An Interview...

Dr. Peter Leone – Juvenile Injustice – Reading Difficulties, Special Education and Juvenile Delinquency

Dr. Peter E. Leone is a Professor of Special Education who specializes in Behavior Disorders at the University of Maryland.  He is the Director of the National Center on Education, Disability, and Juvenile Justice which is a collaborative project involving partners from the University of MarylandArizona State University, the American Institutes for Research in Washington, DC, and the PACER parent advocacy center in Minneapolis.
Additional bio info

Dr. Peter Leone is a passionate champion of children whose work focuses on helping the nation understand the strong correspondence between educational failure, particularly reading failure, and juvenile delinquency.

Note: Remember to click on any word on this page to experience the next evolutionary step in technology supported reading.

(see 'Interview Notes' for more details). Bold is used to emphasize our [Children of the Code] sense of the importance of what is being said and does not necessarily reflect gestures or tones of emphasis that occurred during the interview.

Personal Background:

Dr. Peter Leone: I’m a professor at the University of Maryland in the Department of Special Education, and I direct a project called the National Center on Education Disability and Juvenile Justice.

Winding the clock back about thirty years, I began as an outpatient teacher in the Midwest working with kids that had emotional and behavioral problems. What I discovered was that in addition to having some pretty serious academic deficits, that many of my students also had probation officers.

I think, like many of my generation, we were trained narrowly and deeply within our disciplines. The whole issue of juvenile justice never really entered special education, or special education and mental health kinds of considerations. It was all kind of academic deficits, and remediating those deficits.

David Boulton: Compartmentalized and separate from the cross discipline talk that could precipitate learning here.

Dr. Peter Leone: Exactly. That got me thinking about the fact that the real action in terms of responding to the most marginalized kids is the intersections between various disciplines, whether it’s juvenile justice, mental health, education or social welfare. These kids have needs that transcend the ways in which we train professionals, and transcend the ways in which we organize services. I really think that’s a big part of the problem.

David Boulton: So we have this kind of statistical-probabilistic-structure to catch those most grossly identified as problems, but in between its categories is where the kids that really need the most help are.

Dr. Peter Leone: Exactly. So one thing led to another and I continued to be interested in kids with disabilities, kids who experienced reading failure, who were involved in the juvenile justice system. I learned that there was not much systemic inquiry between education and corrections, or in juvenile corrections at all; that the kids there were disproportionately kids that I knew as special ed students – kids who had been classified as having learning disabilities or emotional behavioral disorders or developmental disabilities; and that by and large the services they were getting once they were incarcerated were just horrific.

David Boulton: And irrelevant as far as any kind of therapeutic benefit to the underlying problems that were causing these kids to be there in the first place.

Dr. Peter Leone: Exactly. I mean, locking the kids up is not going to make them more competent or more able to respond to the day-to-day demands and challenges that we all face as adults.

David Boulton: So, how is it that your professional career and personal passion lined up here?

Dr. Peter Leone: After coming to Maryland in the early 1980’s, I got involved in training teachers in adult corrections to work with inmates with disabling conditions and I began visiting juvenile facilities. After a couple of years I started publishing some work in that area. Low and behold, I found myself among a handful of literally three, four, five people doing any work in that area at all.

So over time, because I developed the research agenda, I got involved as an advocate, worked with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice with groups like the Youth Law Center, and helped craft a more appropriate service delivery system for kids that are getting locked up. I’ve spent time working with schools and school districts to help them develop more effective ways of responding to kids as opposed to excluding them.

Then about five years ago, I was able to respond to an initiative announced by the Justice Department and the Department of Education to establish the National Center on Education, Disability, and Juvenile Justice that I direct. That’s it in a nutshell.

The National Center on Education, Disability, and Juvenile Justice:

David Boulton: Your organization exists to do the kind of learning and cross pollination that’s going to be necessary to do anything about this. It’s great evidence — and there’s not a lot of it, for a kind of certain wisdom working its way up in the institutional structures.

Dr. Peter Leone: Yes. One of the things that’s sad, David, about this work is that oftentimes you get significant progress when a state or a jurisdiction literally hits bottom with kids. Do you know what I mean?

