National study of juvenile justice education programs finds need for alignment, improvement

A June 2022 report evaluating juvenile justice education programs in the U.S. found that, with rare exceptions, fragmented implementation and accountability measures virtually guarantee that incarcerated students do not receive a high-quality education.

In Double Punished: Locked Out of Opportunity, Bellwether Education Partners reviewed juvenile justice education policies in all 50 states, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, focusing on three key policy areas: governance, accountability and finance. It found that while California has some promising structures in place, they are not all working in harmony and lack strict accountability.

Key findings

While enrollment in juvenile justice education programs has been declining in past two decades, there were still nearly a quarter of a million incarcerated youth in the US in 2019, the latest data on which this study relied. Youth of color, LGBTQ youth and youth with disabilities are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system. According to previous Bellwether research, students in these programs are overwhelmingly held to lower academic standards than their peers in traditional settings, have less access to higher-level coursework and are taught by educators who have not been adequately prepared or supported.

Governance models vary across states; most are not streamlined

Effective governance models provide clarity for stakeholders regarding who is responsible for juvenile justice education. While most states clearly define in state statutes which agencies are responsible for providing education services to incarcerated youth, many systems involve multiple agencies, “creating a system of fragmented responsibility,” according to the report.

In 41 states including California, the agency providing custody, such as a department of juvenile justice or a youth services agency, also provides education services directly to youth in state facilities. In California, however, only youth detained or committed for offenses considered most serious or violent are held at the state-run facility operated by the Department of Juvenile Justice, which operates as its own local educational agency for the provision of education services, while education programs for local detention facilities, which typically hold youth for shorter amounts of time, are run by the area’s LEA.

In some states, one agency is responsible for providing direct instruction in a juvenile facility, while another agency controls funding for the education program. “Fragmented systems of responsibility like these work against creating and sustaining high-quality educational programming for students, and they also weaken the power of accountability incentives,” states the report.

Accountability varies widely

The report defines the most effective accountability systems as those that set clear and attainable goals for programs, ensure educators have the capacity and resources to deliver high-quality education, provide timely technical assistance and support to low-performing programs, and create powerful incentives via enforcement mechanisms. When different agencies are responsible for separate aspects of the same system, their goals might not be the same or even contradict one another — another consequence of system fragmentation.

States use a range of indicators to assess juvenile justice education programs, but in many states, the “indicators used to evaluate the quality of these programs are simply not applicable to the student populations that the programs serve, mostly because many students are incarcerated for short and unpredictable amounts of time. As a result, we know very little about whether these programs are achieving the goals they set for themselves or that are set by state policymakers,” according to the report.

Additionally, only about a third of states have policies related to addressing underperformance in these programs, leaving the majority with no formal mechanisms for program improvement. While California is attempting to hold programs accountable through reporting on the California School Dashboard, the data is often limited because the small numbers of students attending juvenile justice education programs make it difficult to report on without endangering student privacy.

State and local funding sources vary significantly

While LEAs and state agencies are responsible for providing funding for juvenile justice education programs, many states receive some federal funding through the Every Student Succeeds Act, a few states have established special funds to provide education services to youth in custody, and others have created partnerships to cover the costs of educating youth committed to state facilities. Many states, like California, use the state’s usual per-pupil funding structure.

State policy recommendations

State policymakers must create the policy conditions that ensure juvenile justice education programs are effective. The report recommends six policy levers to improve the quality of these programs.

  1. Reduce the fragmentation of responsibility that exists in juvenile justice education governance

Methods include making one agency responsible for always providing students with education services in all facilities, creating a coordinating entity, and developing high-quality contracts that clearly state who is responsible for providing education services. Regardless of what approach is taken, states must ensure that decision-making authority is clear enough to allow agencies to meet their minimum compliance standards.

  1. Create meaningful accountability systems and consolidate multiple accountability structures

States without an accountability system must create and implement one, and many other states should consolidate the number of accountability structures the program adheres to.

  1. Define clear goals that are tailored to the purpose of juvenile justice education programs

As stated in the report, many of the accountability measures these programs are held to are not relevant to the experiences of incarcerated students, especially those held for short durations. States should take a more tailored approach that is aligned to students’ grade level, their length of time in confinement and their transition back into the community. “States can learn from the construction of college and career accountability indicators in many states when it comes to aggregating accountability indicators across all students within an individual program,” according to the report. “For example, California’s college and career readiness indicator allows students to earn accountability points if they satisfy at least one of eight different indicators.”

  1. Develop innovative and accurate data infrastructure

States should invest in creating the innovative assessment and data-collection tools, uniform student record databases and strong data-sharing practices needed to assess and improve juvenile justice education programs.

  1. Publicly report data on juvenile justice education programs to enhance transparency and enable rigorous research on these programs

States must commit to publicly reporting data on juvenile justice education programs and “avoid the excuses of small n-sizes, inadequate measurement tools, and other technicalities that create loopholes to evade accountability.”

  1. Ensure the design of finance policy is dictated by the governance model and accountability system

When finance policy is aligned to governance and accountability, funding is managed by the people responsible for operating juvenile justice education programs, who know where the funding is needed most, and are held accountable for program effectiveness. “The greater the disconnect between finance and governance, the greater the chance that funding is not allocated for the right things,” according to the report.