Says "if we raise the number of third-graders who read at a third-grade level, we affect everything, from graduation rates to incarceration rates."

Ben Cannon on Monday, February 6th, 2012 in a Portland Monthly article.


Cannon gets the connection between reading and crime right

We’ve haven’t seen much of former Rep. Ben Cannon down in Salem since he accepted a position as Gov. John Kitzhaber’s main education adviser. So when his name popped up in a recent Portland Monthly article, we paid special attention.

In the article, he helps talk up the state’s new approach to K-12 education, which focuses, in part, on specific benchmarks in a child’s education that research shows are reliable predictors of future success.

"If we raise the number of third-graders who read at a third-grade level, we affect everything, from graduation rates to incarceration rates," Cannon told the magazine.

Somewhere in the back of our heads, we’d remembered hearing a claim not unlike this one -- we also remembered hearing it wasn’t true.

We started with a basic Google search and came across the claim we’d kept hearing: Prison officials use third grade reading scores to predict the number of beds they’ll need. That claim, it seems, is nothing more than an Internet rumor that has been soundly disputed. In fact, The Oregonian happened to refute the adage a couple years back.

"This is an urban myth," California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Terry Thornton wrote in an email to Oregonian reporter Bill Graves. "A few weeks ago I contacted nearly every department of corrections in the nation. I heard back from 25 states saying they do not use elementary reading levels to plan for future prison beds. We have no idea where this originated from."

Luckily, Cannon didn’t fall into the trap of repeating that myth -- he simply said the two were related in a broader sense, not that the Oregon Department of Corrections used the figure in any specific way.

We dialed Cannon to ask him about his comments to Portland Monthly and he immediately -- even without us asking -- clarified that he’d never mentioned that Corrections used one to predict the other.

Even so, he said, the third-grade benchmark is an important one. Students reading at grade level in the third grade are more likely to graduate from high school. Students graduating from high school are less likely to wind up in the corrections system, he said.

"The link between education and incarceration seems pretty clear," he said.

Indeed, after a little snooping, we found an article from Education Week that highlights a report by Donald J. Hernandez, a sociology professor at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York. Hernandez compared the reading scores and graduation rates of nearly 4,000 students and found that a "student who can't read on grade level by 3rd grade is four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than a child who does read proficiently by that time. Add poverty to the mix, and a student is 13 times less likely to graduate on time than his or her proficient, wealthier peer."

Cannon supplied us with a separate source that identified similar findings. A 2010 report out of the University of Chicago found that "Third-grade reading level was shown to be a significant predictor of eighth-grade reading level and ninth-grade course performance even after accounting for demographic characteristics and how a child’s school influences their individual performance. Third-grade reading level was also shown to be a predictor of graduation and college attendance, even when demographic characteristics were included as controls."

As for connecting high school graduation rates to incarceration rates, that one was easy. Cannon sent us a study that linked the two.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics produced a special report in 2003 that crunched the numbers and found "About 41% of inmates in the Nation’s State and Federal prisons and local jails in 1997 and 31% of probationers had not completed high school or its equivalent. In comparison, 18% of the general population age 18 or older had not finished the 12th grade."

There seems to be a clear connection there. That connection is further backed up by additional studies we found on our own, including one profiled in a 2009 New York Times article. That study, out of Northeastern University, looked at census data and found that one in every 10 male high school dropouts winds up in jail or juvenile detention, while the number is one in 35 for males who are high school graduates. A second study comes from two economics professors at the University of Western Ontario and the University of California, Los Angeles. The big takeaway from that report was that "High school graduation reduces the probability by 3-4 percentage points among white men ages 22-28 and 8-9 percentage points among black men" of the same ages.

Finally, the Bill Graves article cited an Oregon-specific report put together by state law enforcement offices and prosecutors. They found that "Increasing the graduation rate in Oregon by 10 percentage points would prevent approximately 17 murders and 1,300 aggravated assaults in Oregon each year …"

That all brings us to our ruling. Cannon told Portland Monthly that by improving third grade reading scores, the state would also be improving graduation and incarceration rates. He did his homework before speaking. The link between the three seems absolutely clear to us. We rate this claim True.



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