of those programs are considered low-quality, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Policymakers and children’s advocates have long debated the merits of pre-k, from its return on every dollar invested to whether it’s best to subsidize attendance for all kids or to just target low-income ones. But it seems that discussions in the U.S. seldom treat children as anything more than blank slates; they make little reference to these kids’ competencies and what they can offer as youngsters to society at large. For what it’s worth, the U.S. is the only United Nations country that hasn’t ratified a treaty of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which establishes that children should have the freedom of expression, among other rights, and says education should prepare children for “responsible life in a free society.”

Civics-focused preschool models have taken hold in other parts of the world. Italy’s Reggio Emilia region has become famous for its universal preschools, whose guiding principle is that children are “protagonists”—the main actors and engines in their school work; with the help of their teachers, they drive decision-making about the curriculum.

But it seems the mainstream view in the U.S. is that pre-k is something done to children—an intervention that, as the Obama administration says, taxpayers subsidize “to make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind.” And some education scholars, like Lilian Katz, a former head of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, say that the relative silence on children’s capacity as capable, curious learners has already resulted in missed opportunities for their intellectual development.

The lack of attention on the topic means there’s little empirical data to demonstrate the impact of a “democratic” preschool classroom on children’s academic and social outcomes. But that could change. The issue has attracted the attention of the University of Chicago’s Center for the Economics of Human Development, which is directed by James Heckman, a Nobel laureate and economist famous for his analysis of the long-term economic benefits of the Perry Preschool Program. Members of his international research team are currently studying Reggio Emilia’s schools, whose education philosophy, according to the researcher Pietro Biroli, “has inspired schools all over the world, but it has never undergone a formal impact evaluation.” The schools, Biroli says, represent “a unique natural experiment that has been unfolding” over the last half century. The research team is in the process of analyzing its data on the schools’ returns on investment and has not yet released any findings.

* * *

Most people in the U.S. seem to believe that schools are responsible for teaching kids much more than how to read, write, and add—that they’re also tasked with ensuring children develop into engaged citizens, a responsibility that some advocates call “the civic mission of schools.” But putting that belief into practice is tricky perhaps because of how much people disagree about what the approach should look like. In his recent book What Kind of Citizen?, the Canada-based sociology professor Joel Westheimer presents research showing that American adults have deeply held, divergent beliefs about what kind of citizens schools should cultivate. “Ask people of any nation if they think children should learn to be good citizens and most will say, ‘Of course!,’” he writes. “But when the questions go deeper, the easy consensus starts to fray.” Some people think that young people should learn that following rules makes a responsible citizen, while others believe that questioning rules does.

Children typically learn very different civic lessons largely depending on their parents’ income. In some classrooms, students have what sociologists call “voice” (a say in things) and “agency” (capacity to make choices); in others, not so much. I spent a morning at a school in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for example, where teachers followed a scripted curriculum. Children, most of them Latino, sat at tables, using Magic Markers to color in pictures of a zebra wearing a sweater with a zipper. (The exercise was designed to be a lesson on the letter z.) A 3-year-old raised her hand and pointed at the picture of the zipper and asked an assistant teacher what it was. The teacher shushed her and told her to work in silence, subsequently instructing another student to color in the lines.

I turned down a job teaching there, seeing little opportunity to let students, as Ms. Rachelle would say, “be free, explore, and grow through learning.” Instead, I accepted a job at a school in the same city that served children of all income levels, established in response to a court-ordered mandate for Connecticut schools to promote racial integration. At this school, I saw a sign outside a kindergarten class that read, “Room Three belongs to: …” and included the name of every child in the class, along with those of the teachers. It sent a message that children were going to play a role in caring for, and making decisions about what went on in, that classroom. The children participated in morning meetings and closing circles, and when a problem arose in class, they would join on the rug with a song, “Oh dear, what can the matter be?” and set about trying to solve the problem, together.

Why Do American Students Have So Little Power?

The school where I now work is inspired by the schools of Reggio Emilia, and, like many Reggio-inspired schools in the U.S., is a private institution that charges tuition but offers financial aid. Children have opportunities to help make rules, broker compromises, and decide priorities for what to study, while their parents, many of whom work on Capitol Hill, do much the same.

In my class last year, my co-teacher and I observed that while playing, our students often pretended to be pirates. So we channeled this interest into a two-month investigation of ships and waterways, with the support of educators ranging from our school librarian to two P.E. teachers. Children chose which research committee to join—kayak, crew, sailing, or submarine—and hatched plans to make working models and plays to present their findings to their parents.

The researchers at Project Zero see public forums, like the event at the National Gallery and the exhibit at Boston’s City Hall, as a way to broadcast children’s work outside of the classroom, and in turn, challenge assumptions about children’s capabilities. Like adults, children are capable of thinking about what it means to be a citizen.  And like adults, they sometimes choose not to do so. In a room full of wooden blocks at the National Gallery, I asked a 3-year-old, Joshua, what it means to be a citizen. “I don’t know,” he told me. He was too busy building.