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 an excerpt from their responses. You can read the full Q&A on the PIAAC Gateway [link].
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: 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.” (See full response)
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?
: 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. 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. (See full response)
: 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?
: 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. (See full response)
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.”
4. How have education and training programs in U.S. prisons changed over the past 10–15 years?
: 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.
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. (See full response)
5. How can researchers, educators, and practitioners use the PIAAC U.S. Prison Study to further their work in the prison system?
: 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. (See full response)
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 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; Interesting and important? You bet! (See full response)
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?
: Besides the amount and quality of education programs, we don’t really know what specific educational programs are most effective. 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. (See full response)
John: 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. (See full response)
7. What additional research is needed to understand the skills of U.S. inmates and their experiences with education and training programs?
: 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. (See full response)
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. (See full response)
Read the full interview.
What proportion of low-skill employees had to fund the cost of their job-related training themselves?
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PIAAC in Education at a Glance
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released Education at a Glance 2016
on September 15. Education at a Glance (EAG) is an important source of information on educ
ation around the world, and it provides information on a range of topics: the impact of learning across countries; access, participation, and progression in education; young adults who are neither employed nor in education or training; and gender imbalance in education. PIAAC data are featured in the EAG’s figures and tables, on topics such as:
- The percentage of adults with native-born and foreign-born parents, by educational attainment.
- Intergenerational mobility in education, by parents’ educational attainment and immigrant status.
- The field of education studied among tertiary-educated adults, by gender.
- Employment rates of tertiary-educated adults, by field of education studied and gender.
- The proficiency, use, and need of information and communication technologies at work, by main industry.
- Participation in formal and/or nonformal education, by gender, literacy proficiency level, and index of readiness to learn.
The PIAAC data are also featured in the findings in the report’s text. For instance:
“On average across countries, adults with high literacy proficiency and the most frequent use of reading skills in everyday life are four times more likely to participate in formal and/or non-formal education than those with low literacy proficiency and the least frequent use of reading skills in everyday life. Similar reinforcing patterns hold for numeracy proficiency and skills and readiness to use information and communication technologies (ICT) for problem solving in relation to participation in formal and/or non-formal education.”
See the full report
for findings on topics such as the extent to which parents’ background influences educational attainment, how educational attainment affects participation in the labor market, participation in education and learning, and how social outcomes are related to education and skills.
PIAAC Around the World
Third PIAAC International Conference
The OECD, in collaboration with the Spanish Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sport and the Government of the Community of Madrid, held the Third PIAAC International Conference in Madrid, Spain, on November 6–8, 2016. The conference was attended primarily by researchers and policymakers and focused on research that used PIAAC data to address a variety of relevant policy issues. The presentations, including one by AIR PIAAC staff member Emily Pawlowski, addressed health inequalities and skills, the effects of upper secondary education and training systems on skills, immigrant skills and labor market outcomes, and teacher cognitive skills and student performance. Speakers also discussed the future of PIAAC and how PIAAC data can contribute to policymaking. Papers and presentations from the conference are available on the conference page