David Boulton: Yes. Sometimes it takes that kind of bottoming-out-crash before you get attention.

Dr. Peter Leone: Yes, exactly. Then people say, “Oh, jeez, I didn’t know how bad things were.” Or there’s so many misconceptions about who gets locked up.

David Boulton: It’s a failure to understand the implications and correlations, which is what you’re about, I would think.

Dr. Peter Leone: Absolutely. I mean, people think that the kids that are locked up are all involved in crimes against persons, that they’re pretty dangerous folks, when less than a third of the kids, according to my data, that get locked up are there for crimes against persons.

A lot of them are there because they violated terms of probation. They’re there because they have inadequate family or community supports and they get in trouble.

Consequences of Reading Failure:

Dr. Peter Leone: They’re there because they experience school failure. They learned early on that it’s more socially acceptable in school to be bad than to be dumb. So kids in school settings have figured out by third grade that: “There’s a lot of things I can do to deflect attention from the fact that I can’t read…”

David Boulton: Yes.

Dr. Peter Leone: “I can barely get by. I can be bad and people will laugh, but I can’t be dumb.”

David Boulton: You point to the very heart of it all. It all comes back to: we develop a shame aversion to the confusion….and we human beings — you and I are the same — I don’t know anybody that’s an exception to this — we do not like to feel shame.

Dr. Peter Leone: No.

David Boulton: We come up with very complex ways to escape and avoid and channel that shame, most of which aren’t healthy for us or the people around us.

Dr. Peter Leone: Right, absolutely.

David Boulton: This reading thing is a radically unnatural confusing challenge to our brains.

Dr. Peter Leone: Yes. Well, David, I think those of us who are competent readers really forget how tough it was when we were young.

David Boulton: Yes. I understand that. And unfortunately, we’ve got sixty-plus percent of the twelfth graders in this country that are below proficiency, to some degree feeling ashamed of their mind. Those numbers just about carry flat across over to juvenile and adult correctional population, and poverty and jobs. I mean, there’s a mass correlation going on here.

Dr. Peter Leone: Oh, absolutely, absolutely.

David Boulton: We talked to Dr. Whitehurst, and from his perspective, it’s clearly hundreds of billions of dollars a year. We’re talking, when we aggregate this thing up, we’re on the other side of half a trillion dollars a year in costs associated, related in some way, to the psychological damage that’s happening in concert with instructional confusion.

Dr. Peter Leone: Right. Well, you’ve probably heard the analogies before the idea that if reading failure, for example, or early failure and the, as you say, associated shame, if that were a contagious disease, and if there was a vaccine for it, if we knew better ways of doing business, schools would say, “You can’t come in here until you’re vaccinated.” And schools do that. The public health movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s really helped schools kind of get on track, because there was this kind of concern about contagion and eradicating certain childhood diseases.  But we don’t take school failure in the same sort of way.We have this “blame the victim” attitude. Maybe that’s not the best way to express it, but it’s a micro-level perspective.

David Boulton: Yes.

Dr. Peter Leone: As opposed to just taking a step back and saying, “What is it about those of us who are involved in teaching, organizing and managing schools that ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty, as you’re suggesting, as high as sixty percent of our kids aren’t as proficient as we’d like them to be.

David Boulton: Yes. And we know the first consequence of not being proficient at something so socially fundamental is self-blame and shame.

Dr. Peter Leone: Right.

David Boulton: And you can’t have chronic shame as the environment for complex cognitive learning.

Dr. Peter Leone: No, not at all. Not at all.

Dying to Learn but Hiding in Shame:

David Boulton: So what have you got in terms of statistical correlations? Take me through some of the studies that you have done that help identify and strongly point to some of the correlations that we’re generalizing about.

Dr. Peter Leone: Okay. At least a lot of the early work that I did had to do with tracking kids as they left restrictive settings. Some of it had to do with documenting the status of service for kids in secure facilities, detention and commitment facilities. More recently I’ve taken a look at reading, for example, and have, along with some colleagues, demonstrated that in a relatively short period of time you can boost kids’ reading comprehension and their fluency, and change their attitudes about reading. By a short period, I’m talking about a six-week intensive summer school program or a supplemental program in the evenings following the end of a school day.

