Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

How Does Education in the Juvenile-Justice System Measure Up? It Doesn’t.

By Hailly T. N. Korman & Lisa Pilnik — October 25, 2018 5 min read
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Imagine a school system where some of our country’s most underserved students have limited access to grade-level math and science courses, pass rates for those classes are significantly lower than those of their peers in nearby schools, and accurate enrollment information is only available for a fraction of eligible youths. And in that system, 44 percent of youths are black.

This describes the education system experienced by students attending school while incarcerated in juvenile facilities across the country. Data collected by the federal office for civil rights and analyzed by Bellwether Education Partners reveal huge gaps in the information available about education for youths involved with the juvenile-justice system. The available information confirms what many have long believed: These schools are not meeting students’ needs or preparing them for lifelong success. A recent analysis by Connecticut’s Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee found that the state’s education of youths in the juvenile-justice system was “fragmented and expensive.” Lacking quality standards, monitoring, accountability, specialization, and expertise, their system “let youth slip during transitions,” the JJPOC concluded. The national data show that Connecticut is not alone.

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This new analysis comes at a time when many states are making wide-ranging changes to their juvenile-justice systems. Many are trying to keep more young people of out the system entirely, moving away from institutional placements and toward community-based care, and trying to tackle the racial and ethnic disparities pervasive throughout juvenile-justice involvement, from arrest to incarceration.

These documented failures and the ongoing lack of accountability of juvenile-justice-based education bolster locally driven calls to keep young people in their communities. It is now clear that on the whole, juvenile-justice schools do not serve kids as well as local school districts, and they should not be considered sufficient substitutes for attending a community school.

We already know that approximately six out of 10 students who attend school in a juvenile facility will never re-enroll in school upon release, according to the Federal Interagency Reentry Council. And of those who do successfully re-enroll, far fewer of them will go on to graduate from high school. Now we know more about why: When kids are locked up, they have less access to educational opportunities than their peers.

Controlling for incomplete data reporting, Bellwether found that students in juvenile-justice facilities have less access to higher-level math classes than their peers in traditional high schools, and they are less likely to pass the courses that they do enroll in. For example, access to math classes in juvenile-justice facilities varies significantly by state, and those gaps grow as students progress into higher-level courses. In community schools, 96 percent of students have access to an Algebra 1 class; juvenile-justice facilities lag behind with an average of 82 percent of students having access to Algebra 1. For geometry, the gap is larger: 95 percent of students in community schools have access, but only 67 percent of students in juvenile-justice facilities do. By the time students progress to Algebra 2, 92 percent of students in communities have access to courses but only 55 percent of incarcerated students do.

Even when students in the juvenile-justice system have access to courses, the chances of them passing vary widely and, on average, are lower than their peers in community schools. Only 61 percent of incarcerated students who enroll in Algebra 1 go on to pass it. For their peers in community schools, 95 percent will pass.

They also have less access to credit-recovery opportunities—chances to quickly complete missing coursework for classes previously attempted—than their peers in community schools, even though they are likely to need them most. On average, nearly three-quarters of students in community schools have access to these credit-recovery programs but less than half of students in juvenile-justice facilities do.

Although this analysis does not include comparison data for students by race or ethnicity, we know that given the overall makeup of the juvenile-justice system, students of color–and particularly black students–are more likely to feel the impact of this inequity more seriously and more frequently than white students. This is because, in every state except Hawaii, black children are more likely—sometimes up to 10 times more likely–to be committed to juvenile facilities than white children.

The evidence is clear that states must improve education opportunities for youths who are in their care or under their supervision, whether those youths are in the remaining incarceration facilities or in community-based programs. They can do this by ensuring that youths experience as little disruption as possible, have access to any special education and other services to which they are entitled, receive full credit for all coursework, and have fully qualified teachers and access to the most challenging coursework they can successfully complete, including adequate preparation for higher education. The Legal Center for Youth Justice and Education’s Blueprint for Change provides additional guidance on implementing many of these recommendations.

In order to ensure that these changes are happening and to inform their direction, we need to require juvenile-justice systems and schools to collect and share more valid and reliable data about school quality and student achievement. We also need data on youths who are processed into adult justice systems. Generally these young people are entitled to receive full education opportunities until their state’s age of compulsory education (or older, if they have identified special education needs and haven’t yet received a diploma). However, there is currently no expectation that adult criminal justice systems even collect education data, much less report the information.

While OCR’s data on education and juvenile justice, and Bellwether’s new analysis, raise more questions than they answers, they ultimately point us to an inescapable conclusion: Without immediate and dramatic change to our juvenile-justice education programs, these systems will not serve students as well as their community schools would. And these impacts are felt disproportionately by youths of color. This is strong evidence to further support the work of advocates, policymakers, and juvenile-justice agency officials who are working to reduce the number of young people incarcerated and provide more and better support in communities.

A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2018 edition of Education Week as The Inadequate Education of Incarcerated Youths

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