Asking the Experts—The Impact of the PIAAC U.S. Prison Study

AIR staff asked Steve Steurer, Reentry/Education Advocate at CURE National, and John Linton, former Director of the Office of Correctional Education in the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE), to answer some questions about the PIAAC U.S. Prison Study and report. Below is the full Q&A.

1.    What do you think are the implications of the PIAAC U.S. Prison Study on education and training programs and policies in U.S. prisons?   

Steve: The PIAAC Prison Study demonstrates the significant divide between the average adult American and the incarcerated person in terms of literacy, numeracy, and digital skills. When you look at this information in conjunction with the overall lack of educational programs currently available in most prisons, one can really appreciate that we need to do more to educate this population. The PIAAC study recommendations, coupled with the RAND study on the positive impact of correctional education on recidivism reduction, provide a clear mandate for us to do something to improve correctional education programs. (See How Effective Is Correctional Education and Where Do We Go From Here? The RAND Corporation.)  We should use these two studies as benchmarks to advocate for changes in correctional policy and practice at all levels: jails, state prisons, and federal prisons.  

John: This study was done at considerable public expense. In addition to those who were paid to work on this study, many others contributed their time and energy, including many correctional workers and more than 1,000 incarcerated persons. These investments speak to the importance we attach to understanding the skills, interests, and experiences of those residing in our nation’s correctional institutions. 

I’m convinced that Americans overwhelmingly want to assist incarcerated persons in building productive and pro-social lives and to desist from criminal behavior after their incarceration ends. Efforts to remediate basic skills, and to prepare to meet the demands of employment and other aspects of civilian life, are fundamental to rehabilitation. The PIAAC prison study represents a significant investment in getting the information needed to implement evidence-based correctional education programs—programs whose existence legitimizes our use of the term “correctional institution.”

2.    What do you think is the most interesting or significant finding from the report Highlights from the U.S. PIAAC Survey of Incarcerated Adults: Their Skills, Work Experience, Education, and Training? Why?

Steve: One of the most interesting things is how most incarcerated people want more education but are frequently not able to get into programs. The common perception is that people behind bars do not appreciate the need to improve themselves. Surveys of inmates show the opposite and that most regard education as one of the most important factors in changing their lives.  Recently, I conducted a survey of correctional officers at a Washington, DC, area jail. The majority of COs believe that basic and high school education is important but they also believe that inmates generally do not want to improve their education. Obviously, we have a disconnect here. Another interesting finding is the lack of adequate computer literacy skills in the incarcerated population at a time when almost every area of daily life involves the use of computers, mobile phones, and other digital devices. Most correctional administrators are afraid to allow inmates real access to technology because of potential security problems. So expanding the use of technology for education purposes must be done in a secure enough way to allay this fear among correctional staff. 

John: I would emphasize three findings. First, I note the lower level of educational attainment by incarcerated persons in comparison to our nonincarcerated population. Secondly, although the incarcerated population had lower average literacy and numeracy scores than the U.S. household population, the skill levels of the incarcerated (with the notable exception of numeracy skills) correlate with their educational attainment levels. In other words, incarcerated high school drop-outs and incarcerated high school graduates demonstrate performance levels roughly equivalent to nonincarcerated persons with the same level of formal education. This speaks to the capability of those incarcerated to benefit from opportunities to increase their educational attainment. In the third place, and I think most importantly, is the finding that incarcerated persons overwhelmingly aspire to advance their education; they want to improve their skills and to attain educational credentials. This finding confirms my own experience-informed belief and stands in stark contrast to media-inspired negative stereotypes of the incarcerated. 

3.    Does anything in the report surprise you? 

Steve: It was a bit surprising that the numeracy skills were comparatively low. While folks who do not have a high school equivalency have lower literacy and numeracy skills, the incarcerated part of this group does even more poorly on numeracy. The study underlined this problem by demonstrating that prison system jobs do not usually encourage the development of numeracy and computer skills. So in addition to improving correctional education in general, correctional work and reentry programs need to emphasize the teaching of numeracy and literacy skills. 

John: The PIAAC prison study is consistent with prior national assessments in showing a rather surprising discrepancy between incarcerated and nonincarcerated persons with regard to numeracy skills. Acting Commissioner of NCES Peggy G. Carr made reference to this in her comments in the prison study announcement press release. There she said, “This new survey shows that the numeracy skills of incarcerated American adults are far weaker than the numeracy skills for American adults, on average. More than half of incarcerated adults lack the basic numeracy skills necessary for pursuing higher education, securing a job, or participating fully in society.”

