Education & Crime | Research

Meta-Analysis: Technology-Led Education Drastically Curbs Recidivism

The largest study to date measuring the effectiveness of prison education programs found that technology-driven programs are at least as effective as teacher-led programs. Both types of programs have led to drastic cuts in repeat offenses and significantly higher employment rates for prisoners upon release.

Education programs in prison have a massive impact on recidivism. Based on a new meta-analysis, "inmates who participated in correctional education programs had 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison than inmates who did not." The study also set out to find whether technology-led instruction among inmates could cut down on recidivism as well as teacher-led instruction. The results were positive.

Among education program participants, recidivism was slightly lower for those who took computer-driven courses (either self-paced or used in combination with a teacher) than those who took teacher-led courses. Though the difference between the two wasn't enough to be statistically significant given the size of the samples studied, as the researchers indicated, it does mean that computer-led instruction without a teacher is, in fact, at least as effective as instruction with a teacher for cutting back on repeat offenses.

Further, according to the report, "Because computer-assisted instruction can be self-paced and can be supervised by a tutor or an instructor, it is potentially less costly to administer than traditional instruction. It is worth noting that since the publication of [studies measuring the effectiveness of computer-led instruction], the capability and utility of instructional technology has progressed,... which suggests that the effects of the newer technologies may potentially outstrip those found in the studies examined here. The current positive (though not statistically significant) result, the potential cost-effectiveness of computer-assisted technology, and the fact that the technology is getting better suggest that its use in this context could be promising."

This is significant because budget shortfalls have led to cuts in some prison systems' education programs in recent years and are expected to do so for the foreseeable future, though cuts have slowed in the last year. As an example, the report cited the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, which, "[s]ince 2008, [has] lost one-third of its full-time education staff and a similar percentage of its Skills Center instructors."

The report, sponsored by the United States Department of Education, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance, and conducted by the nonprofit RAND Corp., is the largest study to date measuring the effectiveness of prison education programs. It found that not only was recidivism cut by 43 percent for prisoners who participated in education programs, but for those who were in academic or vocation programs, employment was 13 percent higher. And specifically among those who participated in vocational training programs, employment after release was a staggering 28 percent higher than among those who received no training.

Benefits were seen across all types of education programs. "We found a notable effect across all levels of education, from adult basic education and GED programs to postsecondary and vocational education programs."

The direct cost of educating a pool of 100 inmates is estimated at $140,000 to $174,400. Given the cost of reincarceration for 100 inmates ($2.94 million to $3.25 million), the economic break-even point for prison education, according to the report, would be a reduction in recidivism of 1.9 percentage points to 2.6 percentage points. Education programs went well beyond this break-even point, resulting in three-year reincarceration costs at about $870,000 to $970,000 less for a hypothetical pool of 100 prisoners participating in education programs than a pool of 100 prisoners not participating in education programs.

According to ED and the DOJ: "Each year approximately 700,000 individuals leave federal and state prisons; about half of them will be reincarcerated within three years." Extrapolating from there, the three-year reincarceration cost for those repeat offenders will be $10.29 billion to $11.37 billion without education programs.

"These findings reinforce the need to become smarter on crime by expanding proven strategies for keeping our communities safe, and ensuring that those who have paid their debts to society have the chance to become productive citizens," said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in a statement released to coincide with the report. "We have an opportunity and an obligation to use smart methods — and advance innovative new programs — that can improve public safety while reducing costs. As it stands, too many individuals and communities are harmed, rather than helped, by a criminal justice system that does not serve the American people as well as it should. This important research is part of our broader effort to change that."

"Correctional education programs provide incarcerated individuals with the skills and knowledge essential to their futures," said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, also in a prepared statement. "Investing in these education programs helps released prisoners get back on their feet — and stay on their feet — when they return to communities across the country."

The complete report, "Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education: A Meta-Analysis of Programs That Provide Education to Incarcerated Adults," is freely available in PDF form on the Bureau of Justice Assistance's site. The full report, a research brief, and additional details can also be found on RAND's Correctional Education Project portal.

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