Outlaw Literacy

Peter Wood

Detroit Public Schools report 93 percent of eighth grade students are not proficient in reading and 96 percent are not proficient in math.  Those are the results of the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests.  NAEP tests are the gold standard in educational testing—a random sampling of students pretty much immune to the forms of tampering that afflict other supposed measures of educational accomplishment. 

These are astonishing numbers. The 2015 NAEP results are grabbing headlines across the country because they show that the new educational regime we call Common Core has not changed things for the better.  Nationally, only 33 percent scored proficient or better in reading.  If we call that 33 percent dismal, what adjective is left to describe Detroit’s 7 percent proficiency rate?  Heart-sinking?  In any case, Detroit led the nation among the 21 districts surveyed in this kind of educational malfeasance.  Likewise, nationally, 32 percent of eighth graders scored proficient or better in math, compared to Detroit’s 4 percent.  And again, no school district did worse.

Education, of course, isn’t the only area where Detroit is profoundly troubled.  According to the FBI, Detroit is “the most dangerous big city in the nation.”  It has the highest murder rate per 100,000 and highest violent crime rate.  In 2013, the city had 316 murders and a total of 14,504 violent crimes, for a violent crime rate of 2,072 per 100,000.

Detroit boosters say things are looking up.  Those 14,504 violent crimes sound like a lot, but there were 507 more than that in 2012.   And 2015 may be the year in which Detroit will no longer be the murder capital of the U.S.  It is on track to be surpassed by St. Louis, which has had 49.9 murders per 100,000 so far, compared to Detroit’s 43.5 per 100,000.  The night before Halloween, dubbed “Devil’s Night,” used to be a festival of arson in Detroit, where residents torched abandoned buildings to drive out drug dealers.  There were 810 such fires in 1984, which fell to 91 in 2009.  A campaign called “Angel’s Night” continues to curb the pyrophilic enthusiasm of the residents.  There were only 97 fires in the October 29-31 fire season in 2014. 

But Detroit’s overall crime rate is sky high and some of the crimes are spectacularly ugly.  A nationwide sex trafficking sting operation by law enforcement authorities this month rescued 19 children in Detroit and apprehended 12 pimps who specialized in children.  One of the children was 12 years old. 

This grim backdrop is useful to keep in mind when considering the illiteracy and innumeracy of Detroit public school students.  A June 2015 report by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services offered a statewide analysis of juvenile arrests for the period 2008-2013.  It showed a sharp decline in arrests for that five year period, down to 13,000 juvenile arrests for the whole state—and less than 8 percent of the total consisted of violent crimes.  Larceny topped the list:  3.45 arrests per 1,000 juveniles in the state.  That was 3,183 cases.  Non-aggravated assault was second at 2.41 per 1,000—2,225 cases.  (“Non-aggravated assault” means “an unlawful physical attack on someone, without using a weapon and not causing serious injury.”  Some of us might say that a punch in the nose or kick to the groin is “violent,” but the authorities don’t count it that way.)

About 30 percent of the juvenile arrests occurred in Metropolitan Detroit.  The juvenile arrest rate in Wayne County (Detroit) was 17.4 per 1,000 in 2013—down 49 percent from five years earlier—but still topping Michigan’s high-population counties by nearly double the next highest county. 

The link between juvenile crime and poor performance in school was apparent to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services which provided some helpful charts showing the plummeting percentage of eighth graders who tested “below proficient in reading” for the five-year period.  In 2008, according to the chart, 47.9 percent of the eighth graders tested below proficient, but by 2013, only 27.3 percent were below proficient.  So as reading proficiency supposedly rose, juvenile crime fell. 

Of course, these numbers from the Michigan bureaucracy are wildly discrepant with the NAEP statistics.  Where Michigan sees nearly three-quarters of Detroit’s eighth graders as proficient readers, the independent and objective NAEP test finds only seven percent match that description.  We might also take the state’s statistics on juvenile crime with a grain of salt.  How many crimes does a juvenile offender on average commit before he is arrested?  Ten?  Fifty? One hundred?  Given the plummeting juvenile arrest rate in a city with a spiraling overall crime rate, one might be tempted to think that the police have quietly backed away from arresting any but the most egregious offenders. 

When I started to write this, I wondered whether the chances of a Detroit eighth grader being judged proficient in reading or math were lower than the chances of his being arrested for a criminal offense.  Having spent some time with the data, I judge that the answer is probably no.  About 70 eighth graders in Detroit out of every 1,000 are proficient in reading, and 40 out of 1,000 are proficient in math.  We don’t have arrest rates broken down by grade-level, but if the eighth graders commit crime at the general rate of juveniles, only 17.4 out of 1,000 get arrested. 

Still, I think there may be something to my idea for how Detroit could improve the reading and math proficiency of its students.  I suggest the city adopt an ordinance making it a misdemeanor offense to learn to read or do math at the level set by the NAEP definition of proficiency.  Those who abet the lawbreakers who illegally learn to read and do math should be subject to appropriate penalties.

Once it is clear to the residents of Detroit that reading and math are forms of lawlessness and that students will have to evade authority into order to get an education, I predict proficiency in both areas will rise.

Now I understand that some readers will think this is a macabre jest. Outlawing reading and math would be an outrage and might infringe on First Amendment liberties.  It is difficult to know in advance whether such a law could withstand judicial scrutiny, but then what aspect of public governance in the city of Detroit currently meets that standard?  And if there were a zealously enforced law against learning to read and do math, could the results be any worse than the situation as it now is?

I suggest we give perverse incentives a try.  They could hardly make the situation worse and they might, by drawing dramatic attention to the problem, finally ignite an effort to fix Detroit’s schools.  Think of it as an Angel’s Law.  Make education something worth fighting for. 


Image: Fisher Building, Headquarters of Detroit Public Schools

Image Credit: CarolSpears, cropped.

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