I’ve got a great anecdote for you. One of my colleagues, Will Drakeford, did a study at the Oak Hill Academy, which is a juvenile correctional facility operated by the District of Columbia, and located in Laurel, Maryland. It was a very small-scale study. It was what we call a single-subject research design study and he had six kids. They were sixteen and seventeen-year-olds. They had a history of special ed services and they were all reading below the tenth percentile for their age.

So he set up a program. They were receiving services, I believe, two evenings a week from a one-to-one tutor, with a direct instruction sort of format, kind of going back and picking up the gaps in their understanding and skills related to reading instruction. After running this a couple of weeks, kids would sneak out of their cottages in the evening and come over to the school because they wanted to participate, kids who weren’t part of the study.

David Boulton: Oh, wow.

Dr. Peter Leone: So here you have the most restrictive environment. You have kids, after the end of a four and a half, five-hour school day, going to dinner, recreation, and then having this extended time in the evening. And the word got out, “Hey, you want to learn how to read? Come to see this project that Will Drakeford has got going.” So it was great supporting evidence that, I mean, kids are dying to be more competent. But they also do not want to let strangers or folks that they don’t trust know that they can’t read when they’re teens or young adults.

David Boulton: They’re dying to learn, and they’re overwhelmed with shame.

Dr. Peter Leone: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely.

David Boulton: Oh, that’s a fantastic story. Thank you for sharing that. (More “shame stories”)

Dr. Peter Leone: Sure.

David Boulton: I look forward to getting that one on video.

Hiding Their illiteracy in Prison:

Dr. Peter Leone: I’ve got an adult story for you. This happened a few years ago. An inmate I was interviewing in adult corrections told me this. He was a good-looking guy, developmentally disabled and he was a non-reader. In prisons, adult corrections, if you’re not competent, not able to read signs, or adequately respond to instructions, you can be really vulnerable to stuff other inmates might do to you and to having your stuff taken. So this guy is standing out in front of this trailer inside the prison and it’s where the commissary or the canteen used to be, but the prison had moved it. There was a big sign that said, “Commissary has been moved. It’s now in this other location. You will be subject to disciplinary write-up if you” — you know, “stay behind this line,” or something like that. Basically, it was now office space or something. And this guy is waiting by this window or this kind of opening that used to be part of this commissary.

He’s standing there waiting, and a correctional officer comes up to him and he says, “What are you doing here? Can’t you read?” This guy says, “Well, no, I can’t,” and the correctional officer got all upset at him because he thought the guy was being sarcastic. The guy said, “I can’t read.”

If you were to talk to him for a few minutes you would get a sense that his font of basic information was pretty limited, but he didn’t look any different than you or I. These folks that become adults who are not competent readers, they do whatever they can to pass.

David Boulton: Right.

Dr. Peter Leone: They don’t want people to know.

David Boulton: There’s an American Medical Association research report that came out that said the majority of adult illiterates don’t even tell their family. They’re that bent toward trying to hide it.

Like I said, about Wedgeworth and the consumer behavior study about people with reading difficulties, they’re in constant fear of embarrassment and shame, of it spilling out while they’re in situations like checking out of the supermarket, or checking out of the store that they’re in – that they don’t know how to read.

Dr. Peter Leone: Right.

David Boulton: When you boil all this down and go back in time, this is because of our negligence about a technology.

Different Levels of Readiness:

Dr. Peter Leone: Oh, yeah. I mean, I think in the early grades in too many schools there’s just not a sustained focus. A lot of kids have the opportunity to be read to and to have people listen to their emergent reading abilities at home. But for the kids that don’t come from that rich language background, where there’s not a lot of reading material around, or the television is on all the time, those kids don’t come to school with the same kind of expectations, and maybe the same…

David Boulton: Level of readiness.

