Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline: Three Essays on the Policy Implications of Systems Thinking
David McMillon

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



University of Chicago

Primary Discipline

Where, when, and how should we intervene on the School-to-Prison Pipeline (STPP)? Most scholars agree that there are many factors that impact incarceration, including, but not limited to: arrest, identity formation, peers, and underachievement. Although much of the literature has statically investigated these factors in isolation, most scholars believe that the STPP persists due to an ecological system of interrelated factors that evolve dynamically. What happens to children facing all of these mechanisms simultaneously? And how might that inform where, when, and how we should intervene? This dissertation proposes a research paradigm that can eventually help answer these questions, presenting the first set of dynamic mathematical models that approach the STPP from a systems perspective. This perspective allows us to foresee surprising policy consequences that would not be obvious under dominant research paradigms. 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. This dissertation combines three interrelated studies, each focusing on different aspects 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 dissertation operationalizes an innovative research paradigm to dismantle the STPP, under the premise that reducing systemic disadvantage requires systems thinking.
About David McMillon
David B. McMillon is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago. He was a Marjorie Lee Brown Fellow at the University of Michigan where he earned two Master's degrees, in Applied Mathematics and Operations Research. He was awarded the National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Honorable Mention in 2014 and the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) fellowship in 2016. His research interests lie in the application of cutting-edge quantitative techniques and complex systems theory to contemporary issues in social policy that affect low-income groups. He constructs and estimates mathematical models of crime, mass incarceration, the achievement gap, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline, and has published in the Public Library of Science Journal (PLOS One). These interests emerge from the combination of his mathematical training, his upbringing in inner city Saginaw, Michigan, and his conviction that systemic disadvantage is best-solved using systems thinking. They are ultimately motivated by his faith in GOD, which was sparked by his mother, Dr. Gwendolyn McMillon (a past Spencer fellow), and his father, Rev. Dr. Vincent McMillon. It has been sustained in part through the recognition that average people, for all of their faults and harmful tendencies, are capable of divine love. He is fortunate to recognize that he has never been without love, and this has made him whole in every sense. Finally, this wholeness is a rare privilege in today's world, which is why he considers helping those who were denied that privilege a personal responsibility, as his late grandfather would demand.

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