This is an interesting finding because it has no obvious explanation. It may seem counterintuitive as the prison population overrepresents males, and we generally expect males to do better relative to females in quantitative skills. It is a finding of some importance as well. As Commissioner Carr pointed out in her remarks, a deficit in these skills may have dire consequences for post-release success. It is important that we understand this problem and look for solutions.

One possible explanation is that incarcerated persons overrepresent those with frequently interrupted school careers. Perhaps these persons, during their school years, were more frequently absent, transferred from school to school, frequently suspended, or put in alternative placements. Because numerical skills are built on understanding a hierarchal system which we call “math,” disruptions may retard understanding of math concepts, with cascading consequences.

Correctional education programs must recruit and retain highly qualified math educators, which presents a huge challenge. On the other hand, instructional technology has enormous and largely untapped potential to successfully individualize remedial math instruction and to help severely disadvantaged adult students reconstruct gaps in this superstructure of math concepts and related skills. Our correctional schools have often been under-resourced with instructional technology, but costs for computer hardware are declining even as better instructional software becomes available. We can work to change this picture. The need and the promise are compelling. 

4.    How have education and training programs in U.S. prisons changed over the past 10–15 years?

Steve: Unfortunately, education and training programs have not generally improved. In fact, the RAND correctional education impact studies underline how state and federal education funding has shrunk significantly since the 2007 recession. Because Congress mandated federal cuts in general, the decline continues. Federal adult education and career development funding is less than it was 10 or 15 years ago. With the exception of certain states (like Georgia and California), state budgets have shrunk as well.  

The RAND Corporation is studying the impact of reduced correctional budgets and has already discovered there are fewer prisons in relation to the size of the prison population. As a result of budget cuts and institutional closings, the inmate prison population is housed in more crowded prisons, allowing less room for programs. Therefore, even if funding for education improves, creative ways to increase the number of programs must now be found. Supplementing education programs with the use of technology with secure tablets and other smart devices is promising. There are many examples across the country that can be models for other programs.

John: The major “disruptor” of the status quo in correctional education in recent years has been the end of the national high school equivalency credentialing system in place since the end of World War II. In my opinion, correctional education programs were too focused on the singular goal of helping prisoners who were school drops-outs “get their GED.” Even the diagnostic and prescriptive criminogenic assessments used by correctional agencies across the country assigned GED attainment as a singular skill development goal. Research has not supported the assumptions we’ve made that this credential alone can facilitate employment or support postsecondary careers. 

With the divestiture of the GED by the nonprofit American Council on Education, each state has had to adopt assessment instruments and score thresholds for awarding high school equivalency credentials. The GED examination is now only one among several possible assessment instruments and “the GED” should no longer be used to describe attainment of these state-awarded alternative credentials. Credit recovery and standard high school diploma programs are also becoming more common.

Today, occupationally focused career technical education programs (some of which are postsecondary) and academic postsecondary education programs are both getting greater emphasis in corrections. Of course, efforts to help incarcerated drop-outs attain a high school completion credential do continue. So while “drop-out recovery” does remain a major focus of education behind bars, we seem to be moving toward a more balanced approach. Academic and occupational skills, basic skill remediation, and advanced skill development—these goals are being brought together in a much healthier balance in the interest of correctional students and our societal needs. 

5.    How can researchers, educators, and practitioners use the PIAAC U.S. Prison Study to further their work in the prison system? 

Steve: Researchers can locate alternative solutions to deliver instruction in increasingly crowded prisons. They should also examine the professional training of teachers, along with salary and benefits, to attract new staff. Since we can clearly see that math skills are very weak, more attention should be paid to training teachers to use effective methods and materials. Practitioners need to do much more advocacy within the correctional system as well as with legislators and government officials who plan and approve budgets.

John: We need to recognize that the “highlights” report is exactly that—a compilation of some highlights from the rich datasets that constitute the PIAAC prison study. The individually administered background questionnaire, somewhat different than the background questionnaire administered to the nonincarcerated, offers extensive information. The “codebook” currently posted for public review shows questionnaire responses and runs to well over 1,000 pages. A few topics are employment prior to and during incarceration, education prior to and during incarceration, motivation, children, and prior incarcerations. 