Dr. Peter Leone: Yes, readiness to learn to read. We don’t really differentiate what we do for those kids. We wait until they experience some pretty significant failure, either academic failure or kind of behavioral failure and then we say, “We’ll try some interventions here, but if these don’t work, we’ll put him into special education.”

David Boulton: Right. It’s too late.

Dr. Peter Leone: Oh, yeah.

David Boulton: I mean, it’s not that it’s too late and that they’re doomed, but we just made it some magnitude of order harder.

Dr. Peter Leone: Absolutely. And we’ve kind of given them this badge.

David Boulton: Yes, exactly. As an adult, and as an adult who’s very concerned with psychological processes as well as intellectual and cognitive processes, it’s really clear how powerful these early images of ourselves which are forming in the field of how we feel about our learning and our behaving, how powerful an influence they have over the unfolding inner structures that are regulating our lives.

Dr. Peter Leone: Oh, absolutely.

David Boulton: What we’ve got is this environment where children are struggling to learn this totally neglected technology, this code which is radically artificially confusing in terms of the processing required to deal with it. It has to happen faster than they can possibly think about…

Dr. Peter Leone: Right.

David Boulton: Which depends upon the capacity for sound and oral language distinctions and the speed with which they process those, which, as you say, connects to the environment they come out of.

Dr. Peter Leone: Right.

David Boulton: To the extent that they can’t get through that confusion in a very short window of time, they begin to develop a feeling about themselves and the process of it.

Dr. Peter Leone: Uh-huh.

David Boulton: What the affect psychologists are telling us is that the moment that that shame triggers, the moment that the affect triggers that takes them into self-awareness about their inadequacy in it, it distracts and depletes the cognitive capability necessary to do the work.

Dr. Peter Leone: Uh-huh, uh-huh.

David Boulton: So we’ve created an environment where we’re confusing these children, and the context is creating the perception on their part that there’s something wrong with them, and they’re ashamed of it. And that’s just a downward spiral that so many kids are caught in. 

The Changing Importance of Literacy:

Dr. Peter Leone: Absolutely. Just talking about the environment, David, made me think of a couple of other environmental issues. One is this notion that the consequences for not being highly literate in the 21st century are much greater than they have been, I believe, at any other time in our existence.

David Boulton: Yes.

Dr. Peter Leone: It’s not as though one can be marginally literate or illiterate and get a good paying job in an industry, a manufacturing industry or in a family business. There are very, very few opportunities like that out there.

The other point is that the structure of our families is changing in ways that rival what happened when we moved from the farm to the city. We’ve gone from a situation where until the end of World War II, there were lots of extended families. There were much larger families. And now following World War II and maybe into the 1960’s, we have more and more kids growing up in single-parent families, so there’s less time available for kids from family adults. We have more families where if there are two parents, they’re both working full time. So no matter how you slice it, the amount of time available from an aunt or an uncle or a grandparent who lives in the house, from an older sibling that might be one of three or four or five kids in the house, all of those things have changed the nature of the support that kids receive at home.

David Boulton: Right. Good point.

Parental Support vs. Income and Security:

Dr. Peter Leone: I don’t think schools have adequately responded to that. We still operate on this Ozzie & Harriet model. There’s class differences as well. I mean, if you’re salaried and the school says, “Can you come in, we need to talk to you, because Johnny is acting out” — he’s a first or second grader — “and he’s really struggling.” If you’re salaried you can just go right over there. If you’re a wage earner, you know that if you’ve got to punch out or sign out, or if you’re doing production or you’re working someplace where you will sorely be missed…

David Boulton: Your job security is at risk.

Dr. Peter Leone: Oh, yeah. You just can’t take off.

David Boulton: It affects your bottom-line income and your job security.

Dr. Peter Leone: Exactly. Exactly. So you love your kid, and you want to go over there, but you also know that you’ve got to pay the rent and buy the groceries.

David Boulton: Yeah, right, which trumps the other concern, even in terms of your concern for your kid.

Dr. Peter Leone: And how do schools respond to that? They say, “The parents we need to see the most, they just don’t make it in.” And the subtext is “They don’t care.” I don’t think that’s true. I think that they just have other demands that some of us don’t understand well enough.

