Native American Students Behind Bars Have Least Access to Advanced Courses, Study Finds

By Sarah Schwartz — September 11, 2019 3 min read
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Research over the past few years has shown that students in the juvenile justice system have less access to secondary math courses than their peers in traditional schools. Now, a new report from Bellwether Education Partners finds that these gaps in course options are bigger for Native American students.

The researchers analyzed data from the federal office for civil rights on education in juvenile justice schools during the 2015-16 school year. They found that, overall, students in these schools were less likely than students outside of the juvenile justice system to have access to advanced math classes—Algebra I, Algebra II, and geometry—and advanced science classes—biology, chemistry, and physics.

These findings were similar to the results of a past analysis that Bellwether did, with civil rights data from the 2013-14 school year. That report also found gaps between students in and out of juvenile facilities.

In this report, though, the researchers also broke down course access data by race. They found that, within the juvenile justice system, Native American students are the least likely to have access to these six math and science courses. In Algebra I, for example, 61 percent of Native students have the option to take the class, while 79 percent of white students do.

In contrast, there weren’t large gaps in access between white, black, and Hispanic students.

Hailly T.N. Korman, a senior associate partner at Bellwether, said these numbers don’t reflect individual experiences of discrimination. It’s not as if within one juvenile justice center, officials are deciding to withhold certain classes specifically from Native students, while providing them to other students.

Rather, she said, facilities that hold larger numbers of Native American students offer fewer of these classes. The gaps are structural.

“Based on what we can tell from the data, my instinct ... is that it is geographic,” Korman said. Rural, isolated facilities may be more likely to hold Native students, and less likely to have resources, she said.

Korman and her colleagues also found students in juvenile justice schools have less access to certified math teachers than students in traditional schools. And past research has identified other inequities. While these facilities provide 26 hours of education programming a week on average, 15 percent of schools average less than 20 hours of a week of instruction.

See also: Teaching—and Reaching—Students Behind Bars

Still, Korman said, there’s a great need for more data. Due to a system error in 2015-16, the last set of OCR data on juvenile justice schools was released with incomplete or no information for 400 of the 600 facilities in the country. Reporting errors and data collection incompatabilities have also resulted in messy numbers.

When the researchers at Bellwether were working on their first analysis of this data last year, they ran into these issues. “We very quickly saw some abnormalities in the data that raised a lot of red flags for us,” Korman said.

A few states had listed programs with zero students enrolled, but Korman knew that couldn’t be right—she had visited some of those programs herself, and had seen the students there.

To confirm that the numbers reported to OCR were reliable for their analysis, the researchers cross-referenced the data with annual census data from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. “Those numbers aren’t going to be perfectly aligned, ... but we thought they should be in range,” she said.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that the National Center for Education Statistics would partner with the civil rights office, in attempts to fix the process for reporting this and other civil rights data.

“I would love to see NCES and OCR do some partnership work with state leaders to refine the collection tools to bring the questions they’re asking into better alignment with state practices,” said Korman.

The juvenile justice education system is different in every state, she said, so much so that the definition of what a juvenile justice school is varies from place to place.

“This question around getting better data is such an important one,” Korman said. “It’s so critical that these kids get thoughtfully directed resources and policies. And it’s so hard to do when they’re off the map.”

Charts via Bellwether.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.