The publicly available data portal provides researchers with virtually limitless options to look at correlations between the factors identified in the questionnaire and performance levels. 

Thumbing through the online codebook, I noted items that provide a taste of some of the information included: 71% of the prisoners interviewed indicated that they are parents; more than 80% responded that they agree with the statement that they like learning new things; 70% of those interviewed said that they read books either daily or at least once weekly; 63% indicated that they would like to enroll in an academic class; 43% indicated attending a religious class or study group while incarcerated; 38% said that they attend the prison library at least once weekly; 23% reported that they had been identified as learning disabled; and 14% reported vision problems not corrected with glasses or contacts. Interesting and important? You bet!

6.    What do you see as the biggest gap in research related to education and training programs in prisons? How can the PIAAC prison data help to bridge this gap? 

Steve: Besides the amount and quality of education programs, we don’t really know what specific educational programs are most effective. The RAND study pointed this out as a “black box.” While we have strong evidence that correctional education significantly reduces recidivism, we have no idea which programs are most effective. It is not clear whether the PIAAC study helps us see inside the black box. We also don’t know much about the quality of correctional teachers and what training they need to do a better job. The PIAAC study does clearly indicate that the lack of adequate education programs is a problem. In the U.S., there are significantly fewer adult education programs in the free community as well as in corrections than are needed to raise the literacy and numeracy levels of adults.  

John: I was privileged to connect with Lois Davis and her colleagues at the RAND Corporation during and after their implementation of the RAND study of correctional education authorized in the Second Chance Act. After reviewing 30 years of research on correctional education, Dr. Davis concluded that we have a well-documented research base indicating that correctional education reduces recidivism and is cost effective. But she also concluded and stated clearly that we do not have the research on correctional education needed to inform many aspects of both policy and practice in the correctional education arena. I concur with the specifics of the future research challenges and opportunities RAND articulated, and I encourage all to heed RAND’s well-informed call to action. (See How Effective Is Correctional Education and Where Do We Go From Here? The RAND Corporation.) 

The PIAAC prison study offers us a rich store of data about the skills and experiences of the U.S. incarcerated population. As this data is mined, I believe that it can inform a wide array of efforts to learn how we can make our investments in education for prisoners even more effective. The finding on the special challenge of developing numerical skills with our correctional students is one compelling example. 

These are a few of my own ideas for research priorities in correctional education: (1) Test ways to further utilize the human resources within the prison population to augment a civilian teacher force. Many more incarcerated persons need and want education than we can support even with expanded investment in civilian teachers. (2) Test ways to use instructional technology to this same end—to augment and empower the civilian teacher force in our prisons to significantly expand and improve educational opportunities behind bars. (3) Test ways to most effectively move beyond our former GED attainment myopia in correctional education, to stop imposing an arbitrary ceiling on educational attainment for motivated and capable incarcerated students, and to establish a rich array of educational opportunities for prisoners to attain college and career success.

7.    What additional research is needed to understand the skills of U.S. inmates and their experiences with education and training programs?

Steve: While we have a very good understanding of the literacy, numeracy, and computer skills of the incarcerated, the same is not true for career and job preparation skills. We do know that most of them lack a marketable set of job skills as well as personal budgeting and job acquisition skills. We do not know much about what career education is being provided in most states and whether it will actually lead to jobs after release. Surveying the correctional education programs available in all 50 states and large cities would be most useful. Such knowledge could be compared to what we know about correctional education programs in areas generally open to hiring ex-offenders. Traditionally, it seems that automotive and construction trades are available in many prisons. Do they generally lead to job acquisition after release? What about professions in computer technology? How well are we doing placing people into these careers after release? What other career and job clusters are open to ex-offenders?

John: I look forward to seeing additional and “deeper dives” into the data generated by the PIAAC prison study. The incarcerated population has a profound impact on our nation’s progress and there is much here that can further our understanding of these persons. I also look forward to seeing how the 2014 data can further our understanding of how the prison population is evolving after the data have been prepared for comparison to the two prior assessments performed in the 1990s and the 2000s. This point-in-time information will tell us even more when we can use it to understand trends. Finally, I believe that it is important to beat the drum for this recurring investment in understanding the skills and educational experiences of those incarcerated in this country. It is costly, but it is critically important. We cannot take for granted that resources will be allocated for this purpose in the future without substantial advocacy for this investment.