McMillon developed a dissertation on the School-to-Prison Pipeline.
David McMillon, headshot
Harris Public Policy doctoral candidate David McMillon

Harris Public Policy doctoral candidate David McMillon has been selected as one of 35 scholars to receive a highly competitive 2020 National Academy of Education (NAEd) Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship for his research exploring solutions to the School-to-Prison Pipeline (STPP), the disturbing national trend where young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are effectively funneled from school to incarceration.    

The $27,500 Fellowships support individuals like McMillon whose dissertations show potential for bringing fresh and constructive perspectives to the history, theory, analysis, or practice of formal or informal education anywhere in the world.

Existing scholarship on the School-to-Prison Pipeline has largely looked at individual risk factors in isolation – such as arrest history, identity formation, peer characteristics, and underachievement – that can lead to incarceration.  Most scholars believe, however, that the STPP persists due to the interrelated nature of many risk factors within an ecosystem that is self-reinforcing. 

McMillon’s dissertation “Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline: Three Essays on the Policy Implications of Systems Thinking” explores what happens to children when they face all of these risk factors simultaneously. It also examines how this all too frequent scenario informs where, when, and how interventions should occur along the STPP. 

“I’m thrilled, but not surprised, that David has been selected as a recipient of this much sought after Fellowship,” said Scott Ashworth, professor and director of the Harris PhD program.  “He is a first-class scholar who is advancing our understanding of a vital policy challenge.”

Scott Ashworth, headshot
Harris Public Policy Professor Scott Ashworth

McMillon’s research was inspired by his participation in a 2011 Children’s Defense Fund conference that was held in light of Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  At the conference, he spent a day with C.T. Vivian, the legendary Black activist, who explained that for decades, activists have discussed issues surrounding the School-To-Prison Pipeline, and yet few agree on much of anything – except that “it’s the system that sets people up to fail.”

A common phrase frequently used by Black Americans when describing the interconnected structural and oppressive forces of the inner-city, “the system”, McMillon realized, and how everything within it is interconnected, was crucial to finding viable solutions to address the STPP. 

After attending the Children Defense Fund’s conference, he quickly came to see that his training in complex systems theory (he holds Master’s Degrees in Mathematics and in Industrial and Operations Engineering) could be harnessed to dismantle the School-To-Prison Pipeline by explicitly accounting for its interconnected complexities.  Or as he puts it, “every aspect of this problem is connected, you can’t just fix one thing without fixing the other.”

“Even after understanding every causal effect in the world, well intentioned policymakers can cause a lot of harm without a systems perspective.  For example, increasing first-time arrest rates could increase long-run crime if rehabilitation rates are sufficiently low,” McMillon explained. “And to persistently dismantle the School-to-Prison-Pipeline, we need interventions that generate effects that reinforce their causes.  This suggests that reducing systemic disadvantage requires systems thinking.”

Michelle Alexander, headshot
Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”

The dissertation – which was coadvised by Professors Steven Durlauf and Stephen Raudenbush – combines three interrelated studies, each examining a different aspect of the STPP. Study 1 explores the systemic policy implications of state-dependent criminality outside of the school, while Study 2 focuses on reducing behavioral infractions through school disciplinary policy. Finally, because achievement and positive academic identities are so preventive of antisocial behavior in schools, Study 3 focuses on sustainably improving achievement and academic identity formation.

This approach will allow policymakers and others to foresee surprising policy consequences. It illuminates conditions under which small policy changes lead to persistent effects; large policy changes have essentially no effect; and the same policy has opposite effects under different initial conditions.

“David’s innovative research promises to provide academic researchers and policymakers alike with fresh, invaluable insights into what types of interventions may slow the rate at which disadvantaged children find themselves unable to avoid the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” Ashworth concluded.