David Boulton: Yes. We need to have some after-hour phone counselors that are willing to do the work when it works for the parents to do the communication that’s necessary to get the parent aligned with what’s going on.

Dr. Peter Leone: That and providing a flexible time so that — maybe one night a week, or a rotating schedule — there’s someone at the school who can meet with the parents after they’re off work.

David Boulton: Yes. We got to meet them where they are in the reality of their situation.

Dr. Peter Leone: Exactly. School is run by the middle class, people who have gone to college. We don’t know what it’s like to be an immigrant or a low-income parent who’s really struggling to get by, maybe working two jobs, maybe without a partner in our house with us helping to raise the kids.

David Boulton: Yes.

Dr. Peter Leone: I mean, it’s a complex process and there’s no easy answers. But I do think that part of the problem is this broader shifting context of growing up in the 21st century, and the kind of rigidity, at least for some school districts, in their ways of doing business.

David Boulton: Yes. That’s all certainly part of the infrastructural biases that are working against us here.

Dr. Peter Leone: Yeah, absolutely.

Emotional Response to Confusion:

David Boulton: Ultimately it seems that teachers need to be wearing a different set of mental and emotional lenses.

Dr. Peter Leone: Uh-huh.

David Boulton: They need to be seeing something that their existing mental models and assumption sets are not letting them see.

Dr. Peter Leone: Right.

David Boulton: Again, it seems this comes down to overwhelming confusion and an emotional response to it; whether we’re talking about math or we’re talking about reading, or we’re talking about the complexities of social interrelationships, kids are confused and they think there’s something wrong with them because they’re confused, and they can’t stand staying in that feeling, so they leave it, and the consequences manifest in many different ways.

Have you ever read or been exposed to the Affect Theory work of Silvan Tomkins?

Dr. Peter Leone: No, I’m not familiar with that.

David Boulton: There’s a piece of work called The Compass of Shame, which really shows and connects a lot of dots between various kinds of social pathologies and antisocial behaviors, and this ‘escape from feeling’ that’s happening at this preconscious level.

Dr. Peter Leone: It’s called Compass of Shame?

David Boulton: Yes. If you’re interested, one of the interviews on our site is with Dr. Donald Nathanson. He wrote a book called Shame and Pride. President Clinton brought him into the juvenile system at one point to talk about the relationship between anger, violence, and shame. It’s some of the best work I’ve encountered.

Dr. Peter Leone: It sounds very interesting.

David Boulton: Yes, I recommend it to your attention.

Dr. Peter Leone: I’ll have to check that out.

David Boulton: Ultimately, I think that shame is the greatest learning disability. Not so much because of the emotional attributions we make to it from outside, ‘Isn’t it a shame that he’s ashamed of himself,’ but because of the utter cognitive disruption that goes with it, that we just don’t function well cognitively. These affects, this kind of shame mechanism developed in an all-at-once natural landscape, it has no business coming in in relation to an unconscious faster-than-thought, virtual-artificial process like reading.

Dr. Peter Leone: Well, as you’re describing it, it sounds like it kind of clouds the effective processing of information…

David Boulton: It not only clouds it, it actually consumes bandwidth. It’s a significant — I mean, think about it, what happens when you become self-conscious?

Dr. Peter Leone: You do all kinds of things. You stutter, you stumble…

David Boulton: Exactly. What’s happening is that the confusion is creating a self-consciousness which is depleting the brain’s capacity to work out the confusion at the core, underneath at the cognitive processing level.

Dr. Peter Leone: Uh-huh, uh-huh.

David Boulton: And we don’t see it that way. We don’t see that we’ve got this technology — it’s like saying we’re letting this many children have their lives mangled because they can’t learn to program a VCR when they’re five.

Dr. Peter Leone: Yeah.

David Boulton: And it’s every bit as much a technological thing.

Dr. Peter Leone: Uh-huh.

David Boulton: I actually appreciate just stretching out and having this dimension of conversation with you as well.

Dr. Peter Leone: This is pretty interesting stuff, David, kind of exposing me to some new ideas. I certainly don’t tread in this whole area of neurobiological work, and some of these concepts of shame.

