Preschools, Prisons and Deaf Inmates

By Jean F. Andrews

Seal of the United States Department of Education
Seal of the United States Department of Education (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Sunday’s New York Times (October 26, 2013), Nicholas D. Kristof wrote a compelling piece linking two ideas that seemed, at first blush, to be oceans apart–preschools and prisons. What comes to mind is an innocent looking, three year old playing with play dough next to a grizzled inmate who looks beaten down by poverty, low education and the system. What a contrast!

In his article, Kristoff quotes Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, that such a plan to invest in national early education programs would be a “magical opportunity.” Duncan is quoted as saying “It can literally transform the life chances of children, and strengthen families in important ways — NYT.” Kristoff also quotes a major new study from Stanford University that shows that the achievement gaps begin as early as 18 months.  “Then at 2 years old, there’s a six year-month achievement gap. By age 5, it can be a two-year gap. Poor kids start so far behind when school begins that they never catch up – especially because they regress each summer — NYT.”

What has this to do with Deaf inmates?

Lots.

English: President Barack Obama plays basketba...
President Barack Obama plays basketball with Education Secretary Arne Duncan at the U.S. Department of Interior, Washington, D.C., Feb. 28, 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my testing of deaf inmates as well as test data reported by Dr. Katrina Miller, in her Huntsville study, the majority of deaf inmates suffer from poor achievement levels, most notably below 3rd grade reading levels.  Most never had early intervention in signing preschools.  Indeed, most learned sign language in later childhood or adolescence and had poor communication with family members as inferior as poor instruction in school.

There is a national need for ASL/English bilingual parent infant programs in preschools that encourage parents to learn sign as early as possible. This will help them to communicate with their children, to build their minds, their social skills and their emergent literacy.

We will have to confront the problems of poverty and underachievement sooner or later in the Deaf students’ lives, as Kristoff notes. Why not set up these early education programs so we can avoid jailing the troubled adolescent later, as he further notes. And we can parallel these ideas to deaf education, by setting up ASL/English bilingual preschools.  Like regular education, in deaf education  “[w]e face a choice between investing in preschools or in prisons — NYT.”

Jean F. Andrews is a Reading Specialist and Professor of Deaf Studies/Deaf Education at Lamar University.

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