95% Are Casualties of Poor Learning Environments:

David Boulton: One of the most interesting things here is that when you talk to the people that spend a lot of time in those spaces, they’re saying less than five to six percent of our population has any neurobiological learning disability that’s affecting reading… (WendorfLyon, Shaywitz)

Dr. Peter Leone: Uh-huh.

David Boulton: And that ninety-five percent of the kids that do have trouble here, they’re having trouble because we didn’t meet them the right way. (Doherty)

Dr. Peter Leone: Wow.

David Boulton: Ninety-five percent. This is from the Director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Reid Lyon, and backed up by our friend, James Wendorf.

Dr. Peter Leone: Yeah.

David Boulton: Right? So we have eighty-eight percent of African-American fourth-grade children who are reading below proficiency, nationally; eighty-four percent in the twelfth grade. Eighty-four percent of the twelfth graders and ninety-five percent of them are in trouble because we didn’t meet them right. (NAEP 2000-2003)

Dr. Peter Leone: Wow.

David Boulton: It connects up to everything that you’re seeing in your world.

Dr. Peter Leone: Yeah. Well, like the idea that we typically label it their failure, but it’s our failure.

David Boulton: Oh, it’s absolutely our failure. And the biggest thing that’s our failure is that we don’t understand the challenge. Even though some of us get an idea that it is a technology, it’s a code, and we invented it, and so forth, there’s a kind of default level assumption that, “Well, I did it, and everybody else that I run around with did it, so there must be something wrong with these people that can’t.”

Dr. Peter Leone: Right, right.

David Boulton: But they’re just developmentally, in terms of the environments they were learning in, in a different part of the readiness spectrum and because of that, having their lives mangled.  

Pushing Kids Out of School:

Dr. Peter Leone: Absolutely. I think the downside of high stakes testing is that these kids that are not particularly confident are very vulnerable to exclusion from school. Because if your classroom, if your building is evaluated in part on how kids do in the aggregate, you’re going to want those kids that are performing at the low end out of your building.

David Boulton: Right. Which is why there’s a massive migration going into special ed, so as to keep the general population in schools. The way that they’re being measured in relation to the latest legislation…

Dr. Peter Leone: Yeah.

David Boulton: I mean, it’s incentive engineering. I can appreciate the Reading First people and the IES people and others who’ve said, “Look, because there’s so much failure and it’s our fault, we’ve got to do something about it. We can’t wait until everybody catches up, so we’re going to create the kind of institutional incentives and penalties that will drive the machinery of this towards better results relative to what these kids are needing.” (Doherty) But it’s just such a titanic scale problem.

Dr. Peter Leone: And for the kids that are in it right now — I mean, for their brothers and sisters five, ten years down the road there may be some real significant differences, but for the kids that are caught up in it right now, they’re the ones that are getting pushed out of school. They’re getting pushed into special education, but they’re also getting pushed out.

An interesting study came out of New York City a couple of years ago that showed where the cohort of the class of 2001 high school kids went, kind of looking over four years. More of them were administratively discharged from the system than officially dropped out and the number that graduated was a small — I don’t recall the exact number — but a small percentage of those that initially started in the ninth grade. In a number of the high schools there were more discharges than dropouts.

Talking about research, one of the things that we’ve been doing is we’ve been working with a group called Advocates For Children in New York, which have case file material on forty-two kids. These are kids who, after they got in trouble, were put in community-based placements. They applied to get back in school. The school said, “You can’t come back in.” They said, “Why not?” They said, “Well, you’ve been signed out. You’ve been discharged, you’re sixteen, and besides, you don’t have to if you don’t want to.” Or they would say, “You’ve got to go to school in another borough that might be an hour away or forty-five minutes away by subway.

David Boulton: In other words, “You’re not our problem anymore.”

Dr. Peter Leone: Exactly. Then the subtext probably is something like, “Hey, you weren’t a high performer when you were here. It’s better for us if you’re not here, because we won’t look as bad.”

David Boulton: “We had to take you the first time, we didn’t have a choice. But now that we know who you are and what you’re likely to do, we don’t want to dilute our efforts.”

Dr. Peter Leone: Exactly.

David Boulton: It’s tragic. All of this continuing to reinforce in the child — I mean, when we’ve interviewed little five and six year-old girls in the Oakland area and other places, it’s very clear that once they start to feel this way about their performance, they immediately start to develop some kind of self-rationalization, some story that they tell themselves like, “I’m stupid…”

Dr. Peter Leone: Right.

David Boulton: “I’m not smart. I’m not a good reader.” Or the other side of the thing is: “Who needs reading anyway? It’s not that important.”

Dr. Peter Leone: Right, right.

David Boulton: But these are all different strategies for getting out of the feeling of staying inside of, “This is important, and I’m not good at it.”

Dr. Peter Leone: Absolutely. And for some kids it’s kind of a sports rationale, for other kids it’s, “Who needs it?” Or kids talk about, in kind of quasi kind of professional terms, they’ll say, “Well, I have dyslexia,” or “I have yadda, yadda, yadda,” and this is my way of telling you “Don’t hold me accountable.'”

David Boulton: Yes.

Dr. Peter Leone: I think this is an exciting project, David. My understanding is that one of the things you’re trying to do is kind of ramp up the level of awareness pretty broadly.

Children of the Code Project:

David Boulton: We want to bring a major thump that says we’re thinking about this whole thing wrong. Not just a little bit of us — generally, our society, as a society, is not seeing what’s going on when children are struggling to learn to read. We’re not seeing what it’s doing to their general capacity for learning, we’re not seeing what it’s doing to their emotional development, we’re not seeing all of these various correspondences that resolve down to a technology interface issue that’s radically confusing these children.

We’re trying to bring a big thump, and connect it so that parents, as well as teachers, realize what’s at stake in every second of their interaction with a child during the struggling to read process. We want to connect the history of the alphabet and the English written language, and why it’s so confusing, and the stories of Benjamin Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt — I mean, it’s a fantastic story — to what happens in less than twenty milliseconds between the time the eyes hit the orthography and the phonology pops in the center of our brain, that difference. The twenty or thirty milliseconds of difference in processing between the orthography and the sound system is what’s killing these kids. (Rayner),

Dr. Peter Leone: Wow.

David Boulton: It’s what’s wiping out these kids. So bringing all these different dimensions to play with credible force, and at the same time, we’re wanting to network. We want to be something that not only is helping get attention for each of the dimensions, such as yours, but that’s folding back, so that we’re cross-pollinating the learning in all of these different zones.

Vulnerabilities to Criminal Behavior:

Dr. Peter Leone: Oh, yeah. I mean, being able to help people in the schools understand how their literally creating the next generation of kids that will be vulnerable to the juvenile and criminal justice system I think would be a major, major contribution. It’s not that they’re creating little criminals, but what they’re doing is they’re creating vulnerabilities…

David Boulton: Yes.

Dr. Peter Leone: So the kids have a narrower and more limited range of options for acceptable behavior as teens, as young adults.

David Boulton: Right. And it’s part of that definition — how they define themselves in order to survive within their own feelings…

Dr. Peter Leone: Right.

David Boulton: And how that translates into all of these things we really don’t want them to be doing, and that, when we step back and see it as a whole, is costing our society a lot.

Dr. Peter Leone: Oh, absolutely

We are All in it Together:

David Boulton: Whether we’re concerned about the well being of the individual child, which, thankfully most of us are, or coming from another level which doesn’t seem so concerned with that, but is concerned with the cost of social pathologies. It doesn’t matter which side you come in, we end up in the same place here.

Dr. Peter Leone: Right. I think in creating, in essence, self-interest arguments, whether we’re concerned about the massive costs to all of us as taxpayers, or whether we’re concerned about kids that might look like our own children, or our nieces or nephews or our grandchildren, it doesn’t matter. The issue is that this is a really significant problem, and in helping people understand how it affects them, either as taxpayers, or as people who care about children, or as employers who want to hire people that are literate and capable, whatever the motivation is, we need to help people understand the self-interest argument in doing things differently for kids.

David Boulton: Exactly. Well said. We are working on translations so we can talk to people in adult literacy, ultimately to people in the juvenile world, to people that are in the neuroscience world; in other words, a different stairway into here from many different themes that relates to here.

Dr. Peter Leone: Right.

Special Education and Juvenile Corrections:

David Boulton: Is there any other statistical things that you could summarize that would help in the case making side of this.

Dr. Peter Leone: I can give you some information about a national survey we conducted a couple of years ago that might shed some light on this, David. My colleagues at American Institutes for Research and at Arizona State and I and several other folks, with some federal support, surveyed juvenile correctional facilities, detention centers and state departments of education, to ask about how many kids who were confined were receiving special education services. There’s been pretty unreliable data on the prevalence of kids with disabilities or kids eligible for special ed services in juvenile corrections. Whether one accepts that there’s over or under-identification of kids, the issue is these are kids that somebody has recognized are not making it in the general ed curriculum, not making it pretty seriously.

So what we found was that about thirty-four, thirty-five percent of all kids are identified and receiving special ed services in juvenile corrections. Now, that’s about three times the number that you find in public schools. But the other side of that is that we had four states, I believe, that reported more than fifty percent of the kids that they serve were special ed eligible. Now, these are kids who came from the public schools and had been enrolled in special education. Again, whether or not that eligibility — whether or not there’s problems with that or not, it’s kind of a proxy…

David Boulton: It’s still a rough order of magnitude of saying that there’s a distorted relationship that’s going on, and that’s obvious.

Dr. Peter Leone: Absolutely. I mean, if you have a disabling condition, if you’re an African American youngster, and if you’ve experienced school failure, you’re at great risk for involvement in the juvenile justice system.

Let me share one other little piece of information with you, David.

David Boulton: Please.

Dr. Peter Leone: We’ve been looking at the suspension rates in Maryland for the last few years and we’re trying to look at vulnerabilities of kids and the relative risks that various kids face.

Great Risk for African American Kids:

Dr. Peter Leone: What we find for African American kids is that they’re about twice as likely to be suspended as white kids. In the last five or six years, that likelihood has increased; in other words they’re more likely to be suspended. If we add disability to the mix, disabled kids are two to three times more likely to be suspended than non-disabled kids. If we put both of those together, African American kids with disabling conditions are three and a half to four times as likely to be suspended — all other things being equal — three and a half to four times as likely to be suspended as any other kid in the state.

David Boulton: Wow.

Dr. Peter Leone: I think that fits into this notion that whether shame kind of produces the acting out behavior that results in kids being excluded from school, or whether there’s some other mechanisms that are going on in addition to some of those kinds of things, I think those are empirical questions.

David Boulton: Yes, for sure. But the point is that it’s not just, “Oh, I’m not good at these skills.”

Dr. Peter Leone: Right.

David Boulton: It’s just not the lack of the skills, it’s how you feel about the lack of the skills, or it’s the emotional collateral to the lack of the skills that’s connected to the problems that we’re seeing.

Dr. Peter Leone: Right.

David Boulton: I mean, I could say, “Well, I can’t fly and airplane. It doesn’t bother me.”

Dr. Peter Leone: Right.

David Boulton: But you can’t say that about reading and you can’t say that about math — there’s an emotional load that goes with academic performance problems, school performance problems. In terms of the behavioral stuff, I think it’s connected to that and that’s one of the things we want to bring out.

Dr. Peter Leone: Great.

David Boulton: Have you done any work with Mike Bruner, or are you aware of him?

Dr. Peter Leone: The name sounds familiar.

David Boulton: He was with the Justice Department in the 1980’s, and wrote a number of reports on the correspondence between juvenile delinquency, as it was called at the time, and reading.

Dr. Peter Leone: I’m familiar with the name, but I don’t know him personally.

David Boulton: I just thought I’d see if there was a cross connection there.

David Boulton: So, in wrapping up, we want to be the place where people understand the implications of reading in a radically different way. Thank you so much for this, I appreciate it.

Dr. Peter Leone: Nice talking to you.

David Boulton: Nice talking to you, sir. Thank you so much.